679 Murders And Counting: How Can We Connect Chicago's Youth?

This week's guest author is Michael Holzman.

What are we to do now that the national scene looks increasingly bleak for matters of racial and income equality? One thing that can be done is to focus on local issues. There is, for example, the continuing tragedy affecting young Black men in Chicago, and their families and neighborhoods.

Statistics make for rather unexciting reading, bloodless, one might say, unless they are statistics about Chicago. Chicago's statistics count hundreds of murders, but even that horror is just the tip of the iceberg. 53,000 of Chicago's male Black adults, ages 21 to 60, are "missing." What is the explanation for that?

The gender balance for Blacks, Whites and Hispanics under age 18 in the city is about equal, 50-50 boys and girls. As a matter of fact, for the White population of Chicago - of which there are about 1.2 million - the gender balance for the entire group, birth to death, is just about perfect: there are only 44 more White females than males. The story is quite different for the Black population of the city. There are many more Black females than Black males in the population of 920,000 African-American residents of Chicago. This difference begins to show up at the cohort of 21-year-olds and plateaus between the ages of 25 to 60. To put it as plainly as possible, again, 53,000 of Chicago's working age Black men are missing: dying early from disease, murdered, incarcerated.

That is one indicator of the condition of Chicago's African-American community. There are other indicators: four out of five African-American residents of Chicago have not graduated from college, including 84 percent of Black men; more than half of all Black adult residents of Chicago are either unemployed or not in the labor force; a quarter of Black Chicagoans live in poverty, two-thirds do not own their own homes and two-thirds have incomes below the national average. According to a recent study by MacArthur "Genius" award winner Raj Chetty of Stanford University, a child born into a lower-income family in Chicago's Cook County will have lifetime earnings 13 percent below the national average, just from growing up in Chicago. This contrasts with the prospects of a child born into a lower income family in nearby DuPage County, who is likely to have lifetime earnings 15 percent higher than the national average. In other words, there is nearly a 30 percent lifetime earnings penalty for lower income children growing up in Chicago as compared to those growing up in the nearby suburbs.

Why is that?

We can start with the schools. It is reasonable to estimate that a male Black student entering the Chicago schools has little better than a 50-50 chance of graduating from high school, even within five years. One result of this, according to a recent study by the Brookings Institution, is that 23 percent of African-Americans ages 20-24 in Chicago fall into the category of "disconnected youth:" neither employed, nor graduated from high school, nor taking classes of any kind. This is an issue about race, not age. The rate of disconnected male Black youth is well over 25 percent, some 7,800 young men out of the 31,200 in the age group, or about half of those the Chicago Public Schools failed to graduate within five years of entering high school. Much of the crisis affecting the Black residents of Chicago is chronic, for which long-term treatments are called. The crisis of disconnected Black youth is acute. If something is not done immediately, hundreds more will be killed, thousands more will lose their chance for a better life.

Which brings us back to the issue of gun violence, that is, murder. The Chicago Tribune counts 679 homicides so far this year, as compared to 492 for all of last year. The killing sites densely cover the West Side and more evenly pockmark the South Side. Most of those shot, as well as those shooting, are young Black men: four times as many victims are Black as Hispanic; 15 times as many are Black as White; more than 10 times as many are male as female; the great majority are between the ages of 20 and 34. Over the years, many of those who survive the killing streets end up incarcerated. In 2010, 7,400 Chicago Black men between the ages of 18 and 64 were in prison or jail (as were another 400 under the age of 18). Given average jail terms, this would have been a harvest of about 1,500 Black men from the streets of Chicago each year.

Chicago's dysfunctional schools could be improved if those who control them wished to do so. Redlining and racist job discrimination could be eliminated if those who have the power to do so, did so. Guns could be taken off the streets of Chicago if politicians wanted to do that. While the people of Chicago wait for politicians to decide to improve the schools, end housing discrimination and remove guns from the streets, there are nearly 8,000 young Black men in Chicago who are undereducated and unemployed, ready, if given the chance, to make a positive contribution to their communities. Connecting these "disconnected youth" to work and education would benefit them and would benefit their communities. How might that connection to be made?

There is no need to consult Silicon Valley or Wall Street gurus for at least one useful answer. The Civilian Conservation Corps and related agencies put the "disconnected" of the Great Depression to work, providing millions with skills and incomes while building the country. Revived in the 1970s in such organizations as the California Conservation Corps (CCC) and similar groups in cities such as Los Angeles, Philadelphia and New York, the model was extended to include educational activities. "Corpsmembers," as they are called in California, earn a basic wage while learning the skills necessary to build their communities and obtaining the academic skills and knowledge that they did not find in school. The CCC requires corpsmembers to attend school and work toward completing their high school diploma. Each corpsmember works a paid 40-hour week and attends school in the afternoons for at least 10 hours a week. Another model, that of the Los Angeles Conservation Corps, requires every corpsmember who does not have a high school diploma to work on projects in the field for three months (30 hours paid per week) and then move to the classroom for three months (with a $100/week stipend). This rotation is repeated until the corpsmember receives a high school diploma while gaining valuable work experiences. If a person already has their diploma (in both programs), vocational education or community college attendance is required and matched with the various trade skills that the corpsmember is working on.

These initiatives have worked well for thousands of young adults and their communities. It may be time to revive this idea in Chicago.

A Chicago Reconstruction Corps (CRC) would offer disconnected youth and others the opportunity to serve their neighborhoods, rather than afflict them; to join with their peers in positive activities, rather than murdering them; to learn the skills and knowledge that the schools failed to provide, laying the foundations for fulfilling and productive lives and providing them with work experience which can be parlayed into a job or prepare them for college or a training program. The projects undertaken by the CRC could be identified in cooperation with local community-based organizations, suiting the needs and priorities of Chicago's neighborhoods block by block. It would be best practice if the actual planning for each project were done by the relevant CRC unit as a group so that each corpsmember would learn how to estimate needed materials, budgets and the like. Funding could come from governmental sources, as with the California Conservation Corps, from foundations and individual donors, as with the various urban groups. The "return on investment," much talked about these days, would be seen in more and better housing, cleaner streets, more and better parks and the improved life prospects of the participating young people themselves: no longer disconnected.

This is an idea for incremental improvement. It will not improve the schools against the wishes of unwilling politicians. It will not change the racist policies of banks and employers. It will not, in itself, remove guns from the streets. It does, however, have the virtue of practicality, of a virtual "turn-key" implementation of actions that will quite possibly alleviate the acute problem of disconnected youth in Chicago. There are probably other ideas equally if not more helpful, including ideas about how to improve this concept itself. In the meantime, remembering that all too often the best is the enemy of better, it is something that can be done even while the residents of Chicago's Black neighborhoods work toward more fundamental change.

Michael Holzman is a writer and historian. His most recent books are The Chains of Black America: The Hammer of the Police; The Anvil of the Schools and Pax 1934 - 1941 (a novel), forthcoming. He can be reached at: michaelholzman42@gmail.com

Eric J. Cooper is the founder and president of the National Urban Alliance for Effective Education, a nonprofit professional development organization that provides student-focused professional development, advocacy and organizational guidance to accelerate student achievement. He can be reached at e_cooper@nuatc.org. He tweets as @ECooper4556.