A response to Trump through the Lens of Black workers in Chicago
Written By Richard Wallacem February 2017

On January 24th, President Trump tweeted, “If Chicago doesn’t fix the horrible “carnage” going on, 228 shootings in 2017 with 42 killings (up 24% from 2016), I will send in the feds.” That statement from the President felt as reductive and empty as one would expect when it is delivered over Twitter. That same week, two reports detailed just how oblivious and uninformed President Trump is when he attempts to speak on Chicago. First, the University of Illinois at Chicago’s Great Cities Institute released a detailed report that links the city’s high murder rate with the alarming rate of joblessness for our young Black men. Second, the Corporation for Enterprise Development found that the racial wealth gap in Chicago exceeds that of the national average as the report chronicles that Chicago’s White population is wealthier than the national average and the Black population is poorer than the national average. These damning reports give a nuanced view, one the President does not understand, of the complex relationship between access to the economy, education, and the violence is part of the lives of many, but not all, in Chicago.

The era of barter and trade has long passed. Today, access to wages is as essential to our survival in the US as the air that we breathe. For better or for worse, America is a capitalist society, simplified; we exchange the wages earned through our labor to acquire what we need to survive. People need access to living wage employment in the formal economy or they will be forced to develop alternative, informal economies to survive. This is the burden of the Black worker in Chicago and across the nation.

Historically, African Americans have had more barriers to wages than bridges, for example: slavery, the 3/5 clause, black codes, Jim Crow laws, felony disenfranchisement, the prison industrial complex – the list goes on. This exhaustive list of barriers has halted our engagement in the formal US economy, forming congregations of displaced Black workers that develop informal economies to survive. These informal economies become a means to survival in inner cities across the globe, and have dire consequences for those involved. Take for example Eric Garner, who was killed on July 17th, 2014 by a police officer for selling loose cigarettes or Alton Sterling, who was killed on July 5th, 2016 for selling bootleg CDs and DVDs. These are two examples of individuals that were killed while trying to acquire that life sustaining resource, wages.

So, when I hear the President refer to the crime in the city of Chicago as “carnage” and threatens to deploy the “Feds” to fix it, I think to myself, fix what? Will he try to fix the decline in Black employment since the 1960’s, the racial wealth gap of $70,960 for Whites compared to a mere $30,303 for Blacks, fix the 54 school closures in which 88% were in Black communities, fix the forced displacement of over 181,000 Black residents from the city proper through gentrification, fix 76,000+ people in county jail for drug possession costing tax payers $600 per day when it only cost $75 per day to educate them? What does President Trump plan to fix?

When workers in Indianapolis rallied for support from Trump around the Carrier Plant closing, he made an effort to “fix it.” I’m not saying it was a great effort but he made an effort. That effort wasn’t a threat to send in the Federal government and protect the Carrier Plant from the workers, it was an effort to ensure that the residents of Indianapolis had access to the wages they need for their survival. So, why do the cries of affected Black workers for access to the economy in Chicago not illicit the same response? Instead, Black workers received a threat by the President of the United States of America, to employ federal intervention. An intervention that will contain the challenges of Black workers, opposed to solving them. Trump’s response to the burden of Black workers in Chicago was to disregard the well-documented history of economic deprivation they face, and ally with the institutions that caused it. That wasn’t Trump’s response to the challenges Indianapolis workers faced with the Carrier plan, or to the coal miners in Greene County, Pennsylvania. To the contrary, Trump showed empathy, and that emotional appeal was followed by direct action.

Sociologist Robert K. Merton, argued that certain types of crime resulted from the inability to achieve “culturally defined goals” – primarily acquiring material goods—by socially acceptable means. Furthermore, Merton described the two-fold satisfaction of labor; one being the satisfaction of achieving goals and two, by the institutionally embedded purpose attained through the dignity of labor itself.

Our survival is dependent on our wages. In areas that are deprived of the dignity of labor, where our cries for access to the economy illicit threats by the Commander in Chief, crime becomes a means to survival. We need access to the formal economy, living wage employment, affordable housing, and an education system that address the culture and needs of the students. We don’t need containment; we need direct action that grants Black Chicagoans access to economy and the dignity of labor.