Derrion Tragedy a Sign of Much Bigger Illness
In the wake of the murder of a Fenger High School student in Chicago, President Obama has dispatched Attorney General Eric Holder and Education Secretary Arne Duncan to the city. Their purpose, according to White House press secretary Robert Gibbs, is to “talk about issues of school violence and youth violence.”
The murder of an honor student received global attention just as the president was in Copenhagen trying to bring the Olympics to Chicago. That embarrassment triggered the presidential reaction.
But let’s be clear. Sixteen-year-old Derrion Albert’s death is a horror–but it is not an isolated event. Last year, 400 kids were shot; 40 were killed. Each year witnesses more and more innocent bystanders martyred to the violence. What we witness in Chicago–and in other urban areas–is a zone where violence is close to routine.
In Chicago, and in many cities of the country, children are sensibly scared as they go to school. They should have safe passage to school. In Little Rock, Ark., when we first desegregated students, the federal government sent in troops to guarantee safe passage to school. But Little Rock witnessed nothing of the violence that plagues mean streets in our nation’s cities. We need concerted anti-violence intervention that will guarantee children and parents safe passage to school.
But that is not all. Attorney General Holder is welcome, for he is committed to rebuilding the Civil Rights Division of the Justice Department. We also need a civil rights intervention. In Chicago, as Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan has shown, minorities were targeted by predatory lenders. They were pushed into subprime loans with exotic, often unexplained terms that ended up systematically fleecing the largely young workers stretching to be part of the American dream. Blacks and Latinos–at all income levels–pay more for mortgages, for business loans, for personal loans. Too often last hired and first fired, they are suffering higher levels of foreclosures and evictions in the wake of the collapse. And those who have paid their mortgages have watched the value of their homes plummet as foreclosures scar their neighborhoods.
That same systematic injustice plagues the president’s own stimulus plans, where we’ve just learned that minorities are receiving a dramatically smaller share of the government contracts than proportionate. As an example, WBEZ radio’s Adriene Hill reported that out of 119 Illinois Department of Transportation contracts, black contractors received less than 2 percent, according to U.S. Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood. Again this particularly disadvantages young entrepreneurs, the very people vital to building a different future.
Derrion Albert’s murder was a terrible tragedy, but it was not an exception; it was horrible, but shocked only those who aren’t paying attention. It is part of a pattern in a zone of deprivation that cannot be allowed to continue. It is this reality that the attorney general and the education secretary must address.
The tragic loss of Derrion must inspire citizens of good conscience to act–and to challenge the city, the state and the federal government to act.
Then, Chicago and areas across this country desperately need a jobs agenda. In Washington, the economy is said to be in recovery, and the concern has gone to cutting the deficits. Across the country, and particularly in our urban areas, a decadelong recession has turned to depression. Black unemployment is double the rate of white unemployment. The young find it particularly hard. We will lose a generation–and suffer the results–if there is not bold action now for jobs.
Third–and here, Holder has been an ally–we need to enforce equal protection under the laws. Crack down on predatory lenders who prey on minority communities. End discrimination in procurement. Ensure the new green jobs go in part to the communities that were excluded from the old energy jobs. This takes work, goals, timetables, monitoring and legal enforcement.