Guest Column from Spenser Barry


“Give me your zip code, and I’ll tell you how long you’ll live. The life expectancy gap between Chicago’s poorest and most affluent areas is close to 30 years.”
Gabor Mate, The Myth of Normal

That’s one hell of a statistic, isn’t it? Your lifespan differs by almost 30 years based on where you live within the same city. It casts a depressing light against the old adage that people should “pull themselves up by their bootstraps,” doesn’t it? Amid a sea of violence, trauma, poverty, and racism–to name a few–it seems confusing how a substantial proportion of the country thinks that people should be immune to their environmental circumstances comes from.

For many years, I hated the narrative that the environment exerts powerful influences on people’s outcomes; I thought telling people that they are products of their environments encouraged passivity and victimization: “I was born in bad circumstances, and therefore if I don’t have to take accountability for my behavior”. Those who labor under my old viewpoint must necessarily turn a blind eye toward the circumstances that people grow up in (after all, they should be able to overcome it, shouldn’t they?) and are unable to see or address the systemic factors that plague various communities. If we want to correct health and economic disparities in communities, we must acknowledge the systemic factors that caused the disparity. However, we must be aware of the shadow that undercuts the narrative that people are products of their system.

In the Summer of 2023, a video went viral filmed in San Franciso, CA, which showed a car plowing through a guard rail, flying over a hill, and flipping mid-air before landing upside down on the street. The passengers, who reportedly stole the vehicle before recklessly endangering the lives of countless innocent civilians, fled from the scene. Perplexingly, within the same week, all charges against the alleged thieves were dropped pending further investigation, and the individuals responsible were been released back onto the streets, where they can recklessly endanger more innocent lives. California, which has become increasingly possessed by the narrative that crime is caused by environmental factors, has developed an extreme tolerance towards behaviors that endanger its citizens’ lives and safety.

Trauma, poverty, and life adversity are not delivered equally, and it offends our moral sensibilities that some people are born with less adverse circumstances based on arbitrary characteristics. I understand the rage that people feel at the arbitrariness of our existence, and I understand that if many of our most successful and revered citizens were born under different circumstances, it might be them in jail or committing crimes. However, in our desire to empathize with the disenfranchised in our society, we have lost sight of the judgment necessary to ensure that this violence does not spread or spill over to impact innocent citizens. Perhaps the person on Franklin Street who chases people does so because of childhood abuse, or poverty. however, once someone commits a crime against someone else, they are no longer only a product of tragic circumstances–they become the creator of that pain and tragedy too.

We can’t abandon our judgment of people’s unacceptable behavior in favor of relying on our empathy for the person who commits a crime. We as citizens of Chapel Hill, must cast judgment against actions that people committing crimes–even if they have been disenfranchised–if we don’t want Chapel Hill making the same mistakes as San Francisco.

-Spenser Barry ( )

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