When I was corps member, I generally felt that there was a certain self-righteousness that seemed to pervade TFA, and that at times infected me as well. Unsuccessful schools simply results from teachers who are burnt out and have stopped caring. Unsuccessful teachers simply lack high expectations for their students. The educational system itself has failed because people don’t realize the ‘crisis’ and don’t want to do anything to change it. Such ideas breed self-righteous anger.
It’s a self-assuredness that is at once appealing, false, and destructive, so I was sad to see it epitomized in a recent ‘Pass the Chalk’ blog post on TFA’s website. The central thesis of the piece, ‘After Aurora’ is simple and unoriginal: America may pay attention to mass shootings in upscale neighborhoods like Aurora, but it ignores the plight of gang violence in urban, low-income areas. The author Shuhei Yamamoto, a TFA staffer who lives in Chicago, writes:
As of July 25, Chicago has surpassed 300 murders and 1,500 people shot in 2012. Why hasn’t this violence received the same media attention that Aurora has rightfully received? Are we able to tolerate a couple of shooting deaths every night? Does our nation reserve its grief and anger for isolated incidents? Numbers alone may influence public perception of these shootings, but the real answer is elsewhere: race and class.
There are a few things that are simply factually wrong here. National media have paid attention to Chicago’s rising violence rate. Both the New York Times and Wall Street Journal have written about it here and here and here and here. Am I missing something? You can’t expect New York-based papers to cover individual homicides in Chicago, right? It’s also worth noting that local papers in Chicago have been relentlessly covering the tragedy of gang violence in Chicago. See here, here, here, here, here, here, here, and here.
The writer’s implication is that the reason the Aurora shooting received so much media attention is because of ‘race and class.’ Again, clearly false. I lived in Denver for a summer and I actually umpired baseball at some Aurora high schools; it’s not a typical leafy, affluent suburb. Much of the city is low-income, and in fact TFA – Colorado places teachers in the school district there. The New York Times points out that Aurora is less than fifty percent white and describes the area where the shooter lived as ‘gang ridden.’
The big issue with this blog post, however, is what comes next. (If I were teaching this passage to my students, I would tell them to underline instances of self-righteousness):
When fatal shootings occur relentlessly in the black and Latino neighborhoods of the South and West Sides of Chicago, they are accepted as inevitable. As everyday news. When non-fatal muggings occur in Chicago’s white and affluent downtown shopping areas, there is outrage and demand for swift justice. We have deemed certain cities, institutions, and neighborhoods as acceptable places for violence to occur, while others are not. We have perpetuated the construction of spaces for violence through a racial lens.
Wait. Who has ‘deemed’ violence ‘acceptable?’ ‘We’ have – but by ‘we’ the author certainly doesn’t mean himself, right? Because, of course he doesn’t deem them acceptable. This is the self-righteousness I’m talking about. The author has used faulty evidence to suggest that many people believe violence is okay. The problem isn’t that gang violence is a challenging issue with many causes and no easy answer; the problem is that a bunch of racist, classist people think violence is alright in low-income, minority areas. If this were true, it would be outrageous, infuriating, and no doubt make one feel an aggrieved sense of righteousness. The solution, in turn, would be simple: decide that violence is not ‘acceptable.’
In the real world people do care and are trying to put an end to gang violence. A New York Times article I linked to earlier states that Chicago Mayor Rahm Emmanuel’s first action every morning is to read about shootings and gang violence. He and the Chicago police are trying desperately to put a stop to the city’s rampant violence.
Emmanuel is finding that fixing Chicago’s gang problem, not unlike fixing Chicago’s schools, defies easy answers. TFA could do to learn this lesson as well.