Posted on December 11, 2021

Black People Are Leaving Chicago en Masse. It’s Changing the City’s Power Politics.

Shia Kapos et al., Politico, December 7, 2021

By the time Eugene Sawyer became Chicago’s mayor in 1987 following the sudden death of the first African American to hold the office, Black residents were already leaving.

For decades, long before Sawyer’s ascension, the Englewood neighborhood had been a center of Black life in Chicago, boasting one of the city’s busiest commercial districts and a growing middle class. And it was a true power base, a center of political gravity: Sawyer launched his political career near here, in the 6th Ward of Chicago’s City Council.

But there were signs of change, even then. It seemed that just as soon as Black people made the neighborhood their own, its fortunes turned. Houses started falling into disrepair, thanks to disinvestment. Stores closed up shop — including the massive Sears store that left the neighborhood in 1976.

Now that trickle is a flood. Englewood, one of Chicago’s 77 community areas, boasted nearly 100,000 people in 1960 but is now home to about 22,000. Like a tide going out, it has left relics of decades of decline: more abandoned buildings, shuttered schools and boarded-up storefronts. Its remaining residents face a seemingly intractable level of street violence.


For much of the 20th century, Chicago was the mecca for many of the 6 million African American people fleeing the Jim Crow South during the Great Migration. Starting in 1916, the Chicago Defender, then the nation’s leading Black newspaper, urged Black Southerners to flee North. By 1980, the nearly 1.2 million Black people living in “Chi-town” had reshaped it into a place where Black businesses, culture and entertainment thrived. Some residents became millionaires, forming companies like Ebony/Jet and Johnson Products, businesses that became fixtures of Black American life. Mayor Harold Washington’s 1983 victory, breaking through Chicago’s Irish power structure, seemed like the turning point for Black political power.

Instead, Black political power moved.

Chicago — and neighborhoods like Englewood — offer perhaps the most extreme example of a demographic upheaval reshaping power in cities across the country. The 2020 census shows Black Americans moving, in huge numbers, out of their longtime homes in Northern and Western cities, and resettling in smaller cities, the suburbs and — in a twist on the Great Migration of the 20th century — the South. Nine of 10 of the cities with the largest numbers of African Americans saw significant declines in their Black populations over the past 20 years, according to census data compiled by POLITICO.

In sheer numbers, Chicago’s outflow has been particularly dramatic. In 1980, about 40 percent of the city’s total population was Black — one of the country’s most formidable concentrations of Black business and political power. Since then, that number has dropped to just under 29 percent. Only Detroit, a city with its share of troubles, has seen a bigger drop in Black residents.

The impact on Chicago has been stark, not only in the feeling and identities of neighborhoods like Englewood, but in the power politics of the nation’s third-largest city. Latino residents are beginning to replace Black residents, forcing a realignment in Chicago’s political scene — and a return of the bare-knuckle tribal fights that made Chicago’s City Hall legendary.

Back in 1987, Roderick Sawyer’s father inherited a political agenda from Washington that included ambitions to build a multiracial coalition among the city’s low-income residents and white progressives — one that would help advance marginalized communities. Today, that dream feels distant, as Black and brown communities battle each other for a greater stake in city government.

The locus of conflict, right now, is redistricting: As the city redraws the maps of its 50 City Council wards, dictated by population, the council’s Black Caucus is trying to preserve 16 of the 18 majority Black seats it now holds, plus one seat in a mostly Black ward. The Latino council members are pushing for greater representation (one more seat) given their growing population. Rather than building a bold new coalition of united Black and brown leaders, the council is defined by the argument between them.

After Chicago’s City Council failed to come to a compromise last week, the Black and Latino caucuses are gearing up for what could be a bitter and expensive referendum that would allow voters to make the final call, possibly prolonging the fight into May, before the June primary.


The fight is ultimately about holding on to power, but part of the conflict is rooted in cultural worries as well. Chicago’s Black-majority neighborhoods nurtured not only countless families, but also towering figures of American history: Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Bessie Smith, Ida B. Wells, Jesse Jackson and Barack and Michelle Obama.

Sawyer is one of the members of the council’s Black Caucus trying to keep as many Black-majority seats as possible, and sees himself partly as a curator of this legacy. “I don’t want to lose this identity as being a Black community,” he said as he walked through Englewood.

“That’s not to say we don’t want whites and Latinos coming and living in the neighborhood,” he continued. “They’re more than welcome to add to that cultural diversity — and maybe then they’ll learn something about Black people and the Black experience.”

Chicago’s Black exodus, and the messy push and pull for power on the City Council, hold some important insights for the rest of the country as we navigate massive demographic shifts. What happens to Black political power when African Americans leave one-time “Chocolate Cities” en masse? Is it possible to create multiracial coalitions? How do you get people to stay — or to come back?


Places like Englewood that saw some of the highest number of homicides in the past two decades — 467 in that neighborhood alone — have also had the largest outflow of Black residents, according to a POLITICO analysis of Chicago Police Department data. The handful of the city’s neighborhoods that grew their Black populations all had far fewer killings.

But the losses were also driven by a series of destabilizing events: the loss of manufacturing jobs, the demolition of public housing, a housing bubble, endemic gun violence and the closure of public schools.

What turned the small waves of Black residents leaving into a tsunami was the Chicago Housing Authority’s decadelong effort to move residents out of public housing. Much of the city’s public housing consisted of overcrowded high rises like the notorious Cabrini-Green and the Robert Taylor Homes, which were infested with rats and cockroaches and rife with gang activity. But the demolition of Chicago’s housing projects outpaced the construction of affordable housing, leaving thousands displaced. Many residents ended up in unfamiliar neighborhoods without social services to help them get a leg up, destabilizing middle-class neighborhoods in the process. Friction developed between new, low-income residents and longtime homeowners.


With people leaving, the city started closing public schools, exacerbating a vicious cycle that continues to push out Chicago’s Black residents while failing to attract enough new ones. The Chicago Board of Education and Emanuel closed 50 schools in 2013 — the largest mass school closing in the nation’s history.


West Englewood, not far from Sawyer’s ward, paints a stark picture of a neighborhood in transition. But the neighborhood isn’t just a story of disappearance. While the Black population shrunk 33 percent since 2010 (from 34,178 and 22,912 in 2020), the Latino population is skyrocketing. It jumped from 774 Latinos in 2010 to 5,832 in 2020, according to the census. Latinos now make up nearly a fifth of the neighborhood — and their numbers are growing.

“I remember 10 years ago, I walked the ward and could count on one hand how many Latino families are here. Now I can count two hands on every block. It’s a phenomenal shift,” said Alderman Raymond Lopez, who represents the part of the neighborhood on Chicago’s City Council.


Latino council members, armed with fresh census data showing its population is up 5 percent and the Black population is down nearly 10 percent, filed a map with the city clerk’s office last week that includes 15 Latino wards — one more than it has now — and two fewer Black majority wards. The Black Caucus has worked with the City Council’s Rules Committee on a map that includes 16 majority Black wards (and one predominantly Black ward) and 14 Latino wards.

But the Black and Latino caucuses agree on one thing: It’s also time to create an Asian-focused ward given that the city’s Asian population has increased to nearly 7 percent in the past 10 years. The most concentrated area of Asian residents is now split between two wards represented by white and Latino aldermen.


Alderman Jason Ervin, who heads the City Council’s Black Caucus, takes issue with his Latino colleagues, who he sees as trying to squeeze out Black people from the City Council. “It’s illegal,” he said, referring to the Voting Rights Act. He argues that the Latino Caucus map disenfranchises the city’s Black population by diluting their power; he says he’s ready to take the map his caucus supports and that was “developed by two-thirds of the members of the City Council” to voters.


There’s irony in Chicago’s transformation. Back in the day, the city was the engine driving the Great Migration, the epicenter for Black hope and aspirations. But despite all that, Black political ascendancy here proved to be short-lived.

Harold Washington charged into City Hall in 1983 atop a wave of minority and progressive support — only to see much of his authority stymied by an all-white City Council majority in a racially charged blockade known as the Council Wars. Garcia later won an aldermanic seat representing a slice of the city’s Southwest Side in 1986, as part of special elections ordered by a federal court in seven wards redrawn to acknowledge the Black and Latino populations’ voting power.

“You had a Black community that all of the sudden, out of nowhere, or out of sight of the prevailing white consciousness … elected the first Black mayor of the City of Chicago,” said Rep. Bobby Rush (D-Ill.), who co-founded the Illinois chapter of the Black Panther Party in the late ’60s.

That, he said, “became a threat to the hegemony of whites in this community, and it became a threat to a segregated Chicago.”