Chicagoans, It’s Time to Demand a Better Life

By Shari E. Runner

In the predominantly African-American communities on Chicago’s South and West sides, things have been bad for far too long, and they seem to be getting worse — for those communities and for the city as a whole.

The fast-approaching March 20 primary election presents a chance for voters to demand better.

Across the city and the state, policies and trends that should make life better for everyone simply don’t.

A focus on education has increased the city’s high school graduation rates, but the gains are not shared equally across all schools or all communities.

According to Chicago Public Schools data, African-American boys in particular lag, with more than 37 percent failing to graduate within five years, compared with 22 percent of the general population. And in predominantly African-American neighborhoods, some schools have been underfunded and underperforming, underenrolled, and now several are in line to be shuttered.

A nationwide booming job market isn’t booming for everyone. Unemployment in Illinois has been disproportionately high among African-Americans, and at 9.7 percent, according to the Economic Policy Institute, the state has one of the nation’s highest jobless rates.

Police are supposed to serve and protect but instead are too often used to manage the outcomes of policies that have been detrimental to Chicago’s poorest communities. For instance, drug use among black people has typically been met with policing and prison sentences for decades, devastating families and increasing poverty by creating barriers to employment for those who have been incarcerated. Now with the opioid crisis pointing a national spotlight on overdose deaths among whites (who have always used drugs at a similar or higher rate than black people have), political leaders are calling for public health approaches. That could be great news for everybody, but there are no real plans to reverse the decades of wrongheaded drug policies that fueled mass incarceration.

Meanwhile, illegal guns flood certain Chicago streets, compounding desperate conditions that already foster crime, violence and trauma. Medical clinics, mental health facilities and pharmacies in predominantly African-American communities are closing, leaving new “deserts” in neighborhoods already ravaged by decades of economic disinvestment. To add insult to injury, in Cook County an unfair proportion of the property tax burden has been shifted to such low-income neighborhoods.

It’s no surprise, then, that a noticeable number of African-Americans are fleeing Chicago, or leaving Illinois altogether.

They are not the only ones. African-Americans accounted for only 10,000 of the more than 37,000 people who moved out of Illinois in 2016, and in 2017 more than 33,000 people left the state, with most of the population loss occurring in Chicago. Elected officials are entrusted with the responsibility to develop solutions and enact policies that give everyone a fair chance at a good life. But local and state leaders are failing Chicago and failing Illinois.

The problems African-American communities face are deep and daunting, and they are the enduring legacy of policies and practices that have divided the city since the Great Migration. They require strategic, comprehensive solutions that recognize this. Yet when it comes to these communities, too often we get panic-driven reactions that serve only to perpetuate negative narratives about African-Americans and negative narratives about Chicago.

The consequences of those narratives are evident in news stories that cite crime or an inconsistent public education system as reasons companies might hesitate to bring offices and jobs here, or as reasons why many who were born and bred here choose not to stay. The continuing population decline suggests that many Chicagoans feel helpless against the multiple complex factors that contribute to our city’s challenges.

But Chicago is not helpless.

As a world-class city, Chicago has shown in many ways that it can deliver strategic solutions. Solving the complex problems on the South and West sides will make the city and the state better for everyone.

Like every other major undertaking that has helped make our city great, it will not be cheap, and it will not be easy. It will require fierce political will matched by serious financial investment. It will require voters to hold all elected officials accountable for finding solutions, regardless of political stripe.

Most of all, it will require a commitment that, while we cannot solve all problems at once, we will not allow our inability to do everything to prevent us from doing something. It’s time to demand better.

Shari E. Runner is the president and CEO of the Chicago Urban League.