What has Emanuel done so far about racial segregation?

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Rahm Emanuel at President Obamas inauguration Monday
  • Saul Loeb/Getty AFP/Getty Images
  • Rahm Emanuel at President Obama's inauguration Monday
President Obama's inaugural address made me think of Rahm Emanuel's own inaugural speech, delivered 20 months ago. "Today, more than any other time in our history, more than any other place in our country, the city of Chicago is ready for change," the new mayor said in May 2011.

For parents "who deserve a school system that expects every student to earn a diploma," and for residents "who deserve to walk home on safer streets . . . this is your day," Emanuel went on. "This morning, we leave behind the old ways and old divisions and begin a new day for Chicago."

"New times demand new answers," the mayor also said. "Old problems cry out for better results."

Although Emanuel didn't mention it, one of those old problems crying out for better results was racial segregation.

During the mayoral campaign in 2011, I wrote a story on the subject. I noted that in the 1960s, Chicago's poor, black neighborhoods had been beset with crime, fires, joblessness, dreadful schools, and abandoned buildings. Segregation had been foisted on blacks by white Chicagoans, with the help of civic and government leaders, throughout the 20th century. It had concentrated the poverty of blacks, leading to the deplorable circumstances that, over decades, millions of Chicagoans had been born into.

In the 1960s, at least the problem was recognized and targeted. A national commission (chaired by Illinois governor Otto Kerner) said the nation was "moving toward two societies, one black, one white—separate and unequal," and called for sustained efforts to end segregation. In 1969, a federal judge in Chicago said the city's patterns of racial segregation had to be reversed to halt the "desperately intensifying division of whites and Negroes."

But instead of a sustained effort to reverse the patterns, the problem was ignored. My 2011 story, "Separate, Unequal, and Ignored," contended that more than 40 years later, racial segregation remained our city's most fundamental problem. We used census data to show that 55 percent of Chicago's African-Americans still lived in community areas that were at least an astonishing 96 percent black. And those hypersegregated neighborhoods continued to lead the city in the same wretched problems they led them in during the 1960s.

No one was talking about segregation anymore, however. This included the candidates for mayor in 2011. They were talking about Chicago's financial problems, about the need for better schools, about ethics reform, jobs, taxes, crime, transportation, privatization, an expansion of O'Hare. All worthy issues—but why not also racial segregation? It seemed an especially important subject because of the role it played in some of the other issues, namely schools and crime.

I asked the six main candidates to talk about segregation for my story. I wanted to know if they considered the city's racial segregation a problem, and, if so, what they'd do to address it. Five of the candidates responded. (The exception was Carol Moseley Braun, whose campaign was in disarray.) Emanuel answered my questions by e-mail.

He sidestepped the question about whether segregation was a problem here. "Chicago draws its strength from its diversity," his 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," he 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 might be a good example of neighborhood economic development, I wrote in the story, but it seemed unrelated to addressing concentrated poverty. Lincoln Square's individual poverty rate was 13 percent in 1990 and 11 percent in 2000—both well below the citywide rates (22 percent and 19 percent) for those years. If Lincoln Square had been an area of concentrated poverty, I wondered, would the Old Town School have even considered moving in?

I also asked Emanuel if he'd make any direct efforts to desegregate neighborhoods, or if he saw desegregation as mainly a byproduct of the safe streets, good schools, and jobs he'd ensure. "The latter," he said.

Now it's almost two years later. That's not nearly enough time for major improvements in a problem as entrenched as Chicago's segregation. On the other hand, the mayor did say in his inaugural speech: "The decisions we make in the next two or three years will determine what Chicago will look like in the next 20 or 30." And also: "Chicago is the city of 'Yes, we can'—not 'No, we can't.' From now on, when it comes to change, Chicago will not take no for an answer."

So—are the mayor's strategies moving Chicago at least modestly toward more racial integration? What has he done to provide "good-paying jobs" and "affordable housing options" throughout the city? What "strong anchors" has he established, and in which poor, black neighborhoods, that are helping turn them around? How does he think he's doing on all this?

I e-mailed his office three weeks ago, asking him for an interview on the subject. I said in that e-mail: "In two years, no mayor can substantially change racial segregation that's persisted in Chicago for a century. But I want to know if the mayor feels he's making any progress, however slight, in reducing our city's racial segregation—or if he's planted seeds he feels confident will ultimately bear fruit."

"I'll get back to you on this," a spokesperson responded.

Nudges from me since then have yielded only the dismal "I'll get back to you" responses.

I know the mayor's a busy person. But I think segregation is a subject he ought to carve out a few minutes for every now and then. I think it's the kind of problem that separates the exceptional elected official from the run-of-the-mill. Any mayor can redeploy police to deal with a spike in homicides, like the one Chicago had last year. But though the city's homicide rate rises and falls, it's been horrific for decades in the city's poor, black neighborhoods—and no mayor has really dealt with the underlying problem. In our schools, likewise, the role of concentrated poverty stemming from segregation has been ignored. As I wrote in October, Chicago's racial gap in child poverty has widened in the last decade: now only one in 11 white kids here lives in poverty, compared with more than one in two black kids. (I tried to ask the mayor about that gap in October. His office said it would get back to me.)

The mayor prides himself on being an innovator. Innovation seems to be one of his favorite printable words. What problem cries more for innovative approaches than racial segregation?

Maybe he doesn't want to talk about the subject because he doesn't have any innovative ideas to offer. Or maybe he doesn't think racial segregation is much of a problem for Chicago anymore. If that's the case, he could just say so.

In a city that won't take no for an answer, "I'll get back to you" about racial segregation is pretty weak.

Steve Bogira writes about segregation every Thursday.

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