Living in the cross hairs of gun violence

Hadiya Pendleton

Photo by Lucio Villa

A tree is decorated with purple ribbon to honor the memory of Hadiya Pendleton, 15, a honor student who was shot to death in Jan. 2013 while taking shelter from the rain under a canopy at a North Kenwood park.

I’ve heard gunfire in the middle of the night before. But this time loud shots rang out during the dinner hour, one after another after another.

A 14-year-old boy who had been enjoying a beautiful September day with friends had just been fatally shot in the head two blocks away in a neighbor’s driveway. Police were quick to point out that the victim, Tyjuan Poindexter, was not a gang member. He was just a regular boy, a victim of mistaken identity.

Tyjuan’s death was the latest tragedy in a series of high-profile shootings in my mixed-income neighborhood—a community frequently described by residents on the website Nextdoor Kenwood as “family-friendly,” “pleasant” and “peaceful.”

I moved into North Kenwood eight years ago because I was attracted to the stately brownstones interspersed with attractive new housing. I was drawn to the tree-lined streets that define the predominately African-American neighborhood nestled on Chicago’s lakefront, just a stone’s throw from downtown. I was proud to live in a historic Bronzeville neighborhood.

But I did not want, or expect, to have to cope with gun violence.

It would be easy to blame the problem on bad morals, poor parenting or a “criminal element.” But I know it goes deeper than that.

Structural inequality also plays a huge role. As social and economic policies leave low-income blacks behind, middle-class African Americans also feel the impact.

Middle-class and low-income African Americans are connected through friendship, family and geographic proximity, as Northwestern University sociologist Mary Pattillo has reported in her research on black neighborhoods. Policies that hurt low-income African Americans ultimately hurt the black middle class, she wrote in her book, “Black Picket Fences: Privilege and Peril among the Black Middle-Class.”

Middle-class African Americans are more likely than their white peers to live in or near economically distressed communities. That means closer proximity to violent crime, poverty and other social problems.

Research from Stanford University, published this summer, found that middle-class African American and Hispanics live in poorer neighborhoods than white and Asian families with comparable incomes. Nationwide, black families typically live in neighborhoods where the median income is consistently $10,000 to $12,000 lower than in the neighborhoods where white families of similar income live, according to the study. For Hispanic households, the difference is between $6,000 and $8,000. In many large metropolitan areas, the neighborhood differences are two to three times greater, the researchers said.

The black poverty rate has been consistently at least double that of the overall poverty rate nationally. With 25 percent of its African-American residents jobless, Chicago has the highest black unemployment rate among the nation’s five most populous cities.

As poor blacks suffer, everyone living near them feels the pain, and that’s usually other African Americans.

I chose to live in a predominately black neighborhood, like many others I know, because I wanted to contribute as a homeowner, taxpayer, voter and good neighbor. I wanted to give back. At community meetings I’ve seen many of my neighbors doing their part to help North Kenwood thrive, whether it’s being quick to call 911 about suspicious activity, starting phone trees or forming a block club. Worrying about getting shot, however, should not be part of the social pact.

The solution is not to give privileged status to middle-class African Americans such as myself, but to make sure that black communities, as a whole, have equal access to the full range of city resources, from good schools to adequate street lighting to responsive police services. With the city budget process underway, now is a good time for all of us to keep an eagle eye on how those resources are distributed.

When structural inequalities are adequately addressed, my neighbors and I will be better able to fully enjoy the communities we have invested in. And no one will have to worry about allowing their sons or daughters outside on a warm day.