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The most important issue no one's talking about in the mayoral race

Racial segregation continues to inflict wounds on the south and west sides. And once again it's ignored on the campaign trail.

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See our related story: "Mayoral candidates speak up about Chicago's segregation"

The Sun-Times and Tribune editorial boards covered plenty of ground in the questionnaires they put to mayoral candidates—but there was a key omission. They inquired about pensions, TIFs, taxes, crime, and economic development. And they raised other, more specific issues: Should Chicago have a casino? An elected school board? Traffic cameras? A smaller city council? A legislative inspector general? A Lucas museum on the lakefront?

The question they didn't raise: What should be done about the city's racial segregation?

The Sun-Times didn't ask about it because the paper wanted to focus on financial issues, and also sought to keep the questionnaire "relatively short," Tom McNamee, editorial page editor, explained.

The Tribune had "no particular reason" for not asking about segregation, Bruce Dold, the Trib's editorial page editor, told us.

The two dailies aren't alone in ignoring racial segregation as an issue in this mayoral campaign. "That hasn't been on any of the questionnaires, and I've filled out about 20 of them," said William "Dock" Walls, one of the five mayoral candidates.

This is standard operating procedure in Chicago, as we noted on the eve of the last mayoral election. Candidates are asked to talk about everything under the sun—everything except the city's most fundamental problem.

Back in February 2011 we traced the history of Chicago's racial segregation, describing how the residential segregation of African-Americans had begun here more than a hundred years ago and hardened into place during the 20th century. This wasn't the choice of African-Americans; it was the product of the fear and prejudice of whites, abetted by a host of government-sanctioned policies—restrictive covenants, redlining, urban renewal, public housing situated almost exclusively in ghettos, generous federal spending that subsidized white flight to the suburbs.

The African-Americans who migrated to Chicago from the south were largely poor. Job discrimination combined with segregation to concentrate their poverty. Overcoming poverty is tough, but it's much tougher when it's rampant in a neighborhood. Unemployed adults can't offer the kind of connections that lead to legitimate work. Violence exacts a major toll. Schools are inferior. Role models are scarce. Health care is wanting.

"It is not just that the ghetto has persisted, but that the ghetto has been inherited," sociologist Patrick Sharkey observed in his 2013 book Stuck in Place. "Multiple generations of family members have been taught in the nation's worst schools and have been exposed to the nation's most unhealthy and most violent environments."

Given the magnitude of the problem, small wonder that we look the other way.

We pointed out in 2011 that, notwithstanding the civil rights laws passed in the 1960s, segregation had barely diminished in Chicago in the preceding 40 years. In 1970, most of the city's black residents lived in two vast ghettos—one on the south side, the other on the west side. They still did in 2011.

And they still do today.

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Chicago's population of 2.7 million is 33 percent African-American, 32 percent non-Latino white, and 28 percent Latino, according to 2008-2012 census estimates. More than half of the black population (52 percent) lives in only 20 of Chicago's 77 community areas—neighborhoods that are each more than 90 percent black. The number of community areas that are more than 90 percent black has inched downward since our last analysis (which was based on 2005-2009 estimates) from 21 to 20. (Woodlawn dropped from 92 to 88 percent black.) The aggregate population in these 20 neighborhoods is 95 percent black.

On the flip side, 32 community areas have fewer than 10 percent black residents. The number of community areas with fewer than 5 percent black residents has edged upward since our last story, from 26 to 27.

Latinos are clustered in community areas on the northwest and southwest sides, the census estimates show, but these neighborhoods aren't nearly as segregated as the city's African-American neighborhoods. Latinos are a buffer group, often living with whites or African-Americans, and the poverty rates in their neighborhoods are significantly lower than in predominately African-American ones.

Our 2011 and 2015 analyses are based on five-year estimates that have two overlapping years (2008 and 2009) and therefore aren't ideal for matching. So we also compared the more current data with the figures from the 2000 census. That year, 22 community areas were more than 90 percent black, and 33 community areas had fewer than 10 percent black residents.

If the trickle of desegregation continues, Chicago might be an integrated city by the end of this century.

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Several mayoral candidates have framed their campaigns around the idea that downtown has been favored over Chicago's other neighborhoods. But there's rampant inequality between these other neighborhoods. When candidates do talk about these disparities, they usually neglect the role played by racial segregation, and rarely propose desegregation as a solution.

Is poverty pervasive in Chicago? Certainly not in the ten neighborhoods with single-digit poverty rates. Six of these are on the north side, two are on the far south side, and two are on the southwest side. Another 29 Chicago communities have poverty rates below the city average of 22.1 percent.

On the other hand, ten community areas have poverty rates of 40 percent and higher. They're all on the south and west sides; they range from 92 to 99 percent black.

Is unemployment widespread here? Not in the 30 community areas with single-digit unemployment rates. But a dozen neighborhoods have unemployment rates over 20 percent—neighborhoods that are 85 to 99 percent black. In Fuller Park, which is 92 percent black, the unemployment rate is 40 percent—nearly nine times the unemployment rate in Lincoln Park and North Center (4.5).

Is violence epidemic in Chicago? It depends on which Chicago you mean. The homicide rate nationally in 2007 was 6.1 per 100,000 people, and a federal government initiative, Healthy People 2020, has set a goal to reduce that to 5.5 by 2020. In 25 Chicago community areas—neighborhoods that are mostly white, or white and Latino, or racially integrated—the homicide rate already is lower than that 5.5 goal. But in a dozen hypersegregated black communities on the south and west sides, the homicide rates range from 42 to 78 per 100,000.

The toxic mix of poverty and segregation claims lives nonviolently as well. We showed in a 2012 story the large gap in mortality rates between poor black neighborhoods and white and wealthy communities, for all of the city's leading causes of death—cancer, heart disease, diabetes-related illnesses, stroke, and unintentional injury. Growing research attributes these disparities not only to the higher poverty rates in poor black neighborhoods, but also to segregation itself. The 2012 story was based on data from 2004-2008; more recent figures now available, for 2006-2010, tell the same grim tale. For cancer, for instance, the 20 community areas with the highest mortality rates are all hypersegregated black neighborhoods.

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"We let mayors and other local officials off the hook for segregation by believing that it is so entrenched nothing can really be done about it," Nikole Hannah-Jones says.

Hannah-Jones, a ProPublica reporter who's written extensively about racial segregation, says mayors "could do some fairly simple things and see change"—starting with cracking down on landlords and real estate agents who discriminate against minorities seeking to move into white neighborhoods."We know that housing discrimination is still rampant and plays a big role in ongoing segregation," she says. "Yet most cities never test for it, do not fund the organizations that do, and spend almost no time or money on enforcing the law—because it's not popular politically" or with builders, landlords, and bankers, she says. "Currently, landlords in most cities have nothing to fear."

A study conducted by the Chicago Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights Under Law and released last year showed widespread discrimination by Chicago landlords against tenants with Chicago Housing Authority vouchers. The vast majority of CHA voucher holders are African-American. They faced the most discrimination on the northwest side, where landlords refused to rent to them 58 percent of the time. This discrimination "perpetuates the Chicago area's extreme segregation," the report observed.

Many landlords simply won't accept housing vouchers, and the CHA often sends tenants back to the same segregated black neighborhoods to look for apartments, says J. Brian Malone, executive director of the Kenwood-Oakland Community Organization. Such discrimination convinces people "that certain areas are off-limits," he says.

The Chicago agency charged with investigating complaints of housing discrimination is the Commission on Human Relations. In recent years, it has seldom punished landlords for discriminating racially. The commission's modest $1.9 million budget has grown yet more modest since Rahm Emanuel became mayor: he's cut it to $1.1 million. It's one of the things we would have liked to have discussed with him, but he declined to talk with us about segregation.

Hannah-Jones says that cities intent on reducing segregation would "stop concentrating affordable housing in communities that already have an overabundance of it."In Chicago, a city ordinance requires new housing developments to include units that are affordable for working-class households—but developers can opt out by paying into a housing fund, and most do. "The funds end up going to affordable housing in neighborhoods that are already segregated," says Leah Levinger, executive director of the Chicago Housing Initiative, a citywide coalition advocating for improved access to affordable housing.

City officials could toughen the ordinance to mandate more economic diversity in new developments. "An administration that was committed to addressing residential segregation would throw its weight behind it," Levinger says. But "we don't have a strong antisegregation movement or discussion here in Chicago."

Cities should also work with their suburbs to develop a regional "fair share" plan for affordable housing, Hannah-Jones says. "Many suburbs that are on the verge of racial transition would benefit from such a plan, because it manages the growth of these units and makes sure one area does not become overburdened, and poverty does not remain so concentrated."

"The great majority of Negro Americans . . . still, as we meet here tonight, are another nation," President Lyndon Johnson said in a noted speech in 1965—50 years ago this June. "For them, the walls are rising and the gulf is widening."

In that commencement address at Howard University, Johnson pointed out that "the isolation of Negro from white communities is increasing . . . as Negroes crowd into the central cities and become a city within a city."

"They are shut in, in slums," he said, "a separated people."

Johnson pledged to change this. But urban riots and the Vietnam war soon derailed his efforts. And so 50 years later, many African-Americans are still another nation—not just in Chicago, but also in Washington, Milwaukee, Detroit, Baltimore, New York, Newark, Saint Louis, Cleveland, Philadelphia, and Los Angeles.

In his inaugural speech four years ago, Emanuel called Chicago "the city of 'Yes, we can'—not 'No, we can't,'" and said that "from now on, when it comes to change, Chicago will not take no for an answer." Emanuel added: "The decisions we make in the next two or three years will determine what Chicago will look like in the next 20 or 30."

If any decisions have been made in the last four years that will cure Chicago of its segregation in the next 20 or 30, they're not apparent. A solution isn't likely until we begin facing the problem squarely.

Zara Yost and Qudsiya Siddiqui helped research this story.

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