On April 19, 2021, McDonald’s CEO Chris Kempczinski suggested in a text to Chicago’s mayor that the parents of two children recently killed in Chicago’s gang activity had “failed those kids.” Kempczinski’s text became public in November 2021, prompting widespread accusations of racism and calls for his resignation. Kempczinski confessed to his white privilege and apologized profusely for holding parents responsible for the fate of their children.
On December 3, a district attorney in Michigan filed involuntary manslaughter charges against the parents of Ethan Crumbley. The 15-year-old Crumbley allegedly killed four fellow students during a shooting rampage at his Oxford, Michigan high school on November 30. The prosecutor based her indictment of Crumbley’s parents on the fact that they had allowed Ethan to access a legally purchased handgun and ought to have known that the boy was primed to kill his classmates. The press, Democratic politicians, and gun control advocates greeted the homicide charges against the Crumbley parents with ecstatic approbation.
The divergent reactions to the Kempczinski text message and the Crumbleys’ indictment illuminate the different standards to which minority parents and white parents are held. When black juveniles perpetrate street violence, the press and public officials almost never ask: where were the parents? The less involved a parent is in a child’s life, the less society expects of him. These double standards may have a benign intent, but they enable a cultural dysfunction whose effects are thousands of times more lethal than school shootings.
Kempczinski made his ill-fated suggestion of parental responsibility after seven-year-old Jaslyn Adams was gunned down by her father’s gang rivals. Jaslyn and her father Jontae Adams were parked in a McDonald’s drive-thru lane on Chicago’s West Side on April 18, 2021, when two gunmen jumped out of a car and unleashed at least 45 shots at their car. Jaslyn was struck six times and died; Jontae was seriously wounded. A convicted heroin dealer, Jontae knew that his gang’s enemies were out for his blood. The day before the shooting, he tweeted: “Opps probably downstairs waiting on me.”
A few weeks before Jaslyn Adams’s murder, 13-year-old Adam Toledo was out running the streets at 2:30 a.m. with a fellow gang member. Both Toledo and his associate Ruben Roman were armed. ShotSpotter technology picked up eight rounds of gunfire from the pair; two calls to 911 also reported the shots. Toledo and Roman fled from the responding officers; the officer who chased Toledo down an alley shouted at him to “stop it” or “drop it [i.e., the gun].” In an almost instantaneous succession of events, Toledo wheeled toward the officer with his gun in his hand, then dropped the weapon and put his hands up. A fraction of a second later, the officer shot him once, fatally. Opinion is divided on whether the cop was justified in firing his weapon.
A day after the Jaslyn Adams murder, Chicago mayor Lori Lightfoot paid an unrelated visit to McDonald’s headquarters. Kempczinski thanked Lightfoot via text message for her visit and added: regarding the “tragic shootings. . . , both at our restaurant yesterday and with Adam Toldeo [sic]. With both, the parents failed those kids which I know is something you can’t say. Even harder to fix.”
Kempczinski would pay the price for saying the unsayable. After activists obtained and released the text message in November, a coalition including Color of Change and Showing Up for Racial Justice released an open letter to the CEO: “Your text message was ignorant, racist and unacceptable coming from anyone,” the letter read, “let alone the CEO of McDonald’s, a company that spends big money to market to communities of color and purports to stand with Black Lives.” McDonald’s employees and race advocates protested outside the company’s headquarters and demanded reparations. U.S. representative Bobby Rush joined calls for Kempczinski to resign. A McDonald’s worker told a local TV station that Kempczinski was “putting the blame on parents for the violence in the streets. He can’t relate because he is wealthy.” Jaslyn Adams’s mother, heretofore a cipher, emerged from her obscurity to vent her anger: “How dare you judge me! . . . You come from privilege. You can’t speak about me.”
Lightfoot’s office joined the denunciations: “Victim shaming has no place in this conversation,” a press release read. (“Victim-shaming” is a euphemism for ascribing moral agency to a favored victim class.)
Kempczinski went into penance mode. He held “listening sessions” with franchise owners, employees, and corporate managers. He repeatedly accused himself of racial insensitivity. “Not taking the time to think about this from their viewpoint was wrong, and lacked the empathy and compassion I feel for these families,” Kempczinski said in one message. “This is a lesson that I will carry with me.” A few days later, Kempczinski announced: “My texts to the Mayor of Chicago were wrong—plain and simple. I am truly sorry and I know I have let you down. I also know this has conflicted with our values—values that you have all worked so hard to embody across the business.”
Kempczinski was right the first time around. Had 13-year-old Adam Toledo not been gangbanging at 2:30 a.m., had he been in bed or at the very least at home and out of trouble, he would be alive today. His parents (in this case, the usual single mother) were responsible for keeping him off the streets. Did Toledo’s mother know he had a gun? And if not, should she have known? Those questions may not be asked.
Jaslyn Adams’s father Jontae did come under fleeting criticism for his role in her death. In May 2021, Chicago radio host Leon Rogers asked Adams how, if he knew that he was a target of gang rivals, he could have made the decision to “move around with that baby girl, knowing there is possibly someone out there who wants to hurt you?” Adams danced around the question: “My daughter wanted McDonald’s. I tried to Uber McDonald’s,” he responded. “As far as my actions or my past, maybe it had something to do with it. But I was a father the day my daughter died. . . . I don’t remember gang-banging. I don’t remember what led to it.”
Chicago Tribune columnist Dahleen Glanton issued an even more definitive accusation of parental negligence: “Gang-banging and parenting don’t mix. Those who engage in gang activity should have to make a choice—either give up gang life or forfeit the ability to be a good dad. . . . When a bullet meant for [the father] kills a child, he becomes an unwitting accomplice in the murder.”
Glanton and Rogers are black, so their criticism of Jontae Adams flew under the radar, leaving just Kempczinski to bear the wrath of the race activists.
Contrast the response to Kempczinski with the public attitude toward Ethan Crumbley’s parents. Even if one agrees with the indictment holding them criminally responsible for their son’s murder rampage, one can still wonder why other parents are treated as nonexistent. The Crumbleys’ very presence in their son’s life and their responsiveness to the authorities made them available as a target of criminal liability. They both came to the school when officials summoned them but declined to pull Ethan from school on the day of the shooting, because they both worked and didn’t want to send him to an empty home. Had they been from the inner city and not shown up at all, no media figure would have objected. But because the Crumbleys responded to the school, the media can ask why they didn’t search Ethan’s backpack to see if he was carrying his gun. We could ask the same question of parents whose children are out on the streets every night, obviously up to no good.
Where, for example, did the following juveniles get their guns, and why didn’t their parents intervene?
On November 14, 2021, an 11-year-old boy in Chicago stole a woman’s car at gunpoint, the latest in a series of carjackings in which he was allegedly involved. On November 28, 2021, a 13-year-old boy led the police in Antioch, California, on a 2 a.m. chase in a car that had been stolen at gunpoint in nearby Oakland. That same day, a 13-year-old boy and a 12-year-old boy were arrested in connection with the armed carjacking of a pizza delivery man in San Leandro, California. The assailants had dragged the victim out of his car at gunpoint. In the Minneapolis suburb of Roseville, on November 4, two young teenagers held a gun to a woman’s head as she exited her gym at 10 p.m. and stole her SUV. A car chase and foot chase through downtown St. Paul ensued, with the police eventually arresting all the car’s illegal occupants: three boys, ages 13, 14, and 15, and two girls, ages 13 and 14. No one asked: why didn’t these children’s parents intercept their guns?
On October 14, 2021, a 13-year-old boy and four other juveniles, including three girls, smashed their way into an SUV parked in a Holiday Inn Express outside of Milwaukee. A 47-year-old deaf woman, Sunita Balogun-Olayiwola, interrupted the attempted car theft and drove off in her own car to apprehend the fleeing thieves herself. When she confronted them, they tried to steal her car as well, punching her in the face and slamming her car door in her face as she held on to it. Balogun-Olayiwola fell, and the 13-year-old boy ran over her several times, fatally crushing her skull and ribs. The thieves drove off and used Balogun-Olayiwola’s credit card at a local Walmart. Upon arrest, one of the females, age 14, let it be known that she wanted to keep the deceased’s stolen cell phone. No one asked: where were the parents?
One can maintain that Ethan Crumbley’s intercepted note—“The thoughts won’t stop. Help me”—provided clear warning of his homicidal intent and is sufficient evidence to deem his parents legally responsible for the four deaths. (Ethan’s school counsellors, however, who questioned him and observed his behavior for nearly two hours in their office while he did his science homework, also concluded that he posed no risk to himself or others.) If Ethan’s note is a basis for his parents’ criminal liability, other parents are also on notice that their children are toting around guns as part of a daily culture of street violence. Urban youth routinely post videos flaunting illegal firearms and other contraband. One such video, obtained by Wisconsin Public Radio, shows three young women dancing and laughing while pointing a semi-automatic weapon at the screen. Have their parents confiscated and locked up the gun by now, and if not, why not?
The Crumbleys bought the gun Ethan used legally. Juvenile gangbangers usually get their guns illegally. Complying with gun laws would thus seem to make a parent more susceptible to prosecution than a parent who ignores his child’s illegal acquisition.
There have been 29 shooting incidents on school property this year, including the Ethan Crumbley rampage. Eight students (including Ethan’s four victims) were killed; another 49 people were injured. Contrary to popular perception, the vast majority of those 29 shooting incidents had black perpetrators and black victims. Many involved gang activity. Those shootings were thus of no interest to the press. No one asked how the gunmen got access to their weapons or where their parents were. Contrast those eight student deaths nationally with the toll of urban street violence. In Chicago alone, at least 27 children aged 15 and younger have been killed in drive-by shootings this year, according to the Chicago Sun-Times. More than 100 children have been shot. The toll of drive-bys on children nationally is considerably higher and entirely off the media’s radar screen. On November 6, 2021, for example, 23-month-old Jasper Wu was killed sleeping in his car seat while his mother drove on Interstate 880 in the Bay Area. Neither the mother nor the baby was a target; the stray bullet that killed Jasper erupted from a shootout between the occupants of two nearby cars.
School shootings with white perpetrators and white victims are even rarer than school shootings generally, but they get all the attention. They are irrelevant to the U.S. homicide toll, which last year topped 20,000 victims. (More than half of those 20,000 homicide victims were black, though blacks are less than 13 percent of the population; their killers were overwhelmingly neither whites nor cops, but instead other black civilians.) White-on-white school shootings receive disproportionate attention partly because the media value white life more than black life (except in those vanishingly few instances involving a white shooter and black victim). But saturation coverage of the handful of white-on-white school shootings is also essential to establishing the myth that whites with legal guns, especially those from Trump-voting areas, are the biggest criminal and terror threat today. Never mind that black males between the ages of 14 and 17 commit lethal gun violence at over ten times the rate of white and Hispanic teen males combined.
Parental inattention and irresponsibility account for a large percentage of urban youth victimization as well as of youth crime commission. On Labor Day weekend of this year, a 14-year-old boy in Chicago was shot while standing on a sidewalk at around 3 a.m. by someone who emerged from a car and fled the scene. That same weekend, a 17-year-old boy in Chicago was shot in the back while sitting in a car at about 2 a.m. During the weekend of September 25 in Chicago, a 17-year-old boy was shot in a mass shooting with four victims at 1:40 am. Like Adam Toledo, had they been at home rather than running the streets after midnight, they would likely be alive today. They were victims waiting to happen, and had they not been shot, they may have been in line to commit a similar drive-by themselves. No one called their parents to account.
On July 5, 2021, a six-year-old girl was standing with her mother among a group of people at about 1 a.m. on Chicago’s Far South Side. An SUV drove up and started shooting into the crowd, leaving the girl in critical condition. Perhaps the gathering was innocent, and the mother had no notice of risk. Still, one may rightly ask why a six-year-old is out after midnight.
Many daylight shootings are also predictable. On September 21, 2021, a 15-year-old boy was standing in a strip mall near his South Side high school in Chicago when two people fired at him; after he fell, the shooters continued to unload 20 shots into his body. That boy’s gangster-style death was all but inevitable; his father was killed in a drive-by in 2020. Neither parent kept the teen from gang life and away from guns.
In the afternoon of July 1, 2021, a nine-year-old Chicago girl was shot in the head riding in the back seat of a car with a gang outreach worker, a profession populated by alleged former gang members. Was she properly with the outreach worker, who was also shot? That same day, a one-month-old girl was shot in the head in a mass drive-by shooting on the South Side with six other victims at around 8:15 p.m. In this case, the baby’s presence at the scene may represent no dereliction of parental duty. Similarly outside the range of parental control may have been the Chicago Labor Day weekend shootings of a four-year-old boy who was shot twice in the head while sitting inside his home, a 13-year-old boy shot in the head inside a residence, and a 12-year-old boy and a 15-year-old girl targeted in a drive-by while standing outside a business. While the victims’ parents may not share blame for these particular shootings, the consequences of family breakdown in the inner city are so pervasive that that breakdown plays at least some role in every such shooting. Yet no one with a public platform addresses parental responsibility to get married and stay married while raising children.
Youth disorder is on the rise. This past Saturday night, December 4, anarchic flash mobs swarmed downtown Chicago’s Magnificent Mile. A bus driver was lured out of his bus and savagely beaten by two teens; two officers were injured trying to control the crowds; and a 12-year-old girl was shot in the back. The bullet ruptured her kidney and spleen. A 15-year-old boy was shot less than three hours later. The girl’s mother claims she had no idea that her daughter was in downtown Chicago that night and that once the daughter arrived back home on Sunday night, neither she nor her daughter knew that the daughter had been shot.
The country turns its eyes away from this mayhem and the social dysfunction that it represents, terrified that both are beyond any solution. The media follow strict rules of concealment: the race of black perpetrators may not be mentioned, the race of white perpetrators is always relevant. On Thursday, December 2, a felon stabbed an Italian computer science student to death in Manhattan’s Riverside Park; minutes later, he stabbed an Italian tourist. The New York Times buried the story on page A16 and remained silent about the race of the suspect and his victim. Above the Times story was an article about jury selection in the manslaughter trial of a Minnesota police officer who fatally shot Daunte Wright in April 2021 after mistaking her gun for a taser. The Times carefully laid out the racial configuration: “Ms. Potter, who is white,” and “Mr. Wright, who was Black.” Likewise, the suspects in the murders of two Chinese graduate students at the University of Chicago this year have no race, as far as the media is concerned. Eighty-eight percent of all interracial violence between whites and blacks is committed by blacks against whites, yet only in those rare instances of white-on-black crime will the race of the assailant be reported. Coverage of the killing of six holiday celebrants at a Wisconsin Christmas parade on November 21 by a man who plowed his car into the crowd faded out after the police released the suspect’s identity: Darrell Brooks is black (and on the record as anti-white). Had a white person (let alone one with such a trail of racial animosity) driven into a Martin Luther King Day celebration, the round-the-clock coverage would have lasted for weeks.
These double standards help no one. Society should have a colorblind norm of parental responsibility and of the duty to obey the law. If the Crumbley parents are found guilty of involuntary manslaughter, there are many more parents out there whose passivity in the face of likely lawlessness deserves equally strict scrutiny.
Photos: Scott Olson/Getty Images (left) / Emily Elconin/Getty Images (right)