The Ida B. Wells Papers

3 Observations from a Remarkable Woman.

I spent a few enjoyable hours this afternoon in the special collections at the University of Chicago looking over some of the Ida B. Wells collection. I’m working on a paper about her decision, along with Fredrick Douglass, to protest the 1893 World’s Colombian Exposition in Chicago. Not necessarily related to that project, here are a few things that stood out as I went through the papers:

  1. I held a business card-sized promotion soliciting votes for her election as a Republican delegate to the 1928 convention in Kansas City. One of the most radical, outspoken activists for civil rights wanted to be a delegate to the Republican convention. Things have changed a bit since 1928.
  2. On Friday, January 1, at one o’clock in the morning, Wells reflected on the watch night service from which she’d just returned: “I go forth on the renewed pilgrimage of this New Year with renewed hope, vigor, a remembrance of the glorious beginnings and humbly pray for wisdom, humility, success in my undertakings if it be My Father’s good pleasure, and a stronger Christianity that will make itself felt.” One of my pet peeves about the way historians often reflect on Wells (and her African American contemporaries) is how her Christianity is assumed and thus ignored. There can be a bit of historical and cultural prejudice that refuses to imagine that her faith was one of the things that allowed Wells to live such an extraordinarily brave and intelligent life. A letter like this pushes against those biases.
  3. Ida B Wells and Betty MossOne folder held a bunch of photos and this one made me stop for a minute. Here we see Wells with Mrs. Betty Moss and her two children. Moss was made a widow when her husband Tom, a good friend of Wells, was lynched in Memphis. I think this image hit me hard because last week, once again, we saw Black women standing in front of cameras because their men – boyfriend, son – had been murdered by state-sanctioned violence.  It’s a sad and infuriating thing to consider- the script this nation so forcefully holds itself to.

I’ll continue to do my small part to make Wells more widely known. As I learn more about her remarkable life I’m increasingly sure that she’s the model we need to bravely face the traumas and fears of our day.

“In Chicago, homicide rates correspond with segregation”

Whether exacerbated by gangs or guns, though, Chicago’s killings are happening on familiar turf: Its poor, extremely segregated neighborhoods on the South and West Sides. And many say that is Chicago’s real violence issue.

“Where do gangs come from? They tend to take root in the very same neighborhoods that drive these other problems,” said Robert J. Sampson, a professor at Harvard and the author of “Great American City: Chicago and the Enduring Neighborhood Effect.” “You can’t divorce the gang problem from the problem of deep concentrations of poverty.”

“What predicts violent crime rates is concentrated poverty and neighborhood disadvantage, and what determines concentrated poverty is high levels of black segregation combined with high levels of black poverty,” said Douglas S. Massey, a sociology professor at Princeton University.

In Chicago, homicide rates correspond with segregation. While many areas have few or no killings, the South and West Sides are on par with the world’s most dangerous countries, like Brazil and Venezuela, and have been for many years.

The linkage of segregation, poverty and crime exists in New York City as well. Homicides occur at higher rates in parts of Brooklyn, the Bronx and Harlem, and many other neighborhoods are virtually free of killings.

But segregation in New York is nothing like in Chicago: The perfectly isolated neighborhood – where every man, woman and child is the same race – is rare in New York. Less than one percent of the population lives in such areas, and most of them are white. In Chicago, 12 percent of the black population is in a census block group that is 100 percent black.

Racially segregated minority neighborhoods have a long history of multiple adversities, such as poverty, joblessness, environmental toxins and inadequate housing, Professor Sampson said. In these places, people tend to be more cynical about the law and distrust police, “heightening the risk that conflictual encounters will erupt in violence.”

“The major underlying causes of crime are similar across cities, but the intensity of the connection between social ills and violence seems to be more persistent in Chicago,” Professor Sampson said. “You don’t get that kind of extensive social and economic segregation in many other cities.”

– From a recent Times article, “Chicago’s Murder Problem.” 

Segregation, Poverty, and White Amnesia

Racial segregation devastates Black communities. Who’s responsible?

The forgetful quality of whiteness is evident in the way that people who live far enough from Chicago’s violence feel no responsibility for the men and women who are killed here every day. 2016 has thus far been the most violent year in Chicago “for at least 16 years,” but because the victims and their neighborhoods are Black and Brown, white people think and feel very little about these lost lives. We feel no shame. For all kinds of reasons – moral, historical, and sociological – this lack of responsibility and accountability is completely wrong.

Recent studies by the Chicago Urban League and American University show the extent to which Chicago remains a segregated city. Though the dramatic white flight of previous generations is now rare, the American University study demonstrates some of the subtler ways that segregation is perpetuated by white people. For example,

The mechanism that creates gradual racial succession, we believe, is whites’ avoidance of neighborhoods with more than a few minorities. Whites’ tolerance of integration that occurs when minorities move to their neighborhoods does not extend to a desire for integrated neighborhoods. Whites know less about and are resistant to considering neighborhoods with more than a token number of minorities.

The segregation that is created by white people’s intolerance has destructive implications far beyond the demographic makeup of a particular neighborhood. As a 2011 article in The Chicago Reader stated:

Because of historical—and some continuing—discrimination, blacks are more likely to be poor. When this is combined with segregation, it means blacks are far more likely than any other group to live in concentrated poverty. It’s hard to be poor; it’s much harder to be poor and surrounded by poverty and all the harmful cultural norms and behavior, such as crime, that accompany it. It’s a kind of poverty whites rarely experience, and one tough to escape.

It shouldn’t be a surprise that this concentrated poverty – fostered by what the Urban League calls “racial residential segregation” – undermines the quality of life among the residents of those neighborhoods. Compared to children in higher socioeconomic neighborhoods, the children who reside in segregated neighborhoods are more likely to have poorer math and literacy achievement, lower test scores, higher dropout rates, and lower graduation rates. These children will also struggle more with mental health, have higher rates of acting out in school, are more likely to be unemployed, and have higher rates of teen pregnancy. Adults are also impacted, with higher reported cases of obesity and diabetes, more cases of mental illness, less food security, and higher rates of unemployment.

These “racially concentrated area[s] of poverty,” as the Urban League report calls Chicago’s segregated neighborhoods, are the result of many historic and systemic realities. Any hope of holistically addressing segregation will take these complicated factors seriously. But the entrenched and complex nature of segregation should never distract from its simplest cause: White people choose not to live near Black people.

Because segregation disproportionately impacts poor, urban, African American communities, it’s easy for white people to remain ignorant. The Reader article pointed this out: “For most whites, concentrated poverty and its many ills are an abstraction—something they read about but rarely see, since it exists in parts of town they don’t live in or work in or visit.” This ignorance is yet another of segregation’s bitter fruits: Those who bear the greatest responsibility for segregation are the least likely to know that such places even exist.

There is a lot of work to be done to address the evils of segregation and its devastations. But before action comes repentance. And before repentance comes remembering. And this, for white people, might be the hardest work of all.

Header photo: Brandon Harvey.