Insights

The 1619 Project and Chicago’s Centuries of Racism by Policy

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Exploring everything from our economy to access to healthcare to the origins of American music, The New York Times’ 1619 Project contends the implications of slavery and racism continue to impact our nation 400 years after the first enslaved Africans landed in Virginia. There are events from our city’s history, most notably the race riots that rocked Chicago in 1919, that provide context to where we are today. The discriminatory policies enacted in reaction to the riots continue to affect neighborhoods across our city to this day.

Chicago, unfortunately, mastered the most glaring discriminatory practices—creating a racial and ethnic wealth gap that today threatens the prosperity of our region. The National Association of Realtors, America’s first real-estate lobby, was established in Chicago. Its official policy and its Realtor Code of Ethics prohibited integrating neighborhoods. This stance paved the way for redlining, contract buying, predatory lending and some of the most isolated, impoverished public housing in the country.

Housing policies are only a part of the reason we are where we are today. Some of Chicago’s most significant transportation decisions have squashed economic opportunities for people of color. This includes expressways slicing through Black communities, intentionally separating them from majority-White neighborhoods, and eliminating three stations on the Chicago Transit Authority Green Line, which connects predominantly Black South and West Side communities to the Loop. Extending the South Side Red Line has been on the table since 1968, but never makes it to the top of the list. Blacks make up almost 90 percent of residents living within a half-mile radius of the proposed extension, where 40 percent are unemployed and 38.5 percent live below the poverty line. While the expense is substantial, it seems like an investment opportunity worth doing, one that would connect people to jobs and economic opportunity.

Many of these discriminatory policies, conceived initially out of bias against Blacks, have negatively impacted the Latinx community as well and created an astounding wealth gap that affects our entire region. Segregation is costing us upwards of $4 billion a year, our population (and tax base) is declining and our regional economy is lagging behind other major metropolitan areas. While this is not all due to the wealth gap, it is a significant component.

Housing policies are only a part of the reason we are where we are today. Some of Chicago’s most significant transportation decisions have squashed economic opportunities for people of color…Extending the South Side Red Line has been on the table since 1968, but never makes it to the top of the list.

When The Chicago Community Trust made the strategic decision to focus on closing the racial and ethnic wealth gap in the region, we did so fully aware it will be a long, steady uphill battle. At the same time, we are encouraged by the robust, engaged network of stakeholders committed to narrowing the wealth divide, which requires not only increasing incomes and assets but also reducing debts. As such, the Trust is prioritizing programs to sustain homeownership, decrease employment barriers, increase access to capital and catalyze investment in underinvested neighborhoods. We also support policy ideas to build wealth, such as child savings accounts and baby bonds, and reduce debt, such as reforming fines and fees—including bail bonds—which disproportionally impact people of color.

We also know we cannot do this alone. Righting the wrongs of our past and reversing the effects of one discriminatory policy after another will require all of us—individuals, nonprofits, foundations, corporations and policymakers—to commit to a vision of equity, opportunity and shared prosperity. It is not only the moral and ethical thing to do; it is the best chance we have.