Mayor Rahm Emanuel and Cook County Commissioner Jesus Chuy Garcia before the first runoff debate begins Monday night.
  • AP Photo/Charles Rex Arbogast
  • Mayor Rahm Emanuel and Cook County Commissioner Jesus “Chuy” Garcia before the first runoff debate begins Monday night.

“Chicago is one of America’s most segregated cities,” Anastasia Kaiser began. Kaiser, a University of Chicago senior, was framing a question for Mayor Rahm Emanuel and Cook County commissioner Jesus “Chuy” Garcia during Monday’s debate at the NBC Tower, the first of three in the mayoral runoff. (A few questions were taken from the audience.) “Why do you think this segregation persists, and what role should public policy play in reducing segregation?”

“That’s a very good question,” Emanuel responded.

Kaiser asked about segregation because she sees its effects “all around me on the south side,” she told me Tuesday. She volunteered for three years at a YWCA in Woodlawn, at 66th and Cottage Grove, helping middle school girls develop tech skills and adult women find jobs. Kaiser is white, and the girls and women she worked with were black. The girls sometimes showed her pictures of the classes at their schools, “and you could see that none of the kids in the classroom were white,” Kaiser said in an e-mail. Some of the seventh-graders she worked with were reading and writing at a first- or second-grade level. “It’s heartbreaking, because these girls are very naturally curious and you could see they have so much potential, but even at 11 and 12 years of age, they are at a huge disadvantage.” The director of the program at the Y told Kaiser that many of the adult women who came for help were initially uncomfortable working with white student volunteers “because they don’t have occasion to interact with that many white people,” Kaiser said. “That’s how segregated some parts of the city continue to be, even in the 21st century.”

An urban planning class had also gotten Kaiser thinking about strategies for addressing concentrated poverty. She noted the two main approaches: investing in poor neighborhoods to improve them; and offering residents housing vouchers so that those who wish to move to neighborhoods that aren’t poor can do so. The “mobility” strategy also requires increasing the supply of low-income housing in more-affluent neighborhoods, something Chicago mayors have avoided.

In a serious attempt to combat racial segregation, and the concentrated poverty that often results from it, both strategies would be used. But Chicago’s mayors have focused on investment and mostly ignored the mobility approach, perhaps because they suspect that the city’s better-off residents are averse to any policy that would result in more poor minorities living in their neighborhoods. As we noted recently, voucher-holders, who are mostly African-American, are routinely discriminated against when they try to move into middle-class neighborhoods, especially on the northwest side, and Mayor Emanuel has cut the budget of the city agency responsible for addressing that discrimination.

Garcia, who answered Kaiser’s question first, began by noting Chicago’s “long legacy of racial segregation.” He said the city should invest in developments throughout the city “that seek to create neighborhoods that will be attractive to people who have a job and want to live in a neighborhood that is safe, that has good schools, and access to good transportation. Because I’m an urban planner, I am equipped to engage and move Chicago in that direction to further diversify its communities.”

Kaiser told me she was glad Garcia acknowledged the city’s history of segregation, but thought his answer “was weak because he cited outcomes we want (good schools, reduced crime) as opposed to specific investments he would make as mayor.”

“What you want to do is have a thriving neighborhood strategy,” Emanuel said in his answer. He said his investments in transportation, schools, libraries, and parks throughout the city would make all neighborhoods “places where not only businesses want to go, but also families want to raise their kids.” He added that Chicago’s public library system now is the only one anywhere with “online tutoring for free in English and Spanish.” This had nothing to do with segregation, but at least the mayor was able to scratch another talking point off his list.

Kaiser told me she wished Emanuel “had cited an example—a part of the city where public and private investment in infrastructure, schools, etc. has led to improved outcomes during his tenure as mayor.”

It was encouraging that racial segregation got discussed at all, even if it took a student in the audience to bring it up. The subject never arose in debates during the race for mayor four years ago. It’s still not getting nearly as much attention as, say, the crucial urban issue of red-light cameras, but at least segregation’s profile has risen in this campaign from nonexistent to slight. We wrote about segregation and the mayor’s race in early February; candidate William “Dock” Walls condemned segregation in an earlier debate; Chicago Tonight’s Phil Ponce asked a question about it in another debate; the Sun-Times editorialized that addressing segregation “should be high on the agenda” for the next mayor; and now Kaiser has raised it again.

One of these days Chicago will evolve to the next step, in which candidates feel compelled to offer more on the subject than empty generalities. And one of these years a leading mayoral candidate might even talk about the need to not just upgrade poor neighborhoods, but also to open up the more-advantaged ones—although that would take courage and so may be too much to ask.