Chicago has a problem with gangs. According to ABC, the Windy City has an estimated 100,000 gang members — and only 12,000 cops. Chicago has the highest murder rate amongst large American cities. Perhaps most shockingly, ABC points out that in 2011, there were more murders in Chicago — 419 — than there were U.S. soldiers killed in Afghanistan.
Illinois lawmakers agree that something must be done.0
But their disagreement about how gang violence ought to be addressed has led to a racially charged exchange in which State Representative Bobby Rush (D) slammed the plan put forward by State Senator Mark Kirk (R), calling it an "elitist white boy solution" to a problem Kirk "knows nothing about" in an interview Wednesday with the Chicago Sun-Times.
Senator Kirk's proposal involves the attempted eradication of an entire Chicago gang. Kirk has set his sights on Chicago's largest gang and one of its deadliest — the Gangster Disciples, known as the GDs — and is requesting funds of $30 million to arrest the GDs, an estimated 18,000 Chicagoans, en masse.
Representative Rush, however, believes that mass arrest will only aggravate the problem, and that community rehabilitation (namely, job creation and training), rather than incarceration, is the answer. Rush also told the Sun-Times that he viewed Kirk's proposal as a "sensational, headline-grabbing, empty, simplistic, unworkable approach" that would have as its primary effect the "elitist" incarceration "of over 18,000 black men."
Rush represents Illinois' First District, which is located on the South Side of Chicago, a hotbed of gang violence. That Rush intends to use government funds to provide programs that would better the infrastructure of his district is certainly admirable; that he wants to keep his constituents out of jail is similarly so. However, to deride the policies of Senator Kirk based on the Senator's race (calling his plan a "white boy solution") does nothing but lower the level of political discourse and increase the difficulty of cooperation.
If Senator Kirk lacks knowledge of the true nature of the problem of gang violence in Chicago (which is by no means a given), this ignorance should be the subject of Rush's criticism ... not Kirk's race. Such comments are unlikely to tempt Kirk to engage in further dialogue with Rush about the issue. Rather, they guarantee that many Illinois policymakers will feel alienated by Rush, becoming less likely to include or to engage him in future policymaking decisions. By alienating his co-workers, therefore, Rush has diminished his own legislative influence — which hurts, rather than helps, his constituents.
In all likelihood, it will take some combination of Rush and Kirk's plans to truly ameliorate the problem of Chicago gang violence. Improving the educational and career opportunities available to Chicago youth would provide alternatives to gang involvement (although there is, of course, similar contention amongst policymakers about how, exactly, education should be improved). However, the preponderance of gang members in certain Chicago areas make the task of decreasing gang violence all but impossible without also decreasing the size of gangs.
As is often the case with contentious politics, the best solution probably lies in the middle of the existing proposals. However, if policymakers continue to fling insults at one another, as Rush has done, it may become impossible for Illinois lawmakers to work together on highly contentious issues such as this one.