Thursday, October 8, 2009

Welcome home Arne Duncan, but this is a problem Chicago has to resolve itself

I woke up Wednesday and flipped on a television, only to have my first conscious moment of the day become a graphic on the TV screen that read “Chicago violence.”

It turns out the broadcast-types of CNN (actually, it might have been the “Headline” version) were playing up big the recent incident at Fenger High School, where a student who may have been coming to the aid of a friend who was being beaten was himself beaten to death.

THIS INCIDENT WOULD not amount to much in the public mindset, except that someone thought enough to pull out the cellphone with its cheap camera and capture the beating. So there are pictures of a kid being clubbed to death.

Which means that CNN and every other broadcast outlet has footage (no matter how crudely shot) to show over and over and over again.

The news peg for the day was the fact that the federal government is taking this incident seriously, so much so that Education Secretary Arne Duncan (he who was snatched away from the Chicago Public Schools to take over education at the federal level) and Attorney General Eric Holder both came to our wonderful city to meet with Mayor Richard M. Daley so they could appear to be coming up with a solution.

If it sounds like I think there is little this trio could accomplish, you’d be correct.

THERE IS AN element of truth to some of the commentary that is turning up on various websites, some of which points out the ridiculousness of these three eating eggs Benedict at the Four Seasons Hotel while miles away in the neighborhoods surrounding Fenger a serious problem exists.

Personally, I think the most honest thing I heard on Wednesday came from the mouth of Cliff Kelley, the one-time Chicago alderman who since being released from prison on a corruption conviction has turned himself into a broadcaster and pundit.

One of the voices of WVON was on CNN Headline, being used as a pundit. And he said the situation at Fenger related to recent changes that affected which neighborhood schools people attended.

The attempt to shake things up has created situations where students now must go to schools outside their neighborhoods, which means they occasionally cross street gang boundaries along with (occasionally) racial division lines.

THIS CASE AT Fenger does not appear to fall into the latter category.

But the situation is that we in Chicago like to extol the benefits of our neighborhoods, claiming they add so much color and atmosphere to the overall character of the city. We even find it intriguing when we come across people who have never in their lives lived outside of the roughly mile-square space that comprises a typical Chicago neighborhood.

Of course, we overlook the fact that such conditions also can produce people who can’t view anything about life outside of their neighborhood. In some ways, that insularity is also a part of the character of Chicago.

Kelley pointed out reports of recent days saying that the Fenger incident literally was due to someone objecting to the victim being in their neighborhood. He even paraphrased a quotation something to the effect of; We don’t have anything in our neighborhood, why should we share it with anyone else?

IT’S SAD. IT’S also Chicago.

It also makes me think of a recent moment I experienced. As a freelance writer, I do some work for one of the Chicago area newspapers, and an assignment I’m working on currently caused me to take a trip out to the De La Salle Institute.

That’s the Bronzeville neighborhood school that for many decades was a “white island” with kids from Bridgeport and Canaryville, but which now boasts of an integrated enrollment from across Chicago (as well as being the alma mater of 5 Chicago mayors).

They literally cite a statistic claiming their enrollment is split roughly equally one-third black kids, one-third white and one-third Latino, with a smattering of Asian youths as well.

IT SOUNDS NICE. They likely have achieved the ideal. They literally have today the racial and ethnic breakdown that is expected to be achieved city-wide in Chicago by the year 2020.

But before we start relaxing and figuring the future is set with people learning to at least tolerate each other’s existence, perhaps we need to figure that Fenger is also a part of the picture.

Perhaps these are the two extremes, and the reality of modern-day Chicago lies somewhere in the middle.

While President Barack Obama can say all the nice things he wants to about tragedy occurring here and he can send whatever federal officials he chooses to Chicago to appear to be “dealing with” the situation, this ultimately is a “problem” that is going to have to be dealt with locally.


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