Why does Chicago's entrenched segregation matter?

Census made the headlines yesterday. The summary? Segregation: still bad, but not as bad as it was. Nationwide, black segregation is at the lowest level it's been in 100 years.

But here in Chicago, we have less to celebrate. In 2000, 83 percent of African Americans would have had to move to be evenly distributed across the city. In 2009, that number was 81 percent. Progress, for sure, but if we continue at this rate, we'll claim victory about halfway through year 2347.

It was all over the headlines and even popping up on twitter. Sad, everyone said. So sad.

We don't mind giving these statistics a few seconds of airplay every few years. But if someone asked you, "Why does segregation matter?"--what would you say? Other than the fact that you know it seems bad, why should we care if we're the most segregated city in the nation?

First, let's take a look at a map, one that was floating around on twitter yesterday from The New York Times. Green dots are white people, yellow is Hispanic, blue is black and red is Asian.

seg map.png

We sort of have a color-by-number situation going on here. Except for a few areas where dots collide, we're nicely divided into sections.

And why does that matter?

My mentor, David McClendon, who passed away last year, challenged me on that once. As my editor, he liked to push me to think beyond the pat answers I had picked up in my liberal arts education.

He went to an entirely black high school, he said. It was a high school where children got a good education, mostly went to college and got good jobs. Does being against segregation mean you think students of color can't succeed without white children around?

I had to hang up the phone and think about that one for awhile.

If segregation was just segregation--just people of different skin colors choosing to live among others that looked like them--then maybe it wouldn't be a big deal.

But it's not, and it never has been. Researchers at Harvard's Civil Rights Project Gary Orfield and Chungmei Lee tackled this problem and found the answer.

"If skin color were not systematically linked to other forms of inequality, it would, of course,
be of little significance ... Unfortunately that is not and never has been the nature of our society," they wrote.

Segregation matters because the color of your skin in America usually means a lot more about you than just how you look. If you're Hispanic or black in America, you have a much greater chance of living in poverty. Of growing up in a neighborhood with serious pollution. Of going hungry sometimes. Of attending a school where almost no one reads or writes at grade level. Of living with the daily terror of gun violence.

The best answer I ever got about why segregation--both racial and economic matters--came from a housing activists, Leah Levinger, at the Chicago Housing Initiative.

"So we live separately," I asked her. "Why should we care?"

"It's all about shared interests," she said.

Levinger told me when we live in communities that are integrated, what happens to "other" people happens to us too. If the local school is bad, it's everyone's school. If crime is a problem, no one is immune. Even corporations, she said, where the guys at the bottom of the ladder feel like the growth of the company directly impacts them, for better for for worse, show more profits.

When we live in communities that are integrated, violence and poverty become all our problems. Right now, violence and poverty are overwhelmingly a black and Hispanic problem. We white people may shake our heads when we hear about a shooting on the news, but it doesn't impact us directly, and so we have no real interest in finding a solution to it.

Ultimately, she said, segregated neighborhoods make for a weak city--one where people can't work together to solve problems because they have no interest in doing so.

Isn't that something we can all agree needs to change?

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  • "Shared interests" is a brilliant answer.

    I would add that race often correlates with class. When you have people segregated by income, the wealthier neighborhoods typically are in a position to demand better services from city government. Because the rich have no shared interest with the poor, their neighborhoods get new street lights and paved alleys while the bus routes in the ghetto are few and far between.

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