Khalil Gibran Muhammad: Violence, Gun Rights, and Compassionate Progressivism

Roundup: Historians' Take

[Khalil Gibran Muhammad, an assistant professor of history at Indiana University, is the author of The Condemnation of Blackness: Race, Crime, and the Making of Modern Urban America (Harvard).]

Children are dying in Chicago. The young and old are afraid to walk the streets of some neighborhoods. Gangs and drugs have overtaken many blocks. Armed young men shoot at police officers and innocent bystanders alike. Mothers and ministers are organizing antiviolence campaigns. Social workers, probation officers, and juvenile delinquency experts are working together to stop the bloodshed and crime.

But the future is uncertain. In the words of one community activist: “[T]hose of us who live in Chicago are obliged to confess that last year there were arrested and brought into court fifteen thousand young people under the age of twenty, who had failed to keep even the common law of the land.” And many of the boys, she said with exasperation, “are the despair of everyone who tries to deal with them.”

The year these words were spoken was 1909, not 2010.

Then no politicians were calling for the National Guard to intervene in Chicago’s most troubled communities. Then no gun rights advocates were celebrating the Supreme Court’s 5-4 decision on Monday in McDonald v. Chicago that paves the way for overturning a 28-year old citywide ban on handguns. Then the currency of crime and antiviolence prevention was still compassion, not fear; playgrounds were still the focus of public safety, not prisons. Then native-born whites and European immigrants were still the face of inner-city crime, not blacks and Latinos.

Now in Chicago’s latest season of deadly discontent, obviously much has changed.

But not the killings.

Street violence has been a long-running theme since back in the day; long before the late-model black drug dealer or gangbanger became public enemy number one and was the focus of the greatest prison boom the world has ever known, and well before Al Capone gave the Windy City the reputation of being the most violent place in America, young white drug pushers, pimps, common thieves, thugs, and murderers terrorized law-abiding residents.

Jane Addams, the most influential social worker and community activist of the early twentieth century, witnessed white-on-white violence almost daily for decades. After describing the grisly details of a gang-related shooting where a Polish youth shot the brains out of an Irish boy, Addams wrote, “this tale could be duplicated almost every morning; what might be merely a boyish scrap is turned into a tragedy because some boy has a revolver.” Another white teenager, she added, a transplant from a “little farm in Ohio…had shot and killed a policeman while resisting arrest and was now awaiting the death penalty.”

Heart-sickening tragedies abounded just as today. Chicagoans mourn for Derrion Albert, the 16-year-old slain by a railroad tie in September 2009, or the 20-month-old girl shot in the head last April, victim of an assassin’s bullet intended for her father.

In the coming weeks, as Chicago officials extend handgun rights to its citizens in the wake of the Supreme Court’s decision, and politicians debate whether or not urban residents will be better protected by armed soldiers, important lessons from the past should not go unheeded. Indeed lives may depend on how much we do or don’t know about an earlier period—the Progressive era —when Addams fired the conscience of a generation to save white youth. Inventing the fine art of public and private collaboration, she led a cohort of northern civic reformers, social scientists, and policy makers in reforming major aspects of our modern criminal justice system and pioneering solutions to many of the nation’s most pressing urban problems.

These compassionate progressives and social scientists treated the white working-class and immigrant criminals sympathetically: they were victims of the dehumanizing effects of poverty and isolation, a “great army of unfortunates.”

Many scholars and informed citizens know this much.

What is less well known, however, is that modern architects of social policy left inner-city black folks out of the solutions. Blacks were labelled self-destructive and pathological: their “own worst enemies,” in the words of University of Kansas sociologist Frank Blackmar. Progressive President Theodore Roosevelt preached the same message in 1905, warning black college graduates that “criminality is in the ultimate analysis a greater danger to your race than any other thing can be.” Progressives deemed white criminality society’s problem, but told blacks to work out their own salvation.

Liberal approaches to crime, gang, and violence prevention were often pronounced D.O.A. in black communities from the very beginning. Anti-vice crusades, public recreation, community policing, and prison rehabilitation in the urban North were generally “For Whites Only” until the second half of the twentieth-century. Even then, equal-opportunity reform was often halting and short-lived; the War on Poverty quickly devolved into the War on Drugs.

Why did this happen?

The short answer is that scientific racism—the lingua franca of the Jim Crow era and cited in the majority opinion of Plessy v. Ferguson (“one race be inferior to the other”)—singled out blacks nationwide as an exceptionally dangerous criminal class. After slavery, southerners first made this argument and then built a racial caste “justice” system, criminalizing black people and profiting handsomely from coerced prison labor.

Northern demographics never dictated such extremes: Chicago’s black population was but 2 percent in 1910, and 4 percent in 1920. But the ideology of black criminality profoundly shaped the landscape of the urban North. It was compelling enough to inspire fear, contempt, discrimination, segregation, and violence in the region for the rest of the twentieth-century to today.

Consequently, progressive crime and antiviolence policies directed at whites were deliberately withheld from blacks based on theories of racial inferiority.

In other words, the group presumptively deemed most criminal in Chicago was least likely to be saved, and most likely to be targeted for indiscriminate stop-and-frisk tactics, police brutality, and mob violence.

All three were on full display in Chicago’s race riot of 1919, one of the worst in the nation’s history. After white beachgoers stoned to death a black child swimming in Lake Michigan, white gangs attacked black pedestrians and homeowners. Blacks fought back. Thirty-eight people died. Hundreds more were injured. The findings of the nation’s first riot commission—the Chicago Commission on Race Relations—included testimony that white police officers had been complicit in the violence. Officials also testified that officers routinely arrested blacks on suspicion and brought them “into court without a bit of evidence of any offense.”

In the new black ghettos of the urban North, violence begat violence, not social work and jobs.

Moreover, constructive crime prevention cost money. Lots of it. White philanthropy was the dominant financial source for all crime prevention efforts, but native-born poor whites and new immigrants received the lion’s share of attention and aid. The hidden cost to black residents was not simply victimization by bad guys, but also brutality by bad police officers and the gradual loss of faith in American society by the young and old, who saw the police as a representation of the government’s malign neglect of black people in general.

There is a thin blue line separating the past from the present, as evident in the ongoing federal trial of Jon Burge, former Chicago Police Commander, accused along with dozens of other officials in the abuse or torture of nearly 200 African Americans arrested by police from the 1970s to 1990s.

Even early campaigns for community policing, however, required political capital of which northern blacks were in short supply until after the Civil Rights Movement. Corrupt political machines beholden to white and immigrant urban voters were generally least responsive to civic-minded African Americans. George Haynes, a black social worker and the first research director of the National Urban League, which celebrates its centennial in the nation’s capital next month, studied the urban scene in 1913. “[T]he sequel of segregation means less effective police patrol,” he wrote, and fewer municipal services in general. “Playgrounds in Negro neighborhoods are so rare as to excite curiosity.” As such, Haynes concluded, “the Negro needs the fair dealing, the sympathy and the cooperation of his white brother.”

But in many ways just the opposite happened.

Over time, the more successful progressives were with stopping the violence and suppressing crime in white urban communities, the more white crime relocated to black neighborhoods. According to a groundbreaking report of the 1911 Chicago Vice Commission: “Whenever prostitutes, cadets and thugs were located among white people and had to be moved for commercial or other reasons they were driven to undesirable parts of the city; the so-called colored residential sections.” During Prohibition, white anti vice-crusaders agreed with West Indian poet Claude McKay when he labeled Harlem a “paradise for bootleggers.” By the 1930s before postwar suburbanization or white flight, numerous researchers noted that police disproportionately targeted blacks for street-level arrests and vice raids, but protected whites who owned between 80-90% of the urban underground economy.

The consequences have been life threatening and far-reaching.

Otis McDonald, a 76-year-old, retired African American maintenance engineer and lead plaintiff in McDonald v. Chicago, lives with the consequences. “I know every day that I come out in the streets, the youngsters will shoot me as quick as they will a policeman,” he told the Chicago Tribune earlier this year. He thinks handguns are a panacea. Many others agree, including the National Rifle Association, the editorial board of the Washington Times (“Guns Needed to Stop Chicago Murders”), and citizen observers: “I wonder if someone was armed if Derrion Albert would still be alive.”

Maybe, but many more 16 year-olds might have died too. Or, as Justice Breyer wrote in his dissent of McDonald v. Chicago, “the Court’s decision in this case…could prove far more destructive—quite literally—to our Nation’s communities.” He cited evidence that “several hundred lives, perhaps close to 1,000” have been saved because of the ban.

In Jane Addams’s day, Chicago had no strict handgun ban. But the streets were still covered in blood. Guns were part of the problem, not the solution. In addition to responsible and safe community policing, parents and young adults needed help on an unprecedented scale. “We certainly cannot expect the fathers and mothers who have come to the city from farms or who have emigrated from other lands to appreciate or rectify these dangers,” she advised. Nor can “we expect the young people themselves” to kill the “cancer” of “modern city conditions.”

Call it compassionate progressivism. Perhaps it is time to redeploy it where it is needed most.

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Nat Bates - 8/8/2010

My last post made me sound like a Social Darwinist, which I am not. I am a mutualist, and actually something of a philosophical pacifist. Thus, if I had my way, no one, citizens, police, military, criminals or anyone would bear arms. However, I am forced to chose between two bad choices. One choice is a monopoly of force on the part of the State, the criminals, and the foreign armies. The other choice is one in which everyone bears arms. Both choices are bad because ideally no one would bear arms, but the choice to allow everyone to bear arms instead of a select few is preferable because by dispersing force we are better off.

I understand not liking it. As I said, I am a philosophical pacifist, albeit a realist one. A world of NO ONE bearing arms (including standing armies, terrorists, or vigilantes) is ideal, but is it workable at this time?

Nat Bates - 8/8/2010

I would suggest that you look to the Eighteenth Century Enlightenment origins of the Second Amendment. The Amendment was rooted in the protection of popular power and private liberty. Today, perhaps, the first might be romantic and pollyanna considering the fact that a potential despotism may well out-maneuver any people trying to stop it (not to mention the fact that one man's despotism is another man's security necessity). Yet, the second, personal defense, is part of the inherent nature of all living organisms.

We would still be single-celled organisms if we did not possess at least the ability to defend ourselves against predators. Humans have the particular need to defend ourselves against other humans, as do our primate cousins to a lesser extent. The authors of the Second Amendment were simply taking in to account the fact that more violence accrues from leaving guns in the hands of the State, criminals, and invading armies than it does by broadening the use of force and dispersing power. They were simply following in the Enlightenment's general way of at least trying to disperse power as broadly as possible.

If the Native Americans and slaves were better armed, believe me history would have been different. "Manifest Destiny" would have manifested very differently. Sadly, in one sense I have to agree with Mr. Scherban. Freedom is based on the ability to reason. Since that ability is largely gone from this population, it may be that with our without the Second Amendment we are not going to make it as a Republic.

On that note, I am not a fanatic about this issue.

Arnold Shcherban - 7/25/2010

Time is unforgivable concept, Mr. Bates: who fails to adjust to it, fails
And that amendment not only has obviously failed to prevent violence and gun-related crimes, but hugely contributed to their relative growth in the 20th and 21st century.
The rest is ideology...

Nat Bates - 7/18/2010

I believe that the whole Bill of Rights should be upheld. Old style progressives favored that view. Eighteenth century progressives were pro-right to bear arms. So were nineteenth century ones.