Beyond August 9th Downtown Looting: Mending Interracial Wounds
Author: Dwi Cahyo Ardianto
Program of Study: Master of Public Policy (MPP), Harris School of Public Policy (HAR)
Description: The Magnificent Mile Looting has its roots in the centuries of discrimination, but policies could help counteract its underlying problem.
Transcript (provided by author):
Welcome to the ELI’s Finding Chicago Global Perspectives Podcast Series for AEPP 2020. I’m your host, Dwi Cahyo Ardianto, and I’m currently enrolled in the University of Chicago’s Harris School of Public Policy. Today we will be exploring the topic of Downtown Looting and its root on racial discrimination.
Background Section: (3 minutes and 25 seconds on my trial-run)
Let me begin the story on the Monday afternoon August 10th, at 2 pm Western Indonesian Time. I was shocked, because that was the first time I learn about the midnight looting and unrest that happened on Magnificent Mile, the Chicago’s downtown business district. Stores were vandalized in a style that The Economist dubbed “smash-and-grab”, in which cash registers, clothing, jewelry, electronics, and alcoholic beverages were taken. Meanwhile, violence erupted between the looters and the police, injuring 13 officers. The unrest itself was said to be sparked by the misinformation on an incident at Englewood, where police allegedly killed a 15-years old African-American. The person shot turned out to be 20 years old, named Latrell Allen. He was avoiding police questioning about his previous criminal activities and he survived, but the damage to the city is already done.
The incident reminds me of a similar racial event back home. Last year, huge riots broke out across cities in the easternmost province of Indonesia, Papua. While it is not totally comparable, those riots were also caused by a misinformation. A group of irresponsible people gathered at a Papuan Student Dormitory in the town of Surabaya, protesting over an alleged action by Papuan Students of throwing our national flag to the sewer, while chanting derogatory terms such as “Papuan monkeys”. The flag throwing turned out to be a fabricated news, but the chanting went viral in the social media and caused many Papuan residents to riot.
While both Chicago Downtown Looting and Papuan riots were caused by specific events, similar events that happened before in both countries shows that there must be some underlying problems. In the case of Papua, decades of economic inequality promotes resentment to their neighbors, triggering violent unrest, and for some groups, even starting rebellions. The earlier nation-wide protests in the US, such as those triggered by the death of George Floyd and Ahmaud Arbery, and the existence of organized groups that specifically address racial issue such as Black Lives Matter movement, should also indicate some structural problems on racial inequality in the US.
I believe that there is a need for further discussion: While many would agree that promoting equality is a noble cause, is the discrimination severe enough to justify violent riots? Why should we specifically promote black lives when all lives should matter? What are the underlying problems of racial inequality in the US? Without a common understanding of the issue, it is difficult to determine the appropriate actions needed, to promote racial equity in any given context, including in Chicago and the US.
Broader Issue: (about 5 minutes and 9 seconds)
To fully grasp the issue of racial inequity in the US, it is important to explore the long history of African Slavery. The system of slavery created two distinct social classes: 1) the slaves, mostly African, that were treated as property and had no rights, and 2) the masters, mostly Caucasians, that owned and commanded them. , stated on her interview at Democracy Now news program that those bipolar classes are similar to the caste system, where people are arbitrarily graded to determine their social standing, competence, and access to economic resources. This system, thus, began the practice of racial inequity.
Once created, the caste system proved itself to be resilient. It survived the US Civil War on 1861 and the Emancipation Proclamation that abolished slavery on 1865. The caste system took a different form from 1870 to 1965 as Jim Crow Laws, which mandated segregation of public facilities between white and black people in the southern states. The laws caused a massive migration of black people who wanted to escape the discrimination. They took on a journey to the northern states, including Chicago.
Unfortunately, discrimination did not end in Chicago. The Black Migrants were forced to live in the area known as the Black Belt, with dilapidated yet more expensive houses. Some neighborhoods managed to thrive afterwards, such as Bronzeville, but others were still struggling. Black people paid higher prices, while not having ownership of the house until the installments were paid in full. They could even be evicted without any equity if they missed some payments. This scheme severely limited the ability of Black Chicagoans to accumulate wealth.
The centuries old history of discrimination shaped the current condition of the black communities in Chicago and the US in general. Handicapped economic opportunities easily translate to less economic security and more vulnerability to criminal behavior. To put it into context, according to Chicago Data Portal, South Shore neighborhood of Chicago has 31% of its population living below the poverty line, which in other regions of the world such as Papua – Indonesia is enough to incite rebellion. It should not be surprising to see that South Shore has relatively high crime rate: according niche.com, people are 7x times more likely to be assaulted and 8x times more likely to be robbed in that area.
As the real problem rooted in the years of discrimination, mending the wounds should involve the process of revitalizing, not patronizing, the African-American Communities. Nationwide protests, which sometimes are violent, reflect the voices that are longing to be heard. Overpolicing based on stereotypes will not help reduce the criminal activities of those desperate to feed themselves. On the other hand, simply gentrifying the neighborhoods by inviting the wealthy will only exacerbate the problem of inequality.
Therefore Improving access to continuous education, such as expanding public schools and subsidizing professional training, while at the same time promoting labor-intensive investments, will boost the revenue generation of traditionally low-income neighborhoods. On the other hand, residents’ wealth accumulation process could also be enhanced by strengthening the access to the financial system, both to lending-side products, such as saving or investment accounts, and borrowing-side products, such as fair mortgages. The equality of access to public service, education, and finance should be scrutinized to prevent discrimination practices similar to those which happened in the past.
By making black communities contributing members of the economy, while respecting their rights, the resentment between neighborhoods will gradually subside. As a bonus, more income and wealth generated by the revitalized neighborhoods will also translate to broader tax base that could be used for other productive government spending, linking the chain of a virtuous economic cycle.
In the end, I believe that August 9th Chicago Downtown Looting is only a symptom of a greater dissatisfaction against racial discrimination. To gradually mend the wounds, policies should be designed to promote equal rights and better life for the African-American Communities.
Music: Stefan Kartenberg. Little Jam. Retrieved from http://dig.ccmixter.org/files/JeffSpeed68/61299
Democracy Now. 2020. “No rights whatsoever”: The historical development of the U.S. caste system. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uXgR9yoSv2U
Samuel DuBois Cook Center on Social Equity at Duke University. 2019. The Plunder of Black Wealth in Chicago: New Findings on the Lasting Toll of Predatory Housing Contracts. Retrieved from https://socialequity.duke.edu/wp-content/uploads/2019/10/Plunder-of-Black-Wealth-in-Chicago.pdf