Posted on November 15, 2005

Slighted in the Suburbs

Monifa Thomas, Chicago Sun-Times, Nov. 15

“Disadvantaged” hardly seems a word that would apply to people living in $200,000 homes with prize-worthy yards and sporty trucks and coupes tucked inside two-car garages.

Yet amid these hallmarks of prosperity hides a deeper truth: Middle-class and affluent blacks in the suburbs are concentrated in areas that provide fewer economic opportunities in terms of rising home values and access to good schools and jobs, making it harder for them to catch up, and keep up, financially with whites.

African Americans are moving to the suburbs in unprecedented numbers. But most choose communities that already have large black populations, rather than risk encountering discrimination or social isolation in a predominantly white environment.


Consider Walter Harrington, a 38-year-old social worker who moved to Hazel Crest, a largely black south suburb, two years ago. Now, he’s building a home in Lynwood, another majority-black suburb. Living in a community with fewer minorities didn’t appeal to him, Harrington says, because it would likely mean being singled out as “the black neighbor.”

“You want to go where you feel welcome, not where people see you and they lock their doors,” he says.

In that respect, African Americans who gravitate toward predominantly black areas are no different from whites, Asian Americans and Hispanics who seek out neighbors with whom they share common ground.

But new research suggests that blacks in the suburbs pay the highest price to have a place of their own. A recent study by the Leadership Council ranked Chicago and its suburbs on factors such as the strength of the tax base, quality of schools and availability of employment. It found that 94 percent of blacks live in “low-opportunity” suburbs, compared with 44 percent of whites. In the south suburbs, even towns with largely though not majority-black populations — including Flossmoor and Olympia Fields — were found to offer fewer opportunities than are found in white communities with similar income levels.


Middle-class black families are becoming more of a presence in majority-white suburbs in DuPage, Will and Lake counties. But most of the growth in the last two decades has taken place just south of Chicago, in the area bounded by Interstate 57 and the Indiana border. More than half of all suburban blacks live in just 17 municipalities, almost all of which are in southern Cook County, according to a Chicago Urban League study. The near-west suburbs of Bellwood and Maywood also have black populations that top 80 percent.


Having strength in numbers politically is another reason some African Americans choose to live in largely black towns.

“You’re not going to have the same kind of political clout to elect reps or run for office in Barrington as you would in the south suburbs, where you can elect a Jesse Jackson Jr.,” says Michael Bennett, an associate professor of sociology at DePaul University. “That could be interpreted as a deficit to integration.”


Payday loan stores vs. Starbucks

Walter Harrington says he sees the difference in amenities offered to residents of largely black suburbs vs. white towns every time he travels to Tinley Park and Villa Park for work.

“It’s kinda like the water fountains under ‘separate but equal,’” Harrington says. “Yes, we both have water fountains, but if you look at the quality of the white water fountain vs. the black one, it isn’t the same.”

In largely black Country Club Hills — where the median household income is about $57,700 — hair-care shops, payday loan stores and True Value hardware occupy aging strip malls. It’s easy to find fast-food places, harder to spot a sit-down restaurant. A sign outside announces that a large furniture store is going out of business.

Head from there to predominantly white Homewood, where the median income is about the same. But Homewood has two Starbuckses and a Caribou Coffee, two video stores and an array of chain and family restaurants for its 19,500 residents.

Wal-Mart is scheduled to open a store in Country Club Hills next fall. Snagging such big-name retailers in black areas, though, is a hard sell, says Wanda Comein, spokeswoman for the village government. “Every store we get in Country Club Hills, we have to work twice as hard as everyone else,” Comein says.

She says business owners are foolish not to come there, to target the middle- and upper-income blacks living in the south suburbs.