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Q&A: What's Driving "Mob Actions" in Chicago?
with John McWhorter
We’re well past the conflagrations that marked the “Summer of George Floyd” in 2020, when seemingly ever other day, street protests erupted into riots where innocent bystanders were beaten, stores were looted, and more than a few people lost their lives. But occasionally that kind of violence still breaks out in our streets, and often with little explanation. It’s impossible not to notice that the perpetrators are almost always young men, they are almost always black, and they almost always live in low-income neighborhoods.
Economics alone can’t explain the brazen lawlessness of these young people. When the average person finds he can’t make rent on the first of the month, he doesn’t gather his buddies together to go flip over a police cruiser. Something else is going on. In this clip from our most recent subscriber-only Q&A session, John is quite clear that he thinks a lack of jobs isn’t the main problem. It’s the C-word: culture. As he sees it—and I don’t think he’s wrong—absent fathers have a lot to do with the kind of culture where looting and random assault are regarded as sport. Without older men around to model responsible behavior—and with some of them modeling outright irresponsible behavior—ordinary frustration in younger men finds an extraordinary outlet.
This is why I find it maddening when progressives roll their eyes at those of us who stress the vital importance of stable, two-parent households. This isn’t prim Victorianism or a love of patriarchal dominance. When there are high concentrations of unstable families in a given area, a lack of order inside the home can reproduce itself on the streets and contribute to broader and more consequential social chaos. Of course, we do need to attend to broader economic factors if we’re going to stanch this kind of violent disorder. But I'm convinced that doing so without looking inward to the home won’t get us very far.
This clip is taken from a subscriber-only Q&A session. For access to Q&As, comments, early episodes, and a host of other benefits, click below and subscribe.
GLENN LOURY: Let's move on to the next question, which comes from Harold Baker.
Dear Glenn and John,
The mayor of Chicago chastised a reporter for calling an event in which black teens looted and vandalized a 7-Eleven a “mob action.” This is one of the many instances of black leaders making pathetic excuses. for the criminal behavior of black people. So here's my question: When will black voters make these ineffective leaders pay a political price for not keeping them safe and destroying their communities?
That's Harold Baker's question. He says, “This is one of the many instances of black leaders making pathetic excuses,” when I thought he should have said, “Is this one of the many instances?” That should have been a question, in my opinion, Harold, because it is arguable about whether or not he was making pathetic excuses for criminal behavior.
He didn't excuse the criminal behavior. He said, “Don't call the kids undertaking ‘a mob action’ because that's a pejorative that stereotypes them in a certain way.” It “otherizes.” I know that's not a word, John. I know you're a linguist and that's not a word. It otherizes.
JOHN MCWHORTER: No, it's becoming a word.
Yeah. We're going to make it a word. That's his position. I disagree with the way in which newly elected mayor Brandon Johnson reacted to this outrageous behavior by these groups of African American young people in downtown Chicago. That's not something that you want to have going on in your city. I thought that a more muscular and, frankly, law enforcement-focused response was appropriate. Mayor Johnson says there's no opportunity for these kids in the neighborhoods. In fact, I think I quote him in saying they come from neighborhoods that have been robbed of opportunity.
So they're victims of the unfairness of the structures of economic and social life in Chicago. And yet they're ransacking the 7-Eleven, they're turning over cars, setting police cars on fire, assaulting people and so on. And they are not a healthy thing for the city. Not at all, in my opinion. And yes, I think it's appropriate for law enforcement to react to them in a vigorous way. That would have been my view.
The idea that what people like that are doing is a response to contracted job opportunities is swill, utter swill. It's street theater. It's performance art. He ought to be ashamed of himself. And frankly, I would love to see one of those young men taken aside and asked, why did you do that? I'll bet a vanishingly small number of them would say, “I ain't got no job. There are no jobs in my neighborhood. There's nowhere for me to go but down.” None of them would say that.
You'd get rather incoherent answers that it what really came down to, basically, this is what me and my guys do. Everybody else is doing it. That's what the generation before me was doing. I guess they wouldn't say that. But it would not be, we're doing this out of frustration because we can't find a job.
That's not what those people say, because that's not what motivates them. And the sad thing is that figuring out what does motivate them and figuring out what to do about it, it's a challenge because human behavior is not as simple as people like to think when it comes specifically to black people. And I'm angrier than you are, Glenn, about this idea that you can't call it mob action, because frankly, this issue with labels is a very easy thing to, say, make headlines about rather than thinking about the real nature of the problems. And it was mob action. I mean, just to see some of the videos of these sorts of things going on.
There's a sense I have that these things are done almost exclusively by black young men. Not even Latino young men, as much as black young men. You do not see a bunch of poor Asian kids doing it. You do not see even lower-class white kids doing it. It's a black thing to join up in a gang like that and to tear everything up for no particular reason. We need to get to the bottom of it, and it's not because they can't get a job. That's a very 1968 root causes kind of explanation that makes a certain kind of person feel good to mouth, but it's inhuman because it's basically leaving those people to their own fate rather than thinking about how we could really make life better.
They could get a job. That's not what it is. It all sounds like he's been watching Good Times or something. I'm very disappointed in that.
You say, if I go up to one of these kids and I say, “What's up, man? Why are you down there on the streets of North Michigan Avenue tearing up and showing your butt?,” he's not going to say, “Well, I would be at work, but I don't have a job.” That's not what he's going to say.
On the other hand, if, on the block that he grew up on or in the apartment complex, the typical black man—40 years old, father of two, going out with a lunch bucket at seven o'clock in the morning, coming back at five o'clock at night, earning $60,000 a year—and that was the norm in the community, of what guys did.
Yeah, they were looked up to, they were respected. So if that kind of structure fades away, you're going to get a kind of a pathological-cultural-behavioral matrix in the train of that structure disappearing. The two things are not unconnected, is what I'm saying. The cultural-behavioral values part and the economic-employment-financial part, maybe not at the level of a given individual—had he had a job, he wouldn't have been acting like a fool—but at the level of a community taking into account cross-generational effects and role models and so on, it's not entirely crazy.
The young man doesn't remember 1951, for one thing. We're not talking about the first generation who watched dad lose his job. That's what I mean by Good Times. It all sounds like when people first started making these arguments. This guy doesn't know what a lunchbox is. And so, really, we're dealing with something more insidious. But let's contract time, because we black people, apparently we don't have real time. We are slaves, slaves are us. Beloved. We're always dealing with memory. Our grandfathers were lynched, and so we're being lynched.
So let's contract time. Let's say that the lunchboxes were twenty years ago. So dad lost his job at the tire stamping plant, and since then he's been kind of having to hustle and he doesn't really have the money that he used to. It's kind of sad watching dad like that. I'm seeing that I'm not going to be able to get a job in a tire stamping factory. So you know what i'm gonna do? I'm gonna go downtown and start turning over cars.
No. It doesn't make any kind of human sense, and what we're trying not to think about is why is it that in communities like that, deviance has been defined so far downward in terms of violence and destruction? Why? It isn't because dad can't go to work with his lunchbox. That doesn't make any normal human psychological sense. Why the violence? Why the casualness about destruction? But the question is why? Where did that start?
And that's why I say that we have to talk about culture. Yes, culture. Why did the culture change in such a way that our young man now thinks of it as normal to go downtown and break windows, when, frankly, he's not an especially frustrated person. He may have a job, and the reason he's doing it is not because he feels like employment opportunities are contracted.
There's a meme. What created that meme? I think it was a whole cultural mood where you were trained to think about society owing you something rather than making the best of the worst. Maybe people had to make the best of the worst too much, especially in the old days. Maybe there's something to the hard leftist view permeating communities. But when that means that you're downtown turning over a car, and then you have some person with a PhD lovingly saying you're doing it because you can't find a job, something's wrong. I don't think people are really feeling for those men.
But where are the parents, in your view of this kind of problem? I mean, kids are out on the street at one o'clock in the morning.
What can they do? The meme of being a young person in those communities is you're out at one in the morning, probably kicking some butt. I don't know if a mother can do much about that. And where's the father? Often the father is in jail, or he has not raised that boy. That's part of it. Yeah.
But you don't really think that—that his father's absent or a widespread criminality in a community that attracts the interest of young people, drug selling that goes on and so on—is independent of economic structures, do you?
Not independent, but economic structures, as I said in our last show, you would say it doesn't help that those jobs moved away. I would say it's more an issue that dad, that that father knows best dad, who was a norm even in poor black communities in 1961, as late as then, is now very much the exception. It's getting a little better, actually, but has been very much the exception. If there's barely a such thing as a real dad—I love it how on the paper sometimes if somebody unfortunately gets killed, “father of five.” As if he was actually in the life of all five of these kids. When [a good father] is rare, then boys have less control, boys have less of a sense that they're behaving for an elder person who cares about them.
This is what I'm told. I only have daughters, and I'm hopelessly upper middle class, but when there's no such thing as a dad, it's not going to be a good thing. And I would suspect that that has more to do with it than the fact that low-skilled factory jobs are no longer the easiest thing to get. There are other low-skilled jobs.