In 1986, two scholars from Philadelphia set out to conduct an exhaustive racial analysis of cities and suburbs across the land. Three years later, their computers have revealed some dismal information: Chicago’s metropolitan area is the most segregated region in the country. Put it this way: according to their study, the likelihood of an inner-city black youth encountering a white person in the course of a day is less than 20 percent.

Douglas Massey, now a sociology professor at the University of Chicago, and Nancy Denton, a research associate at NORC, an independent social-science research agency at the U. of C., have published their findings in the journal Demography. For each of the five categories of segregation Massey and Denton measured, the Chicago region–defined as a six-county area extending from the Indiana to the Wisconsin border–was among the worst. Their conclusion was that, because of discrimination and the lack of affordable suburban housing, blacks remain isolated in Chicago’s poor and underdeveloped inner-city neighborhoods. In contrast, whites–and to a degree, Hispanics–can settle virtually anywhere, including those boomtown suburbs where the jobs are.

In many ways the situation has not changed since 1968, when the Kerner Commission–appointed by President Johnson to investigate the causes of the 1967 riots in various cities across the country–concluded that “our nation is moving toward two societies, one black, one white–separate and unequal.” The difference is that many leaders in those days seemed eager to do something about it. Today, the inequities are pretty much ignored.

“Chicago is what we call a hyper-segregated community, which means it scores poorly on at least four of the five dimensions we have,” says Denton. “Segregation is bad because separate is not equal. Segregation makes all of the problems of poverty that much worse. It makes it that much harder for poor blacks to get jobs and a decent education; it makes it that much harder for them to merge into mainstream society.”

The scholars began their study when Massey was a professor and Denton a graduate student at the University of Pennsylvania. They wanted to measure precisely the degree of segregation in 60 metropolitan regions; to do so, they used statistics from the 1980 census–the most recent reliable data available.

“Segregation is very complicated. Taking one measurement–such as how many neighborhoods there are in which both whites and blacks live–doesn’t give you the full picture,” Denton explains. “We wanted to ask more precise questions: How evenly spread across the area are blacks? How much contact do blacks have with whites? How close are blacks to the central city?”

First, they explored the category social scientists call “evenness.” Are blacks evenly distributed not only across Chicago but across the entire metropolitan area? That’s an important distinction. You can’t boast of integration in a few north-side neighborhoods like Rogers Park or Edgewater when the suburbs remain closed to blacks.

And that is the case in almost every suburb north of Evanston, west of Bellwood, and south of Park Forest. In exclusive Du Page County, for instance, blacks account for less than 5 percent of the population. If Waukegan and Zion are excluded from Lake County, the percentage of blacks there is even lower.

“About 20 percent of the metropolitan community is black,” says Denton. “That means that if we were to have an even distribution, every town would be 20 percent black. Obviously, that’s not the case.” In fact, more than 80 percent of the region’s black residents live in Chicago, which is about 44 percent black.

Massey and Denton also measured racial isolation, meaning the amount of contact between whites and blacks within a neighborhood.

“Isolation means that when a black person goes into his neighborhood, he sees only other blacks,” says Denton. “In Chicago most blacks live in all-black neighborhoods that border other all-black neighborhoods. The isolation factor in Chicago is really high, much higher even than Boston, which is not known as an integrated city.”

A third dimension is clustering. “Clustering is basically your checkerboard problem,” says Denton. “Are your black neighborhoods spread out across a city like the black or red squares on a checkerboard? Or are they clustered together?” In Chicago, over 80 percent of blacks are clustered on the south and west sides–two giant masses containing several different neighborhoods.

Denton and Massey also looked at a fourth category, centralization, which measures the concentration of minority groups living around the downtown area of the central city. Centralization makes blacks dependent on the downtown economy, and as Denton says, “In many cities, the area around the downtown has been a zone of decay for years, and many jobs are moving to the suburbs.” Chicago is definitely a centralized city, but our central business district is fairly healthy, at least for the moment.

Still, many of the new jobs downtown require skills that most low-income residents don’t have. And although Chicago’s downtown is healthy, the greatest job growth is in the suburbs. In the past it’s been fine for secretaries and clerks who live in, say, South Deering–a black working-class neighborhood on the far south side that would qualify as centralized–to take a half-hour bus ride along Lake Shore Drive to their jobs in the Sears Tower. But what about when Sears moves to Hoffman Estates? Now these workers must contemplate a four-hour commute by bus, car, or train if they want to keep their jobs.

What’s worse, the state has agreed to pay Sears’ relocation costs, squandering its limited supply of economic-development resources even as it causes disinvestment in the Chicago neighborhoods that need investment the most. It’s as though the state’s politicians wanted the south side to shrivel up and die.

“Miami’s score on the centralization scale is [better] than Chicago’s,” says Denton. “That means that blacks there are scattered all over the area; they are not concentrated near the downtown area. I’m not saying that there aren’t isolated pockets of poverty in Miami–obviously there are. But this study shows that [centralization] is not on the scale that we find in Chicago.”

The final measurement of segregation studied by Denton and Massey is concentration, or density. Traditionally, black immigrants to Chicago were steered into densely populated slums, and any movement outward into all-white neighborhoods was met by violence. In fact, the city’s high-rise housing projects were built to appease white politicians who feared a voter backlash should blacks be scattered in low-rise units throughout the city, as most civil-rights and liberal activists advocated.

Chicago’s black communities are no longer as overcrowded as they were 20 or 30 years ago. One of the few positive results from three decades of white migration to the suburbs has been that blacks have been able to move into the neighborhoods abandoned by whites. In fact, seven longtime black neighborhoods in the inner city have lost at least 30 percent of their population in the last decade, according to a recent study by the city’s Department of Planning. But that’s not necessarily good: the result is scores of abandoned, rundown units, and a demand for housing that’s livable.

“There may be a lower concentration in Chicago’s black neighborhoods than there used to be, but in relation to the larger metropolitan region, blacks still live in densely crowded communities,” says Denton. “We measure concentration by looking at census tracts, which as a rule have 5,000 people in them. You ask yourself: how much land do we need to reach 5,000 residents? It will take a lot more land in Du Page County to collect our 5,000 people than in Uptown or in the Robert Taylor Homes.”

The obvious solution to segregation is a program in which the federal government gives low-income black Chicagoans the subsidies they need to pay for suburban housing. Encouraging poor blacks to move to the suburbs would alleviate inner-city crowding, afford black youngsters an opportunity to study in the finest suburban schools, and move their parents closer to suburban jobs.

One Chicago-based fair-housing group, the Leadership Council of Metropolitan Open Communities, has managed such a program since 1976. It distributes government housing certificates to the poor, and has settled 3,709 low-income Chicago families (about 12,000 people, almost all of them black) in the suburbs. The problem is that the demand for housing is at least ten times the number of subsidies allotted by the government. At the same time, suburban rents are rising faster than the government’s housing allowance.

“The maximum subsidy the federal government will allow for a two-bedroom unit is $580,” says Almeta Rollins, who directs the council’s suburban-housing program. “There are fewer and fewer two-bedrooms available for that amount in the suburbs. So you may have a federal subsidy and not find an apartment to use it on. Also, many families need three- or four-bedroom units, and these units are hard to find in the suburbs because they are no longer being built.”

Perhaps Chicago’s leaders should get tough with the suburbs. In return for a curb on air traffic at O’Hare, or reasonable rates for Lake Michigan water, or relief from flooding, suburban communities should be required to build low-income housing. If they resist, let them suffer noise, drought, and floods.

Of course, these proposals will never be implemented. Chicago’s black politicians would not want to dilute their political base, and it would be too dangerous for white politicians to advocate policies that smacked of integration. The results are continued segregation and more degradation for Chicago’s low-income blacks.

Denton, who does not necessarily advocate any of the proposals mentioned, says, “Some people say that blacks want to be segregated, although most studies I’ve seen show that’s not true. When asked what kind of neighborhood was ideal, blacks picked a community with a 50-50 racial split; whites said they wanted a community that was about 15 percent black. That study was done in Detroit.

“I have nothing against voluntary segregation. But that’s not what we have–we have involuntary segregation. I think we’d be a lot better off if blacks really could live where they choose.”

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/John Sundlof.