By Sophia Porter
Over the past couple months, income inequality between Blacks and their white counterparts has been at the forefront of conversations about racial inequality on the national stage. The figures are staggering, prompting a myriad of questions.
One that’s particularly close to my heart relates to housing. Can we fully take into account the magnitude of difficulties faced without thinking about the origins of neighborhoods? Housing determines access to schools, healthcare, groceries, employment, and safety, to name a few essentials. It impacts our livelihood.
Residential Segregation in Chicago: An Activity
Chicago is the most racially segregated major city in the country. An interactive activity can help illustrate this. If you’re willing, I’d like you to visit the University of Virginia’s Racial Dot Map. Every dot represents one of the nearly 309 million people living in the United States during the 2010 Census. (Have you filled out your 2020 census yet?)
Once you find Chicago on the map, take some time to zoom in and look around the city and suburbs. Then, zoom out.
Next, I’d like you to visit Crain’s Chicago Business to read up on Chicago’s Wealth Divide. Take a look at the “Mapping Median Household Income in 2016” map of Chicago. Click the “Explore Map” button in the bottom right to view the same areas around the city.
In case you’re on a phone, tired, or just don’t feel like engaging with the links, I’ll summarize: Chicago is extremely segregated across racial and economic lines. Notable contrasts between neighborhoods like Oak Park and Austin or Hyde Park and Washington Park are staggering — but not as staggering as driving down Chicago Ave. or 53rd Street, watching the environment change nearly instantaneously.
If you do have a moment, just look at the map. The visual is worth it.
Housing Discrimination in Chicago: A Brief History
Within Chicago’s metropolitan area, roughly 75% of white households are homeowners, compared to 39% of Black households. As a disclaimer, I plan to focus on inequitable homeownership in Chicago. It’s also essential to discuss the impacts of public and affordable housing on Black Chicagoans, but that’s a post for a later date.
To understand where we are now, it’s helpful to take a few steps back. That’s what we’re doing today.
There are many comprehensive accounts that thoroughly and thoughtfully detail Chicago’s difficult housing history. This Chicago Urban League’s study is one of them. But I’ll highlight a few themes from The Chicago Freedom Movement: Martin Luther King Jr. and Civil Rights Activism in the North as an illustration of the past.
During the Second Wave of the Great Migration, thousands of Black people from southern states moved to Chicago in hopes of finding greater safety and more economic opportunities. As the Black population in the city increased, whites fled to the newly formed suburbs.
Once in Chicago, Black people attempted to build equity and accumulate wealth through buying a home. But their access to homeownership was limited at seemingly every level.
Transactionally, housing firms wouldn’t truthfully provide listings to Black people who requested them. When a Black family was able to purchase a home, they were subject to intimidation through burning crosses on their lawns.
At a higher level, redlining, where banks would deny loans for people living in high risk areas, made it incredibly difficult for Black people to accumulate wealth. This practice led to predatory loans in the form of contracts that had no legal protections for homebuyers. Lenders would often evict people for not paying undefined fees, leaving families without a home or equity.
The crippling discrimination brought about the Chicago Freedom Movement, headed by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. to fight for change in the mid-1960s. Many believe the Chicago Freedom Movement wasn’t a success because of the continued discrimination and limited opportunities for Black people across the city.
It did, however, result in the creation of the Leadership Council for Metropolitan Open Communities. The organization carried on the fight for fair housing and exposing illegal practices throughout the city until 2006, closing partly due to limited funding.
Where Are We Now?
The tactics have changed with time, but Black people are continually denied access to the suburbs and white city neighborhoods.
The decades-long struggle for homeownership in Chicago limited opportunities for families to accumulate generational wealth, for children to attend strong schools, and for Black Chicagoans to remain safe. In 2020, the city has numerous fair housing organizations that help advocate for equitable housing at various levels.
But the broader disparities in equality of opportunity are partly a byproduct of deep-rooted housing discrimination, which gave way to the low-income, predominately Black neighborhoods that exist today. We’ll explore this in a future post about affordable housing.
In the meantime, though, let’s continue to ground ourselves in the past in order to understand what has contributed to the continual disparities Black people experience in the city and beyond.
Speaking from the experience of being born in and living in Chicago, other than neighborhoods known to be mainly Polish and Italian, Chicago was integrated until 1968. There was “white flight” when a Black family moved into a neighborhood, but that was pretty slow until 1968 with the assassination of MLK. Whites, mainly Jews, did not reopen their businesses, many of which employed Blacks.
When the Jews left the neighborhoods many rented out their houses, the majority being apartment buildings where extended families lived. Many of those buildings were not maintained.
Blacks owned homes by buying on contract. The late Sherman Skolnick formed an organization that went against the banks which would not approve mortgages for Blacks. While he was alive, Sherman often told the story of how he and Jesse Jackson bumped heads over that matter because Jackson wanted to take all of the credit from Sherman.
In the 1990’s, the LaGrange NAACP sent couples of different races to realtors in the Western suburbs to look for houses. They found that steering was rampant with Blacks being steered to Maywood and Whites for wherever they wanted to live.
Of the worst financially was the redlining of vehicle insurance companies. Another town could be at the end of the block, across the street, and the insurance rates were significantly lower than the zip code where predominately Blacks live. That still happens today.