CHICAGO—Chicago, one of the most populous, politically important cities in the country, has watched its African-American population steadily ebb over the last decade, to the point where low-income residents say they no longer recognize this city as a stronghold of working families, Equal Voice reports.
The effects of public housing demolition and ongoing gentrification efforts – both of which pushed African-Americans to the suburbs – may have been compounded recently by the U.S. Census Bureau, whose figures show that the city’s black population has plummeted 17 percent since 2000.
Community activists charge that by undercounting thousands of African-American residents, the Census Bureau, itself, is partly to blame for the fact that blacks in the Windy City now stand to lose political representation at the federal, state and local levels.
Meanwhile, the Latino population—up 3 percent in Chicago and 32 percent statewide—is surging.
So as the June 30 deadline looms to redraw voting districts, blacks, Latinos, Asians and Arabs are working to strengthen their ties, wary of being played against one another in a political game where poor people—of all colors—may be the true losers.
“This is really tough,” said Jesus “Chuy” Garcia, a Cook County commissioner and 45-year resident of the city. “The relationship between Latinos and African-Americans will be quite challenging because Latinos will gain – as their numbers indicate that they should – but you definitely can see patterns of development that don’t bode well for poor or working people, in general.”
Census officials have acknowledged a possible undercount in Chicago, which echoes the experience of community activists, who encountered deep distrust when they went door-to-door in black neighborhoods, trying to encourage participation in the 10-year count. Sokoni Karanja, executive director of Centers for New Horizons, described standing in front of homes in his own neighborhood, explaining the political and financial importance of filling out census forms, and leaving bewildered when residents turned him away.
“There’s just a lot of mistrust,” he said. “People did not want to be involved. They would stand there, looking at me, and not open the door. Some were cooperative, but in general there was a great deal of resistance.”
Self-defeating as that response may be, it did not surprise Karanja, who believes distrust of government is deeply embedded in the black community.
“Census workers are gathering information that could go back to authorities, and in this community we have a long-taught fear of authority,” he said. “Everything can be used against you – that’s the belief in our community. The government is not a friend.”
“There’s always the fear of scrutiny that may adversely affect us,” Karanja added. “Many of us come from the South, where anything could be used against you, even if you were ‘in the right,’ and it happens not only in the South but in Chicago, too.”
Other forces may have had an even greater impact on Chicago’s black population. Since 2000, the city has demolished 11,000 units of public housing in the Bronzeville area alone, promising to rebuild only a third of those units and giving many families vouchers for Section 8 housing outside the city limits.
At the same time, the price of real estate in parts of the same neighborhood has more than doubled. “Chicago is increasingly becoming a city that’s no longer affordable for working families,” said Jhatayn Travis, executive director of Kenwood Oakland Community Organization. “People talk about wanting mixed-income housing, but they aren’t building it—not enough, at least—so it does give you an idea of how the mayor and the business community are viewing this city.”
But what most galls Travis, and others interviewed for this story, is a federal law allowing census officials to count state prisoners where they are incarcerated, instead of including them in their home communities. It’s a nationwide problem that gives sparsely populated rural areas – where most prisons are located – far greater political pull than warranted by their actual population figures.
For Chicago, that means about 23,000 incarcerated residents were not included in the city’s count, a significant problem when one considers that population figures from the 2010 Census determine how the federal government allocates $440 billion to communities.
The prisoner number is part of a total 180,000-person decline among African-Americans in Chicago and will certainly mean less federal money for education and community programs.
It also has ramifications in political power. “For representation, this is a really big deal,” said Peter Wagner, executive director of the Prison Policy Initiative, a nationally focused think tank in Northampton, Mass. “It’s not so much what Chicago loses, but what other districts downstate gain. There is a very clear upstate-downstate tension in Illinois, and prison-based gerrymandering just exacerbates that.”
Of course, 23,000 inmates counted at their home addresses in Chicago would not, on their own, create an entire voting district (Illinois requires that each district hold 108,000 people). But they could have an impact on the three predominantly African-American congressional districts facing elimination.
“I’m not hopeful that any candidate of color can win election now,” said Stephen Alexander, a senior research fellow at DePaul University’s Egan Urban Center, who has studied the city’s political power structure for decades. “I don’t see how a Latino can win without crossover votes, and, obviously, the way the system is set up, an African-American cannot win without crossover votes – at least not a candidate from within the community.”
Josina Morita is tackling this complex political calculus head-on. As executive coordinator of the United Congress of Community and Religious Organizations, she has built a multiracial coalition to both lobby legislators on redressing the prisoner-count rules and propose a new voting-district map that would preserve the political power of shrinking minority communities.
“I don’t want to say that white communities gained in this census report,” she said, “but communities of color lost.”
A new state law will put some weight behind Morita’s push. In March, Gov. Pat Quinn signed the Illinois Voting Rights Act, mandating that if it is possible to keep communities of color within a single district, this must be done. A trained demographer, Morita has created the required maps and is now demanding that her coalition have a say in the redistricting process. The voting rights law, spearheaded by activists in Chinatown who saw their community of 50,000 splintered into four legislative districts, is a major weapon in Morita’s arsenal.
“Legislators say they don’t think that they can draw three black congressional districts, but I’ve drawn them, and I’m going to show them,” she said. “Under the Voting Rights Act, if you can prove that it can be done, it has to be. And considering the financial positions of states these days, the threat of suing them is very effective.”