Chicago, I’m told, has a morality problem.
That’s what White House deputy press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said the other day when asked if violence in our city is related to easy access to guns.
“I think that the problem there is pretty clear that it’s a crime problem,” she said. “I think crime is probably driven more by morality than anything else.”
That’s an interesting statement, given the reason the question was posed: The administration had just announced that 20 federal gun agents were being dispatched to Chicago to help with a task force focused on the flow of illegal guns into the city.
The 20 agents from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives are certainly not tasked with boosting morality. They’re a smart and welcome addition to a city that is on pace to top 700 homicides for the second year in a row.
But too often, discussions of Chicago’s homicide epidemic involve an attempt to distill the problem down to a single issue and a casual willingness to defame the people who live in the city’s most violent areas.
Hanging Chicago’s decadeslong violence problem on any one factor is pure laziness. It isn’t just guns. It isn’t just poverty. It isn’t just education. And it most certainly isn’t just morality.
What this city has is a horribly perfect storm of economic ruin, lost infrastructure, lack of opportunity, recidivism and hopelessness, much of that driven by the years-ago segregation of people of color into neighborhoods on the South and West sides that became easy for many in Chicago to ignore. Or to simply drive around.
Yes, guns are a significant part of the problem. Unacceptable living conditions and poor schools don’t help either. Morality, when it comes to a person actually deciding to take another life, is undoubtedly in the mix.
But to say morality is the main factor is an insult not only to the vast majority of people who live in neighborhoods plagued by shootings but to the thousands whose lives have been forever altered by gun violence.
It’s the kind of lazy comment made by people who will never set foot in Lawndale or Englewood or Little Village, never take the time to meet families doing their best to raise kids and lead normal lives under hellish circumstances.
A morality problem? Please come and tell that to the people who fill churches across the South and West sides on Sunday mornings, to the mothers and fathers who hold prayer vigils after shootings, to the former gang members who seek penance by pushing young men and women onto a wiser path.
Sanders won’t come and say that to them. Most won’t. They’re all talk because, at the end of the day, it’s easier to question another person’s morality than to actually care about him.
Which leads me to a question for Sanders and the Trump administration: Is morality the key factor behind America’s opioid epidemic? Would you paint the predominantly white victims of this deadly rise of drug addiction and overdoses as immoral?
Because I certainly haven’t heard that language when it comes to opioids.
In March, President Donald Trump said: “We want to help those who have become so badly addicted. This is a total epidemic. And I think it is almost untalked about compared to the severity that we’re witnessing.”
It is severe. In 2015, according to the American Society of Addiction Medicine, more than 20,000 overdose deaths were related to prescription pain relievers and nearly 13,000 overdose deaths were related to heroin. Four out of five heroin users started out misusing prescription painkillers.
What’s driving this epidemic? Many of the same problems Chicago communities have dealt with for years.
A 2014 study published in the American Journal of Public Health described it like as “long-term economic deprivation, high rates of unemployment, and fewer opportunities for establishing a long-term career with potential for upward mobility.”
Those circumstances put people at a higher risk for self-medication and drug addiction.
At a town hall meeting in Ohio in August, Trump said: “We’re going to take all of these kids — and people, not just kids — that are totally addicted and they can’t break it. We’re going to work with them, we’re going to spend the money, we’re gonna get that habit broken.”
I hope the president does as he promised. The opioid epidemic must be addressed, same as gun violence in Chicago and elsewhere.
But again, look at how the issues are talked about.
In Chicago, people are dying because they’re being shot. But the administration won’t directly highlight the easy availability of guns that flow into Chicago from states with lax gun laws. Instead, we hear about morality.
With opioid addiction, people are dying because they’re overdosing on prescription painkillers and heroin. And we hear plenty about the easy availability of those drugs, but nothing of morality.
In New Hampshire in October, Trump said of his plan to build a wall along the border with Mexico: “A wall will not only keep out dangerous cartels and criminals, but it will also keep out the drugs and heroin poisoning our youth.”
It’s the Mexican drug runners at fault. It’s the fault of the drugs themselves.
“Heroin overdoses are taking over our children and others in the MIDWEST,” Trump tweeted in August.
You don’t — and you won’t — hear Republicans blaming white people or their morals for the opioid epidemic. And you shouldn’t, because, as with gun violence in Chicago, it’s a crisis that bubbled up from an array of circumstances.
But if the argument is that making drugs less available might help save lives in rural areas, logic dictates that making guns less available might help save lives in Chicago.
And if the argument is that white, rural Americans who become addicted to opioids are victims of circumstances beyond their control, it seems that Americans in predominantly minority communities in Chicago shouldn’t have the violence they can’t control pinned on some perceived moral failing.
These are complex issues, and both deserve more serious attention than they’re getting.
But if you’re looking at these tragic situations and feeling sorry for one group while blaming the other, that should give you a clue as to why the violence here in Chicago has gone on so long.
Put simply: It has never been a white people problem.
And if you can’t reckon with that truth, perhaps the morality you need to worry about is your own.