Text of a speech delivered to United Way Meetings, in Oak Brook, Illinois, August 4, 2005.
As some of you may know, I recently published a major study titled Still Separate, Unequal: Race, Place, Policy, and the State of Black Chicago. This study was informed by the vision and warnings of the great social justice, civil rights, and antiwar leader Martin Luther King, Jr. and I want to introduce my findings with reference to Dr. King’s efforts and goals in Chicago during the 1960s.
Forty years ago, King and his colleagues in the Southern Christian Leadership Council came to Chicago determined to take the civil rights struggle to a radical new level. It was one thing, King told his colleagues, for blacks to win the right to sit at a lunch counter. It was another thing for black and other poor people to get the money to buy a lunch.
It was one thing, King argued, to open the doors of opportunity for some few and relatively privileged African-Americans. It was another thing to move millions of black and other disadvantaged folks out of economic despair. It was another and related thing to dismantle slums and overcome barriers to equality that continued after public bigotry was discredited and after open discrimination was outlawed.
It was one thing to get some black kids into formerly all-white schools. It was another thing to provide all black children with quality, integrated education. It was one thing to defeat the overt racism of snarling southerners like Bull Connor; it was another thing to confront the deeper, more covert institutional racism that lived beneath the less openly bigoted, smiling face of northern and urban liberalism. It was one thing to defeat the anachronistic caste structure of the South. It was another thing to attain substantive social and economic equality for black and other economically disadvantaged people across the entire nation.
What would King see and think if he could magically return to Chicago four decades later? He would be disappointed to learn that that within Chicago, 74 percent of black residents live in 22 neighborhoods that are 90 percent or more African-American -- this in a city that is home to 77 officially designated neighborhoods or community areas. King would be intrigued to learn that blacks have recently gained unprecedented entrance to the suburbs and that one third of the metropolitan area’s black population now lives outside the central city, but it would bother him to learn that more than half (52 percent) of all suburban Chicago area blacks reside in just 18 south suburban Cook County towns -- this in a six country metropolitan area that is home to 265 local municipalities.
Within Chicago, where three fourths of the Chicago area’s child population lives, the average black student attends a school that is 86 percent black. 274 (or 47 percent) of the city’s 579 public elementary and high schools are 90 percent or more African American and 173 of these schools -- or 30 percent of all public schools in the city -- are 100 percent black.
King would be bothered by all this not because blacks have some special inherent need to live or study next to whites but because separate is unequal in a nation where crucial social and economic opportunities are not distributed evenly across and between place and jurisdiction. Housing markets and residential patterns are important for racial parity because they distribute so much “more than a place to live; they also distribute any good or resource that is correlated with where one lives. Housing markets don’t just distribute dwellings, they also distribute education, employment, safety, insurance rates, services, and wealth in the form of home equity; they also determine the level of exposure to crime and drugs, and the peer groups that one’s children experience.” They distribute opportunity.
Which raises the question of how the city and metropolitan area’s blacks are doing in terms of socioeconomic status, health, and position. If King could come to Chicago and its surroundings today, he would recoil in horror at the index of racial disparity I have culled from the 2000 Census and other sources. Moving from separate to unequal, he would be dissatisfied to learn that black median household income was just 58 percent of white median household income in the metropolitan area, according to the 2000 Census.
He would be concerned to learn that the black population in and around Chicago is much more socio-economically “bottom-heavy” than the white population. While more than a third of the metropolitan area’s white households received an income of $75,000 or more per year, just 16 percent of the black households earned that much. More than a fourth of the region’s black households received less than $14,995, more than $1,700 less than the poverty level for a family of four in 1999. Less than a tenth of the area’s white households had incomes that low
Speaking of the poverty level, a fourth the metropolitan area’s black households were officially poor in the 2000 Census, compared to just 5.6 percent white and 16 percent of Latin households. Sixteen percent of Chicago’s blacks were living in what researchers call “deep poverty” -- at less than half of the federal government’s notoriously low and inadequate poverty level.
As I’m sure many of you know, even the full official poverty level has become something of an open joke among urban policy researchers. According to the Economic Policy Institute, the real no-frills cost of a minimally decent “basic family budget” for a family of three in Chicago was $35, 307 in 2001, more than 230 percent of the poverty measure.
King would be especially perturbed, I think, by the child poverty measures. He would be crestfallen to learn that more than a third of the metropolitan area’s black kids were living in poverty at the peak of the Clinton economic boom, compared to just five percent of the white kids.
King would be especially struck by the new central role of the criminal justice system in the creation and exacerbation of racial inequality in and around Chicago. At the time he was assassinated there were less than 8,000 prisoners in the entire state of Illinois. Today, as we showed in our recent study and in a previous study we did titled The Vicious Circle, the top ten prisoner and prisoner release zip codes in Chicago together generate and receive considerably more prisoners than that each year. Nine of those zip codes are very predominantly black, including five on the city’s west side and four on the south side.
Two-thirds of the state’s more than 43,000 prisoners and more than 80 percent of its drug prisoners are African-American; this in a state that is just 15 percent African American. From 2000 through 2002, a quarter of the state’s released prisoners returned to the ten predominantly black Chicago zip codes I just mentioned. By 2002, we estimated, using the latest social science data, the number of black males carrying the lifelong mark of a criminal record in Chicago was equivalent in absolute number to 42 percent of the city’s black male workforce at the turn of the century. There were nearly 20,000 more black males in the Illinois state prison system than enrolled in the state’s public universities in the summer of 2001.
Another way to cut the data is to look at the racial composition of the Chicago neighborhoods that host the greatest concentrations of misery in the metropolitan area. There are 77 official Community Areas in Chicago. Of the city’s 15 richest among those 77 neighborhoods, all but two are disproportionately white. Of its 15 poorest communities, with average household incomes ranging from $11 to 28,000, all but 12 are very disproportionately black and none are disproportionately white.
Of the 22 neighborhoods where 19 percent or more of rental households are spending 50 percent or more of their income on housing, all are 90 percent or more black.
Of the city’s 15 highest unemployment neighborhoods, with jobless rates ranging from 18 to 34 percent, all are disproportionately black, including 12 that are more than 94 percent black.
Of the city’s top 20 neighborhoods ranked for loss of manufacturing jobs between 1980 and 2000, all are disproportionately black and the great majority are more than 90 percent black.
Of the 15 neighborhoods ranked by the Boston Consulting Group as the most “economically vital” neighborhoods in the city all are disproportionately white. Fourteen of the bottom 16 neighborhoods for “economic vitality” are disproportionately black. By the way, those disadvantaged neighborhoods get the short end not just of economic health but also of private and public economic development funding dollars.
Of the city’s 15 poorest neighborhoods, with poverty measures ranging from 32 to 56 percent, 14 are disproportionately black.
Of the city’s top 15 neighborhoods for child poverty, with rates ranging from 55 to 71 percent, 10 are disproportionately black and none are disproportionately white, the rest being disproportionately Latino.
In 15 of the city's 77 officially designated Community Areas at the relatively prosperous time of the last census, more than 25 percent of the kids were growing up in deep poverty even before the recession -- at the peak of the Clinton boom.
All but one of these community areas had a black population percentage that is considerably higher than the city average. All but three of them are at least 94 percent black.
There were six neighborhoods -- Oakland, North Lawndale, Washington Park, Grand Boulevard, Douglass, and Riverdale -- where more than 40 percent of the children were deeply poor and in the last one (Riverdale) it was actually more than half.
The concentration of urban misery extends to health issues. Counter-intuitively for those who identify HIV and AIDS with white gay North Side populations, 13 of the city’s top 15 neighborhoods for HIV mortality are predominantly black communities on the South and West side. Twelve of the top 15 community areas for heart disease and ten of the top 15 for diabetes are disproportionately black.
Part of the health problem for African-Americans may be a shortage of full-service grocery stores selling fresh fruits and vegetables necessary for a good diet. Twenty of the city’s 23 Dominick’s are in disproportionately white neighborhoods. Thirty-three of the city’s 40 Jewel’s are in such predominantly Caucasian community areas.
One of the most interesting and unpleasant things we did in our study is that we combined key statistics from the city’s 22 90-percent black neighborhoods, treating them as a collective “city within a city” and comparing this hyper-segregated black inner-city with the overall city and metropolitan areas. We found that the collective unemployment rate of the predominantly black 22 is nearly twice that of the city as a whole. One-fourth of the children in this predominantly black city within a city -- home to three-fourths of the city’s African-Americans -- live in deep poverty. The official unemployment rate of these 22 neighborhoods is nearly twice that of the city as a whole. The poverty rate in these 22 neighborhoods is more than three times higher than that of the metropolitan area as a whole. It’s worth recalling these 22 neighborhoods together account for three fourths of the city’s population.
These are some things you won't read about in this fancy book I’m holding up and that has been released by the Chicago Council on Foreign Relations with assistance from the Chicago Tribune and the MacArthur Foundation. The book, titled Global Chicago, has numerous glowing references to the leading global defense contractor and heavily subsidized Boeing Corporation, maker of the deadly B-2 Stealth Bomber and the Blackhawk Helicopter. The book contains no direct references to the uncomfortable, merely local pain and experience of thousands and thousands of black children living in the shadows of the great expanding world-connected corporate downtown and its growing ring of gentrifying condo complexes.
Most of the numbers cited in our study, it is worth noting, come from the peak of the longest “peacetime” economic expansion after World War II -- the long “Clinton boom” of the 1990s. Things have gotten considerably worse in many communities of color since the onset of recession in 2000 and the subsequent slow, so-called jobless recovery. We know for example, that the black adult employment/population ratio actually went from above 54 percent to less than 50 percent in 2002 according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Of course, facts and findings are one thing. Frames and explanations are another. The really interesting or controversial question, for me at least, is . . . what does that dreaded word “racism” got to do with all this racial inequality? As far as mainstream white society is concerned, however, the answer is “nothing” or next to it. Insofar as differences in wealth, income, security and general well being persist between blacks and whites (and nearly half of the white population thinks that blacks have pulled even with whites), the large majority of white Americans deny that anti-black racism is the cause.
If problems for blacks persist, many whites and some privileged blacks think it’s only because too many blacks engage in “self-sabotaging” behaviors. As white America sees it, every effort has been made to welcome blacks into the American mainstream and now they’re on their own. “We made the corrections” and now it’s up to you.
Our position is that racism is part of the explanation but we think you have to be very clear about what you mean when you use a loaded word like racism. The main difficulty with conventional mainstream white wisdom on “race relation” is a failure to distinguish adequately between level one racism, which I call overt open public bigotry and prejudice and what I call level two racism or the deeper racism, by which I mean underlying covert societal or institutional racism. Level one overt racism, which King encountered in Chicago in 1966, has a long and sordid history, but it has largely been defeated, outlawed and discredited in the US and even here in Chicago.
The deeper, covert level of racism, however, involves the more impersonal operation of social and institutional forces and processes in ways that “just happen” but nonetheless serve to reproduce black disadvantage in the labor market and numerous other sectors of American life. These processes are so ingrained in the social, political, and institutional life of the city, the region, the state and indeed nation that they are taken for granted -- barely noticed by the mainstream media and other social commentators. This deeper racism includes:
* Widely documented racial bias in real estate and home lending that complement, reflect and empower the general reluctance of whites to live next door to blacks, all of which combine with disproportionate black poverty to keep blacks out of the metropolitan area’s highest-opportunity communities.
* The proliferation of expensive, taxpayer-financed suburban roads and related residential and office and retail developments constructed on behalf of mainly white suburbanites far from the predominantly black inner city, which subsidizes white flight and takes critical needed economic resources and opportunities yet further from those who are most in need of it.
* The funding of schools largely on the basis of local property wealth, which tends to favor whiter school districts over blacker districts, an especially big issue in Illinois, where per-student funding rangers from more than 20K per kid in Lake Forest to less than 7K per kid in many black south suburbs.
* Excessive use of high-stakes standardized test-based neo-Dickensian “dill and grill” curriculum and related zero-tolerance disciplinary practices in predominantly black public schools.
* The hyper-concentration segregation of black children into segregated ghetto schools where frazzled teachers have to deal with oversized classes where as many as 90 percent of their kids are dealing with the special barriers to learning that come with extreme poverty and its effects.
* Rampant and widely documented racial discrimination in hiring and union-managed apprentice-training admissions.
* The racially disparate “War on Drugs” and the related campaign of mass black imprisonment and felony-marking, which is waged with such racially selective ferocity that more than 80 percent of the state’s drug prisoners are black even though blacks make up 15 percent of the state and are no more likely to use illegal drugs than whites.
* The aggressive pursuit of welfare caseload reduction as a positive good in and of itself without concomitant efforts to increase economic opportunity in poor black communities, where it is not uncommon for less than half of the adult population to be now be attached to the workforce.
Ironically, covert, level two, institutional racism may actually be deepened by civil rights victories and related black upward mobility into the middle and upper classes (however limited) insofar as those victories and achievements have served to encourage the illusion that racism has disappeared and that the only obstacles left to African-American success and equality are internal to individual blacks and their community -- the idea that, as Derrick Bell puts it, “the indolence of blacks rather than the injustice of whites explains the socioeconomic gaps separating the races.”
It’s hard, of course, to blame people for believing that racism is dead in America when our public life is filled with repeated affirmations of the integration ideal and our ostensible progress towards achieving it and when we regularly celebrate great American victories over level one racism. There are [now] enough examples of successful middle-class African-Americans, Sheryl Cashin notes, “to make many whites believe that blacks have reached parity with them. The fact that some blacks now lead powerful mainstream institutions offers evidence to whites that racial barriers have been eliminated; the issue now is individual effort . . . the odd black family on the block or the Oprah effect -- examples of stratospheric black success -- feed these misperceptions, even as relatively few whites live among and interact daily with blacks of their own standing.”
Episodes and events like the demotion of Trent Lott or the election of a black Mayor (Harold Washington in 1983) or a black U.S. Senator (Carol Mosley Braun in 1992 and Barack Obama in 2004) or City Hall’s criticism of racist sentiments on the part of certain white firemen offer ample opportunities for city, state, and national leaders to pat themselves on their collective backs for advancing beyond the primitive state of level-one racism even while they promote policies that dig the hole of institutional and societal racism yet deeper.
For what it’s worth, this is something Martin King worried about a great deal near the end of his life. “Many whites hasten to congratulate themselves,” King noted in 1967, “on what little progress [black Americans] have made. I’m sure,” King opined, “that most whites felt that with the passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, all race problems were automatically solved. Most white people are so removed from the life of the average Negro,” King added, “there has been little to challenge that assumption.”
It doesn’t help that major dominant corporate media tend to delete contemporary racial inequality and racism as serious concerns in our currently supposedly color-blind sol-called post-Civil Rights era. Despite repeated efforts to interest the city’s leading newspaper in our study in advance of its June 21 press release, Still Separate, Unequal did not receive any attention in that newspaper. My study garnered a short write-up in the New York Times, but not one word in the Chicago Tribune.
Two days before the release of our study, the city’s leading newspaper printed a front-page story reporting the record numbers of ex-prisoners returning go the streets of Illinois and Chicago. "About 21,000 inmates will leave the high-fenced borders of Illinois prisons this year and re-enter society within the city limits,” the Tribune reported, “enough ex-offenders to fill the United Center, about 10 city bus-loads rolling in each week.” The article gave a compelling account of the remarkable barriers faced by these "ex-offenders.” It managed, somehow, to completely ignore the very preponderantly black composition of the returning inmate population and the desperately poor communities that receive so many of the city's "ex-cons" despite the very precise research we did on precisely that topic -- down to the zip-code level -- in 2002.
Given this failure to acknowledge the heavily racialized nature of the ex-offender "re-entry" problem, there was no chance that the Tribune would investigate the graphically racist nature of the surveillance, arrest, sentencing, and incarceration policies that do so much to create the ex-offender issue in the first place.
Truth be told, racism-avoidance is standard media operating procedure in the “post-Civil Rights era.” In one typical example, I recently heard the excellent WLS (Chicago ABC television) reporter Andy Shaw say that Chicago is like every great global city in that it has one great underlying flaw…one terrible dark underside. In Rome, he said, everyone loves the great ruins and restaurants and culture but there’s too many guys out there pinching and calling out to women. In Chicago, he said, the problem is corruption as witnessed in the current ongoing Hired Truck scandal.
Well, corruption is a problem in Chicago, no doubt about it. But I think racial apartheid and inequity continues to be one of Chicago’s great dark undersides and while this problem is certainly related to the corruption issue it has more to do with essentially legal and legitimate business as usual in the daily institutional and political life of the city.
Now, to be fair, the Tribune did have something to say about race and racism on June 22, the day after I released my study. It had something to say about race and racism in the Deep South, forty years ago. The paper’s leading front-page story that day was all about racial injustice -- all about racial in Philadelphia, Mississippi during the mid-1960s. "On the 41st anniversary of the murders of three young civil rights workers," the paper reported, "a jury Tuesday convicted an 80-year old former Ku Klux Klan leader of manslaughter, closing another chapter in the nation's sordid past of racial violence that has haunted generations." Level one racism in Mississippi during the early Civil Rights Era was also the main theme in the paper’s Sunday “Perspectives" section, which included two feature pieces on that topic.
After reading those articles and seeing our research ignored, I couldn’t help but reflect back on Martin Luther King’s Junior’s fears about how the slightest, elementary civil rights victories of the 1960s were going to help mainstream society comfort itself with the false belief that racism had been completely overcome. I couldn’t help but reflect again on the difference between defeating the racism of snarling southerners like Bull Connor and confronting the deeper, more covert institutional racism that lived beneath the less openly bigoted, smiling face of northern and urban liberalism. And I was reminded especially of King’s observations regarding the difference between defeating the anachronistic caste structure of the South and attaining substantive social and economic equality for black and other economically disadvantaged people across the entire nation.
Forty years later, in the glorious age of "the global city," the poor and often deeply poor black children of Chicago's ghettoes appear to be more officially invisible than they were in King's time. We have the not-so benign neglect of concentrated media structures to thank for much of that terrible invisibility.
If I had more time, I’d present all my proposals for overcoming persistent racial separatism and inequity within and beyond Chicago. My study has a concluding and forward-looking chapter on solutions. None of it is rocket science.
But it’s hard to see how a city, a metropolitan area, a state, and a nation are supposed to solve a problem that isn’t even acknowledged to exist in the first place. The issues I’ve been researching are only going to get worse unless and until we develop the capacity to grasp 10 segregated black neighborhoods with more than 55 percent of their children living in poverty and 14 segregated black neighborhoods with more than 25 percent of their kids living in “deep poverty” as front-page MORAL ISSUES. Those and the many other problems we’ve found cannot be adequately explained solely in terms of the personal responsibility of the victims. At the same time, any meaningful discussion of “personal responsibility” for the problems we’ve uncovered must include the personal responsibility of all concerned, including those at the top of the city and metropolitan area’s steep and interrelated racial and socioeconomic pyramids.
Thank you very much.
Paul Street is the author of three books to date: Empire and Inequality: America and the World Since 9/11 (Boulder, CO: Paradigm Publishers, October 2004); Segregated Schools: Class, Race, and Educational Apartheid in the Post-Civil Rights Era (New York, NY: Routledge-Falmer, 2005); Still Separate, Unequal: Race, Place, Policy, and the State of Black Chicago (Chicago, IL: The Chicago Urban League, April 2005). Street’s next book, Racial Apartheid in the Global Metropolis (New York, NY: Rowman-Littefield) will be published in late 2006. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org
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