The City’s response to a recent shooting in Evanston reminds us of this African Parable:

Once upon a time there was a small village on the edge of a river. The people there were good, and life in the village was good. One day a villager noticed a baby floating down the river. The villager quickly swam out to save the baby from drowning. The next day this same villager noticed two babies in the river. He called for help, and both babies were rescued from the swift waters. The following day four babies were seen caught in the turbulent current.

And then eight, then more, and still more. The villagers organized themselves quickly, setting up watchtowers and training teams of swimmers who could resist the swift waters and rescue babies. Rescue squads were soon working 24 hours a day. And each day the number of helpless babies floating down the river increased. One day, someone raised the question, “But where are all these babies coming from? Let’s head upstream to find out who’s throwing all of these babies into the river in the first place.”   

On Sept. 15 Ceasario Cox was shot in the head as he stood at the back entrance of a residence located on Evanston’s West Side.  Three days later he was dead.  Mr. Cox was the third person in the City to die from gunshot wounds this year.

To the community’s relief, authorities responded swiftly.  The Evanston Police Department announced a violence-reduction strategy including increased presence in areas affected by recent shootings.  The Department pledged to use community-policing tactics by putting officers on foot in neighborhoods to talk with residents.

Additionally, as a safety measure, a HEAT map was released to the public.  Color-coded areas on the map designate where shootings and homicides have occurred between Jan. 1 and Sept. 14.  Most gunshots have been fired on the west and southeast sides of the City with the three most recent homicides having occurred on Evanston’s historically black West Side.

It is easy to misread the map. Perhaps well intentioned, it sends the wrong message about the root causes of gun violence. Rather than protecting the public, it reinscribes racial stereotypes about the danger and criminality of African Americans. 

Dr. Charles Johnson, a psychologist who grew up on the West Side, told us “Most people who live in these ‘high-crime’ areas simply go to work and return home to feed themselves and their children, and never touch a drink, a smoke nor commit a crime along the way.”

For Dr. Johnson the map reflects an uneven distribution of resources in Evanston. The hot spots aren’t dangerous places but rather areas affected by economic and social redlining – a reference to government policies that stunted the growth of African American wealth while subsidizing white home ownership. 

The map also reflects the intentionality of aggressive policing that may include stopping and searching people living in or passing through the hotspots. 

Dr. Johnson’s brother Sam is the longtime owner of Church Street Barber Shop near where Mr. Cox was shot.   He says he is not concerned about safety in light of escalating violence, “I’m not afraid of my own kids.”  Sam doesn’t perceive these young men as “thugs.” Instead, when he looks at them, he sees love. 

Concentrated poverty, easy access to guns, and a punitive culture are some of the sociological causes of gun violence. 

For decades civil rights activists challenged Evanston’s pervasive racial injustices – segregated schools and residential neighborhoods.  Groups organized and people joined.  After losing a critical School Board election in 1971, civil rights leader Bennett Johnson (no relation to the Johnson brothers) warned City residents, “If things don’t change, we will be at each other’s throats.”

Change has not come.  There continue to be racial disparities between blacks and whites in school achievement, income, and wealth. These gaps can be traced back to 150 years of unequal access to services and resources.

We need to see the map for what it is and not what it pretends to be.  It’s easy to cast the four men who shot Mr. Cox as outliers and the red hotspots as dangerous areas to avoid.  If we do that, we don’t have to grapple with the way we wouldn’t change or wouldn’t listen. It’s easier to frame the situation as regrettable and outside of our control than it is to face our responsibility in maintaining a segregated city with vast racial disparities.

This essay appeared earlier in the Daily Northwestern.

Mary Barr, Ph.D., Department of Sociology and Anthropology, Clemson University, Author, “Friends Disappear: The Battle for Racial Equality in Evanston”

Doria Johnson, Ph.D. Candidate, Department of History, University of Wisconsin-Madison, Research Assistant, “Black Suburbia: From Levittown to Ferguson” exhibit, opening fall 2015, Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture