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Image by Safiyah Simpkins, Ariba Qureshi, and Hong Sunly. United States, 2019.

Colors of Chicago: A Tale of Two Cities

By Safiyah Simpkins, Ariba Qureshi, and Hong Sunly
Students in the 2019 Genesis Academy Summer Institute in Chicago

The downtown and North Side areas communicate all the signs of a thriving, diverse city, yet its present day practices depict the reinforcement of its 180-year history of racial segregation. The racial disparity comes with strings attached and influences the economics and spatial divides. Kelly, a woman from Bolingbrook, Illinois: "You can see it when you change neighborhoods and you can only see like, one type or one color."


Image by Safiyah Simpkins, Ariba Qureshi, and Hong Sunly. United States, 2019.

Juan, a young Hispanic man from Midway, talks about the consequences of the apparent divide of the city, saying: "[Racial segregation] affects [people] in their everyday life. They have to look and be a certain way just to be comfortable where they go."


Image by Safiyah Simpkins, Ariba Qureshi, and Hong Sunly. United States, 2019.

Racial segregation encourages people to stay isolated in their neighborhoods, causing them to miss or reject opportunities and relationships that lie outside of their community's boundaries. As Lazeja*, a black woman who grew up in Chicago, says, "People in Chicago are afraid...of leaving their comfort zone. And so when trying to think about other neighborhoods there's this stigma attached, for whatever reason, that's usually promoted by racial prejudices."


Image by Safiyah Simpkins, Ariba Qureshi, and Hong Sunly. United States, 2019.

Racial segregation not only hurts job opportunities but also negetively impacts the education, public services, and health of low income, predominately black and brown nieghborhoods. Studies have shown that "youth growing up in high-poverty, racially segregated neighborhoods are more likely to experience negative educational outcomes" (see bibliography).

The neat division of races and space is emblematic of a broken system that is deliberately kept in place through political control. The elected officials, zoning board members, and mayors determine the opportunities for working class people and minorities to relocate. Formerly middle-income African American areas of the city have become increasingly low-income. The net result is an increase in low-income African American areas than in the past, with a smaller population.

However, the big question remains to be "Is it fixable?"

Lazeja* says, "No, I don't think there's a feasible way to fix it. I think that there are a lot of idealized ways to fix it that will never come to fruition."


Image by Safiyah Simpkins, Ariba Qureshi, and Hong Sunly. United States, 2019.

The racial patterns are so intricately woven into the fabric of the society that questioning any transformation in the near future seems appropriate. In the past, Chicago enacted policies that encouraged racial segregation known as exclusionary zoning. "Although lawmakers no longer use racial justifications for segregationist policies, many of those same policies remain, prolonging and exacerbating racial and class segregation" (see bibliography).

To address a century-old challenge and make imperative moves toward racial and spatial integration, the city needs to take action and they have many options at their disposal. They could encourage communities to start redistricting their own borders so that they can be more diverse and "as that becomes more accepted, redistricting can be introduced across towns by giving families school choice, or options to go to school outside their own communities" (see bibliography). Another option is that lawmakers can make sure that new zoning laws and policies don't reinforce lines of segregation. Laws like "land use policies that limit new multifamily development, like large-lot zoning and historic districting" continue to encourage segregation in Chicago (see bibliography). They could also "create policies that bring low-income housing into higher-income neighborhoods" (see bibliography). This is one of the most direct solutions to segregation and it also helps to solve the problem of generational poverty.

The racial segregation in Chicago is a large and prevalent issue that effects everyone in the city. Allowing it to go on will only hurt everyone in the long run. There are many ways to fix it, but as Kelly, a woman from Bolingbrook, says, "I think it can be fixed. But, we just can't fix it right away...It takes time."


Image by Safiyah Simpkins, Ariba Qureshi, and Hong Sunly. United States, 2019.

Segregation is systematically ingrained in city policy and culture and there is a long way to go to make up for lost potential, lost income, lost lives, and lost community.


The Cost of Segregation: Lost Income, Lost Lives, Lost Potential
Chicago Remains a Segregated City by Race and Income–and Government Deserves Much of the Blame
Social Segregation Is Rising–What's to Be Done About It?
Four Ways to Tackle Segregated Cities, and Why It Matters
Three Ways to Overcome Inequality