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All four of Mayor Rahm Emanuel's challengers have spoken of disparities in the city, but only one has pinpointed Chicago's racial segregation as a cause, and has said that addressing it should be a priority. In a debate Friday at the Sun-Times, Bill "Dock" Walls noted that 21 of Chicago's 77 community areas are an aggregate 96 percent black. Whereas much of the rest of Chicago is "full of resources and unlimited opportunity," and is safe, the segregated black neighborhoods are decaying, he said, and abounding in crime, unemployment, struggling schools, and boarded buildings.
Mary Mitchell, Sun-Times columnist and a member of the editorial board, asked Walls how he'd close the gap between these two Chicagos. "You have to have diverse, inclusive, mixed-income communities," Walls replied. He noted that 33 Chicago communities had hardly any black residents. "So we're not mixing as a people." Walls continued: "You have to make sure you have a healthy stock of affordable housing in every community throughout the city of Chicago, so people can afford to live on the north side, and on the northwest side, and on the southwest side."
None of the mayor's other opponents chimed in; no one asked Emanuel to respond; and the moderator of the debate soon changed the subject. Most of the debate was spent on the city's financial problems.
We sought to interview the mayoral candidates about racial segregation this year, as we had before the last election, when the issue was also being ignored. Four of the five candidates—all but Emanuel—talked with us.
When we invited the candidates to speak with us about segregation, we sent them a link to our 2011 story, "Separate, Unequal, and Ignored", which documented the city's apartheid. The data on community areas Walls cited Friday was from that story. Our update this week shows little change since. It also shows that the hypersegregated black neighborhoods lead the city in poverty, unemployment, homicide, and cancer death rates.
Addressing segregation and its harms is not impossible, but it requires the commitment to do it—a commitment lacking here for decades, largely because it's not politically expedient.
For starters, the city could fight housing discrimination more aggressively, as our cover story this week notes, and as Walls advocated in his interview with us. A recent study shows that African-Americans are still being turned away by landlords on the north and northwest sides. The city could also do much more to make sure that affordable housing was available throughout Chicago, as Walls suggests.
Instead the mayor has focused on lifting up poor neighborhoods economically. He points to the Whole Foods store due to open in Englewood in 2016, which he says will invigorate the area.
Such efforts are vital, but they're not enough to combat segregation. Think of the mother in Englewood with two preteen children, anxious about their approaching adolescence. Must she wait until Whole Foods opens, and eventually boosts the neighborhood—if it does? Or, if she wishes, should she be able to move to a neighborhood where her kids are far more likely to be safe, and where the schools are better?
Chicago's elected officials have never done much to facilitate this—perhaps because the residents of the better-off Chicago might disapprove.
It's not surprising that the only candidate speaking forthrightly about racial segregation thus far is the one with the least chance of winning, or even of making a runoff. Walls has never held public office and has almost no campaign cash. When you got nothing, you got nothing to lose. I hope he continues to take advantage of his position by making noise about segregation in the remaining debates, which will all be televised. Walls wasn't invited to the debate at 7 this evening, on WTTW's Chicago Tonight, but he will participate in the final two debates, tomorrow and next Tuesday.
Businessman Willie Wilson isn't likely to say much about segregation; he's offered little of substance so far on any issue raised in the debates. (He ended Friday's debate with a prayer.)
Mayor Emanuel likely will continue championing his strategy of improving poor neighborhoods rather than suggest he'd do anything to help residents of the troubled Chicago move to the thriving one, a suggestion that might bother his north-side base.
That leaves Alderman Bob Fioretti and Cook County Commissioner Jesus "Chuy" Garcia. They've been pretty quiet on the campaign trail about racial segregation. Their plans for helping the residents of poor black neighborhoods resemble Emanuel's: they focus mostly on improvements to those neighborhoods, rather than policies that would help those who'd like to leave them do so.
Fioretti and Garcia rightly tout their liberal props—their history of standing up for the disadvantaged and neglected. They have a chance to do so now. Will they join Walls in talking about the need to fight housing discrimination and to press for affordable housing in every Chicago neighborhood? Will they start taking Emanuel to task for not addressing racial segregation? Or will they simply continue to say that they're for "the neighborhoods"? The latter route is the politically safer one. This is a litmus test for both of them.