50 Years After King’s Chicago Campaign, Racism Still Burdening Black Suburbs, Say Housing Experts


Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Coretta Scott King march through Chicago in 1966. | Bernard J. Kleina

Friday, August 19, 2016 || By Michael Romain || @maywoodnews || UPDATED: 8:05 a.m.

“Middle class blacks are being robbed when they live in segregated black neighborhoods,” said Daniel Lauber, an Oak Park housing attorney and its former village planner, at a town hall meeting on integration held there last month.

“They are not achieving a level of wealth that can be achieved in white neighborhoods,” he said. “It’s a tragedy that a huge portion of the black middle class is being robbed of full middle-class status (and) of participating in the American Dream.”

In 1966, Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., came to Chicago after being invited by local activists who had pitched their own civil rights battles against racism and discrimination in the city’s schools, police department and housing market.

That last area would dominate the attention of what became known as the Chicago Freedom Movement — an alliance launched in 1966 between King’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) and an array of Chicago-based activists like schoolteacher Al Raby and Jesse Jackson, Sr.

In the summer of 1966, the group conducted a series of marches and demonstrations throughout Chicago. They were stoned, spat upon and insulted by the white residents of the areas through which they marched.

King even famously moved into a slum apartment unit in Chicago’s North Lawndale neighborhood to publicize the subpar living conditions in which most of the city’s African Americans suffered.

You can read a list of demands that King posted to the La Salle Street entrance of City Hall after a march in July here.

The demands included calls for real estate listings to “be available on a nondiscriminatory basis,” for a “program to rehabilitate present public housing,” and a program “to increase vastly the supply of low-cost housing on a scattered basis for both low and middle income families.”

The Chicago Freedom Movement disbanded in 1967, marking what has been largely considered a failure by many observers of the period. But that consensus is beginning to change as many historians and policy experts take stock of some of the movement’s successes, such as its critical role in the passage of the Fair Housing Act of 1968, which outlawed discriminatory real estate practices.

That piece of federal legislation is a big reason why Maywood integrated. That most local, state and government officials failed to actively enforce its dictates, and to be proactive about realizing its ideals, is why Maywood became largely segregated — and why it suffers from high property taxes and a depleted capacity to serve its citizens — say some local housing experts.

In the 1990s, Lauber published a study exploring the dynamics behind  the transformation of all-white neighborhoods into all-black neighborhoods within a matter of a few decades.

Since 1968, suburbs like Maywood and Bellwood “have experienced either block-by-block resegregation or scattered black in-migration,” Lauber writes in “Ending American Apartheid: How Cities Achieve and Maintain Racial Diversity.”

“Until the passage of civil rights and fair housing legislation in the 1960s,” Lauber writes, it wasn’t illegal for realtors to outright refuse to service blacks looking for housing or for banks to simply deny them mortgages.

“It was not unlawful to discriminate on the basis of race in the sale or rental of housing,” he adds. “Restrictive covenants in property deeds that prohibited the transfer of property to blacks or Jews were enforceable until the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 1948 that the courts and government could not enforce them. [Shelley v. Kraemer].

“The real estate and lending industries considered discrimination to be normal. Black and other minority consumers were relegated to limited geographic areas while the rest of the market was open only to whites,” Lauber notes.

After outright discrimination was outlawed, more subtle forms of discrimination began to replace it. The dominant means of maintaining segregation became what’s called “racial steering.”

That’s practice of steering white homebuyers to all-white communities, or areas within a community, while steering blacks into integrated, or all-black, communities or areas within a community.

The driving force behind racial steering, Lauber notes, were attitudes often coded into seemingly harmless language and social cues. For instance, to this day, many Oak Park residents disparage living “East of Ridgeland,” because that means one lives in the less desirable part of the village — the part closest to the all-black West Side of Chicago, local housing experts say.

What’s now often called “white flight” was driven by just these seemingly harmless social cues that, when decoded, often translated into racist attitudes that equated blackness, or the proximity to black people, with criminality and lower property values.

It was a given, Lauber noted, for real estate agents to explain with straight faces that property values often decrease when blacks move into neighborhoods. The resulting re-segregation was explored in a 1981 Chicago Tribune article.

“Acute turnover of white to black occurred in Bellwood, Broadview, Maywood, Calumet Park, Harvey, and Markham,” the Tribune reported.

Between 1970 and 1980, according to U.S. Census Bureau data, Maywood’s population went from roughly 41 percent black to 75 percent black. During those 10 years, Bellwood went from less than one percent black to more than 35 percent black. Broadview went from less than five percent black to around 30 percent black.

Today, Maywood and Bellwood are around 82 percent black and Broadview is around 73 percent black. Not coincidentally, within the last 30 years, those suburbs have figured prominently in the Tribune’s archives among stories detailing murder, government corruption and poverty.

A self-fulfilling prophecy 

cook-county-land-bank-reo-housing-toni-preckwinkle-gaiserRob Breymaier, the executive director of the Oak Park Regional Housing Center, a nonprofit created in 1972 to counter racial steering in that village, cautioned against making hasty reductions regarding the relationship between rapid racial turnover and the bad news headlines. 

“Those suburbs ended up being all-black because of white flight,” Breymaier said. “It isn’t just the movement of homeowners out of the community, it’s a lot of investment. We’re talking about a loss of taxes and property value. And after (this precipitous loss of value), those communities are then asked to keep up with this same level of services with less fiscal capacity to do so, which is extremely unfair and they get blamed for not accomplishing this.”

Lauber, in his study, cited research that found that “anticipation of wholesale racial change causes the economic base to pull out of neighborhoods.’

“This divestment by the business community,” he writes, “reflects its self-fulfilling prophecy that the newly black community cannot support many of the business that [had]  long been located in the community. Consequently, the municipality’s tax base shrinks from the loss of business and employment in the expanded ghetto.”

Breymaier added that the reality of how all-black suburbs actually operate with depleted resources could be counterintuitive, even to the general perception among the residents who live in those communities.

“The reality is that those places are probably doing more, pound for pound, than many wealthy places are in trying to (service residents),” he said. “In a place like Maywood, the real issue is that we’re not considering its real value. Racism is getting in the way of us not considering its real value.”

Breymaier argued that Maywood could benefit from a housing center of its own, which, in addition to working with homebuyers to ensure that the village is racially diverse throughout and not just in certain segments, also markets the village to outsiders who may be considering moving into town.

“If you plan for it and you’re intentional about it, you can work in all-black communities to create integration the same way we worked in all-white communities,” he said.

For Breymaier and Lauber, those who would attribute the apparent decline of suburbs like Maywood and Harvey to integration aren’t quite seeing the big picture. Real integration in those places never happened, but it’s nonetheless the key to their revival.

“You have to have people believe in the community,” he said. “And implicit bias and self-fulfilling prophecies and defeatist attitudes aren’t just something that white people have. Those attitudes affect people of every racial group. (But) you have to believe that there’s value in your community and you have to engage outsiders like you believe there is.” VFP

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2 thoughts on “50 Years After King’s Chicago Campaign, Racism Still Burdening Black Suburbs, Say Housing Experts

  1. Check the caption below the picture of MLK and his wife who is listed as Loretta King. Come on, Michael. This is an egregious blunder.

  2. I do not understand this paragraph: “That piece of federal legislation is a big reason why Maywood integrated. That most local, state and government officials failed to actively enforce its dictates, and to be proactive about realizing its ideals, is why Maywood became largely segregated — and why it suffers from high property taxes and a depleted capacity to serve its citizens — say some local housing experts.” Maywood integrated because of the legislation and then became segregated because it wasn’t enforced? Can you help me understand. I’d very much appreciate it.

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