Written by Heather Mac Donald
Why decades of community organizing haven't stemmed the city's youth violence.
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 Alinsky's signature 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.
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, two-parent 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 center 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 ten-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 two-parent 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 inner-city neighborhoods. Fathers aren't "encouraging" values "within our families"; fathers are nowhere in sight. Moving to "collective action" is futile without a core of personal responsibility on which to build. Nevertheless, Obama leapfrogs over concrete individual failure to alleged collective failure: "Right now we have a society that talks about the irresponsibility of teens getting pregnant," he told the Reader, "not the irresponsibility of a society that fails to educate them to aspire for more."
The same rhetorical leapfrogging governs the Obama administration's and the Chicago political establishment's response to current Chicago teen violence. Compared with the 1990s, that violence is way down-114 children under 17 were killed both in 1993 and in 1994, while 50 were in 2008. But the proportion of gang-related murders has gone up since the late 1980s and 1990s, when the Chicago police, working with federal law enforcement, locked up the leaders of Chicago's most notorious gangs. Those strong leaders, it turns out, exercised some restraint on their members in order to protect drug profits. "Back then, you knew what the killings were about," says Charles Winston, a former heroin dealer who made $50,000 a day in the early 1990s in the infamous Robert Taylor Homes. "Now, it's just sporadic incidents of violence." The Black Star Project's Phillip Jackson compares the anarchy in Chicago's gang territories to Somalia: "There are many factions," he says, all fighting one another in unstable, shifting configurations.
In the early 2000s, the number of assaults reported in and around schools increased significantly, according to Northwestern University political scientist Wesley Skogan. School dismissal time in Chicago triggers a massive mobilization of security forces across the South and West Sides, to try to keep students from shooting one another or being shot by older gang members. Police officers in bulletproof vests ring the most violence-prone schools, and the Chicago Transit Authority rejiggers its bus schedules to try to make sure that students don't have to walk even half a block before boarding a bus.
Each street in a neighborhood possesses a mystical significance to its juvenile residents. What defines their identities isn't family, or academic accomplishments or interests, but ruthless fealty to small, otherwise indistinguishable, pieces of territory. Roseland's 123rd Street is the 12-Treys' turf, 119th Street belongs to the 11-9s, and 111th Street is in an area of Roseland called "the Ville." Gang members from the Ville aren't supposed to cross 119th Street; doing so will provoke a potentially lethal challenge. School-reform initiatives may have contributed to increasing tensions on the streets by shutting down failing schools and sending students into enemy territory; the demolition of Chicago's high-rise housing projects in the 2000s likewise disrupted existing gang groupings.
In September 2009, that now-notorious cell-phone video gave the world a glimpse of Barack Obama's former turf. Teenagers-some in an informal school uniform of khaki pants and polo shirts, others bare-chested-swarm across a desolate thoroughfare in Roseland; others congregate in the middle of it, indifferent to the SUVs that try to inch by, horns blaring. Against a background din of constant yelling, some boys lunge at one another and throw punches, while a few, in leisurely fashion, select victims to clobber on the torso and head with thick, eight-foot-long railroad ties. Derrion Albert is standing passively in the middle of a knot on the sidewalk when one boy whacks him on the head with a railroad tie and another punches him in the face. Albert falls to the ground unconscious, then comes to and tries to get up. A boy walking by gives him a desultory kick. Five more cluster around him as he lies curled up on the sidewalk; one hits him again with a railroad tie, and another stomps him on the head. Finally, workers from a nearby youth community center drag Albert inside. Throughout the video, a male companion of the videographer reacts with nervously admiring "damns."
In the Alinskyite worldview, the school system was to blame, not the students who committed the violence. Several years before, Altgeld Gardens's high school, Carver High, had been converted to a charter military academy. Students who didn't want to attend were sent to Fenger High School in the Ville, several miles away. Students from Altgeld Gardens and from the Ville fought each other with knives and razors inside Fenger High and out, their territorial animosity intensified by minute class distinctions. Ville children whose mothers use federal Section Eight housing vouchers to rent homes look down upon housing-project residents like those from the Gardens. The morning of the Albert killing, someone fired a gun outside Fenger; during the school day, students sent one another text messages saying that something was likely to "jump" after school. When students from the Gardens, instead of immediately boarding a bus home, walked down 111th Street-the heart of Ville territory-the fighting started. Derrion Albert had a loose affiliation with Ville students; the students who killed him were from the Gardens.
South Side aldermen and the usual race claque accused the school bureaucracy of insensitivity and worse in expecting Altgeld Gardens and Ville children to coexist without violence. In a pathetic echo of 1950s civil rights protests, Jesse Jackson, cameras in tow, rode a school bus with Altgeld Gardens students from their homes to Fenger High, demanding that Carver be converted back to a neighborhood school. No one pointed out that the threat from which Jackson the Civil Rights Avenger was protecting black students came from other black students, not from hate-filled white politicians. Obama's former organizing group, the Developing Communities Project, led noisy parent protests, demanding that Carver accept all comers from Altgeld Gardens and reduce its military component to a quarter of the school. James Meeks, a race-baiting South Side pastor and an Illinois state senator, staged his own well-photographed bus tour, taking suburban officials through Roseland and past Fenger to demonstrate the "adversity" that Fenger students faced compared with suburban kids-though the greatest adversity comes from the violence that students inflict on themselves.
Other protests sent an even more muddled message. After a day when a dozen fights in Fenger High School provoked a security clampdown and five arrests, a group of parents and students staged a two-day boycott of classes, complaining of excessive discipline and harsh treatment from the guards. "They put us on lockdown for two hours because of a little fight," senior DeShunna Williams told the Chicago Sun-Times. "It was just an ordinary fight." Schools can only restore safety by strict discipline and zero tolerance for violence, however. If parents and students protest whenever such discipline is enforced, they undercut their own call for greater safety.
Mayor Richard Daley initially rejected the protesters' demands. "The day when the city of Chicago decides to divide schools by gang territory, that's a day when we have given up the city," he said. But the Chicago Public Schools soon promulgated a policy letting Fenger students transfer out of the school. Few mothers took advantage of the option for their children, despite the weeks of agitation for it. Meanwhile, the school system allocated millions of additional dollars to protect Fenger students from one another. Ten extra school buses now escort the 350 Altgeld teens to and from Fenger every day, and school administrators pressed the Chicago Transit Authority to add more public bus routes around Fenger so that students wouldn't have to wait on the sidewalk for more than a few minutes.
Who wins the award for the most Alinskyite evasion of personal and parental responsibility after Albert's death? Perhaps not the local protesters but the federal officials dispatched to Chicago for damage control. The videotaped murder, seen around the world, couldn't have come at a worse time for the Obama administration-just over a week before the Olympic Committee was to decide on Chicago's bid to host the 2016 games. On October 1, the day before Obama was to make his last-minute pitch to the Olympic Committee in Copenhagen, the White House announced that Attorney General Eric Holder and Secretary of Education Arne Duncan would fly to Chicago to deliver a federal response to youth violence. The next day, Chicago lost its bid in the first round of votes, but Holder and Duncan continued to Chicago the following week.
Their message picked up exactly where Obama's 1995 Chicago Reader interview left off. "I came here at the direction of the president, not to place blame on anyone, but to join with Chicago, with communities across America in taking responsibility for this death and the deaths of so many other young people over the years," announced Duncan. Of course, the government has been "taking responsibility" for children for several decades now, at a cost of billions of dollars, without noticeable effect on inner-city dysfunction. The feds have funded countless programs in child and youth development, in antiviolence training, in poverty reduction. If "collective action," as Obama put it in 1995, could compensate for the absence of fathers, the black violence problem would have ended years ago.
Holder's remarks were just as irrelevant (though, to his credit, he did pledge $500,000 for beefed-up school security). "We have to ask hard questions, and we have to be prepared to face tough truths," he said, and then proceeded to ignore the hard questions and duck the tough truths. "Youth violence is not a Chicago problem, any more than it is a black problem, a white problem, or a Hispanic problem," he claimed. "It is something that affects communities big and small, and people of all races and all colors. It is an American problem." Tough-truth quotient: maybe 20 percent. No, youth violence isn't just a Chicago problem. Urban school districts across the country flood school areas with police officers at dismissal time. But youth violence is definitely correlated with race. Though rates of youth killings and shootings vary-Chicago children under the age of 17 are killed at four times the rate of New York children, for example-youth violence is disproportionately a "black problem" and, to a lesser extent, a Hispanic one. According to James Alan Fox and Marc Swatt of Northeastern University, the national rate of homicide commission for black males between the ages of 14 and 17 is ten times higher than that of "whites," into which category the federal government puts the vast majority of Hispanics. Black juveniles accounted for 78 percent of all juvenile arrests between 2003 and 2008 in Chicago; Hispanics were 18 percent, and whites, 3.5 percent, of those arrests. Recognizing that tough truth is the only hope for coming up with a way to change it.
In Chicago, blacks, at least 35 percent of the population, commit 76 percent of all homicides; whites, about 28 percent of the population, commit 4 percent, and Hispanics, 30 percent of the population, commit 19 percent. The most significant difference between these demographic groups is family structure. In Cook County-which includes both Chicago and some of its suburbs and probably therefore contains a higher proportion of middle-class black families than the city proper-79 percent of all black children were born out of wedlock in 2003, compared with 15 percent of white children. Until that gap closes, the crime gap won't close, either.
Official Chicago's answer to youth violence also opts for collective, rather than paternal, responsibility. The Chicago school superintendent, Ron Huberman, has developed a whopping $60 million, two-year plan to combat youth violence. The wonky Huberman, who created highly regarded information-retrieval and accountability systems for the police department and the city's emergency response center in previous city jobs, has now applied his passion for data analysis to Chicago's violent kids. Using a profile of past shooting victims that includes such factors as school truancy rates and disciplinary records, he has identified several hundred teens as having a greater than 20 percent chance of getting shot over the next two years. The goal is to provide them with wraparound social services. (The profile of victim and perpetrator is indistinguishable, but targeting potential victims, rather than perpetrators, for such benefits as government-subsidized jobs is politically savvy.) The program will assign the 300 or so potential victims their own "advocates," who will intercede on their behalf with government agencies and provide them with case management and counseling.
In some cities, it's a police officer who visits a violence-prone teenager to warn him about staying out of trouble. Chicago sends a social worker. The Chicago police department has kept a low profile during the public debate over teen shootings, ceding primary accountability for the problem to the school system. This hierarchy of response may reflect Chicago's less assertive police culture compared with, say, New York's. "We'd marvel at how the NYPD was getting mayoral support" during New York mayor Rudolph Giuliani's tenure, says a former Chicago deputy superintendent. "Mayor Daley is not a cop supporter; it's no secret that he rules the police department with an iron fist." The South Side's black ministers, whom Daley does not want to alienate, also act as a check on more proactive policing. There have been few calls in Chicago for a more aggressive stop-and-frisk policy to get illegal guns off the street, and the police department hasn't pushed to implement one.
Now, perhaps if Huberman's proposed youth "advocates" provided their charges with opportunities to learn self-discipline and perseverance, fired their imaginations with manly virtues, and spoke to them about honesty, courtesy, and right and wrong-if they functioned, in other words, like Scoutmasters-they might make some progress in reversing the South Side's social breakdown. But the outfit that Huberman has picked to provide "advocacy" to the teens, at a reported cost of $5 million a year, couldn't be more mired in the assiduously nonjudgmental ethic of contemporary social work. "Some modalities used in this endeavor," explains the newly hired Youth Advocates Program (YAP), "include: Assess the youth and his/her family to develop an Individualized Service Plan (ISP) to address the individual needs of each youth." The Youth Advocates Program's CEO tried further to clarify the advocates' function: "If a family needs a new refrigerator or a father needs car insurance, it's the advocate's job to take care of it," Jeff Fleischer told the Chicago Tribune. The reference to a "father" is presumably Fleischer's little joke, since almost none of the Chicago victims-in-waiting will have their fathers at home. It's not a lack of material goods that ails Chicago's gun-toting kids, however, or their mothers' lack of time to procure those goods. Providing their families with a government-funded gofer to carry out basic adult tasks like getting car insurance will not compensate for a lifetime of paternal absence.
The Youth Advocates Program represents the final stage of Alinskyism: its co-optation by the government-funded social-services industry.
Obama came to Roseland and Altgeld Gardens with the fanciful intention of organizing the "community" to demand benefits from a hostile power structure. But here's that same power structure not just encouraging demands from below but providing the community with its own government-funded advocates to "broker and advocate for each youth and family," as YAP puts it, thus ensuring constant pressure to increase government services.
Huberman's plan for ending youth violence includes other counselors and social workers who will go to work in the most dangerous public high schools. He also wants to create a "culture of calm" in the schools by retraining security guards and by de-emphasizing suspensions and expulsion in favor of "peer mediation." Nothing new there: in 1998, Chicago schools announced plans to train students to be peer mediators and to engage in conflict resolution. In fact, there is nothing in Huberman's plan that hasn't been tried before, to no apparent effect. You'd think that someone would ask: What's lacking in these neighborhoods that we didn't notice before? The correct answer would be: family structure.
Needless to say, everyone involved in the Albert beating came from a fatherless home. Defendant Eugene Riley hit Albert with a railroad tie as he lay unconscious on the ground in his final moments. According to 18-year-old Riley's 35-year-old mother, Sherry Smith, "his father was not ready to be a strong black role model in his son's life." Nor was the different father of Riley's younger brother, Vashion Bullock, ready to be involved in his son's life. A bare-chested Bullock shows up in the video wielding a railroad tie in the middle of the street. As for Albert himself, his father "saw him the day he was born, and the next time when he was in a casket," reports Bob Jackson, the worldly director of Roseland Ceasefire, an antiviolence project.
The absence of a traditional two-parent family leaves children uncertain about the scope of their blood ties. One teen who attends the Roseland Safety Net Works's after-school program thinks that she has more than ten siblings by five different fathers, but since her mother lives in North Carolina, it's hard to pin down the exact number. Eight of the ten boys enrolled in Kids Off the Block, another after-school program, don't know their fathers. "The other two boys, if the father came around, they'd probably kill him," says Diane Latiker, who runs the program. If children do report a remote acquaintance with their father, they don't seem to know what he does for a living.
Though teen births have dropped among blacks since the 1990s, unwed pregnancy is still a pervasive reality in Chicago's inner-city high schools. "Last year at Fenger, it was all you heard about-pregnancies or abortions," reports the youth president at Roseland Safety Net Works. In autumn 2009, one in seven girls at Chicago's Paul Robeson High School was either expecting or had already given birth to a child. It's not hard to predict where Chicago's future killers will come from.
A 15-year-old resident of Altgeld Gardens, for example, was sitting at home with her three-month-old boy during the week of Veterans Day this year, having been suspended for fighting. You'd never know it from her baby-doll voice, but this ninth-grade mother runs with a clique of girls at Fenger High "who have no problem taking you out," says Bob Jackson. She lives with her 34-year-old mother, two brothers, and a sister; she sometimes sees her father when he's in town but doesn't know if he has a job. Her son's father, still playing with toys, isn't providing support. She was on her way to pick up free food from the federal WIC program when I spoke with her.
The next stage in black family disintegration may be on the horizon. According to several Chicago observers, black mothers are starting to disappear, too. "Children are bouncing around," says a police officer in Altgeld Gardens. "The mother says: 'I'm done. You go stay with your father.' The ladies are selling drugs with their new boyfriend, and the kids are left on their own." Albert's mother lived four hours away; he was moving among different extended family members in Chicago. Even if a mother is still in the home, she may be incapable of providing any emotional or moral support to her children. "Kids will tell you: 'I'm sleeping on the floor, there's nothing in the fridge, my mother doesn't care about me going to school,' " says Rogers Jones, the courtly founder of Roseland Safety Net Works. "Kids are traumatized before they even get to school." Some mothers are indifferent when the physical and emotional abuses that they suffered as children recur with their own children. "We've had mothers say: 'I was raped as a child, so it's no big deal if my daughter is raped,' " reports Jackson.
The official silence about illegitimacy and its relation to youth violence remains as carefully preserved in today's Chicago as it was during Obama's organizing time there. A fleeting reference to "parental" responsibility for children is allowed, before the speaker quickly moves on to society's more important role. But anything more specific about fathers is taboo. "I have not been in too many churches lately that say: 'Mom, you need to find yourself a husband, this is not the norm,' " observes Jackson-an understandable, if lamentable, lacuna, he adds, since single heads of households constitute the vast majority of the congregation. Press coverage of teen shootings may mention a participant's mother, but the shooter and victim may as well be the product of a virgin birth, for all the media's curiosity about where their fathers are. I asked John Paul Jones of Obama's old Alinskyite outfit, the Developing Communities Project, if anyone ever tries to track down the father of a teen accused of a shooting. The question threw him. "Does anyone ever ask: 'Where are the fathers?' " he paraphrased me. A brief silence. "That's a good point."
Some members of Chicago's Left will argue against holding fathers or mothers responsible for their children. "To blame it on the family is totally unfair," says Gwen Rice, a board member of the Developing Communities Project. "I'm tired of blaming the parents. The services for the poor are paltry; it boggles the mind. Historically, you can't expect a parent who can't get a job to do something that someone with resources can do. These problems have histories; there are policies that have mitigated against black progress. What needs to happen is a change in corporate greed and insensitivity." Rice corrects my use of the term "illegitimacy": "There are no illegitimate births," she says.
One activist, however, makes ending illegitimacy an explicit part of his work. "I tell people: 'Unless you get married, you will perish,' " says the Black Star Project's Phillip Jackson. An intense, wiry man who looks like a cross between Gandhi and Spike Lee, Jackson organizes events to make fathers visible and valued again, like "Take Your Child to School Day." Yet Jackson is not immune from the Alinskyite tic of looking to government for solutions to problems of personal responsibility (nor does Jackson avoid launching groundless charges of racism). He has gathered a crate of petitions to President Obama regarding Chicago's youth violence, some of whose signers are as young as four. "President Obama, please send help for the sake of these young people in Chicago," reads the petition. Asked what he wants Obama to do, Jackson's answers range from a trickle-up stimulus plan to jobs to leadership.
Jobs, whether government-created or not, aren't likely to make much difference in the culture of illegitimacy. As journalist Nicholas Lemann observed over two decades ago in The Atlantic Monthly, the black illegitimacy rate has only a weak correlation to employment: "High illegitimacy has always been much more closely identified with blacks than with all poor people or all unemployed people." An Alinskyite approach to the related problems of illegitimacy and crime is only a distraction. Seeking redress and salvation from the "power structure" just puts off the essential work of culture change.
Barack Obama started that work in a startling Father's Day speech in Chicago while running for president. "If we are honest with ourselves," he said in 2008, "we'll admit that . . . too many fathers [are] missing from too many lives and too many homes. They have abandoned their responsibilities, acting like boys instead of men. . . . We know the statistics-that children who grow up without a father are five times more likely to live in poverty and commit crime; nine times more likely to drop out of school and 20 times more likely to end up in prison."
But after implicitly drawing the connection between family breakdown and youth violence-"How many times in the last year has this city lost a child at the hands of another child?"-Obama reverted to Alinskyite bromides about school spending, preschool programs, visiting nurses, global warming, sexism, racial division, and income inequality. And he has continued to swerve from the hard truth of black family breakdown since his 2008 speech. The best thing that the president can do for Chicago's embattled children is to confront head-on the disappearance of their fathers and the consequence in lost lives.