President Barack Obama’s visit to Chicago on Friday brought an increased focus on the chronic problem of violence in the black communities of urban America. There is some serendipity that this sharpened national focus is happening in February, the month set aside to observe black history.
History, after all, is an important component of this violence plague. In fact, I believe one of the reasons we’ve been unable to halt this destructive dynamic is the refusal to acknowledge history’s consequence.
The problem of interpersonal violence is distressingly persistent in the history of black Americans. Indeed, W.E.B DuBois, the Harvard-educated African-American scholar who is often called the 20th century’s most influential black intellectual, carefully chronicled the problem in his 1899 book “The Philadelphia Negro.”
As a journalist, I’ve been a personal witness to some of that history, especially recent history. I covered the 1984 funeral of Benjamin “Benji” Wilson at Rainbow PUSH headquarters and heard the tearful pleas to stop the violence. The city had just passed 700 murders that year.
Even then, I was not new to issues of urban violence, having worked for The Associated Press in violence-plagued Newark, N.J., before arriving in Chicago. However, Chicago was in a class of its own.
That perverse exceptionalism was reinforced by the 1992 death of 7-year-old Dantrell Davis, murdered on his way to school in Cabrini-Green by gang-related gunfire, and the tragic story of Robert “Yummy” Sandifer, the 11-year-old gang member assassinated by fellow members in 1994.
I covered those funerals as well and, aside from biographical specifics, the words spoken were remarkably similar. Unfortunately, those solemn ceremonies often become public rituals that, in their redundancy, only reveal our collective impotence.
We beguile ourselves with a routine choreography that keeps us spinning around the core of the problem. Like now, the focus is on the important, but peripheral, issue of gun control. We can sharpen our focus by exploring the problem’s historical roots.
We are now in the middle of Black History Month, a time dedicated to looking back at a history forged in the extraordinary crucible of human bondage. This period of civic introspection, conceived by Chicago historian G. Carter Woodson, offers a unique opportunity to explore the historical context of black life in the U.S..
Were it taken seriously and socially reinforced, this civic observation would reveal the trajectory from the plantations that transformed African captives into enslaved African-Americans, to the beleaguered communities of Englewood, North Lawndale, et al. Instead, we have transformed the designated month into a rote celebration of historical personages, or a showcase of black history’s greatest hits.
After a professional lifetime of examining the causes, consequences and attempted solutions of urban violence (framed by study of black history), I am increasingly convinced that only a comprehensive, compensatory effort will show any real success.
This is not a novel conclusion. Black activist and civil rights groups long have called for such policies. The nomenclatures have ranged from “urban Marshall Plan” to “comprehensive affirmative action” to “reparations,” but they embodied the same reasoning. Descendants of enslaved Africans are victims of an exceptionally destructive historical injury that requires exceptional economic investment in public repair.
This is the kind of repair referred to by retired cop and 20th Ward Ald. Willie Cochran when he said, “If we are not going to address the traumatic and social and emotional issues, if we are not going to address the economic issues, if we are not going to address the education issues in an honest way, then we are going to continue to have these problems.”
This effort requires an investment of resources that seems increasingly unlikely in our economically troubled nation. Nevertheless, I contend we have no choice if we are to avoid the growing problem of social fragmentation.
Moreover, addressing those issues is a logical response to black America’s embattled history. After all, the hybrid identity of African-Americans itself was a product of race-based, chattel slavery.
With an economy based on enslaved labor, American society had a stake in white supremacy and instituted a rigid racial hierarchy that excluded blacks until the civil rights revolution of the 1950s.
What’s more, the self-loathing instilled by a culture dedicated to black debasement may have been just as damaging as racist exclusion. The popularity of products designed to alter the skin color, hair texture and other endogenous “black” features to better resemble “white” features, for example, reveals a self-abnegation that extends far beyond the cosmetic realm.
Black Americans have been severely crippled by centuries of economic deprivations and a long socialization for subservience. Acting as if this troubled history has nothing to do with current racial disparities and community disintegration is ignoring decades of rigorous scholarship noting the contrary. Moreover, it points to the urgent need for Americans to understand the lessons of black history.
Salim Muwakkil is a Chicago writer and host of the “Salim Muwakkil Show” on WVON-AM.