“If you don’t expect to live past twenty-two…”

Fifty years after King’s visit to Marquette Park, Chicago remains one of the country’s most racially segregated large cities. Redlining is long over, but its legacy is inscribed on the neighborhoods. Some of those areas are poorer than they were at the time of King’s marches. In Englewood, on the South Side, poverty has grown from twenty-seven per cent, in 1970, to forty-eight per cent today. In the past decade and a half, the city knocked down Cabrini-Green, the Robert Taylor Homes, and other poverty-stricken public high-rises, but studies have found that the effort has done little to advance integration by race or income. A 2014 study by the Chicago Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law documented frequent discrimination against those people who try to rent using subsidized vouchers from the Chicago Housing Authority. On the city’s Northwest Side, landlords refused to rent to them fifty-eight per cent of the time. Most of the residents resettled in heavily black, low-income census tracts. Those areas are distinguished by the sheer absence of economic life: few hardware stores, pharmacies, and restaurants, and virtually no banks.

For more than twenty years, Robert Sampson, a Harvard sociologist, and a team of researchers have conducted a study of human development in Chicago neighborhoods. “The incarceration rate in the highest-ranked black community in Chicago is forty times higher than the incarceration rate in the highest-ranked white community,” he said. “You can’t even compare them.” Sampson’s team visited many cities—including New York, Baltimore, and New Orleans—before choosing Chicago. “If you want to trace across multiple dimensions the legacies of inequality, Chicago is a microcosm of all the things that are bearing down on cities,” Sampson said. His Chicago portrait, “Great American City,” challenges the argument that globalization and technology have flattened boundaries and details how the distance of a few blocks still determines the basic probabilities in life—the chances of hearing a tip on a job prospect, or receiving a first-time loan, or being hit by crossfire. Last year, four hundred and sixty-eight people were killed in Chicago, a higher total than in any other American city, and up thirteen per cent from the previous year. Most were killed in black neighborhoods, where homicide rates are thirteen times higher, on average, than in better-off white areas.

“If you don’t expect to live past twenty-two, then why would you delay gratification for something in the future that may never come?” Sampson said. “That, in turn, influences every big decision.” As early as preschool, the threat or the experience of violence can induce stress that distorts academic performance. The extent to which growing up in a poor black neighborhood in Chicago hampered verbal development was found to be the equivalent of “missing one year of schooling.” Nearly forty-seven per cent of all black men in Chicago between the ages of twenty and twenty-four are neither in school nor working—the highest percentage of any big city. (Nationwide, the figure is thirty-two per cent.)

-“Father Mike” in this week’s New Yorker, a profile about Father Michael Pfleger, a Catholic priest who I hold in high respect. The section above details the seemingly impossible situation that Father Mike and so many other Chicago pastors and community leaders have been up against for decades.

Author: David Swanson

Pastor of New Community Covenant Church in Bronzeville. Collecting signs of life.

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