Rage of the poor is rooted in hopelessness

  • Victor Dickson

    Victor Dickson

By Victor B. Dickson
Guest columnist
Posted6/29/2020 1:00 AM

What happens to people over multiple decades and generations when our society tells them their lives have no value? Eventually, they conclude they have no meaningful future. If their lives don't matter, it doesn't matter what they do.

Why would anyone be surprised that they act in ways that show little value for property and businesses?


For hundreds of years in this country, the discrimination, disinvestment, perpetual micro-aggressions and outright violence perpetrated against them and sanctioned by government has taken a toll.

On the South and West sides of Chicago and in disinvested communities in many suburbs, we have devalued the poor by not doing enough to provide quality affordable housing and access to jobs with decent pay. Those neighborhoods have inferior health care and prenatal care, inadequate substance treatment and mental health resources and under-investments in public schools. For those reasons and more, we have ensured that living in poverty means everything costs more, yet has inferior quality and a shortened life span.

For more than 20 years, we have trapped at least 20 percent of Chicagoans in multigenerational poverty. They are economically and physically trapped, yet a short distance away they see others with much more affluence and hope-filled lives.

We have traumatized them with disproportionate contact with police, disproportionate interrogations, searches and arrests. We maintain a school-to-prison pipeline, mass incarceration and disproportionate violence and murders, including those perpetrated by people who have sworn to serve and protect them.

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These inequities send a message to them that is loud and clear -- "Your life does not hold equal value, your life does not matter." In some areas of the suburbs, the same message is sent to people of color, many of whom moved out of the city for a better life.

Many outside look with disgust and dismay at the vandalism and looting around our city. They cannot understand why people would destroy important resources, often ones they rely on in their own neighborhoods. Perhaps some cannot understand why they have done these things, because they do not understand how utter hopelessness feels.

After order is restored, what will change?

History tells us that the affluent areas of the city and suburbs will be rebuilt and restored quickly. The poor areas may be restored, too. But rehabbing the buildings and reopening the businesses housed there won't change the underlying conditions and life experiences of the poor people who live there, the people who are hopeless.

We are at an important inflection point. It may be our last chance to invest in the people who need dignity and hope, not just buildings. We must give them hope, a reason to believe that they have value and what they do matters to us and should matter to them.


We must make significant investments in those neighborhoods, including:

• Better schools and facilities offering athletics, as well as arts and sciences programming;

• Behavioral and physical health care resources and pharmacies;

• Access to high quality, healthy food;

• Establishment of cooperative grocery stores, pharmacies and other businesses owned by the residents of the surrounding community, who share in the profits;

• Skills and credentials to equip people for 21st Century jobs with a living wage;

• Quality, affordable housing;

• Access to capital for small businesses and homeownership;

• Continued reduction of our jail and prison populations;

• Continued diversion of people from entering the justice system; and

• An end to unlawful, discriminatory, excessive use of force by police.

Now is the time to begin what will be a lengthy and sustained effort to send a new message to the neighborhoods filled with people now trapped by hopelessness. Let them see that we value them and their futures and that we are willing to protect them from harm and invest in them. The solution will require decades of caring and investment. Let's begin today and give them hope for their future.

• Victor B. Dickson is president and CEO of the Safer Foundation, a nonprofit helping Illinoisans with criminal records become employed, law-abiding members of the community. With headquarters in Chicago, Safer assists clients in the Chicago metropolitan region and the Quad Cities.

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