The Chicago Negro and the Warsaw Ghetto

Antiblackness at the root of gun violence “solutions”

Illustration: Donte Neal

When I was 18, a white woman drove me home to my dormitory after a volunteer meeting for a local dog rescue organization. “Home” was the University of Chicago campus. As we drove through the South Side, she commented that this part of the city “has a lot of what my husband likes to call blue-light districts.” As she laughed at her own joke, I nodded and looked out the window.

She was referring to the police cameras mounted on high poles in some parts of my city, adorned with a flashing blue light that would make your eyes hurt if you looked at it for too long. I knew what she meant because in my real home, a neighborhood in a part of the city far from campus, we had a light like that on my corner. It was ostensibly there to curb violence and drug-dealing activity, although it didn’t seem to do much to stop us from hearing gunfire at night or to make my brother or me feel any safer when we waited at the corner to catch the bus to school. What it did do was remind us firmly of our place in the world. It reminded us that the police were always, always watching. It let us know that we were dangerous people, to be controlled and surveilled at all costs. And it seemed designed to make sure that other people — the good people of the city, people like this woman — knew the same thing.

Throughout his campaign and into the first months of his presidency, Donald Trump has made sometimes-vague references to sending in federal agents to curtail gun violence in Chicago. While his tweets on the topic have gotten a lot of attention, there is nothing new about the idea of ramping up a federal or militarized presence here, even from people within the city. In my local neighborhood watch Facebook group, someone recently suggested that the police should build “a barricade at the border [of the neighborhood] so these animals do not have easy access in and out of the area.” And a while back John Kass, a columnist for the Chicago Tribune, suggested that the solution to Chicago’s violence problem is to use concrete blocks to wall off entrances and exits to some of the city’s neighborhoods. “Federalize the National Guard. Close off easy access and exits to the most violent neighborhoods, leaving the guard at a limited number of checkpoints from 7 p.m. to 7 a.m. to cut down drive-by shootings,” Kass wrote. Under this plan — which he estimates would cost “millions upon millions of dollars” — streets would be contained with a perimeter of physical walls, police cameras, and armed patrols.

When I posted the column on Twitter, several people responded to say that Kass’s narrative reminded them of the ghettos constructed to contain Jews during World War II. This comparison startled me at first, then spurred me to revisit my 20th century history. I read “The Negro and the Warsaw Ghetto,” by W.E.B. Du Bois, who wrote: “I have seen something of human upheaval in this world: the scream and shots of a race riot in Atlanta; the marching of the Ku Klux Klan; the threat of courts and police; the neglect and destruction of human habitation; but nothing in my wildest imagination was equal to what I saw in Warsaw in 1949.” I read some of Mitchell Duneier’s book Ghetto: The Invention of a Place, the History of an Idea, and learned of how Adolf Hitler described ghettos as a place where Jewish people could be “enclosed into a territory where they can behave as becomes their nature,” which was understood to be animalistic and subhuman. As Duneier writes, before ghettos in Warsaw were seen as a pathway to genocide, the Nazis first viewed them as a mechanism for complete social control.

But many other people chimed in to say variations of something I hear often, most commonly from people who do not themselves live in the Chicago communities most impacted by violence: “well sure, it sounds bad, but we have to do something.” And those responses made me afraid in the pit of my stomach, because they reminded me of the long American tradition of moderate voices rationalizing the mistreatment of people who they fundamentally do not see as people like themselves. Well, there could be Japanese spies. We have to do something. Well, this march to Selma is getting out of control. We have to do something. In this way, people who consider themselves defenders of human rights enter into a moral slippage that ends in them not only witnessing grave abuse, but perpetrating it.

Trust, I know we have to do something. The profound insult of it all is that Chicagoans, especially Black Chicagoans, know this very well. I know it better than, say, Donald Trump. I do not believe Donald Trump skims every new headline to see if the person killed is a student, a family member, or a friend. I feel confident that Donald Trump has not stayed up all night crying, struggling to go to work the next day, as many of my friends did this year when Takiya Holmes passed away, or the week before when John Walt was murdered. We know very, very well that we have to do something.

It’s just that wherever I look, outsiders’ version of something seems predicated on the assumption that Black people are not human beings. We should be asking how we can stem violence by offering jobs, as African-Americans in Chicago face some of the highest unemployment rates in the nation. How can we make sure that children in Chicago receive a high-quality education, rather than closing schools in Black neighborhoods? How can we ensure that those who have experienced debilitating trauma from gun violence have mental health facilities, rather than shutting them down? These issues, in my view, are a better use of “millions upon millions” of dollars. But instead of asking these questions, many observers — from Kass, to my hateful neighbors, to the nation’s president — seem to be asking, “how can we keep an eye on these animals?” How can we fence in these brutes? How can we punish them? And these sorts of questions, predicated on the profound antiblackness that guides our culture, seem like a convenient point of convergence for liberal and conservative voices alike.

You would think I would be used to it by now, but I remain perplexed by a nation where Dylann Roof is humanized as “a bug-eyed boy with a bowl haircut who came from a broken home” after ruthlessly slaughtering nine people while they worshipped God, but Tamir Rice, a child, was gunned down before he could open his mouth to speak. But in these actions I see the same cold truth — that Black people, brought to this nation as items of property to be auctioned or traded — have perhaps never made it past the bar of being three-fifths human in the eyes of the state. In moments of optimism where I come close to doubting this truth, I am assailed by reminders in the form of people like Kass — a mainstream columnist for a major American newspaper suggesting that Black people should live under a martial law that would surely be unacceptable for his own family or his own children. Solutions like this presume blackness and Black people through a lens devoid of human empathy — a hollow void which precludes all else.

And so as we live in a nation where the president issues daily assaults on the personhood of so many — of Muslim people, of women, of trans children, of undocumented immigrants, and of the many who occupy the intersections of these identities — I worry that the urge to fence in Chicago, to police us, to punish us as the merchant whips the slow mule, may be an area on which the self-identified “reasonable people” find ample common ground. And I wonder who will speak for us when it is not our enemies, but our neighbors, who lock us up and swallow the key.