HEATHER MAC DONALD
Chicago’s Real Crime Story
Why decades of community organizing haven’t stemmed the city’s youth violence
Most tellingly, Obama’s narrative is almost devoid of men. With the exception of the local ministers and the occasional semi-crazed black nationalist, Obama inhabits a female world. His organizing targets are almost all single mothers. He never wonders where and who the fathers of their children are. When Obama sees a group of boys vandalizing a building, he asks rhetorically: “Who will take care of them: the alderman, the social workers? The gangs?” The most appropriate candidate—“their fathers”—never occurs to him.Barack Obama has exploited his youthful stint as a Chicago community organizer at every stage of his political career. As someone who had worked for grassroots “change,” he said, he was a different kind of politician, one who could translate people’s hopes into reality. The media lapped up this conceit, presenting Obama’s organizing experience as a meaningful qualification for the Oval Office.
This past September, a cell-phone video of Chicago students beating a fellow teen to death coursed over the airwaves and across the Internet. None of the news outlets that had admiringly reported on Obama’s community-organizing efforts mentioned that the beating involved students from the very South Side neighborhoods where the president had once worked. Obama’s connection to the area was suddenly lost in the mists of time.
Yet a critical blindness links Obama’s activities on the South Side during the 1980s and the murder of Derrion Albert in 2009. Throughout his four years working for “change” in Chicago’s Roseland and Altgeld Gardens neighborhoods, Obama ignored the primary cause of their escalating dysfunction: the disappearance of the black two-parent family. Obama wasn’t the only activist to turn away from the problem of absent fathers, of course; decades of failed social policy, both before and after his time in Chicago, were just as blind. And that myopia continues today, guaranteeing that the current response to Chicago’s youth violence will prove as useless as Obama’s activities were 25 years ago.
One year out of college, Barack Obama took a job as a community organizer, hoping for an authentic black experience that would link him to the bygone era of civil rights protest. Few people know what a community organizer is — Obama didn’t when he decided to become one—yet the term seduces the liberal intelligentsia with its aura of class struggle and agitation against an unjust establishment. Saul Alinsky, the self-described radical who pioneered the idea in Chicago’s slaughterhouse district during the Depression, defined community organizing as creating “mass organizations to seize power and give it to the people.” Alinsky viewed poverty as a political condition: it stemmed from a lack of power, which society’s “haves” withhold from the “have-nots.” A community organizer would open the eyes of the disenfranchised to their aggrieved status, teaching them to demand redress from the illegitimate “power structure.”
Alinskyite empowerment suffered its worst scandal in 1960s Chicago. The architects of the federal War on Poverty created a taxpayer-funded version of a community-organizing entity, the so-called Community Action Agency, whose function was to agitate against big-city mayors for more welfare benefits and services for blacks. Washington poverty warriors, eager to demonstrate their radical bona fides, funneled hundreds of thousands of dollars into Chicago’s most notorious gangs, who were supposed to run job-training and tutoring programs under the auspices of a signature Alinskyite agency, the Woodlawn Organization. Instead, the gangbangers maintained their criminal ways—raping and murdering while on the government payroll, and embezzling federal funds to boot.
The disaster failed to dim the romance of community organizing. But by the time Obama arrived in Chicago in 1984, an Alinskyite diagnosis of South Side poverty was doubly irrelevant. Blacks had more political power in Chicago than ever before, yet that power had no impact on the tidal wave of dysfunction that was sweeping through the largest black community in the United States. Chicago had just elected Harold Washington, the city’s first black mayor; the heads of Chicago’s school system and public housing were black, as were most of their employees; black power broker Emil Jones, Jr. represented the South Side in the Illinois State Senate; Jesse Jackson would launch his 1984 presidential campaign from Chicago. The notion that blacks were disenfranchised struck even some of Obama’s potential organizees as ludicrous. “Why we need to be protesting and carrying on at our own people?” a prominent South Side minister asked Obama soon after he arrived in Chicago. “Anybody sitting around this table got a direct line to City Hall.”
Pace Alinsky, such political clout could not stop black Chicago’s social breakdown. Crime was exploding. Gangs ran the housing projects—their reign of thuggery aided by ACLU lawsuits, which had stripped the housing authority of its right to screen tenants. But the violence spread beyond the projects. In 1984, Obama’s first year in Chicago, gang members gunned down a teenage basketball star, Benjy Wilson.
The citywide outcry that followed was heartfelt but beside the point. None of the prominent voices calling for an end to youth violence—from Mayor Washington to Jesse Jackson to school administrators—noted that all of Wilson’s killers came from fatherless families (or that he had fathered an illegitimate child himself). Nor did the would-be reformers mention the all-important fact that a staggering 75 percent of Chicago’s black children were being born out of wedlock. The sky-high illegitimacy rate meant that black boys were growing up in a world in which it was normal to impregnate a girl and then take off. When a boy is raised without any social expectation that he will support his children and marry his children’s mother, he fails to learn the most fundamental lesson of personal responsibility. The high black crime rate was one result of a culture that fails to civilize men through marriage.