UChicago sociologist examines impact of gerrymandering on violence in Chicago

At a time when the Supreme Court is taking up cases involving gerrymandering and redistricting, UChicago sociologist Robert Vargas warns of the social consequences of redistricting beyond politics.

In his research, Vargas examines how ward redistricting can affect rates violence on clusters of blocks by cutting off communities from access to social services and policing.

“So much is focused on parties and partisanship,” said Vargas, a Neubauer Family Assistant Professor of Sociology, of the current furor surrounding gerrymandering. “I am trying to show the consequences of redistricting beyond elections. Redistricting redistributes residential blocks’ access to power and resources from city government.”

In his 2016 book “Wounded City: Violent Turf Wars in a Chicago Barrio,” Vargas found that violence in the Little Village neighborhood on the west side of Chicago was concentrated on blocks historically gerrymandered by the city council. In a new working paper, Vargas is using ward maps, crime statistics and census data from 1960 to the present to quantify the effects of ward redistricting on neighborhood violence. Comparing gerrymandered neighborhoods (like Little Village and Brighton Park) to neighborhoods (like Beverly and Bridgeport) that have resided in the same ward since 1961, he found that the murder rate was two-and-a-half times higher in gerrymandered areas.

The findings, according to Vargas, show that violence persists in Chicago not only because of turf wars between gangs and police, but also turf wars among politicians over assigning blocks to wards.

“My models are showing that redistricting has a cumulative effect, as the neighborhoods that have consistently been gerrymandered since 1961 are the same neighborhoods where violence has been most entrenched,” said Vargas, who directs the Violence, Law and Politics Lab at the University of Chicago.

Vargas’ interest in this work began as a graduate student at Northwestern University. He intended to study the educational trajectories of young people in Little Village, a predominantly Latino neighborhood. After seeing how much violence in the neighborhood impacted daily life, he wanted to find out why.

“I got to see firsthand how much the geography of violence in the neighborhood was impacting virtually all aspects of their lives,” said Vargas, “from where they would go to eat, what time they would spend with their friends, how they would get from place to place; and seeing how much the threat of violence affected their lives made me want to understand the roots of violence.”

He discussed this research at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science on Feb. 17, hoping to encourage the audience, journalists and city officials to look more critically at the consequences of redistricting.

“People tend to look for explanations of Chicago’s violence by focusing on the residents of these neighborhoods,” Vargas said. “We need to pay equal attention to the institutions distributing violence prevention resources throughout the city. There is so much social science and public policy on preventing violence through helping people ‘become better people.’ Much more work is needed on how to make government and nonprofit institutions better serve these communities.”