Author Essays, Interviews, and Excerpts, Commentary, Sociology

Responses to the New York Times on Chicago’s problem with gun violence

Photo by Joshua Lott for the New York Times.

Earlier this month, the New York Times published a blockbuster piece of investigative reporting that involved sending a team of journalists and photographers to Chicago to cover the unfolding events of a Memorial Day weekend that culminated in 64 shootings and 6 deaths in just under 72 hours. As the violence escalated, reporters on the scene followed the blotter, interviewing those injured, witnesses on the scene, and community members, many of whom live on the city’s South and Southwest sides, leading to a portrait in real time not only the weekend’s events, but also how these bloody circumstances significantly impact the neighborhoods in which they continue to occur. The coverage comes on the heels of several other recent pieces by the NYT on Chicago’s ongoing problems with gun-related bloodshed, including “Chicago’s Murder Problem” (May 27, 2016), “Pleading for Peace in Chicago Amid Fears of a Bloody Summer” (May 28, 2016), and “When Violence Hits Home in Chicago,” a feature from the Lens Blog, on the photos that accompanied that major piece, “A Weekend in Chicago” (June 4, 2016).

We asked Robert J. Sampson, a sociologist whose work on crime, civic engagement, inequality, and the neighborhood effect was used as research by the NYT in the piece, and Susan A. Phillips, an anthropologist who focuses on urban violence, criminal justice, and the relationship between gangs and the state, to respond to what the coverage emphasized or reaffirmed, missed or undermined, and what that indicates about broader concerns for the city and its residents, whose daily lives remain impacted by a particularly terrifying reality—an already jolting homicide rate, up 62 percent already this year. Their responses follow after the jump.


Below, Robert J. Sampson, author of Great American City: Chicago and the Enduring Neighborhood Effectweighs in on the deep structural disadvantage that promotes neighborhood inequality, particularly in Chicago.

The New York Times series on Chicago was remarkable for the intensity of its focus both at the neighborhood level and in the detailed portrayal of lives lost over the Memorial Day weekend. Drawing attention to the recent upswing in murder exposes what in years past was often ignored by the press—the disproportionate toll that violence takes on our most disadvantaged populations.

Nonetheless, we should not lose sight of two important facts. First, murders in Chicago remain significantly below levels of recent decades. In the early 1990s, for example, homicides approached 1,000 per year. The rate of violence has declined dramatically since then, and even if the current pace continues, the number of murders in 2016 will be much less. The problem of murder is still severe, but Chicago today is safer overall, hard as that is to believe given the enormous press attention.

The second fact is that homicides are driven by the same set of social conditions as the past, and in many cases are occurring in identical places. Maps of violence over the years reveal a reoccurring concentration in neighborhoods of concentrated poverty and segregation, especially on the west and south sides of the city. As I have shown in Great American City: Chicago and the Enduring Neighborhood Effect, low-income minority neighborhoods have a long history of linked adversities, not just violence but incarceration, physical disinvestment, family instability, and poor health. The persistent concentration of social disadvantage goes beyond any one indicator and breeds institutional cynicism.

Violence, then, is part of a cycle of disadvantage in deeply distressed communities. This is not a problem unique to Chicago—all cities show similar concentrations of violence. Neighborhood inequality is deeper and more durable in Chicago, however, and it is there our attention should be paid.

Robert J. Sampson is the Henry Ford II Professor of the Social Sciences at Harvard University and Director of the Boston Area Research Initiative. Prior to Harvard, he was chair of the department of sociology and taught at the University of Chicago for twelve years. He is a member of the National Academy of Sciences and a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.


Susan A. Phillips, author of Operation Fly Trap: L. A. Gangs, Drugs, and the Lawsituates the NYT‘s coverage as part of a larger dynamic in contemporary journalism that needs to emphasize not only the effects of aggressive policing, but also the difficulty communities face in creating alternative forms of public safety.

The recent New York Times coverage of violence within the City of Chicago is powerful journalism, tweaked a bit by the exigencies of the Black Lives Matter movement. But the coverage stops short of creating a form of journalism that either mirrors transformative anti-violence work or that is, in itself, transformative.

The portraits in each article begin to blur lines between categories of victim and perpetrator, but this is only partially successful. The stream of images in the online version contributes to the pornography of pain surrounding black communities. This visual accompaniment may create momentary sympathy, but it also replays a familiar entrenchment of difference that ultimately undermines the articles’ humanizing goals. The coverage also demonstrates little understanding of gangs, which are pitched as something you can “get out of” or that, if we could just put the right people in prison (maybe the 140 mentioned in the gang sweep), we might be getting somewhere.

Chicago has historically had the most corrupt police force in the country. Aggressive policing has moved in lockstep with gang violence in the City of Chicago for generations. Entrenched racism in the United States has helped make Chicago neighborhoods into militarized zones. Gangs within these zones are both perpetrators and victims of violence. As direct arbiters of global inequality, gangs have become fundamentally intertwined with neighborhood life. Removing gang members in sweeps can create leadership vacuums that contribute to rises in violence, just as relying on punitive punishment can weaken families and communities.

Many Chicago organizations have done good work to decrease violence in the past. From 2009 to 2012, Youth Advocate Programs conducted over 1,000 gang conflict mediations, and created programs that both kept youth safe and that minimized reliance on punitive measures like suspension and expulsion. More recently, Cheryl Graves of the Community Justice for Youth Institute began creating “Restorative Justice Hubs” in Chicago. For Graves, restorative justice is both philosophy and daily practice that demonstrates the power of people to identify and heal their own problems.

In the articles we get hints of people’s thoughts to this end: the idea that kids needs jobs, or that there are few educational opportunities. To turn in guns as a salve to the violence is a symbolic gesture rather than a demonstration of serious commitment to the youth of Chicago.

To understand Chicago’s rampant violence, we need stories that examine not only the publicized harms of police brutality, but that look at what has compromised community members’ abilities to create lateral forms of public safety in the first place. We need to question assumptions about the effectiveness of policing and to understand the unpublicized harms of incarceration on families. Most important, we need journalists to write about the successful programs and transformational ideologies that address violence based on people’s own capacity to make change.

Susan A. Phillips is associate professor of environmental analysis at Pitzer College, and an urban ethnographer who studies gangs, violence, and incarceration in the United States. Phillips was named a Soros Justice Media Fellow in 2008, and received a Harry Frank Guggenheim research grant in 2005 to fund her fieldwork. Previous to that she was a fellow at the Getty Research Institute from 1996–97, during the scholar year on Los Angeles.


To read the NYT coverage of Chicago’s Memorial Day weekend in full, click here.

To see more from UCP on sociology and urban anthropology, click here.