From Great Migration to Great Exodus - Metropolitan Planning Council

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From Great Migration to Great Exodus

Image courtesy Chicago Sun-Times

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

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A version of this article appeared in the Chicago Sun-Times on July 25, 2018. 

Race still matters.

It’s something that I sensed as a young boy growing up during the 1970s and 1980s in the Auburn Gresham community on Chicago’s south side. For years, I observed the stark differences between the black neighborhood of my youth and the white neighborhood immediately to the west. I wrote about the invisible boundary between those communities more than two years ago, shortly after joining the staff of the Metropolitan Planning Council to serve as its director of research and evaluation.

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

Among my most jarring memories of racial segregation were the many trips my mother and I would take to the Evergreen Plaza, a shopping mall located at the corner of 95th Street and Western Avenue in south suburban Evergreen Park, which is bordered by the Ashburn, Beverly and Mount Greenwood communities on Chicago’s southwest side. By the time I was in high school, the mall had earned the nickname “Ever-black” plaza because you rarely saw any other customers there who weren’t African American.

I was perplexed by the lack of white shoppers at the mall since it was literally across the street from hundreds of white residents in Evergreen Park and Beverly and just minutes away from hundreds more in the surrounding communities that were all 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 surrounding 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: investment, second: jobs, and third: people of color followed. And when 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.

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

In search of better conditions, many people of color left for white neighborhoods richer in amenities, thus repeating the cycle.

I’ve witnessed those patterns in south side communities like my beloved Auburn Gresham, and now they have a stranglehold on many south suburban municipalities like Riverdale and Dolton.

The reality that race still matters was further cemented after spending 12 years as a data journalist for The Chicago Reporter documenting the deep racial disparities that have come to define our city and our region.

In a sense, I have witnessed the cost of segregation in real time.

But during the past two years working on MPC’s Cost of Segregation effort, the true impact of race and segregation became crystal clear: lost lives, lost income, lost potential. MPC and its research partner, the Urban Institute based in Washington, D.C., disseminated the disturbing findings that the Chicago region was losing hundreds of lives to homicides, tens of thousands of college graduates and billions of dollars in income and economic activity due to its stubbornly high levels of racial and economic segregation. And the most persistent form of segregation was between whites and African Americans.

But there’s more that we’re losing.

In quantifying the demographic changes in our region over the past three decades, it’s become clear that we’re losing something else.

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

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

That hasn’t happened in an American city at any point in our nation’s history—ever. Only in Chicago, and only now.

In 1980, the City of 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 an American city at any point in our nation’s history—ever.

Only in Chicago, and only now.

The reasons why are complex and not totally clear.

But the prime suspect is Chicago’s calling card… no, not segregation.


We know the byproducts: lower black income, higher homicides and lower education levels. The Urban Institute’s analysis found a statistically significant link between those costs and black-white segregation, a relationship so strong that it can’t be explained away by chance.

My interpretation is that they’re all blood relatives. Essentially, those costs are the byproducts of the toxic racism that brought us segregation.

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 today 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.

Virulent racism fueled the intentional segregation of a century ago. Structural racism perpetuates the segregation of today.

In the 21st Century, structural racism can exist even without the angry mobs involved in the 1919 race riots, or those who hurled stones and racial epithets at Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. during his 1966 march through Marquette Park.

But the impact remains the same. And the end result is poisonous to black communities.

Practically shunned by all others, homes and businesses in many south and west side areas only draw interest 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 serves as evidence of the impact of our segregation, the magnitude of the racism that drives it, and the urgency of implementing a roadmap to equity and inclusion.

Alden Loury served as the Metropolitan Planning Council’s Director of Research and Evaluation from May 2016-July 2018, when he joined WBEZ as senior editor of the newly created race, class, and communities desk. This post marks Alden’s final contribution as an employee but also signals a next phase of partnership on issues of race, equity and inclusion between MPC and WBEZ.


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