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Chicago's Real Crime Story

March 22, 2010

By Heather Mac Donald

Forget community organizing. The only way to stop youth violence is with two-parent families

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 neighbourhoods 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 neighbourhoods, 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, 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 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% 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.

Obama offers fleeting glimpses of Chicago’s social breakdown in his autobiography, Dreams from My Father, but it’s as if he didn’t really see what he recorded. An Alinskyite group from the suburbs, the Calumet Community Religious Conference, had assigned him to the Roseland community on the far South Side, in the misguided hope of strong-arming industrial jobs back to the area. Roseland’s bungalows and two-story homes recalled an era of stable, twoparent families that had long since passed. Obama vividly describes children who “swaggered down the streets--loud congregations of teenage boys, teenage girls feeding potato chips to crying toddlers, the discarded wrappers tumbling down the block.” He observes two young boys casually firing a handgun at a third. He notes that the elementary school in the Altgeld Gardens housing project had a centre for the teen mothers of its students, who had themselves been raised by teen mothers.

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.

Surrounded with daily evidence of Roseland’s real problem, Obama was nevertheless at a loss for a cause to embrace. Alinskyism, after all, presupposes that the problems afflicting a poor community come from the outside. Obama had come to arouse Roseland’s residents to take on the power structure, not to persuade them to act more responsibly. So it was with great relief that he noticed that the Mayor’s Office of Employment and Training (MET), which offered job training, lacked a branch in Roseland: “ ’This is it,’ I said. . . . ’We just found ourselves an issue.’ ” So much for the fiction that the community organizer merely channels the preexisting will of the “community.”

Obama easily procured a local MET office. It had as much effect on the mounting disorder of the far South Side as his better-known accomplishment: getting the Chicago Housing Authority to test the Altgeld Gardens project for asbestos. In an area that buses wouldn’t serve at night because of fears that drivers would get robbed or hit by bricks, perhaps asbestos removal should have been a lower priority, compared with ending the anarchy choking off civilized life. In fact, “there is zero legacy from when Obama was here,” says Phillip Jackson, director of the Black Star Project, a community group dedicated to eliminating the academic-achievement gap. Jackson, like other local leaders, is reluctant to criticize Obama, however. “I won’t minimize what Obama was doing then,” he says.

In 1987, during Obama’s third year in Chicago, 57 children were killed in the city, reports Alex Kotlowitz in his book on Chicago’s deadly housing projects, There Are No Children Here. In 1988, Obama left Chicago, after four years spent helping “people in Altgeld . . . reclaim a power they had had all along,” as the future president put it in Dreams from My Father. And the carnage continued.

In 1994, two particularly savage youth murders drew the usual feckless hand-wringing. An 11-year-old Black Disciples member from Roseland, Robert “Yummy” Sandifer (so called for his sweet tooth, the only thing childlike about him), had unintentionally killed a girl while shooting at (and paralyzing) a rival gang member. Sandifer’s fellow Black Disciples then executed him to prevent him from implicating them in the killing. A month later, after five-year-old Eric Morse refused to steal candy for an 11-year-old and a 10-year-old, the two dropped him from a 14th-story window in a housing complex, killing him. Eric’s eight-year-old brother had grabbed him to keep him from falling, but lost his hold when one of the boys bit him on the arm. None of the perpetrators or victims in either case came from twoparent families.

A year after these widely publicized killings, and on the eve of Obama’s first political campaign, the aspiring state senator gave an interview to the Chicago Reader that epitomized the uselessness of Alinskyism in addressing black urban pathology -- and that inaugurated the trope of community organizer as visionary politician. Obama attacks the Christian Right and the Republican Congress for “hijack[ing] the higher moral ground with this language of family values and moral responsibility.” Yeah, sure, family values are fine, he says, but what about “collective action . . . collective institutions and organizations”? Let’s take “these same values that are encouraged within our families,” he urges, “and apply them to a larger society.”

Even if this jump from “family values” to “collective action” were a promising strategy, Obama overlooks a crucial fact: There are almost no traditional families in here are almost no traditional families in inner-city neighborhoods.

Original Source: http://www.nationalpost.com/story.html?id=2710072

 

 
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