This U.S. City Is Still Incredibly Segregated, and It's No Coincidence

The following is an excerpt from the new book The South Side by Natalie Y. Moore (St. Martin's Press, 2016): 

Chicago is one of the most segregated cities in America. Chicagoans typically don’t live, work or play together. Unlike many other major U.S. cities, no one race dominates. We are about equal parts black, white and Latino, each group clustered in various enclaves. Chicago is a city in which black people sue over segregation and discrimination, whether it concerns disparities in public schools or not being admitted into hot downtown spots. Some people shrug off segregation because they say racism and white supremacy will still exist. I concur. But segregation amplifies racial inequities. It’s deliberate, ugly and harmful. The legacy of segregation and its ongoing policies keep Chicago divided.

Chicago is compromised by the specter of segregation, which is often swept under the rug. We can’t honestly talk about problems such as violence and unemployment without addressing segregation. Throughout the twentieth century, black families faced white violence when they dared to move into white neighborhoods. Redlining, bad mortgages, racial steering and failed school policies led to the northern version of Jim Crow, all of which had a lasting effect. Today more than half of the black population in Chicago lives in only 20 of the city’s 77 communities.

Chicago’s diversity and segregation aren’t unique.

Nate Silver of the statistical website FiveThirtyEight has said that some of the nation’s most diverse cities are also the most segregated:

"You can have a diverse city, but not diverse neighborhoods. Whereas Chicago’s city wide diversity index is 70 percent, seventh best out of the 100 most populous U.S. cities, its neighborhood diversity index is just 36 percent, which ranks 82nd. New York also has a big gap. Its city wide diversity index is 73 percent, fourth highest in the country, but its neighborhood diversity index is 47 percent, which ranks 49th. . . . Most cities east of the Rocky Mountains with substantial black populations are quite segregated. There’s not a lot to distinguish Baltimore from Cleveland, Memphis, Milwaukee, New Orleans, Philadelphia or St. Louis."

In 2007, I took a job at WBEZ–Chicago Public Media as the South Side reporter set up in a one-woman storefront. It’s a dream job to tell the stories of my communities with the kind of nuance associated with public radio. In covering urban affairs and noticing disparities in my own neighborhood life, I always circled back to segregation as the common denominator. It was easy to connect the dots from housing to education to crime to food access: segregation is the culprit.

Black neighborhoods, regardless of income, fall prey to the perils of segregation. Retail redlining, the practice of businesses declining to come to black communities, is a nascent area of study, but a quick glance at black communities tells the story: businesses, despite high-earning blacks in many neighborhoods, apparently refuse to set up shop if too many African Americans live there. Research shows that this leads to billions of dollars in retail leakage: money doesn’t stay in the black community. The patterns of segregation leave black communities with joblessness, few grocery stores, boarded-up buildings and disinvestment. And higher murder counts. Economic development proves elusive. The only conclusion is that hypersegregated, poverty-stricken areas don’t get the resources that flood into more affluent neighborhoods.

Subprime lending and the foreclosure crisis undermined integration. During the housing bust, racial segregation grew. I don’t believe white people have to be the saviors of communities, but there’s no denying the disparities in the distribution of resources. Immigrants and white ethnics move out of their low-income neighborhoods with the assumption that another ethnic group will move in. The problem is that no other group wants to move into poor black neighborhoods. Well, except other blacks.

According to Princeton University sociologist Douglas Massey:

"It’s not about black people wanting to live with white people. It’s about access to all the benefits and resources of American society. Inevitably benefits and resources are unevenly distributed around the metropolitan area. To access them, you have to move. And historically in the United States, poor groups have come in, for example, and they settle in lousy neighborhoods as they move up economic ladder and seek to move up the residential ladder.

African Americans have never been given those first few steps up the ladder because the residential mobility has been so constrained. People are coming around to seeing that as a critical issue."

U.S. Supreme Court justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg says that public acceptance of blacks is slow, and she contrasted the public acceptance of gays because of familiarity.

"Once [gay] people began to say who they were, you found that it was your next-door neighbor or it could be your child, and we found people we admired. That understanding still doesn’t exist with race; you still have separation of neighborhoods, where the races are not mixed. It’s the familiarity with people who are gay that still doesn’t exist for race and will remain that way for a long time as long as where we live remains divided."

America learned a long time ago that separate is not equal. Racial uprisings in U.S. cities in the late 1960s revealed what many blacks already knew: The country was moving toward two societies: one black, one white, separate and unequal.

According to the famous Report of the National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders, better known as the 1968 Kerner Commission: “Segregation and poverty have created in the racial ghetto a destructive environment totally unknown to most white Americans. What white Americans have never fully understood—but what the Negro can never forget—is that white society is deeply implicated in the ghetto. White institutions created it, white institutions maintain it, and white society condones it.” Not much has changed since then.

Some people argue that segregation aids blacks economically. I’m not nostalgic for Jim Crow, the idea that segregation benefited blacks because of the misguided notion that we had our own and stuck together in intraracial harmony—we were “unified.” But those feel-good images casually dismiss the horrors of Jim Crow. I don’t think integration is the magic bullet either. But I ponder the future of Chicago given its acute segregation, which should be a relic of the city’s well-documented past. “In some respects, Chicago has exacerbated the problem of segregation, but it’s important at the outset to note that this is really a national problem that goes to the roots of our country when it comes to race relations,” Robert Sampson, a social sciences professor at Harvard University, told me.

Daily headlines on race, police, black bodies and white privilege barrage us. Black bodies are under attack and viewed as walking weapons. The Black Lives Matter movement boldly confronts white supremacy, police brutality and a racist criminal justice system. An urgent conversation on race brews in a cauldron of vexation: I think about race every day. I see race every day. I see that the conditions of black neighborhoods are often the product of intentional segregation. This isn’t a new topic, but it needs to be dissected and better understood, especially in the wake of protests in Ferguson, Baltimore and other cities faltering under the weight of segregation. A wider conversation about segregation seems to be happening in cities around the country. Ending segregation surely won’t end racism, but its dismantling will provide better outcomes for black people.

2016 Natalie Y. Moore. Reprinted with permission from St. Martin's Press. 

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