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How the Great Migration to Chicago became the Great Black Exodus

"Monument to the Great Northern Migration," by Alison Saar, is located at King Drive and 26th Place. | Sun-Times library

Race still matters.

It’s something I sensed as a young boy growing up during the 1970s and 1980s in Chicago’s Auburn Gresham community, where, for years, I observed the stark differences between the black neighborhood of my youth and the white neighborhood immediately to the west.

OPINION

Among my most jarring memories were the many trips my mother and I would take to the Evergreen Plaza, a shopping mall on the corner of 95th Street and Western Avenue. By the time I was in high school, the mall had earned the nickname “Ever-black” plaza because you rarely saw any customers who weren’t African American.

I was perplexed by the mall’s lack of white shoppers because it was literally across the street from hundreds of white residents of Evergreen Park and Beverly and just minutes away from hundreds more in the surrounding communities that were mostly white in the 1980s.

I’d often wonder: “Why don’t white people want to shop near black people?”

My suspicions about of the impact of race deepened as I grew older and watched the demographics of our city and the region shift. Like a game of tic-tac-toe, the patterns of racial and economic change seemed almost predictable, with each move leading to an expected countermove.

Wherever white people went — first there was investment, then jobs, then people of color followed. And when the people of color, particularly African Americans, reached a critical mass, the white people and the investment would slowly disappear, leaving behind communities of color oftentimes struggling with blight, declining property values and under-resourced public schools.

During the past two years, as I worked on a “Cost of Segregation” analysis for the Metropolitan Planning Council, the true impact of race and segregation became crystal clear: the Chicago region is losing hundreds of lives to homicides, and it is losing tens of thousands of college graduates and billions of dollars in income and economic activity to stubbornly high levels of racial and economic segregation.

And the most persistent form of segregation is between whites and African Americans.

But there’s more that we’re losing, as I saw while quantifying the demographic changes in our region.

We’re losing black people. And we have been for decades.

It started long before recent headlines about black population loss, and even before the city’s black population fell by 180,000 between 2000 and 2010.

In 1980, Chicago’s black population reached its peak at nearly 1.2 million. By 2030, according to estimates from the Urban Institute, the city’s black population will have dwindled to 665,000.

That’s a loss of more than a half million African Americans in 50 years.

That hasn’t happened in any other American city at any point in our nation’s history — ever.

Only in Chicago, and only now.

The reasons are complex and not totally clear. But the prime suspect is Chicago’s calling card.

No, not segregation.

Racism.

In its many forms — individual, institutional, structural and systemic — racism has blocked the flow of African Americans into certain communities and isolated them in others.

The restrictive covenants, redlining and white flight of yesterday have been replaced by stiff resistance to affordable housing, high-cost housing that effectively prices out some people of color, disinvestment in communities of color regardless of their economic heft, and more white flight.

Practically shunned by all others, homes and businesses in many South Side and West Side neighborhoods draw interest only from African Americans. That means a constricted market for homebuyers and business owners, resulting in lower market demand, fewer customers and lower values.

Almost a decade after the latest recession, some black neighborhoods in Chicago are still waiting on economic recovery.

A century ago, one of the most culturally significant chapters in the history of our city, region, and nation began — The Great Migration. Hundreds of thousands of African Americans trekked north to Chicago over several decades, lured by the promise of job opportunities and freedom from the tyranny, violence and utter lack of hope they encountered in the Jim Crow South.

What does it say about the conditions of our city and our region that half a million African Americans have given up on the promise Chicago once offered their ancestors?

What’s behind the Great Exodus of the past 40 years?

Chicago’s dramatic black population loss is the result of our segregation and the racism that drives segregation, and it calls for a far more urgent pursuit of equity and inclusion.

Alden Loury served as the Metropolitan Planning Council’s director of research and evaluation from May 2016 to July 2018, when he joined WBEZ as senior editor of the radio station’s newly created race, class, and communities desk.

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