The Virus, Violence and Voting
Maybe Blacks didn’t vote because they’ve lost hope. What will Biden do to address this?
The virus, violence, and voting. These three Vs may seem to be very different, but they have common roots. Together they indicate the urgent need for action from the new Biden administration.
The common root is desperation. I began my research career in Milwaukee looking at the newly formed gangs in the 1980s. I saw how deindustrialization created a bleak future for young Black men and spawned gangs and a culture of hopelessness. Violence shot up here to a 1991 peak. Milwaukee will exceed that horrific benchmark this year. From 1996 to 2018 I taught at the University of Illinois-Chicago and studied gangs and violence there. At the turn of the century as housing projects closed I watched African American gangs fracture as young men were scattered across the city. The new leaderless cliques ignited raging fires of violence in areas of concentrated Black poverty. Research of my colleagues and I found that the overwhelming majority of homicides were not drug related, but due to interpersonal disputes, a measure of how frustrated and jobless young African American men were. Drug/gang wars were more likely among Hispanic gangs who were unaffected by the demise of public housing. Importantly, three quarters of all homicide victims and offenders in Chicago are African American. I learned when desperation haunts a community, violence follows.
In both Milwaukee and Chicago the virus has intensified desperation — one more affliction as jobs disappear, schools and stores close, and hope dwindles. In Milwaukee, despite extensive and remarkable efforts by groups like BLOC, LIT, and others, voter turnout in the Black community was unchanged from the depressed levels of 2016. While the virus surely inhibited voting here and elsewhere, I think the weak turnout of both years also reflects realism in the community. Like me, many are skeptical a new administration will bring jobs and policies that will fundamentally improve the life chances of central city African Americans.
What to do about all three Vs has long been identified by community folk and researchers alike. Black urban communities need to be rejuvenated with jobs programs and massive incentives to create and sustain local Black owned businesses. Wage subsidies need to be established for any business hiring people living in impoverished communities. Drug use needs to be decriminalized and treatment needs to be expanded. The bloated police budget needs to be reallocated to support community programming, especially crisis intervention which will limit police killing of unarmed men with mental health problems. And voting? It’s this simple: people vote when they think that voting will lead to change.
How can I say this tactfully? The conditions in Chicago and Milwaukee, and many other urban centers are an EMERGENCY! The answer to hopelessness is hope: young Black men and women need to see realistic chances for a bright future so they will work to rebuild their communities, not spread the virus or persist in settling disputes by violence.
The defeat of Donald Trump can’t mean a return to a dismal past that produced gangs, high rates of violence and unhealthy conditions. If there are trillions for coronavirus relief programs, why can’t they find trillions for central cities like those of Milwaukee and Chicago? We need President Biden to be an LBJ or an FDR, devising and implementing bold initiatives that will rejuvenate our central cities, reduce violence and eliminate the virus. People will vote for that in record numbers.
John Hagedorn is the James J. Stukel Faculty Fellow, Great Cities Institute and Professor Emeritus, Criminology, Law, and Justice
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