Black Chicago Divided

Class and generational conflicts intensify, as African Americans cope with the Great Recession.

Salim Muwakkil

On July 2, two youths enjoy Chicago's North Avenue Beach. Referring to the intense police surveillance, one said he feels as if they were "little kids or something." (Photo by Ryan Williams)

Mar­tavius (Mark) Carter is both the prod­uct and per­pe­tra­tor of a grow­ing class divide in black Amer­i­ca. He is a res­i­dent of Chicago’s dis­tressed North Lawn­dale neigh­bor­hood and a found­ing mem­ber of the Voice of the Ex-Offend­er (VOTE), a group cre­at­ed to empow­er black peo­ple who were once impris­oned. The group’s approach is based on a protest mod­el of direct action, and they intend to be a dis­rup­tive force.

We are liv­ing in an emer­gency sit­u­a­tion and time is out for the kind of qui­et diplo­ma­cy that has been so inef­fec­tive,” says Carter, as he points out the numer­ous signs of decay in his West Side neighborhood. 

Accord­ing to the Illi­nois Depart­ment of Cor­rec­tions, North Lawn­dale ranks high­est in the state for its num­ber of return­ing pris­on­ers. The North Lawn­dale Employ­ment Net­work esti­mates that more than 70 per­cent of all North Lawn­dale men between the ages of 18 and 45 have a crim­i­nal record, a fig­ure almost three times high­er than the nation­al aver­age for the same demo­graph­ic. Sharon Dixon, the for­mer alder­man of the 24th Ward, which includes North Lawn­dale, says the com­mu­ni­ty has the state’s high­est homi­cide rate and the third-high­est over­all crime rate.

This neigh­bor­hood, togeth­er with adja­cent West Side com­mu­ni­ties like East and West Garfield Park, Hum­boldt Park and Austin, has a 52-per­cent youth unem­ploy­ment rate – the high­est in the entire nation.

Upon his release from prison in 1998 (he served five years for sell­ing drugs), Carter was out­raged by the dete­ri­o­rat­ing con­di­tions in his com­mu­ni­ty. Years of what he says were use­less appeals to mem­bers of the black lead­er­ship elite” con­vinced him these were the same peo­ple help­ing to accel­er­ate the decay. In 2003, Carter, sev­er­al oth­er ex-offend­ers and a few com­mu­ni­ty activists cre­at­ed VOTE.

When we began the strug­gle for com­mu­ni­ty devel­op­ment, we kept run­ning into road­blocks set up by the very peo­ple who were sup­posed to be help­ing us,” he says. We began to real­ize that the death and destruc­tion in our com­mu­ni­ty could not have hap­pened with­out the black lead­er­ship elite’s cooperation.”

Old and inten­si­fy­ing divisions

For most of African-Amer­i­can his­to­ry, class divi­sions (forged dur­ing cen­turies of slav­ery, when slave­own­ers were hap­py to divide the loy­al­ties of their chat­tel) have bedev­iled attempts to uni­fy the black com­mu­ni­ty around a com­mon strat­e­gy. In black Chica­go, these ten­sions have smol­dered for many years, flar­ing occa­sion­al­ly. Out of sight of main­stream media, diver­gent class inter­ests have large­ly pre­vent­ed any uni­fied polit­i­cal attempt to wrest pow­er from the city’s entrenched eth­nic fief­doms. Though ten­sions exist in black neigh­bor­hoods across the city, the con­trast between the poor West Side and the bet­ter-off South Side has become a crude geo­graph­i­cal sur­ro­gate for black Chicago’s stark class divisions. 

Acute­ly aware of dis­par­i­ties among the city’s African Amer­i­cans, VOTE aims its protests at the city’s estab­lished black lead­er­ship. The group is best known for rau­cous demon­stra­tions at con­struc­tion sites and for dis­rupt­ing meet­ings of black elect­ed offi­cials and lead­ers. For exam­ple, VOTE was a reg­u­lar pres­ence out­side the head­quar­ters of the Rev. Jesse Jackson’s Rainbow/​PUSH Coali­tion, protest­ing dur­ing Sat­ur­day meetings.

Carter has become an implaca­ble crit­ic of the gen­er­a­tion of lead­ers that holds sway over Chicago’s civ­il rights com­mu­ni­ty. He is also a vocal oppo­nent of most black elect­ed offi­cials who, he charges, make super­fi­cial efforts at com­mu­ni­ty improve­ment in order to gar­ner pub­lic­i­ty that will aid their prospects for re-elec­tion. When asked why he tar­gets black offi­cials and civ­il rights lead­ers rather than the tra­di­tion­al evils of racism and offi­cial neglect, Carter insists that unmask­ing them as col­lab­o­ra­tors smoothes the road toward true equal­i­ty. As long as we think they have the community’s inter­est at heart, we’ll con­tin­ue being disappointed.”

The group’s modus operan­di has earned them con­sid­er­able crit­i­cism from oth­er activist groups. I’m not sure anger and hos­til­i­ty is the best way to con­vince peo­ple,” argues Mark Allen, a for­mer aide to the Rev. Jesse Jack­son who is asso­ciate edi­tor of the South Street Jour­nal and spokesper­son for the Nation­al Black Wall Street Move­ment. Angry denun­ci­a­tions tend to alien­ate peo­ple more than bring them togeth­er in pro­duc­tive relationships.”

But Carter argues that he is only chan­nel­ing the anger he hears in the streets of North Lawn­dale and oth­er neigh­bor­hoods suf­fer­ing from acute job­less­ness, endem­ic home­less­ness and ram­pant police brutality. 

Only if black lead­ers are shocked out of their com­pla­cen­cy will things change, Carter insists. He is con­vinced that church­es, busi­ness­es, fra­ter­nal groups, civic and social ser­vice orga­ni­za­tions, and oth­er estab­lished black insti­tu­tions could more effec­tive­ly plan strate­gies and mar­shal their col­lec­tive where­with­al and resources to bet­ter serve the com­mu­ni­ty. They don’t do this, he believes, because they have their own class inter­est at heart. 

One exam­ple of this, not­ed by Carter, is how Sec­tion 3 of the Hous­ing and Urban Devel­op­ment Act of 1968 is reg­u­lar­ly vio­lat­ed with the com­plic­i­ty of black lead­er­ship. The clause was designed to ensure that employ­ment and oth­er eco­nom­ic oppor­tu­ni­ties gen­er­at­ed by HUD assis­tance or HUD assist­ed projects … be direct­ed to low- and very low-income per­sons.” Carter says that if that law was put into prac­tice it would go a long way toward eas­ing unem­ploy­ment in North Lawn­dale. But project labor agree­ments, nego­ti­at­ed by black lead­ers and labor unions, allow orga­nized labor to escape com­pli­ance with Sec­tion 3.” As a thank-you, the unions fund these civ­il rights orga­ni­za­tions and black trade asso­ci­a­tions, he says.

The black elite are play­ing with fire if they think they can keep fool­ing the mass­es of black peo­ple with their decep­tive rhetoric,” he says. Things are get­ting hot out here and pret­ty soon that heat is going to light some fuses.” 

They treat us like a dif­fer­ent race’

Some of those fus­es are explod­ing, accord­ing to Carter, in the form of what the media is call­ing flash mobs”: large group­ings of young peo­ple com­mit­ting rob­beries and assaults in more afflu­ent parts of the city. What you’re see­ing is the pover­ty and despair of our bro­ken-down com­mu­ni­ties trick­ling over into down­town,” he says. Many of these kids are the chil­dren of the crack epi­dem­ic of the 90s.”

Phillip Jack­son agrees with Carter’s descrip­tion and adds some sub­stance to the VOTE leader’s con­dem­na­tion of mid­dle-class impo­tence. They have been failed by their schools, and by social and faith orga­ni­za­tions in their com­mu­ni­ties.” Jack­son is founder and exec­u­tive direc­tor of The Black Star Project, a high­ly regard­ed non­prof­it orga­ni­za­tion that pro­vides aca­d­e­m­ic assis­tance to black stu­dents from pre-school to col­lege. He is on the front line, deal­ing with the con­se­quences of the eco­nom­ic neglect Carter targets. 

The kind of hav­oc they wreak among us through flash mob­bing’ is the kind of hav­oc they have lived with their entire young lives,” Jack­son says. 

Jamal Foster’s sto­ry is an exam­ple of what Carter and Jack­son mean. Fos­ter says he and his friends often trav­el to North Avenue and Oak Street Beach – two pop­u­lar lake­front loca­tions along the Gold Coast – to intim­i­date peo­ple and steal what­ev­er they can. We can get some good stuff down there,” the 17-year-old says. You can’t get no iPods or noth­ing like that on the West Side. So we go to where you can and when we mob up, even the cops can’t stop us.”

Law enforcement’s impo­tence in halt­ing such crimes – more than a dozen inci­dents in the first weeks of June alone – is the prob­a­ble rea­son Chica­go police took the unprece­dent­ed action of clos­ing the dense­ly crowd­ed North Avenue Beach on Memo­r­i­al Day. (The offi­cial rea­son giv­en for the shut­down was to allow med­ical vehi­cles access to treat sev­er­al heat-relat­ed injuries.)

On the day the cops shut down North Avenue Beach, 22-year-old Aeya­nuna Rogers, a North­ern Illi­nois Uni­ver­si­ty grad­u­ate, was shot in the head while on a South Side walk­way just a stone’s throw from the city’s renowned Muse­um of Sci­ence and Indus­try (she died one day lat­er). New­ly elect­ed May­or Rahm Emanuel has pledged to relent­less­ly pur­sue those respon­si­ble. Police said they have made more than 20 arrests con­nect­ed to the crimes – all African Americans. 

Emanuel has promised to imple­ment a new polic­ing sys­tem that rede­ploys 150 offi­cers to the areas of most need, and observers already notice an increase in police pres­ence in the Gold Coast, a neigh­bor­hood close to the flash-mobbed North Avenue beach.

Some black orga­ni­za­tions are dubi­ous of these changes and com­plain the may­or is tak­ing such aggres­sive action only because most of the vic­tims are white. The areas most in need, they argue, are those crime-rav­aged com­mu­ni­ties on the South and West sides. If it’s black-on-black crime, nobody cares,” says Tonia Rush, the moth­er of one of the black teenagers arrest­ed for flash mobbing.

That assess­ment is wide­ly shared in black Chica­go. For some, the per­ceived dis­par­i­ty requires them to adopt a more aggres­sive atti­tude toward com­mu­ni­ty crime. They are push­ing Illi­nois to pass the con­ceal car­ry law that would allow res­i­dents to pack firearms. 

Why is this state so intent on keep­ing us unarmed and so vul­ner­a­ble?” asked Ger­ald Ver­non, a black nation­al­ist activist and one of the more artic­u­late black advo­cates of the con­ceal car­ry leg­is­la­tion. Ver­non argues that black peo­ple could bet­ter address the prob­lem of crime if they were armed.

His views are shared by those black Chicagoans who increas­ing­ly argue that more aggres­sive action should be tak­en to stem the rise of crim­i­nal behav­ior. I am per­son­al­ly aware of one par­tic­u­lar group that open­ly express­es vig­i­lante aims. These most­ly mid­dle-aged work­ing class black men (and one woman), all of whom request­ed anonymi­ty, pep­per their con­ver­sa­tions with angry cen­sure of pants-sag­ging thugs,” and talk bold­ly of tak­ing the fight to them. 

These views of aggres­sive vig­i­lan­tism reflect Carter’s pre­dic­tions of erupt­ing anger and frus­tra­tion between the class­es. He said the ani­mos­i­ty is so strong the black mid­dle-class seems to regard ex-offend­ers and oth­er low-income African Amer­i­cans as anoth­er race alto­geth­er. In Africa, I sup­pose they would say dif­fer­ent tribes, but here they treat us like a dif­fer­ent race.” Carter says the tribes that came to mind are the Hutu and the Tutsi.

For most of African-American history, class divisions (forged during centuries of slavery) have bedeviled all attempts to unify the black community around a common strategy.
Air­ing dirty laundry

Even before the Great Reces­sion began tak­ing its toll, class frac­tures were devel­op­ing in the African-Amer­i­can com­mu­ni­ty. Dis­ad­van­taged blacks have real­ly been hard hit by changes in the econ­o­my. Mean­while, trained and edu­cat­ed blacks are ben­e­fit­ing from changes in the econ­o­my,” said William Julius Wil­son in an inter­view on PBS’s Front­line in 1998. Take a look at black income today. If you divide black income into quin­tiles, the top quin­tile has now secured almost 50 per­cent of the total black income, which is a record.” This skewed dis­tri­b­u­tion of income con­tin­ued through­out the 2000s, as long­stand­ing class ani­mosi­ties mar­i­nat­ed in black com­mu­ni­ties across the country.

The most salient pub­lic expres­sion of these ten­sions was made by Bill Cos­by dur­ing a May 2004 speech com­mem­o­rat­ing the 50th anniver­sary of Brown v. Board. At an NAACP con­fab cel­e­brat­ing the rul­ing that out­lawed sep­a­rate but equal” edu­ca­tion­al poli­cies, Cos­by said, Peo­ple marched and were hit in the face with rocks to get an edu­ca­tion, and now we’ve got these knuck­le­heads walk­ing around … the low­er eco­nom­ic peo­ple are not hold­ing up their end of the deal.”

Despite the out­rage of some, his com­ments sparked a slow roll of sup­port from black com­men­ta­tors who argue that views like Cosby’s are sup­pressed in the black com­mu­ni­ty in order not to air dirty laun­dry in public.

There is some truth to that,” says Ray­nard Vil­la Hall, pub­lish­er of the pop­u­lar online newslet­ter BRONZECOMM. We are uncom­fort­able mak­ing those kinds of argu­ments in pub­lic venues.” And for good rea­son, he notes. Any weak­ness would be mer­ci­less­ly exploit­ed by ene­mies of black progress.” 

While Harold Lucas, Pres­i­dent and CEO of the Black Metrop­o­lis Con­ven­tion & Tourism Coun­cil, and Mark Carter oper­ate on oppo­site ends of the class spec­trum, they share a belief in the per­fidy of the city’s black elite. We have reached new lev­els of class strat­i­fi­ca­tion in Chica­go,” says Lucas.

Lucas is well known for his pas­sion­ate focus on a cam­paign pro­mot­ing Chicago’s his­toric Bronzeville” neigh­bor­hood as a des­ig­nat­ed African-Amer­i­can her­itage tourist des­ti­na­tion. Once known as the Black Metrop­o­lis,” it is one of the nation’s most sig­nif­i­cant land­marks of African-Amer­i­can urban history.

The area had fall­en on hard times until the mid 1990s, when var­i­ous rede­vel­op­ment efforts — cou­pled with the demo­li­tion of sev­er­al hous­ing devel­op­ments – began chang­ing the face of the neigh­bor­hood. Long-time res­i­dents increas­ing­ly are seen as threats to the eco­nom­ic aspi­ra­tions of their gen­tri­fy­ing neigh­bors. Lucas believes this class divide could be nego­ti­at­ed more effec­tive­ly if black mid­dle-class Chicagoans were more active in com­mu­ni­ty devel­op­ment projects designed to help the less for­tu­nate among them. 

Those of us who have had some suc­cess in this sys­tem have an oblig­a­tion to help the least for­tu­nate,” Lucas says. But since we have not done that, those peo­ple are now turn­ing on the black mid­dle class and try­ing to take what they have.” 

Best of times, worst of times?

In 2007, the Pew Research Cen­ter pub­lished a study titled Blacks See Grow­ing Val­ues Gap between Poor and Mid­dle Class.” Most com­men­ta­tors inter­pret­ed the find­ings as con­fir­ma­tion of Cosby’s views and fur­ther proof that class divi­sions were widening.

Hall is uncon­vinced. A vet­er­an of bruis­ing bat­tles for black-com­mu­ni­ty con­trol of insti­tu­tions in the city’s South Shore neigh­bor­hood, he is reluc­tant to diag­nose as class antag­o­nism the grow­ing exas­per­a­tion with crim­ino­genic cul­ture and com­mu­ni­ty crime. I think we’re some­times too glib in ascrib­ing crim­i­nal behav­ior as some­thing nor­mal for low-income peo­ple,” he says. I know many poor folks who didn’t grow up to be criminals.”

Though he may resist class stereo­types, Hall shares much of the same anger expressed by Carter and Lucas at the black mid­dle-class’ neglect of the black poor. But like Lucas, Hall real­izes that a black mid­dle class is essen­tial for any kind of suc­cess­ful com­mu­ni­ty development.

Author and film­mak­er Ytasha Wom­ack won­ders why class­es are pit­ted against each oth­er at all. Her 2010 book, Post Black: How A New Gen­er­a­tion Is Redefin­ing African Amer­i­can Iden­ti­ty, argues that black folks are leav­ing for­mer notions of black­ness” behind. Wom­ack is frus­trat­ed by views like Carter’s, which she says give unnec­es­sary cre­dence to old and dys­func­tion­al par­a­digms. (Although she does share some of his scorn for the gen­er­a­tional arro­gance of those black baby boomers, who were the first gen­er­a­tion to take advan­tage of racial open­ings made pos­si­ble by the civ­il rights revolution.) 

Wom­ack argues that black peo­ple are mak­ing extra­or­di­nary strides and accom­plish­ing goals their par­ents would nev­er have imag­ined – a view in direct col­li­sion with the crimped vision that nour­ish­es flash mob mentalities.

The graph­ic real­i­ty is that both con­di­tions exist in the African-Amer­i­can com­mu­ni­ties of 2011. The sta­tis­tics that tell of his­tor­i­cal­ly high lev­els of edu­ca­tion, of col­lege atten­dance dou­bling over the last 25 years are real, as are those detail­ing huge increas­es in the prison inmate pop­u­la­tion. A Dick­en­sian divi­sion into best of times, worst of times, applies per­fect­ly to the black com­mu­ni­ty cir­ca 2011 – albeit, the Great Reces­sion is steadi­ly erod­ing his­toric successes.

I’m hear­ing a lot more dis­sat­is­fac­tion about the wors­en­ing con­di­tions and a lot more unpro­duc­tive anger at the lack of progress,” says Mark Allen, the South Street Jour­nal edi­tor. There are clear strate­gies avail­able that could lift us out of our chron­ic state of depen­den­cy,” he says, not­ing the eco­nom­i­cal­ly self-reliant Black Wall Streets (or con­cen­trat­ed retail cen­ters) that once exist­ed in many areas of the Unit­ed States, includ­ing Chica­go. But,” he says, our mid­dle-class, intel­lec­tu­al elite would rather hold a sym­po­sium to dis­cuss it.” Mean­while, he warns, a social vol­cano is smol­der­ing below the surface.

The Oth­er Chica­go” is sup­port­ed by the Local Report­ing Ini­tia­tive of Com­mu­ni­ty News Mat­ters, under­writ­ten by The Chica­go Com­mu­ni­ty Trust with help from the McCormick, MacArthur, Knight and Driehaus Foun­da­tions, and admin­is­tered by The Com­mu­ni­ty Media Work­shop and The Chica­go Reporter.

Sal­im Muwakkil is a senior edi­tor of In These Times, where he has worked since 1983. He is the host of The Sal­im Muwakkil show on WVON, Chicago’s his­toric black radio sta­tion, and he wrote the text for the book HAROLD: Pho­tographs from the Harold Wash­ing­ton Years.
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