CHICAGO — Following a tweet last week by President Trump about the epidemic of crime and killing in Chicago, White House deputy press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said, "I think that the problem there is that it's a crime problem. I think crime is probably driven by morality more than anything else."
She's right, in a way.
It is, in fact, the lack of principles about right and wrong that has led to the grim state of the South Side of Chicago.
For instance, what is moral about a police department that has disproportionately targeted people of color for stops and mistreated them with impunity? It was, frankly, surprising when three longtime Chicago officers were actually charged with state felony counts of conspiracy, official misconduct and obstruction of justice in connection with the death of Laquan McDonald, a black teenager who was shot to death in 2014.
And in a part of town where good jobs are scarce, what was moral about Mondelez International, the makers of Nabisco products, moving a portion of its Oreo cookie-making operations from the South Side of Chicago to Salinas, Mexico, dismissing about 300 or so workers after they refused to take a 60 percent reduction in wages and benefits?
For that matter, what is moral about the state of Illinois beginning its third consecutive fiscal year without a budget? The impasse has resulted in cuts to education programs, social safety-net services for the sick and elderly, and programs designed to curb violence.
As the trade publication Nonprofit Quarterly put it, "There's some irony in the notion that while President Trump rails against the purported carnage in Chicago's streets, the state has not been able to fund several successful anti-violence programs, including Operation Cease Fire and Redeploy Illinois. Of Operation Cease Fire, which was 'featured in a documentary that brought national attention to Chicago's violence,' NBC Chicago recently noted that it 'deployed former gang members and felons to intervene in feuds in hopes of preventing shootings and murders. Supporters of the program say cutting it contributed to an increase in violence in Chicago, which saw more than 700 murders last year.' For lack of a budget, the killings continue to grow."
To those who live at a distant remove from communities that are ravaged by violence, it's easy to look at crime statistics and come to the conclusion that if the people there had a decent moral compass, they would respect each other, thereby ending the bloodshed.
They can't begin to imagine not being able to find a job -- or living in a place without reliable public transportation to get to a job -- or affordable child care. People whose basic living needs are met because they actually have a safe place to sleep and a nearby grocery store that stocks fresh fruit, vegetables and meat cannot understand that there are others living in blighted neighborhoods where black dust regularly blows in through the windows from large piles of petroleum coke sitting at nearby storage facilities.
"When you're asking if our young black boys who shoot each other down in the streets are moral, well no," said Phillip Jackson, the founder and executive director of The Black Star Project, a Chicago-based nonprofit organization that strives to improve the quality of life in black and Latino communities by closing racial academic achievement gaps. "They're not moral. But what about a country that creates the conditions that allow these black boys to shoot themselves in the streets? That's even more immoral."
Jackson told me that it is not only unfair but morally wrong that whole tracts of Chicago have been left for dead and yet some still blame the victims of years of poor urban planning and economic disinvestment for their living conditions.
"Just look at how our largest provider of mental health services is Cook County jail," Jackson said, referring to the facility that has been described as "America's largest mental hospital." "How is it moral that the way you get the best mental health services in Cook County is by going to jail? What kind of country are we when we send sick people to jail?"
I'd say, the kind of country in which it's easier for leaders to denounce a community's virtue than to take the time to understand how it got so broken.