Gun Violence Hits African Americans Most — And It’s Getting Worse

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The first time one of Camiella Williams’ friends was shot to death, she was 15. Then another friend was gunned down. And another.

Williams, 29, said she has now lost more than two dozen friends and relatives to Chicago’s gun violence, which surged last year and has shown little sign of slowing down.

Last year brought a wave of killings. “In March, Andre Taylor,” Williams said. “Then, I lost Cordero [Mosley]. We went to school together. His mother grew up with my mother.”

She remembers them with photos saved in a Facebook album she named “Lost but not forgotten.”

Camiella Williams, 29, uses her phone to store images of loved ones she’s lost to gun violence. (WBEZ/Chip Mitchell)

Historically, African Americans have been the victims of a disproportionate amount of the city’s gun violence. And that trend is getting worse. Shootings in Chicago have become more concentrated in black communities, even as the city’s African-American population declines. Experts said that violence could have a profound psychological effect on thousands of black youths in these neighborhoods.

As part of a project that looks at gun violence in Chicago, WBEZ examined who is getting fatally shot and the impact it has on the survivors.

Rising disparity

Last year, Chicago’s homicide total surged to its highest point in two decades. Ninety percent of the killings were from shootings, according to a report from the University of Chicago Crime Lab, which studies violence in the city. The victims included at least 646 African Americans, according to a WBEZ analysis of data from the Cook County medical examiner’s office.

But the stark totals don’t tell the entire story.

The percentage of black victims brought to the medical examiner’s office has been trending upward for more than 30 years. In 1985, African Americans accounted for 66 percent of the city’s homicides. By 2016, African Americans accounted for almost 79 percent.

And the number continues to rise: During the first four months of 2017, almost 82 percent of homicide victims were black.

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That rise has come as Chicago’s black population has been decreasing. In 1985, African Americans made up about 40 percent of the city’s population; by 2015 the number was around 31 percent.

Impact on the city

Gun violence’s impact on the mental health of Chicagoans cannot be understated, said Kimya Barden, an assistant professor of inner city studies at Northeastern Illinois University. She said people don’t become desensitized to violence, no matter how pervasive.

“I think there’s this assumption that … folks just get used to folks killing each other,” Barden said. “And that’s just not the case.”

Williams, who grew up on the city’s South Side, said the murders have led to “present traumatic stress disorder” that weighs on her every day. She said she still has trouble sleeping because of the violent death of her cousin, Ural Durant, on July 29, 2016.

Barden said being around trauma all the time can lead to “anger, aggression [and] hopelessness.”

How does Williams, a long-time gun-control advocate who has spoken publicly about her activism, cope with her feelings?

She said she recently bought a pistol to protect her family.

Chip Mitchell reports out of WBEZ’s West Side studio. Follow him at @ChipMitchell1.

This story is part of WBEZ's Every Other Hour project. Find more stories here.

Criminal justice reporting and investigative journalism at WBEZ is supported in part by Doris and Howard Conant, The Joyce Foundation and the Robert R. McCormick Foundation.

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