Chicago’s Black neighborhoods pay a steep economic price for the stigma of race

In Black neighborhoods that are growing economically — including in Greater Bronzeville — Black population is on the decline. It’s almost like the only way to shatter the economic glass ceiling is for a neighborhood to shed its Blackness, Alden Loury writes.

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Homes seen on South Calumet Avenue in Bronzeville. | Max Herman/For the Sun-Times

Homes seen on South Calumet Avenue in Bronzeville.

Max Herman/For the Sun-Times

One of the best things I remember about my years living in the Greater Bronzeville area was driving home from work.

Soon after exiting DuSable Lake Shore Drive at Oakwood, I’d catch a glimpse of a majestic home just across the street from Mandrake Park at 39th and South Cottage Grove. With a large, circular window above its double-door front entrance, the gated and well-maintained property always caught my eye.

I’d often say to myself as I drove by: One day, I’d love to own a home like that.

Despite the stigma and the negative headlines we often see about Black communities, to me, that home — and all of Greater Bronzeville — represent the promise of Black neighborhoods in Chicago.

Greater Bronzeville — Douglas, Grand Boulevard, Kenwood, Oakland and Washington Park — is on the come-up. Since 1990, median household income in all five communities has increased. Just three other majority-Black communities can make that claim: North Lawndale, Riverdale and Woodlawn.

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But the sobering fact is that each of those Bronzeville communities still rank in the bottom half of the city’s 77 neighborhoods in median household income, according to data provided by local demographer Rob Paral.

Black communities that were once the picture of middle-class living have been in economic free-fall for decades, historical data from Paral shows. In those Black neighborhoods that are growing economically — including in Greater Bronzeville — the share of Black residents is declining.

In fact, the highest economic gains of the past 30 years have occurred in neighborhoods that, as they gentrified, lost their Black majorities.

Shattering the economic glass ceiling

It’s almost like there’s an economic glass ceiling for Chicago’s Black communities. And the only way for them to break through is to shed their Blackness. For those that don’t, economic decline is almost a certainty.

Take the Near South Side and Near West Side, both of which have shattered the glass.

In 1990, both were majority-Black and were among the most economically-depressed areas of the city, ranking 74th and 75th, respectively, in median household income. Littered with vacant lots and abandoned warehouses but just a stone’s throw from downtown, they have rebounded mightily over the past 30 years.

Near West Side median income rose by more than 700% from 1990 to 2020, and by nearly 400% for the Near South Side. Along the way, both communities welcomed a bonanza of private-sector investments — restaurants, nightclubs, condos, hotels and sports facilities.

By 2020, both communities ranked in the top 11 economically, with median incomes above $90,000. And both shed their Black majorities: Black population on the Near South Side fell from 92% in 1990 to just 22% to 2020. On the Near West Side, it fell from 66% to 24%.

The economic burden of racial stigma

Meanwhile, once-stable Black communities lost their economic footing.

Between 1970 and 1990, several South Side Black communities were ranked, at least once, among the city’s top 30 for median household income — including Auburn Gresham, Avalon Park, Burnside, Calumet Heights, Morgan Park, Pullman, Roseland, South Deering, Washington Heights and West Pullman.

In the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s, middle-class Black families had integrated those communities, only to watch their white neighbors flee to the suburbs or to the North Side. Jobs and development followed and disinvestment set in. Eventually, many of those middle-class Black families left also, in pursuit of better economic conditions, safer neighborhoods and well-resourced public schools.

By 2020, only one of those communities was still among the city’s top 30 in median household income: Morgan Park. Many of the other once-middle class neighborhoods saw their median incomes decline dramatically, anywhere from 22% to 47%.

There are no clear remedies to this phenomenon. But the cause is perhaps easier to discern.

Racial stigma is powerful. It led millions of white Chicagoans to pack up, sell their houses and move, out of fear of Black neighbors who were, in fact, their economic peers. Racial stigma can also make the value of a home dramatically lower, simply because its owners are Black rather than white.

Racial stigma has led white consumers to avoid stores and malls near their homes, because they no longer feel comfortable once the clientele becomes increasingly Black. It has led commercial enterprises to shun Black areas so much that billions of dollars each year flow from those neighborhoods to white areas where businesses are located. It has robbed Black Chicagoans of opportunity, leaving them more likely to be underemployed and underpaid than whites with less education.

These structural forces impact all of us, often without anyone’s premeditation or even awareness. We fool ourselves into thinking that inequity is driven by economic factors, without considering the ways racial stigma masks how we interpret the bottom line.

But the stigma is real — and its economic impact is devastating, for some of us.

Alden Loury is data projects editor at WBEZand writes a monthly column for the Sun-Times.

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