The remaining rowhouses of the Cabrini-Green public housing development stand empty as a new upscale apartment building is erected nearby. Credit: Rich Hein/Sun-Times

A new study released Tuesday by the Metropolitan Planning Council found that Chicago-area segregation is costing the regional economy more than $4 billion in lost income, 83,000 college degrees, and hundreds of lives lost to homicides each year. The nonprofit urban planning and development group hopes to stimulate new policy solutions by demonstrating how racial and economic segregation leaves everyone in Chicagoland worse off, not just the people living in segregated areas.

The study was undertaken together with researchers from the Urban Institute and analyzed U.S. Census data going back to 1990 as well as economic indicators. It found that among the country’s 100 largest metropolitan areas, Chicagoland is the tenth-most segregated region for African-Americans, the ninth-most segregated for Latinos, and the 20th-most economically segregated metro area. The authors also found that Chicagoland lags far behind metropolitan areas with comparable demographics in its rate of desegregation. Though white-black segregation in the area is declining by about 10 percent every 20 years, at the current rate it would take us until 2070 to reach today’s national median levels.

“With lost income, lives, and potential on the line, we don’t have that kind of time,” the report states. “We need more deliberate interventions to accelerate our progress.”

There are, however, some caveats to the report’s findings. Most importantly, MPC examined the correlation between segregation and the other factors, but can’t definitively say that segregation is the singular cause of Chicago’s woes. Low college attainment, lost earnings, and the homicide rate could also be problems driven by general population decline, for example. And not all places with high rates of racial and economic segregation are seeing the same cocktail of problems as Chicagoland. New York and Los Angeles, for example, both of which have much lower homicide rates and less regional racial segregation, also have much higher economic segregation. Meanwhile, Saint Louis, which has the highest murder rate in the country, is in a more economically and less racially segregated region than Chicago.

Nevertheless, the study estimates that if Chicagoland had been able to bring segregation rates down to the national median back in 2010, the region would have since saved $65 million in policing costs, $218 million in incarceration costs, and gained $6 billion in home values.

MPC vice president Marisa Novara hopes that these statistics will sway wealthy white people in the region to care more about segregation and support policies seeking to reverse it. For example, while the study presents the potential regional income gains specifically for black families, Novara says that 78 percent of the increased college attainment with desegregation in the area would actually be among whites. In recent years, a stream of new studies has shown the toll segregation and concentrated poverty take on African-Americans—but these studies don’t seem to spur social change.

“A moral lens on this issue has proven insufficient to move policy,” Novara says. By framing the conversation about segregation as, essentially, a story of poor African-American disadvantage, “we leave a whole lot of people in this region feeling that this is not their problem, and they don’t need to be part of the solution.”

It remains to be seen whether rationally appealing to white area residents’ sense of collective responsibility with new policies will put a dent in the the pervasive but elusive ways that racism drives segregation. It hasn’t exactly worked before.

American history has shown that even the most intensive desegregation policies, such as school busing, don’t create lasting change in the hearts and minds of white people or lasting opportunities for African-Americans. With the expiration of integration court orders, schools have reseparated and disequalized. Government policies targeting segregation in housing have lost their teeth in large part because they no longer refer to race and focus on “socioeconomics” instead. And in recent decades all levels of governments have shrunk back from intervening in segregation, favoring laissez-faire, market-oriented approaches that tend to exacerbate inequality, such as the privatization of public schools and public housing.

These trends—in addition to the Trump administration’s stated intentions to back away from enforcing fair housing laws and other discrimination protections—make it hard to imagine the passage of more government regulations to force integration anytime soon. Locally, even modest attempts to mandate desegregation, such as the Keeping the Promise ordinance, have been consigned to seemingly permanent political purgatory. And these days, the reproduction of segregation in Chicago seems more obscured than ever by language focused on zoning, density, property values, neighborhood character, and crime, leaving advocates in difficult battles against racist ideas that masquerade as economic ones. At the same time, conspicuously missing from the slew of recent studies on the harms of segregation is research on how and why it benefits whites.

And yet, Novara remains hopeful. In the months to come MPC will study what might be driving faster desegregation rates in other cities and explore possible policy solutions to spur the same change in Chicago.

She also thinks that a crucial component of desegregation efforts will be getting white people personally and politically on board with solutions through community engagement workshops and public education efforts, and by recruiting influential stakeholders to champion the cause. As difficult as it is to enact new policies, it’s even tougher to change people’s minds.