“America’s Most Segregated City” Revisited

Pierre Devise loved to ride his bicycle around his adopted home city of Chicago. He often would ride to the Chicago Tribune newsroom to deliver his latest research findings on urban problems. As a professor of sociology at both the University of Chicago and Roosevelt University at different points during his career, Devise had earned the reputation of being a gadfly on the pragmatic rump of Chicago city planners. Decried by the infamous Mayor Richard M. Daley as “a man not fit to teach,” Devise first came to prominence in 1967 with a published study, “Chicago’s Widening Color Gap,” that established his reputation for critical analysis of the city’s racial divide.

Today, Chicago continues to be the “most segregated city in America,” a label arising from Devise’s research, though there have also been significant shifts in this gloomy picture. In their 2012 study, The End of the Segregated Century: Racial Separation in America’s Neighborhoods, researchers EdwardGlaeser and Jacob Vigdor concluded that, “Over the last decade, Chicago had the second-largest declines in dissimilarity and isolation among [the nation’s top ten urban areas].” The two criterion studied here are labeled dissimilarity and isolation. Dissimilarity is measured in terms of how many individuals of the racial groups being studied would need to move into a neighborhood to attain equal residency levels for both groups. For example, a neighborhood of 200 persons with 150 white residents and 50 black residents would have a low dissimilarity ranking, as the large majority were from one racial group. Racial isolation indices measure the tendency for members of racial groups to live in neighborhoods where their race is the majority. Given that Chicago has long had a sharply “super-segregated” (another Devise characterization) landscape, its improvement in the 2000-2010 period is merely one small step in a century-and-a-half-long uphill climb.

Chicago’s racial problems precede the founding of the city itself. The area now known as Chicago was inhabited by several Algonquian native groups at the time traders and missionaries of European descent began to enter the region in the 17th century. The Algonquins were first displaced by the Pottawatami who had been driven west by European settlement, and then the Pottawatami were displaced altogether by Europeans by the 1840s. The first permanent non-Native American settler was Jean Baptiste Point du Sable, a Black Frenchman generally considered to be of Afro-Caribbean heritage. Du Sable lived near the Chicago River from some point in the 1780s until the turn of the 19th century when he moved to Missouri. While it is a point of pride for Chicago to claim a Black man as its first resident, the modern city we know wasn’t formally identified until 1830.

The 19th century was a period of intense racial conflict centered on the Southern US slave system. While Chicago did follow the industrial path of most Northern cities in rejecting slavery, it also missed its opportunity to become a racially integrated metropolis. Despite passing anti-discrimination legislation in the period before and after the Civil War, the early 20th century saw the rise of a post-slavery system of racial segregation in many Northern cities, and Chicago often lead the way.

An early watershed in Chicago race relations was the five-day long Chicago Race Riot of 1919 which began when a black man, Eugene Williams, accidentally swam too close to a segregated beach on Lake Michigan. He was pelted by rocks from a white man, according to witnesses, and Williams drowned during his attempt to escape the attack. The Chicago Police did not arrest the rock-thrower, but rather a black Chicagoan accused of violating a minor ordinance by whites at the beach. In the aftermath, Irish gangs clashed with outraged blacks and ultimately the National Guard were called in to quell the violence after dozens of deaths and hundreds of injuries. No whites were ever convicted of any wrongdoing.

In 1920, landlords and realtors in Chicago began using racially restrictive covenants to prevent Blacks from owning property in white neighborhoods, eventually legally segregating 80% of Chicago real estate from African-American residency or other uses. The notorious “Black Belt” of Chicago formed during the “Great Migration” of 1910-1930 as hundreds of thousands of Blacks moved from Southern states to escape Jim Crow discrimination and find work in the rapidly expanding job market. Of course, the racism that greeted those hopeful enough to migrate quickly demonstrated that white supremacy was no stranger to the urban north. Continuing immigration waves from European nations resulted in fierce competition for jobs, and whites usually won.

The Black Belt was anchored at its northern end by housing abandoned by upwardly mobile European immigrants and their descendants to be taken over by slumlords who barely maintained their properties. Overcrowding and poverty became the norm. As some Blacks did struggle into higher income brackets, a southern extension of the Black Belt developed to contain markedly better housing and businesses catering to Blacks. Chicago became known as the “capital of Black America” as, even under conditions of extreme racism and segregation, a community identity formed dedicated to struggle and improving their life conditions. The promise of such efforts make the subsequent history of racial suffering even more tragic, as even today most of the Chicago area’s Black residents live in areas with higher levels of crime and poverty.

One might have expected the Civil Rights struggle of the 1960s to have improved the conditions of Black Chicagoans, but the results are decidedly mixed. A proposal to create subsidized housing in areas outside the Black Belt met with fierce political opposition and resulted in the creation of the city’s notorious “housing projects,” essentially high-rise ghettos that deteriorated over time from neglect and abuse by the city’s power structure. While many Blacks were able to take advantage of expanded opportunities under affirmative action legislation, the majority of Chicago’s blacks did not benefit. Limited improvements in housing access were created during this period and the resulting slow exodus of some residents from the Black Belt did begin a glacial shift to better situations reflected in the small yet significant difference in racial segregation in the recent census data. Nevertheless, the continuing barriers and divides between blacks and whites in Chicago still call for a grim determination to fight against enormous odds.

The consequences of segregation are manifold and not limited to housing and employment challenges. The higher incidence of criminal activity in majority black neighborhoods arises from not only the obvious negative incentives of poverty, but also from the malign neglect of police and other city authorities. Why call the police to track down criminal offenders when they either do not come at all or only come to make perfunctory attempts to address the incidents?

Segregation also coincides with substandard educational opportunities. Given historic discrimination against Blacks in higher education, very few teachers are willing to take on the daunting task of educating children raised in the harsh conditions of Chicago’s Black Belt. The reliance of education funding on property taxes guarantee that schools in impoverished districts will be chronically underfunded for decades to come without effective reforms.

The pervasive negative incentives to crime coupled with substandard education have fostered an unofficial, but highly effective, “school-to-prison-pipeline.” To combat crime, public schools in segregated areas are subjected to harsh security regimes including random locker searches, metal detectors at entrances, and “zero-tolerance” policies that result in funneling a high number of Black youth into the juvenile, and eventually, adult criminal justice system. Blacks are more likely to be convicted of crimes due to ineffective public defenders and the biases of white judges and juries. More Black men are in the prison system than in college-level educational institutions. While these problems exist across the US, in Chicago we find an unusually high concentration of these systemic issues.

A lesser-known consequence of segregation has been dubbed “environmental racism.” The rise of middle-class “green” consciousness has spawned a “not in my back yard” (NIMBY) attitude among more affluent neighborhoods towards factories and other toxin-producing facilities. The lack of real political power in Black neighborhoods has resulted in a markedly high level of toxic pollutants in the air, water, and ground of many of these neighborhoods. Altgeld Gardens, one of the first Chicago housing projects, was built on a landfill area ringed by dozens of industrial sites of toxic pollution and several other city landfills. Altgeld Gardens has the dubious distinction of being one of the last remaining of the city’s public housing projects and a new generation is being raised exposed to its toxic environment.

And yet, segregation has declined overall in the US, and even Chicago is not untouched by these trends. Building on the open housing, school desegregation, and other gains of the Civil Rights era, a slowly emerging system of paths across racial barriers has taken shape and borne fruit in the last two decades especially. In Chicago, the demolition of most of the housing projects have dispersed some areas of high segregation. Significant numbers of Blacks have moved out of the city into neighboring suburbs, or moved to Southern cities with surprisingly less rigid barriers to open housing. Glaeser and Vigdor document that out of every 200 US neighborhoods, only one maintained an all-white populace in 2010 and these are mostly in areas isolated from Black migrations patterns in the 20th century. Also, the intensely segregated neighborhoods populated by Black residents have begun to depopulate, and gentrification has enticed many whites to take a chance at urban living in much closer proximity to Blacks than ever before.

Nevertheless, some of the gains made in recent decades seem to be in peril as the political climate of the US shifts against some of the initiatives that made the limited progress gained possible. Affirmative action programs are now often made the target of political attack. Some states have ended affirmative action practices altogether and Illinois is not immune to such political pressures. Despite the advances made in the past two decades, we are far from a situation in which race is an irrelevant factor in housing or hiring practices.

College admissions are also directly impacted by the affirmative action debate. Chicago-area universities and colleges are still visibly stratified by race, with the City College system taking up the slack when restrictive admissions practices keep promising students out of mainstream higher education. Taking into account the continuing degraded condition of majority Black public schools, redressing such injustices is simply a matter of common fairness.

And, public school reform is still a far-off dream. Decades of Local School Councils, Selective Enrollment, and Charter Schools have not produced a general improvement in the educational opportunities for the majority of Black Chicagoans. Ending the system of property tax funding is a key plank of undoing the biased system of education that currently exists.

In the face of the school-to-prison-pipeline, sweeping reforms of the criminal justice system are a fundamental need in the struggle against racial inequity. Blacks are more likely to be convicted and serve longer prison terms than whites, and this is no less true in the Chicago area. Beefing up the public defender system, increasing systems of police accountability, and decriminalizing the sale and use of marijuana would massively decrease the likelihood of prison terms for thousands.

Chicago is a city that belongs to all white and black residents, as well as Latino, Asian, and other ethnic groups. Defeating the remnants of white supremacy in our city would make the city a more wonderful place for all who live there.


Arnold Richard Hirsch. Making the Second Ghetto: Race and Housing in Chicago 1940-1960. Univ. of Chicago Pr., 1998.

Devise, Pierre. “Chicago’s Widening Color Gap.” Reports of the Interuniversity Social Research Committee 2 (1967).

Drake, Saint Clair, and Horace R. Cayton. Black Metropolis: A Study of Negro Life in a Northern City. New York: Harper & Row, 1962.

Glaeser, Edward, & Vigdor, Jacob. The End of the Segregated Century: Racial Separation in America’s Neighborhoods, 1890-2010. Manhattan Institute, 2012.

Grossman, Ron. “Pierre DeVise (1924 – 2004): Urban Sociologist Gave Life to Studies.” Chicago Tribune 27 May 2004.

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