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Black Caucus mapmaker wants to preserve 18 majority African-American wards

In the 2020 Census, Hispanics became Chicago’s largest minority. Their population increased to 819,518. Chicago’s Black population dropped by 86,413 — to 801,195. And the city’s white population dropped by by 226,578, to 986,280.

Chicago’s Riverwalk in the Loop.
A person walks along the Riverwalk in the Loop last year.
Pat Nabong/Sun-Times file

An 86,413-person drop in Chicago’s African American population in the last decade could mean three or four fewer Black-majority wards, but that “worst-case scenario” can be mitigated, a veteran mapmaker said Wednesday.

Edward Sarpolus is the cartographer hired by the City Council’s Black Caucus to protect its interests and preserve the Council’s 18 majority African American wards.

Ten years ago, he helped draw the map that reduced the number of Black wards by only one, despite a 181,453-person drop in Chicago’s Black population.

That map was approved by the Council without a vote to spare. It included 13 Hispanic wards and two Hispanic “influence” wards, rewarding a 25,218-person Hispanic population gain in the 2010 U.S. Census.

In the 2020 Census, Hispanics bypassed Blacks, becoming Chicago’s largest minority. The Hispanic population increased by 5.2%, or 40,656 people — to 819,518.

Chicago’s African American population dropped nearly 10%, by 86,413 people, to 801,195. The white population dropped by more than twice that much — by 226,578 people, to 986,280.

Asian-Americans scored the largest gain — up nearly 31%, or 45,420 people, to stand at 192,586.

Overall, Chicago’s population increased by 50,765 people, to 2.74 million.

With Blacks now representing a “final proportion” of Chicago’s overall population — about 29% — that would translate into about 15 seats in the 50-member Council, Sarpolus said.

But, Sarpolus, a cartographer for 49 years, hopes to use his skills to mitigate that “worst-case scenario,” just as he did after the last census.

“The district may not be 90% Black. It may be 60% Black. That means … another Black district which would have been gone is now whole because, in fact, you found population from the other districts because the districts next to them are over-populated,” Sarpolus told the Sun-Times.

“One district that’s 90% can be shared with the district next to it to create a Black district that lost population. … [Or] you incorporate people next to them from districts that might be white or Hispanic that don’t need the population.”

Sarpolus pointed to Ald. Brendan Reilly’s 42nd Ward downtown, where population grew by 27,063 people over the last 10 years, the biggest gain in Chicago. That was followed by the 3rd (10,287 increase); 27th (9,707); 2nd (7,671); 4th (7,336) and 43rd (5,417) wards.

“The 42nd Ward doesn’t need those 27,000 people. It’s possible those 27,000 could be incorporated going south to a Black district or north to one of the other districts,” he said.

“The wards that are over-populated are the 42nd, the 3rd and the 4th. That means that population can be moved down towards the Black community south or southwest.”

Overall, 24 of Chicago’s 50 wards lost population. Seven of the top 10 losers are represented by Black aldermen.

The most dramatic reduction — a loss of 6,810 residents — occurred in the Far South Side ward represented by Ald. Carrie Austin (34th).

Facing a federal indictment, Austin resigned this week as chairman of the City Council’s Committee on Contracting Oversight and Equity. She is widely expected not to seek re-election in 2023. If she does retire, Sarpolus’ job of helping the Black Caucus hold onto 18 majority African-American wards could be made easier.

“When you’re working for a caucus, you try to make sure that the incumbent has a seat to run in. If she’s not running again, I can keep the 34th Ward, but I don’t necessarily have to have it in a shape that guarantees her home will be in that district,” Sarpolus said.

Austin may not be the only incumbent on her way out the door. Two aldermen — Howard Brookins (21st) and Chris Taliaferro (29th) — are trying to become judges. Ald. George Cardenas (12th) is running for a seat on the Board of Review. Ald. Roderick Sawyer (6th) could run for mayor.

Aldermen Edward Burke (14th) and Patrick Daley Thompson (11th) are under federal indictment. And nearly a dozen other veteran aldermen are retirement possibilities.

If the Black Caucus could survive that previous 181,453-person drop and lose only one African American ward, there’s no reason the current 18 majority-Black wards can’t survive a drop in population less than half that size, Sarpolus said.

Hispanics believe their numbers justify more than the current total of 13 majority Hispanic wards. Maybe, maybe not, Sarpolus said.

“What I’m hearing ... is they don’t care if there’s 10 people who are Hispanic in that ward or there’s a hundred in the ward. They just want more ward representation. That’s their right. They pursued that strategy 10 years ago — until they put pen to paper and found out that it was a worthy goal, but there weren’t enough people of Hispanic [descent] over 18 or legal [residents] who could vote in those districts,” he said.

And the demand for at least one Asian-American ward? Geographically, Sarpolus said, “the issue with the Asians ... is how diverse they are across the city. They’re not all in one area.”