• AP Photo/Denis Farrell
  • Nelson Mandela in Johannesburg in 2000, ten years after he was freed from prison, where he spent 27 years

After Nelson Mandela died yesterday, Mayor Rahm Emanuel issued a statement: “The world is sadder now because he has died; but we are comforted knowing that the world is better because he lived. . . . In the coming days, from the neighborhoods of Chicago to the streets of Pretoria . . . the name Mandela will be on the lips of all those who love and work for peace.”

It was an expression of deep respect, and countless others from across the world have joined in extolling Mandela’s leadership, courage, steadfast commitment to justice, and willingness to forgive.

But those tributes are mere words, and Mandela was a man of action. What can we do in Chicago to honor him? Should we name one of our many all-black schools after him? Or a street in the black part of town?

Mandela “set a moral example for the world,” the New York Times editorial board proclaimed. The best way to honor him is to follow that example. In Chicago, that should mean committing to end our own apartheid.

Most Americans think of apartheid as a wicked system that prevailed far away and ended years ago. And it’s true, northern U.S. cities don’t have an explicit policy mandating racial segregation. They haven’t needed one.

The word “apartheid” is from Afrikaans, and means a state of living apart.

Chicago is 33 percent black, 32 percent white, and 29 percent Hispanic, but you won’t find many neighborhoods resembling those proportions. On the south side, the Grand Boulevard neighborhood is 94 percent black. South of Grand Boulevard, Washington Park is 98 percent black, and Greater Grand Crossing is also 98 percent black. To the west, Englewood and West Englewood are 98 percent black. Farther south, Auburn Gresham and Washington Heights are 99 percent black. East of Washington Heights, Roseland is 98 percent black, Chatham 99 percent, Avalon Park 98 percent, Burnside 99 percent, Calumet Heights 97 percent. Farther south, West Pullman is 95 percent black, Riverdale 97 percent black.

A state of living apart. Our version is less overtly virulent than was South Africa’s, which, ironically, makes ours harder to end.

The poverty rates in most of the black neighborhoods mentioned above are five and ten times the poverty rates on the northwest side—in Edison Park, Norwood Park, Jefferson Park, Forest Glen, and Dunning, where the percentage of black residents is, respectively, .2, .9, 1.6, 1.8, and 1.2. Mayor Emanuel’s north-side neighborhood, Lakeview, is 4 percent black.

The poverty of Chicago’s African-Americans, concentrated by the long history of confining them to certain parts of town, has left residents of the black sections suffering staggering rates of homicide and other violence, and higher death rates from cancer, heart disease, diabetes, and stroke; left them living in substandard housing, amid rampant foreclosures; has left children usually growing up with one parent or none, and attending inferior schools. Chicago’s public school system is 86 percent African-American and Hispanic, and 85 percent low-income. One in 11 white children here is living in poverty, compared with more than one in two black children.

This is 19 years after South Africa’s apartheid ended.

And no, Chicago’s African-Americans didn’t simply choose to live amid warring gangs and boarded buildings. A repugnant, century-long history of government and private actions compelled that “choice”: restrictive covenants, redlining, panic-peddling, rent discrimination; the bombing and torching of the homes of blacks who dared move into white neighborhoods, and the bullets and bricks and bottles that also greeted them; the urban renewal programs that became “negro removal”; the siting of public housing in the ghetto.

“The segregation of American blacks was no historical accident,” Douglas Massey and Nancy Denton wrote in American Apartheid , published 20 years ago. “It was brought about by actions and practices that had the passive acceptance, if not the active support, of most whites in the United States. Although America’s apartheid may not be rooted in the legal strictures of its South African relative, it is no less effective in perpetuating racial inequality.”

Americans were eager to condemn South Africa’s apartheid system, Massey and Denton observed, but less willing “to acknowledge the consequences of their own institutionalized system of racial separation.” And unwilling to even talk about it, the authors noted: “The topic of segregation has virtually disappeared from public policy debates. . . . Residential segregation has become the forgotten factor of American race relations.”

Twenty years later, is that any different? When was the last time you heard Mayor Emanuel or President Obama talk about racial segregation?

It’s not surprising that other elected officials don’t talk about it either, since they tend to benefit from segregation. They draw districts along residential racial lines, making their reelection easier.

None of us, however, likes to talk about how segregated our lives are. Racial segregation pervades not only our neighborhoods, but also many of our workplaces. When it comes to race, we talk a good game here at the Reader, but our editorial staff includes not a single African-American.

Emanuel often brags about Chicago’s world-class status. Until we fix this fundamental problem, though, our city has nothing to brag about.

But imagine for a moment that we did in fact solve this problem. Imagine that we went from one of the most segregated cities in the nation to a town that was truly integrated, racially and economically—from Lake Michigan to Harlem, from 138th to Howard. And that we became a model for the many other U.S. cities in need of the same cure. Wouldn’t that be a world-class achievement? Could anything honor Mandela more?

It would take time. A way of life a hundred years in the making will not easily be shed. Creative solutions, not yet conceived, are needed, but some steps are already known. There ought to be more subsidized housing throughout Chicago, not just in certain wards. The mayor should work with suburban mayors toward increasing the amount of affordable housing throughout the region. Chicago should also pursue a city-suburban magnet school program—they’ve helped reduce school segregation elsewhere.

Ordinary Chicagoans could start by reading American Apartheid—the clearest and most compelling account I’ve read of segregation’s insidious nature. Then they can start bugging their elected officials about what they’re doing to alleviate segregation.

Segregation has persisted so long here that it feels as if the city’s supposed to be this way. Even those who have recognized the need for change have neglected to act. Maybe we’re just intimidated by the problem, because it often seems impossible to cure.

But as Mandela liked to say about challenges, “It always seems impossible until it’s done.”