Racism in Chicago

The prevailing impacts of Slavery in Chicago

Communities change as their people grow. New generations bring new trends, ideas, morals, and ways of life. Yet these changes grow from the past—the way of life of today’s generation Y is breed from yesterday’s generation X. This evolution entrenches many ideas, beliefs, and cultures through time, like religion, language, and unfortunately, racism. From slavery’s acceptance in 17th century America, many institutionalized factors remain prevalent in today’s modern society. In this article, we’ll take a look at evidence in literature of slavery’s terrible agency to evaluate racist and segregationist attitudes that prevail today in the diverse city of Chicago.



Olaudah Equiano

Olaudah Equiano

If you need a refresher on the horrors of slavery, please review your 12 years of core curriculum. To remind you, take a peek into Olaudah Equiano’s 1789 autobiography, where he recounts the horrors of a slave ship. “…and the filth of the necessary rubs, into which the children often fell, and were almost suffocated. The shrieks of the women, and the groans of the dying, rendered the whole a scene of horror almost inconceivable”(132)[1].  Needless to say, the brutal practices of slavery were so morally wrong that it’s sickening that slavery persisted as long as it did. To rectify our ancestor’s misdoings, it’s important to take a look at some of the well preserved accounts of slavery’s crimes to see how, and why, we still encounter racism today. In 1837, Victor Séjour wrote a compelling narrative about a slave and his terrible treatment from his owner and disguised father. He includes context to the entrenchment of ignorant perspectives, commenting on children’s excitement to watch a lynching. He says “from their earliest days, they have heard it ceaselessly repeated, that we were born to serve them, that we were created to attend to their whims”(304)[2]. From this, we can see that our practices come from an early age, typically given to us from our parents as we grow up. Furthermore, understanding this should motivate us to actively work to halt racism as much as our position in society allows us.

What is modern racism?

Racism wears many hats; it remains impossible to give one specific example due to the infinite variations in which it persists. Because of this, racism prevails through innocent ignorance. While a white student understands that saying the N word is inappropriate, they might not understand why using their black friend’s vernacular is racist as well. To see how many forms of racism can exist, we can look at an unintentional racist cake in Sweden.

In 2012, an organization attempting to promote awareness on female genital mutilation had a cake in the shape of Sarah Baartman. The African woman[3] was sold to two Brits and put on display in 18th Century London because of her large hips.[4] Baartman’s treatment as a circus display gained attention of many writers, thinkers, and politicians, stirring dialogue about the humanity of Africans in white-dominated societies. The NGO continued a legacy of objectification of the black body. Therefore, this use of the Baartman cake is discriminatory because it continues a misrepresentation of African image, promoting the idea of white power over a presumed ‘less’ of African. This level of analysis demonstrates the severity of just one incidence of a previous racist history impacting present nature.


Sarah Baartman

Although intended to be harmless by the NGO, the cake continued a message of privilege, thus constituting racism. Realizing that many forms of racism still exist is the first step to seeing its continuation in Chicago today.



chicago gent

A sign inside now closed Pilsen Bowtruss @1641 W 18th Street*

A prime example of Chicago’s racism is the increased gentrification of typically minority-dominated neighborhoods. Gentrification is defined as “the buying and renovation of houses and stores in deteriorated urban neighborhoods by upper or middle-income families or individuals, raising property values but often displacing low-income families and small businesses.”[5]. Basically, it’s the movement of hipsters and trend-seekers to cheap neighborhoods. The influx of the new white residents skyrocket rent prices, slowly pushing out the minorities that made the neighborhood so attractive in the first place. Tasty Mexican food in Pilsen, run-down buildings and art in Wicker Park, or college-town Rogers Park are all facing this phenomenon. From 2015 to 2016, more than 12,000 black residents left Cook County, a dramatic increase from the previous year when about 9,000 residents left[6]. For whites, families are leaving Cook County because of high taxes, the state budget stalemate, and the weather. African-Americans, on the other hand, are leaving to find stable incomes and safe neighborhoods[7]. The Tribune recently quoted Corey Brooks, a south side pastor, who believes that income inequality fuels violence, which makes black and Hispanic neighborhoods unsafe. “Violence is about economics. People can’t eat, People can’t sustain their families,” Brooks said. “Unless we all come together as a community to try and resolve these issues ourselves, unless we build businesses and create jobs, we’ll be left with communities ravished by crime, violence, and bad economy”[8].


Police Violence

Unfortunately, Police violence has persisted for blacks since the end of slavery. Segregationist policies like Jim Crowe laws and Nixon’s War on Drugs solidified an immediate attitude of speculation and fear with blacks from the police. June Jordan attempts to radically introduce new perspectives interesting questions to introduce new perspectives on police brutality in the black community:

what you think would happen if

everytime they kill a black boy

then we kill a cop

everytime they kill a black man

then we kill a cop [9]

laquan police

released police camera footage**

In Chicago, Police brutality is too familiar of a headline. In 2014, Police shot unarmed Laquan McDonald 16 times[10]. Now, only 3 years later, three officers have been acquitted for their involvement with attempt to cover up evidence. Many groups like Black Lives Matter  have called for major reforms within the police department, yet Major Rahm Emanuel fought against releasing the video for more than a year before a Cook County judge ordered it publicized in November 2015 [11]. Obviously, the bias of poor treatment and failure of possessing benefit of the doubt among police against blacks is an issue that must not be avoided. The Mayor restricting public access to evidence solidifies the McDonald case as a prime example of racism’s prevalence within the politics of Chicago.



Cook County Medical Exam***


ctatrainmapAn often overlooked indicator of segregation is infrastructure. Racism prevails with Chicago’s famous L trains, the public transit serving 1.6 million people a day[12]. The 9 lines claim to serve the whole of Chicago, yet there exist almost triple the amount of stops on the north side compared to the south and west sides. Specifically, the Red line is the Chicago area’s most-used service of the CTA.  Every weekday, more than 250,000 rides start at a Red line station – 50 percent more riders than the Blue Line [13]. The Red line serves 9 stations in the south (population 862,469), 5 in the Loop (39,404), and 19 on the north side (85,711)[14]. Looking at population, it should be obvious how privilege the northern, white side of Chicago is compared to the predominately black South side. Justin Breen accounts Austyn Wyche, a black 18-year-old from Chatham’s experience on the red line. “[He] could not believe the changes in riders as he ventured from Roseland to Rogers Park…the Red Line was filled with all black riders on the South Side until about 35th Street, when a few white passengers started to trickle in. A real shift began at Roosevelt, where black riders departed the train and dozens of white riders entered. By the time he reached the North Side, [I] was one of only a few black riders.[15] These striking facts expose the segregation that the CTA fuels daily.




CPS Strike on defunding*****

The Chicago Public School system also experiences too many pitfalls of chauvinistic practices. Chicago studies show that schools of color are more likely to be defunded than white schools. While the City of Chicago claims this is due to poor test scores, Chicago Public Schools officials say Illinois has separate and unequal funding systems leaving Chicago schools with less money per student when compared with districts statewide, which are majority white[16].  CPS is utilizing the Brown v. Board of Education civil rights case to support their lawsuit against the state, claiming racist elitism withholding state funding to majority black districts. Similarly, the expansion of charter schools has created more discriminatory problems. Charter schools compete with public schools for students and resources. As students leave a public school for a charter school, they also take the money allocated that supports the public schools they are leaving, which leads to teacher layoffs and program cuts. This incentivizes disenchanted parents to pull their children from the public school [17]. The lack of money fuels a constant loop of challenges for black school districts in Chicago.

What to do

Racism exists. We can see that segregation persists due to its entrenchment in culture, history, and social upbringing. Transportation, police, gentrification, and education all fuel the social injustice of favoring one type of person over another. How do address this problem? Education! Learning and appreciating the histories of people different than us, understanding culture and differences, and embracing the fact that ignorance exists are all things we can do on a daily basis. Communicate what you have learned, spread awareness of the injustices we see in the city to stop ignorance. Make your practices motivate the new generation Z to implement the change our city needs.


*Tadros, Phil. “New Anti-Gentrification Signs Demand, ‘White People Out of Pilsen'”. DNAInfo Chicago. 26 October 2016. https://www.dnainfo.com/chicago/20151026/pilsen/creator-of-new-anti-gentrification-signs-want-white-people-out-of-pilsen

**Drash, Wayne. “The killing of Laquan McDonald: The dashcam video vs. police accounts”. CNN. 19 December 2015. http://www.cnn.com/2015/12/17/us/laquan-mcdonald-video-records-comparison/index.html

***Cook County Medical Examiner. “How Chicago tried to cover up a police execution”. The Chicago Reporter. 24 November 2015. http://chicagoreporter.com/how-chicago-tried-to-cover-up-a-police-execution/

****Hinz, Greg. “CPS sues Illinois over ‘discriminatory’ funding.” The Progressive. 14  February , 2017. http://www.chicagobusiness.com/article/20170214/NEWS02/170219943/cps-sues-illinois-over-discriminatory-funding

[1] Equiano, Olaudah. ” The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano.” In The Norton Anthology of African American Literature, edited by Henry Louis Gates, Jr. and Valerie A. Smith, 112-36. 3rd ed. Vol. 1. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, Inc., 2014.

[2] Séjour, Victor. “The Mulatto.” In The Norton Anthology of African American Literature, edited by Henry Louis Gates, Jr. and Valerie A. Smith, 297-309. 3rd ed. Vol. 1. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, Inc., 2014.

[3] Nguyen, Christina. “Swedish Minister of Culture Under Fire for ‘Racist Cake.” ABC News. 18 April , 2012. http://abcnews.go.com/blogs/headlines/2012/04/swedish-minister-of-culture-under-fire-for-racist-cake/)

[4] Parkinson, Justin. “The significance of Sarah Baartman.” BBC New Magazine. 7 January 2016. http://www.bbc.com/news/magazine-35240987

[5] http://www.dictionary.com/browse/gentrification

[6] Eltagouri, Marwa . “Census finds Blacks leaving Cook County.” Chicago Tribune, 22 June, 2017, 170th Year ed., No. 173 sec.

[7] ibid.

[8] ibid.

[9] Jordan, June. “Poem about Police Violence.” In The Norton Anthology of African American Literature, edited by Henry Louis Gates, Jr. and Valerie A. Smith, 764-65. 3rd ed. Vol. 2. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, Inc., 2014

[10]  Crepeau, Megan; Dan Hinkel; Jason Meisner; Jeremy Gorner. “3 Indicted in McDonald Case.” Chicago Tribune, 28 June, 2017, 170th Year ed., No. 179 sec.

[11] ibid.

[12] CTA. “CTA Facts at a Glance” Chicago Transit Authority. Spring 2016. http://www.transitchicago.com/about/facts.aspx

[13] Weissmann, Dan. “Chicago’s segregation, seen via time-lapse on the CTA Red Line.” WBEZ. 29 June, 2012. https://www.wbez.org/shows/race-out-loud/chicagos-segregation-seen-via-timelapse-on-the-cta-red-line/4c6939ff-82af-4b06-8122-1da29253e587.

[14] CTA. “CTA Facts at a Glance” Chicago Transit Authority. Spring 2016. http://www.transitchicago.com/about/facts.aspx

[15] Breen, Justin. “Chicago’s Extreme Segregation Laid Bare in Red Line Ride.” DNAinfo Chicago. 15 February, 2016. https://www.dnainfo.com/chicago/20160107/chatham/chicagos-extreme-segregation-laid-bare-red-line-ride.

[16] Hinz, Greg. “CPS sues Illinois over ‘discriminatory’ funding.” The Progressive. 14  February , 2017. http://www.chicagobusiness.com/article/20170214/NEWS02/170219943/cps-sues-illinois-over-discriminatory-funding

[17] Bryant, Jeff. “The Racism of School Closures.” The Progressive. 9 September , 2016. http://progressive.org/public-school-shakedown/racism-school-closures/