From the DePaul University newspaper to local and national news outlets, reports have identified Chicago as the most racially segregated city in the nation. All these sources reference the Manhattan Institute for Policy Research, which analyzes U.S. Census Bureau data to compare the racial composition of major cities. According to an Institute report released this past January, Chicago has the highest indices of dissimilarity and isolation of the nine largest metropolitan areas in the nation (those with populations over 500,000).
The Manhattan Institute provides the following scenario:
“There are two equal-size neighborhoods in a city: one is 100 percent white; and the other is 98 percent white and 2 percent black. According to the dissimilarity index, this city is fairly segregated, since about half of the black residents would need to move in order to achieve perfect integration. In an important sense, though, the black residents are not isolated—after all, they live in a neighborhood that is 98 percent white.”
Ordinarily, one would say that a neighborhood with a population 2 percent black and 98 percent white isn’t fairly segregated, but almost completely segregated. However, that’s the result given how this index is measured.
Using values ranging from 0 (perfect integration) to 100 (complete segregation), the dissimilarity index measures the evenness of two mutually exclusive racial groups across one geographic boundary (e.g., census tract) in relation to the larger geographic area.
The isolation index also has limitations. It often reports the percentage of white population in a given census tract over all other racial groups. Another limitation is that the index can calculate the concentration and isolation of only one racial group at a time and can’t compare racial groups to one another.
In spite of their flaws, these indices are the best measures available to make inferences about population and characterize community and neighborhood dynamics, including racial segregation.
The root causes of residential segregation have been debated for decades. From institutional racism and language barriers to economic and social capital, scholars (Denton and Massey 1988; Denton 1995; Pattillo‐McCoy 2000; Quillian 2002; Charles 2003; Iceland 2004; Wilson and Taub 2006; Adelman and Gocker 2007; Iceland and Scopilliti 2008; Reardon et al. 2009) have identified a number of factors influencing residential patterns and segregation. Sure, we could re-iterate the work of scholars to discuss the persistence of residential segregation, however, important questions remain.
What does residential segregation tell us about our communities, social structures, and group dynamics? What can the homogeneity of community areas tell us about the distribution of material resources? More importantly, what impact does residential segregation have on structural opportunities for residents?
Residential segregation is about more than simply self-selection and micro-level racism. Yes, residential segregation can be used as an indicator of a larger racial problem in cities such as Chicago but in what way? How so? It is imperative that we think about these questions prior to engaging in discourse about residential segregation.
Chicago has a contentious history of racial and ethnic segregation. Let’s take Lincoln Park for example. During the 1960s, Lincoln Park was predominately Puerto Rican. The late Mayor Richard J. Daley, along with several urban planners, saw this neighborhood as a major opportunity to develop an inner city suburb. The city used zoning laws, blockbusting, and redlining tactics to proactively push out Puerto Ricans – and the Mexican and Polish immigrants along with African Americans who shared the community – to make room for wealthy white professionals. By the mid-1960s, a complete redevelopment of Lincoln Park had begun and Puerto Ricans were pushed further west into communities such as West Town and Humboldt Park. Several decades later, such is the outcome of racialized policies and practices in Lincoln Park.
Chicago’s 77 community areas are all uniquely distinct and still — for the most part — separated by racial and ethnic enclaves. From Roseland to Rogers Park, Chicago has continued its efforts to revitalize and transform this community into a world class city by way of gentrification. Arguably, gentrification has created an intermingling of the races; conversely, the impact of gentrification eerily mirrors the historical patterns of residential segregation. Although the root causes of residential segregation have been debated, there is little controversy over what it is: a process. We may not always know how to explain it or the language to use to describe its impact but we do know that it is a process that happens over a period of time.
The fact is, a number of factors impact residential segregation. Whether Chicago is ranked number one or five is irrelevant. What is relevant and pertinent is that these statistics not only highlight a public issue but provide us with an opportunity to make meaningful population inferences about our local and national community.