The Frances Cabrini row houses on the Near North Side.
The Frances Cabrini row houses on the Near North Side. Credit: David Schalliol

On this date 42 years ago—February 10, 1969—federal district judge Richard B. Austin issued a ruling aimed squarely at a persistent Chicago problem. “Existing patterns of racial segregation must be reversed if there is to be a chance of averting the desperately intensifying division of whites and Negroes in Chicago,” Austin wrote.

The case, Dorothy Gautreaux v. the Chicago Housing Authority, concerned the location of public housing—projects were being built only in the city’s black ghettos because whites didn’t want blacks in their neighborhoods. But the broader issue, as Judge Austin noted, was residential racial segregation, a matter of much concern throughout America back then.

The nation was “moving toward two societies, one black, one white—separate and unequal,” the National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders had declared a year before Judge Austin’s ruling. Chaired by Illinois governor Otto Kerner, the commission called for sustained efforts to end segregation.

Chicago’s ghettos in the 1960s were notorious for their shootings, robberies, rapes, fires, joblessness, single-parent families, dreadful schools and high dropout rates, rampant alcoholism and heroin addiction, abandoned buildings and vacant lots.

Lucky we fixed all that.

We must have fixed it—otherwise why isn’t racial segregation an issue in the mayor’s race?

Try finding a mention of it on the websites of any of the candidates. Editorial boards have decreed Chicago’s most important concern to be its budget problems. Other issues winning attention have been school and ethics reform, job creation, the head tax, crime, transportation, privatization, the O’Hare airport expansion.

The city’s finances are indeed a mess. But financial troubles come and go for Chicago. Segregation endures.

Check the map below. We aggregated recent census estimates from 2005-2009 for the city’s 77 community areas. Citywide, Chicago’s population of 2.8 million is tri-ethnic: 34 percent black, 33 percent white, and 27 percent Latino.

Credit: Paul John Higgins

But most African-Americans are clustered in two areas, as they were in the 1960s: a massive one on the south side, and a smaller one on the far west side. The south-side section, between Western Avenue and the lake, stretches more than a hundred blocks north to south, from 35th Street to the city limits at 138th. This African-American subdivision of Chicago includes 18 contiguous community areas, each with black populations above 90 percent, most of them well above that. The west-side black section includes another three contiguous 90 percent-plus community areas. Fifty-five percent of Chicago’s 964,000 African-Americans live in these 21 community areas, in which the aggregate population is 96 percent black. Two-thirds of the city’s blacks live in community areas that are at least 80 percent black.

On the flip side are the 33 community areas, most of them on the north and southwest sides, with less than 10 percent African-Americans. In 26 of these community areas less than 5 percent of the residents are black.

Latinos are segregated in some neighborhoods, too, but not nearly as dramatically; they’re a buffer group, living in community areas with whites or with blacks, and sometimes with both.

The maps for 1970 and 1980 show that the south-side “black belt” was still swelling in the 70s, to the south and west; the last wave of migrants was arriving from Mississippi and other southern states. From 1980 on, what’s remarkable about the maps is their consistency from decade to decade.

Credit: Paul John Higgins

Blacks in certain neighborhoods, whites in others.

This pronounced, persistent separation of the races would be worrisome, or at least curious, even if separate were equal—which of course it isn’t. The hypersegregated black neighborhoods continue to lead the city in the same wretched problems as in the 60s. In some ways, things are worse. There’s not just a lack of legitimate jobs in these areas today, but also a surplus of people without skills—and more of them have criminal records now as well, from the war on drugs. Predatory lending has multiplied the number of abandoned buildings in these neighborhoods.

So why aren’t the candidates talking about how they’d deal with segregation?

“Politically, it doesn’t play,” says Alexander Polikoff, the lawyer who brought the Gautreaux case. “People aren’t anxious to be reminded of the fact that we’ve got residential segregation. And doing something about it is damnably difficult.” Polikoff pursued remedies for segregation through Gautreaux for 40 years. He never got much housing built for CHA families in white areas, but he was able to start a “mobility” program which allowed several thousand CHA families to move to the suburbs with rent vouchers—a significant victory, but not enough to greatly change the overall picture.

Segregation is “a very difficult and intractable problem,” says Princeton sociologist Douglas Massey, one of the nation’s leading researchers of the subject. “Politicians don’t like to face up to difficult and intractable problems, whatever their nature, as we’ve seen with global climate change. And because this one involves race, it’s especially third-rail in American politics.” Massey says the inattention to segregation may explain why “Chicago and New York and Philadelphia and Detroit have hardly changed in 40 years in terms of their overall levels of segregation.”

The neglect of racial segregation this election is nothing new; it hasn’t been an issue in a mayor’s race here in decades. Back when segregation was discussed, mayoral candidates were mainly eager to assure voters they’d do nothing to upset it.

In 1971, the Gautreaux case was still inching along in Judge Austin’s courtroom. In March, a month before the mayoral election, the CHA complied with Austin’s order to plan public housing in white neighborhoods as well as black by listing 235 proposed sites in white neighborhoods. But the sites needed city approval. Mayor Richard J. Daley quickly called the proposal “detrimental” and said the units “should not be built.” His Republican opponent, Richard Friedman, declined to guarantee to block the units if elected, noting instead that open housing was “the law of the land.” The Independent Voters of Illinois called Daley “racist” because of his opposition to the sites. But Daley knew “racist” was better in Chicago than “integrationist.” He trounced Friedman. The Tribune observed afterward that Friedman’s campaign had become a “lost cause” because of his stance on the housing list.

About that time, many liberals throughout the country stopped pressing for desegregation, and the issue largely disappeared from the nation’s agenda.

It’s not just politicians who don’t like dealing with the issue. Candidates would have to answer questions about it if citizens were asking them—but we prefer a sunnier view of Chicago.

“Out of our diversity comes our city’s greatest strength,” Mayor Daley said in 2008, when he was pushing Chicago’s bid for the 2016 Olympics. He didn’t mention that the city’s blacks and whites live in separate neighborhoods.

Blacks in Chicago weren’t always severely segregated—it’s just been that way for about the last 110 years. As black migration into the city rose modestly around the beginning of the 20th century, the black belt formed on the south side between railroad tracks.

Other ethnic enclaves have existed in Chicago, of course, but they were never nearly as concentrated, and their residents tended to assimilate and disperse fairly quickly. For Chicago’s blacks, dispersal wasn’t an option; given the violence that greeted them when they moved into white neighborhoods, the safest mode of expansion from the black belt was into adjacent neighborhoods. Blacks were met there with bricks and bottles and occasionally bombs, but there was some safety in numbers. Various legal or quasi-legal methods were used to hem blacks in as well, such as restrictive covenants that forbade white property owners in border neighborhoods to rent or sell to blacks.

In the middle decades of the 20th century, southern blacks streamed into Chicago and other northern cities, seeking jobs. Chicago had three kinds of neighborhoods then: white, changing, and black. Or, as white Chicagoans knew them, good, going, and gone. Whites continued to resist the incursions, sometimes violently, but before long they usually fled, moving west within the city or following the newly built highways into the suburbs. Many of the city’s biggest employers moved to the suburbs as well. In the ghettos left behind, unemployment and poverty grew.

In the late 1960s, efforts to improve the circumstances of urban blacks began to change from desegregation to “community development”—programs aimed at making ghettos more habitable. White conservatives favored anything that might keep blacks where they were. White liberals liked the money that community development programs provided. Black politicians grew fond of segregation, too, since it provided a stable electoral base.

One of the insidious traits of segregation is how easy it makes it for the haves to ignore the plight of the have-nots. For most whites, concentrated poverty and its many ills are an abstraction—something they read about but rarely see, since it exists in parts of town they don’t live in or work in or visit. On the north lakefront, where the neighborhoods are more diverse than most in Chicago, residents may also be fooled into thinking it’s the norm throughout the city.

A common assertion about segregation is that it’s merely an expression of group preferences: black neighborhoods are overwhelmingly black because that’s the way blacks want it—segregation results from “innocent private decisions,” as Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas put it in a 2007 school desegregation case.

“The people opposed to desegregation have always said that, but that’s not what blacks say in opinion polls,” Massey says. “They much prefer to live in an integrated neighborhood, and have much more tolerance for different [racial] configurations of neighborhoods than whites do. Whites are the group that prefer substantially own-group neighborhoods.”

The community development approach that came into vogue in the late 60s has remained the dominant strategy nationally, and certainly in Chicago. For decades now, when mayoral candidates here talk about uplifting poor neighborhoods, they promise to do it by reducing crime in those areas, improving their schools, and providing more jobs. They’ll make separate equal. They also tend to insist the crucial problem isn’t race but class.

But perhaps the greatest evil of racial segregation is how it concentrates the poverty of blacks, as Massey and others have shown. Because of historical—and some continuing—discrimination, blacks are more likely to be poor. When this is combined with segregation, it means blacks are far more likely than any other group to live in concentrated poverty. It’s hard to be poor; it’s much harder to be poor and surrounded by poverty and all the harmful cultural norms and behavior, such as crime, that accompany it. It’s a kind of poverty whites rarely experience, and one tough to escape.

When Harvard sociologist Robert Sampson studied Chicago residents in the most disadvantaged quartile of the city’s census tracts a few years ago, he found that no white families, and only a few Hispanic families, were represented. “Residents in not one white community experience what is most typical for those residing in segregated black areas,” Sampson wrote in 2009, in the Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science. “Trying to estimate the effect of concentrated disadvantage on whites is thus tantamount to estimating a phantom reality.”

Sampson has been studying poverty in Chicago for much of the last two decades. He’s found that in Chicago, poverty, like segregation, persists: neighborhoods that were poor and black in 1970 were generally poor and black in 2000. (From 1970 to 2000, not a single Chicago neighborhood changed from black to white.) The neighborhoods of concentrated poverty are also high in cynicism and distrust, he’s written. In a longitudinal study, Sampson focused on the verbal ability of children growing up in Chicago’s poor black neighborhoods and found “detrimental and long-lasting consequences for black children’s cognitive ability rivaling in magnitude the effects of missing one year of schooling.” Verbal ability, he noted, is a “major predictor of life outcomes.”

These kinds of deep, neighborhood-based problems, linked inextricably in Chicago to racial segregation, are why desegregation advocates continue to maintain that segregation itself needs to be confronted.

The present mayoral candidates talk about improving the city’s schools by “empowering principals with greater autonomy” (Rahm Emanuel), putting a “Parent Academy in every school” (Gery Chico), “making neighborhood schools the priority” (Carol Moseley Braun). Emanuel promises a “world-class learning experience” for every child in every neighborhood.

In a 2010 book, Organizing Schools for Improvement, the University of Chicago’s Consortium on Chicago School Research studied school system decentralization here in the 1990s. The authors concluded that decentralization improved schools significantly—in certain neighborhoods. The schools that didn’t improve were in the poor African-American neighborhoods of the south and west sides. “In Chicago, extreme poverty combines with racial isolation,” the authors wrote. “Integrated, Latino, and racially diverse schools were much more likely to progress than schools that were predominantly minority (a combination of Latino and African-American students) or predominantly African-American.”

The authors noted that many urban children contend with homelessness, domestic violence, abuse, and neglect. “Such children can make extraordinary demands on teachers when they appear in their classrooms. . . . If the number of students presenting substantial needs is too large, even extraordinary teachers can be quickly overwhelmed.” The African-American schools had “substantially higher” percentages of abused or neglected children than other schools studied; racially integrated schools had the fewest of these children. “As we factor in the presence of additional students who might be homeless or living in foster care, or in households with chronic domestic violence, one begins to develop a sobering picture of the magnitude of the overall personal and social needs facing some schools,” the authors wrote. “While it is still possible for schools to improve” in such circumstances, “the barriers appear almost insurmountable.”

I sought to speak with the six mayoral candidates about racial segregation, and five of them obliged. (Carol Moseley Braun’s spokesperson didn’t answer numerous calls and messages.) None of the candidates have a comprehensive plan aimed at directly addressing racial segregation, and I got the impression they hadn’t thought about the issue much. Desegregation strategies are being tried elsewhere in the country; more on that later. All of the candidates favor affordable housing—just as they’re all opposed to crime—but none of them have developed an approach to ensure that affordable housing desegregates or deconcentrates poverty.

Racial segregation in Chicago today is “less of a problem than when I was growing up,” said Miguel del Valle, who came to Chicago from Puerto Rico in 1955, when he was four. “We are not the city that we were 40 years ago, or 50 years ago, when the lack of mobility was due to race. Today the lack of mobility is due to economics. A Latino family or an Asian family or an African-American family can move into any neighborhood in the city of Chicago—there aren’t the kind of roadblocks there once were. That is not to say that there isn’t still some resistance. But in those days, that resistance was blatant—people burning down houses because of who moved in. I lived through that period, and that’s a thing of the past.”

When I asked him about the continued hypersegregation of African-Americans on the south and west sides, del Valle said the key was economic: “We have to build a middle class, and create job opportunities, and give people choices. If we want more racial integration in the city of Chicago we’ve got to elevate people economically.”

Can that be done in poor, hypersegregated neighborhoods? “We haven’t been successful in breaking into that cycle, but it can be done,” del Valle said. “That’s why I’m such a big believer in strengthening community schools, beginning with early childhood education where you’re working with the parent and helping that child develop. You make the school an anchor, and then you deal with the surroundings.”

Del Valle said he also backed more affordable housing. “People should be able to live where they want to live,” he said. “They should be able to go anywhere in Cook County, anywhere in the state of Illinois with a rent voucher.” He supports the proposed Sweet Home Chicago ordinance, which would use tax increment financing money to build affordable housing. It’s not clear yet where that housing would be built and whether it would therefore decrease concentrated poverty or segregation.

Gery Chico and Rahm Emanuel would only answer questions by e-mail. Chico said he’d address segregation with policies “that create more jobs, provide affordable housing and reform the education system to give children an opportunity for a job and a better life. I see lack of jobs as the biggest factor that keeps Chicago segregated.” Chico said that as mayor, he’d lead by example by “staffing my leadership with a diverse, talented team.” He’d also stay “in touch with Chicagoans of every race, color and community” and “spend time in all our diverse, vibrant neighborhoods.” He didn’t respond to follow-up questions.

“Chicago draws its strength from its diversity,” Emanuel’s response began. He said he’d promote policies ensuring “safe streets, strong schools, and good-paying jobs throughout the city with the goal of lifting all neighborhoods up.” Accomplishing that would lead to “other positive benefits, like promoting integration.” He said he’d make sure there were “affordable housing options throughout the city, and that every neighborhood has access to a great public school, public transportation and healthy food. This will give every Chicagoan the resources and access they need to build a better life for their children.”

I asked him in a follow-up how a city could provide those things in neighborhoods with concentrated poverty.

“We start by promoting economic development,” his response said, “and that can begin by establishing strong anchors in each community—a grocery store where there isn’t one, a transportation hub that helps residents access job opportunities, a great school that serves as a community center for job training.” He offered as an illustration the Old Town School of Folk Music’s move in 1998 to Lincoln Avenue, into a space “that had little economic vitality. By creating a strong anchor in the community and pushing small businesses to fill in around it, a vibrant local economy that creates jobs and produces revenue for the city can be established. We need to do this in more communities.”

That may be a good example of neighborhood economic development, but it seems unrelated to addressing concentrated poverty. Lincoln Square’s individual poverty rate was 13 percent in 1990 and 11 percent in 2000—well below the citywide rates of 22 percent and 19 percent those years. If Lincoln Square had been an area of concentrated poverty, would the Old Town School have even considered moving in?

I asked Emanuel if he’d make any direct efforts to desegregate neighborhoods, or if he saw desegregation as mainly a by-product of the safe streets, good schools, and jobs he’d ensure. “The latter,” he said.

He noted that he’d worked on the Plan for Transformation as vice-chair of the CHA. This was the federally funded program under which most of the city’s high-rise projects were demolished. A few of the residents got units in mixed-income developments built on the sites of the old projects; most were given rent vouchers and settled elsewhere. “While the policy was not perfect, combating the cycles of poverty that were fostered by the CHA high rises and building mixed-income housing developments scattered throughout the city has helped promote integration,” he said.

The tearing down of the high-rises offered an extraordinary chance for widespread desegregation, which might have happened had the displaced residents gotten more counseling and support to help them move to middle-class neighborhoods. But a study of the plan in the 2009 Journal of Public Affairs found that most of the displaced residents merely moved from their vertical ghettos to horizontal ones, settling in “disadvantaged, predominantly black neighborhoods.”

William “Dock” Walls and Patricia Watkins—the two African-American candidates besides Braun—both believed that segregation ought to be addressed directly, but their proposals for doing so were modest.

Walls said segregation isn’t discussed “because people don’t want to face reality. People believe that’s just the way it is in the city of Chicago.” He graduated from Chicago Vocational high school, in the southeast side neighborhood of Avalon Park, in 1975, with only one white classmate. “In Chicago, we think such racial segregation is normal, but it’s not,” he said. He suggested neighborhood festivals “so people can come into different neighborhoods and see how different people live.”

Walls said some African-Americans aren’t interested in hearing about desegregation, not because they wouldn’t like to see it happen, but because they have pressing problems and want quicker solutions. “It’s hard for people to think about something like desegregation when they’re not eating and they don’t have jobs, even if segregation is related to why they’re not eating and don’t have jobs,” he said. “They want to eat right now. People today want instant oatmeal, they don’t want hominy grits.”

“Chicago is hypersegregated,” Patricia Watkins said. “I think it needs to change because if we’re going to benefit as a city, we have to have experiences with other cultures besides our own.” In black neighborhoods, she said, “when the kids go to school, they see all black faces, when they go to the store, they see all black people, when they go to church, they see all black people. They only have experiences with other ethnicities by television.”

She said she’d seek to provide affordable housing in all 77 Chicago communities “to help diversify the neighborhoods.” She’d organize a festival-exchange program between neighborhoods “so people can get used to being around each other so they can build relationships and eventually live together.” She’d also like to create “tourist attractions” in every neighborhood, including the hypersegregated black ones, to encourage Chicagoans to visit them “once we bring the violence down.”

“The mayor of Chicago is the mayor of Chicagoland,” Myron Orfield says. Orfield, who used to live here, has been a leading force for desegregation in the Twin Cities—he’s the executive director of the Institute on Race & Poverty at the University of Minnesota. He says a Chicago mayor carries much clout with suburban mayors, and could use it to help ease segregation in the city and the near suburbs.

Orfield went to law school at the University of Chicago before moving to Minnesota, where he served five terms in the state house and one in the senate. He authored many metropolitan law reforms that have helped deconcentrate poverty and desegregate Minneapolis and Saint Paul and some of its surrounding suburbs.

Wealthy suburbs benefit from a vibrant central city—it’s often what attracts businesses and people to a region. But those wealthy suburbs tend not to do their share when it comes to dealing with the region’s social problems, Orfield maintains. He says this is especially true of what real estate consultants call the “favored quarter” in a metro area—newer suburbs with the most expensive commercial and residential developments. These suburbs get a big share of government money for highways and infrastructure, but build only expensive housing to keep their tax base high, making sure the poor are someone else’s concern. In the Chicago area, the favored quarter is the northwest suburbs, Orfield says.

For desegregation to succeed, affordable housing needs to be available throughout a metropolitan area, he says, including its favored quarter and other thriving suburbs. And he believes the richer suburbs should share some of their wealth to help pay for the region’s social needs: people of lesser means shouldn’t have inferior schools and services just because they can’t afford to live in the metro area’s richer communities. Much of this would entail new state lawsbut Orfield thinks a Chicago mayor could be instrumental in bringing those about. A favored quarter means a less-favored three-quartersthe central city and older suburbs, many of which are also struggling with racial segregation and the costly problems that accompany it. “A mayor of Chicago could lead a regional coalition of areas that are being hurt by segregation, to try to reduce it,” Orfield says.

The efforts of Orfield and others in the Twin Cities’ region have induced wealthy suburbs to build nearly half of the region’s new affordable housing units in recent years“which is not what it ought to be, it should be more than half, but it’s vastly better than in the Chicago area,” Orfield says. About 40 percent of those units are held by black and Latino families. Wealthy suburban school districts have also redrawn their boundaries to increase integration in their schools.

Alexander Polikoff—the Gautreaux lawyer—also advocates a metro strategy. But instead of focusing on the building of new affordable housing throughout a region, which he thinks is prohibitively expensive and politically problematic, he’d like to see more federal money spent on an expansion of the Gautreaux “mobility” program, with more housing vouchers for the poor to use in middle-class suburban neighborhoods. “There has never been a serious effort to desegregate via the voucher program,” he says. “I’d like to see it tried.”

Because this would require federal money, the mayor of Chicago couldn’t do it on his own; he’d need backing in Washington. One Chicago mayoral candidate is familiar with President Obama, of course. But Obama so far has been a disappointment to desegregation advocates. “The national administration has backed away from mobility proposals,” Polikoff says.

Myron Orfield’s brother, Gary Orfield, is a prominent desegregation advocate who focuses on schools. Codirector of the Civil Rights Project at UCLA, he taught at the University of Chicago in the 1980s and has returned to Chicago often for school-based research. School desegregation has become even more difficult in the wake of a five-to-four Supreme Court decision in 2007 that barred most programs aimed at racially integrating schools.

Gary Orfield says a Chicago mayor interested in furthering school desegregation would make sure his city’s magnet and charter schools had explicit diversity goals and worked hard to achieve them. Magnet schools in white neighborhoods should recruit a diverse student body, but often don’t, he says. He’d like to see a push for statewide magnet schools “set right in the middle of Chicago.” Statewide magnets, often residential, are open to students from across the state; Illinois has one in Aurora—the Illinois Mathematics and Science Academy.

Charter schools could also attract more diverse student bodies, Orfield says. “The problem is they’re not being held accountable in a serious way—they’re just assumed to be better by definition.” They often don’t have diversity goals or provide the kind of transportation needed to build a diverse student body, he says. (A 2009 study found that African-Americans who transferred from Chicago public schools to charters on average ended up in schools 84 percent black instead of 90 percent black.)

Orfield and others have managed to increase school integration in some metro areas despite the Supreme Court decision. Though a plan he crafted in Louisville two decades ago was struck down by the court’s ruling, Louisville board members have asked him to help them design another one to achieve diversity. When he talks about moving toward diversity in Chicago, “people look at me like, this is just impossible. And I say, ‘Well, I did it in Saint Louis, I did it in Louisville’they don’t believe it.

“Segregation didn’t happen by accident, and integration doesn’t happen by accident,” Orfield says. “It can be done, but you really have to plan to do it. You have to make it a goal.”