It’s Thursday evening, July 2nd, and I’m sitting on the front porch with a friend. We’re busily chatting about the usual things, when our conversation is interrupted. She points at a police SUV passing by. “That’s the first time I’ve seen one of those in weeks”, she tells me. Two miles north in her neighborhood, there is no sign of the police. She is understandably frustrated and fearful. The night before, two people were shot at a heavily trafficked intersection, an earshot away from her home. There were many witnesses and bystanders who could easily have been killed by a stray bullet.
I researched the shooting. It was one of 13 reported in the Chicago Sun-Times on July 1st. Each act of violence received a short paragraph in the Sun-Times article. I learned that “two people were shot…the pair, a 24 -year-old woman and a 26-year old man (were) driving north” around 7:30 p.m. “when someone in another vehicle pulled up alongside them and opened fire,” police said. “The woman was shot in the back, while the man was shot in the chest, thigh, arm and abdomen,” police said. I haven’t seen any additional news about the shooting. Where were the police when it happened?
This is not the only shooting rocking their neighborhood this week. At 7:00 a.m. on June 28th, Angelo P. was standing “side by side” with another man in front of an apartment building “before one of them turns slightly and the other quickly pulls a gun and shoots his unsuspecting companion in the back of the head at point-blank range.” A graphic video capturing the murder can be seen on the Chicago Tribune website. Where were the police when it happened?
As my friend and I continue our conversation, she interrupts herself again. “There goes another one,” she says. “That’s two in the last hour.” She looks at me in disbelief. We offer each other ideas about why in her neighborhood, cops are nowhere to be found. I can’t help but wonder if the disparity is related to race. I live in a predominantly white neighborhood (68%) where 7% are Black residents, and she lives in a mixed-race neighborhood, where 59% of the population are white and 26% are Black.
The American Psychological Association (APA) recently reprinted an Invited Distinguished Address given in 1967 by Martin Luther King, Jr. at the APA annual convention. In his speech, Dr. King implores his audience to point out and fight against systemic racism.
“If the Negro needs social sciences for direction and for self-understanding, the white society is in even more urgent need. White America needs to understand that it is poisoned to its soul by racism and the understanding needs to be carefully documented and consequently more difficult to reject. The present crisis arises because although it is historically imperative that our society take the next step to equality, we find ourselves psychologically and socially imprisoned. All too many white Americans are horrified not with conditions of Negro life but with the product of these conditions-the Negro himself.”
Dr. King goes on to state: “White America is seeking to keep the walls of segregation substantially intact while the evolution of society and the Negro’s desperation is causing them to crumble. The white majority, unprepared and unwilling to accept radical structural change, is resisting and producing chaos while complaining that if there were no chaos orderly change would come.”
On a Fall evening in 2017, my friend’s neighborhood was shocked by the death of Cynthia T., a white woman who was struck and killed by a stray bullet while walking close to her home. A lengthy NBC Chicago article emphasized the community that loved her and the contribution she made as a teacher at private school in Chicago. “She has touched the lives of many, many students” her husband said. “She has touched the lives of their families, their parents. She radiates warmth and empathy to all who know her.” I wept for Cynthia T. and her family when I read this article.
What about Angelo P. or the “24 year- old woman and 26 year- old man driving north” in their car? How can I weep for them when all the information I know is brief and impersonal, and links them to criminal activity? In the article about Cynthia T., the author clarifies that she “was not the intended target of the drive-by shooting.” The Alderman of the 49th ward at the time said “Any victim of gun violence is a tragedy but it is especially tragic and intolerable for an innocent victim to be gunned down on a busy street in the early evening.” Would the sentiment be the same for Charles R., a 16-year-old Black adolescent who was shot and killed in the South Chicago community on June 20, 2020, after he’d gone to a mall with a friend? His mother told reporters that “Charles was concerned about the shooting around him… but it hadn’t not given away to worry. He wasn’t a violent child. Everybody is worried about their surroundings… but why worry about it if you’re not in it?”
Last Thursday evening, two more police SUV’s drove past my front porch before my friend went home to her neighborhood. In two hours, my block had been patrolled four times. I don’t know how many people were shot in Chicago that particular Thursday night. I do know that two days later, over the 4th of July weekend, at least 76 people were shot, and 13 of them died. Most lived on the South and West sides, according to the Chicago Tribune.
As he continued his address to the American Psychological Association in 1967, Martin Luther King, Jr. stated:
“Ten years of struggle have sensitized and opened the Negro’s eyes to reaching. For the first time in their history, Negroes have become aware of the deeper causes for the crudity and cruelty that governed white society’s responses to their needs. They discovered that their plight was not a consequence of superficial prejudice but was systemic.
The slashing blows of backlash and frontlash have hurt the Negro, but they have also awakened him and revealed the nature of the oppressor. To lose illusions is to gain truth. Negroes have grown wiser and more mature and they are hearing more clearly those who are raising fundamental questions about our society whether the critics be Negro or white.”
My mind is exploding with more questions than answers about systemic racism. As a white, “woke” psychotherapist working with Black patients, Dr. King’s words still sting. How can I engage more fully in aligning my views on systemic racial injustice with action? Dr. King calls out white, American psychologists. He is speaking to me. Dr. King’s words challenge the psychotherapy community to help bring down the “walls of segregation” by reexamining and puncturing our unspoken biases and our complacency.
Why are police patrolling my neighborhood, potentially preventing crime by their presence, while two miles away, according to my friend, they are nowhere to be seen? There are many possibilities. What I understood from reading the Address to the APA is that 53 years after Martin Luther King, Jr. gave his speech, systemic racism remains intact. His message is the same now as it was then. Black Lives Matter. If you don’t believe it, look around and see for yourself.