What is Racism? Reflections From Global Chicago



From: Paul Street, RACIAL OPPRESSION IN THE GLOBAL METROPOLIS: A LIVING BLACK CHICAGO HISTORY (New York: Rowman & Littlefield, 2007). This posting appears by permission of the author and publisher.  This material is protected by copyright.  All rights reserved.  Please contact the publisher for permission to copy, distribute or reprint. The book’s Table of Contents is presented at the end of this selection.




Some opening words about the naming and content of this study. Beneath the fancy title, this is a study of racism experienced by black people and communities in and around my home city of Chicago. It could easily have been titled—indeed, it almost was—”Racist Chicago: A Living Black History.”


By “Chicago,” I often mean not just the majority-nonwhite central city itself, but the predominantly white six-county metropolitan area that both surrounds and includes the great Midwest Metropolis(1).  Over years of researching race, class, poverty, place, and policy in Chicago, I’ve found that it has become increasingly impossible to think intelligently about racial inequality in the central city without looking at what’s happening in the suburban periphery. I hope the reasons for that conclusion will become clear in the chapters and pages that follow.



What is Racism?


This study does mean to suggest that any but a small portion of the white population within or beyond Chicago is consciously and willfully prejudiced against blacks or any other racial minority. Like other researchers and writers examining the persistence of racial apartheid, oppression, and inequality in the “post–civil rights era,” I am concerned to show the effects of a “state-of-being,” or structural, racism that generates racially disparate results even without racist intent—”state-of-mind” racism—on the part of white actors (2). This book looks at highly racialized social processes that work in “routine” and “ordinary” fashion to sustain racial hierarchy and white supremacy often and typically without white racist hostility or purpose. It is informed partly by Stokely Carmichael and Stanley Hamilton’s perceptive response to the question “what is racism?” at the beginning of their book Black Power:


“Racism is both overt and covert. It takes two, closely related forms: individual whites acting against individual blacks, and acts by the total white community against the black community. We call these individual racism and institutionalized racism. The first consists of overt acts by individuals, which cause death, injury or the violent destruction of property. This type can be recorded by television cameras; it can frequently be observed in the process of commission. The second type is less overt, far more subtle, less identifiable in terms of specific individuals committing the acts. But it is no less destructive of human life. The second type operates in the operation of established and respected forces in the society, and thus receives far less public condemnation than the first type.”


Carmichael and Hamilton illustrated their distinction between overt “individual” racism and covert “institutionalized” racism with some compelling historical examples:


“When white terrorists bomb a black church and kill five black children, that is an act of individual racism, widely deplored by most segments of the society. But when in that same city—Birmingham, Alabama—five hundred black babies die each year because of the lack of proper food, shelter and medical facilities, and thousands more are destroyed and maimed physically, emotionally and intellectually because of conditions of poverty and discrimination in the black community, that is a function of institutionalized racism. When a black family moves into a home in a white neighborhood and is stoned, burned or routed out, they are victims of an overt act of individual racism which many people will condemn—at least in words. But it is institutional racism that keeps black people locked in dilapidated slum tenements, subject to the daily prey of exploitative slumlords, merchants, loan sharks and discriminatory real estate agents. The society either pretends it does not know of this latter situation, or is in fact incapable of doing anything meaningful about it” (3).


This book is concerned above all with the more covert and institutional forms of metropolitan racism that survive intact and are perhaps more deeply entrenched than before in the officially nonracist post–civil rights era. I believe the majority of white Americans who tell pollsters and others that they are not personally racist and that they embrace key integrationist and egalitarian goals once articulated by the civil rights movement. But taking them at their word does not does not prevent me from seeing many of them as beneficiaries of living institutional white privilege or from seeing the Chicago area and the nation as still largely “structured”—as Martin Luther King Jr. put things in 1966—”on the basis of racism.” “The roots of racism are very deep,” as King told the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) in November of that year, reflecting partly on his largely unsuccessful attempt the previous summer to advance the cause of racial equality in Chicago (4).



Past and Present


Today, as in King’s day, those “roots” extend far beneath the surface racial sentiments of whites and the outwardly color-blind laws and polices of the nation and its constituent jurisdictions. At the same time, the current history of institutionalized racial oppression, partly hidden and possibly exacerbated by the official defeat of overt racism, feeds richly on uncompensated white accumulations from earlier periods when white policy actors and citizens were all too openly and explicitly racist. This study will examine both the past and the present of racism, paying special attention to the living and underestimated interaction between “past” and contemporary race discrimination within and beyond Chicago.



Class and Race


I do not mean to suggest that the great “Midwest Metropolis” is any more racist than other U.S. cities or the broader national society of which it a part. I hope the first and introductory chapter and the study as a whole will adequately explain why I have focused specifically on my home city and its broader metropolitan area.


This book does not deny that a significant and accelerated number and percentage of black Chicagoans and Americans have moved into “bourgeois” middle and upper strata since King’s day. At the same time and in a related vein, the title is not meant to suggest that racism is the only significant societal problem or barrier faced by the city’s, region’s, and nation’s disproportionately poor African-Americans. Those people struggle, I think, with what King called “class issues—issues that relate to the privileged as over against the underprivileged” and which are hardly limited to race. Chicago and the nation’s large number of impoverished blacks are carrying a double burden of race and class, stuck at the twin and interrelated bottoms of the nation’s steep socioeconomic and racial pyramids.


Their experience surely attests to the fact that, as King told the SCLC, “something is wrong with capitalism” (5), an economic system that (he explained in 1966 and 1967) “produces beggars” alongside luxuriant opulence for the privileged few, thereby recommending, King felt, “the restructuring of the entire society” and “the radical redistribution of economic and political power.” It attests also to the fact that, as King explained, “a nation that will exploit economically will have to have foreign investments and everything else, and will have to use its military might to protect them.” It confirms King’s insistence that we “question the whole society,” (emphasis added) seeing “that the problem of racism, the problem of economic exploitation, and the problem of war are all tied together. They are the triple evils that are interrelated” (6).


One could write a relevant monograph detailing the hidden and ongoing legacy and price of class oppression in and around notoriously business-dominated capitalist Chicago. I personally see little hope for efforts to address racial inequality and oppression that do not ultimately also confront class inequality and oppression, reflecting basic agreement with King’s conclusion, expressed to a white SCLC staffer in a jail cell in Selma, Alabama, in February 1965: “if we are going to achieve real equality, the United States will have to adopt a modified form of socialism” (7).


Still, reasons for hope are evident in the pages that follow. I am convinced that black experience within and beyond the city reflects the inexorable operation of objectively white-supremacist social and historical forces that possess their “relatively autonomous” race logic within and beyond the supposedly “color-blind” logics of capital and class hierarchy. I question (my own analytical tradition of) Marxism’s tendency to treat race as a superficial, merely “superstructural” add-on to deeper, more relevant class-based structures and modes of exploitation. Without denying the critical relevance of class structures and corporate-capitalist political economy, I am unimpressed with the extent to which the operative social forces driving black subordination within and beyond Chicago have become “color-blind.” I am struck by the significant extent to which racially oppressive white-supremacist forces and structures contain lives of their own. Those structures and forces, I am convinced, shape American capitalism and richly inform the nation’s profoundly uneven patterns of metropolitan development. And they would pose significant problems for any post-capitalist society born of (say) a revolution whose adherents chose to suppress “race” issues relative to thoroughly legitimate class justice imperatives.


Following the counsel of Stephen Steinberg, a trenchant left critic of the “class over race” interpretation of black poverty, I do not take the expansion of the black bourgeoisie and the related socioeconomic bifurcation of black Chicago and America since the 1960s to mean that racism is no longer the main problem faced by African-Americans within and beyond the city. As Steinberg notes:


“The success of the black middle-class [is not] proof of . . . a more favorable opportunity structure for blacks. After all, racism has never been indifferent to class distinctions, and it may well be that blacks who have acquired the ‘right’ status characteristics are exempted from stereotypes and behaviors that continue to be directed at less privileged blacks. [But] there is nothing new in this phenomenon. Even in the worst days of Jim Crow, there were blacks who owned land, received favored treatment from whites and were held forth as “success stories” to prove that lower-class blacks had only themselves to blame for their destitution. . . . The existence of this black elite did not prove that racism was abating (though illusions to this effect were common even among blacks). On the contrary, the black elite itself was a vital part of the system of [racial] oppression, serving as a buffer between the [ruling white] oppressor and [most truly black] oppressed and furthering the illusion that blacks could surmount their difficulties if only they had the exemplary qualities of the black

Elite” (8).


Also consistent with Steinberg’s argument, this study will demonstrate real limits to black middle-class attainment and mobility—both social and spatial—in post–civil rights era Chicago. Those limits reflect the fact that even more “favored” and “privileged” African-Americans still struggle with societal racism.



The Unseen City of Poverty and Despair


The book’s title is not meant to suggest that blacks are the only relevant victims of racial oppression in past or (especially) contemporary Chicago, which has become increasingly Asian and (above all) Latino during the last four decades. In a period when massive waves of Asian and Latin American new immigrants have “irrevocably altered the dynamic of race relations in cities” (9), Chicago‘s patterns of racial segmentation and disparity are obviously quite a bit less simply “black and white” than they were in King’s day and before.


Nor is the title meant to deny that whites are critical and centrally involved in the construction of racial oppression within and beyond Chicago, As Marx once said about capital, race is “a social relationship,” one that is based on the living historical development of unequal power and recurrent conflict. Whites play an active, indeed leading and dominant, role in the construction of that relationship.


Still, restrictions of time, space, and (frankly) background and expertise have led to me to say relatively little about the Asian and Latino experience with white supremacy in Chicago. At the same time, I hope this book will provide evidence for my judgment that the most truly oppressed victims of structural inequality in racist/capitalist Chicago continue to be disproportionately black. Blacks remain far and away the most truly segregated “minority” in and around the city as across the nation—a fact that carries enormous significance for the socioeconomic status and life chances of black Chicagoans. I agree, moreover, with Chicago sociologist Michael Maly that “black-white conflict remains the deep-seated and unresolved core of group relations in the U.S.“(10), despite the blurring of old racial lines by the latest “new immigration.”


The title’s use of the word “black” is meant to insinuate two further and related connotations. The first intended subtext is the city, region, and nation’s darkly disturbing failure to meaningfully apply its proclaimed integrationist and egalitarian ideals to people living in forgotten communities like the Chicago South Side neighborhood of Riverdale, a 97 percent black community area where in 1999 a third of the adults were unemployed and more than half of the children lived at less than half of the federal government’s notoriously inadequate poverty level. Things have certainly worsened there in subsequent years. There are many Riverdales across urban America. Indeed, the community is just one—hardly the most statistically significant—of many examples of highly concentrated and racialized poverty in Chicago and in the city’s south-suburban ring. Such communities are living testament to the persistent presence of King’s “triple evils” and to what he called the “perverted priorities” of a nation that spends billions on imperial militarism while millions of disproportionately nonwhite poor struggle just to keep their heads above water in the imperial “homeland,” the self-described home and headquarters of world “freedom.”


The second intended collateral meaning attached to the use of the word “black” in the title is “invisible” or, perhaps better, “unseen.” I am using one particularly relevant urban region to relate and analyze a problem that many of us no long care to acknowledge: communities mired in desperate poverty in dark shadows between the shiny condominium, office, and entertainment complexes of booming, glorious “global” downtowns and the glittering suburban “edge cities” on the ever-expanding periphery of the “global metropolis.”



To get a more immediately tangible sense of what I mean, travel one summer to catch an unconventionally obstructed view of the spectacular Chicago Air and Water show from one of the eight city neighborhoods that were both 90 percent or more black and home to a child poverty rate of at least 55 percent in 1999. Step out of your car and look at the blight and pain around you. If you peer carefully at the sky, looking especially to the north or east (the city’s poorest and blackest neighborhoods are located in vast hypersegregated stretches on the South and West sides), above and beyond the vacant lots, boarded-up businesses, dilapidated homes, and (perhaps) the angry and defeated people around you, you may spy a super-expensive fighter jet or bomber soaring above the city’s prosperous and predominantly white New North lakefront. There nearly a million mostly (though not at all exclusively) Caucasian city and metropolitan-area residents will be perched along majestic Lake Michigan on the city’s shining Gold Coast. They will be there to feel some “shock and awe” at the humbling splendor of the spectacular Arab-killing F-16 and B-2 Stealth Bomber—the latter produced by “Global Chicago’s” own Boeing Corporation. The breathtaking roar of these dazzling war machines may astound you, perhaps especially from a distance, as it contrasts poignantly with the more local noises, like the passing of a distant L-train or the sound of a battered vehicle as it rolls over a broken bottle in a poorly maintained street.


Reflect that each of these and other displayed weapons of mass destruction will have cost more than enough many times over to feed, clothe, house, and educate all the children in the desolate community where you are briefly, possibly uneasily, stationed. Reflect also that most of the people taking in the show on the lakefront know nothing or next to it about what life is like in that hidden, mysterious, and officially demonized community, whose outskirts many air show attendees will briefly pass in air-conditioned cars on the way back to air-conditioned homes in predominantly white and relatively affluent communities on the suburban periphery. Like the people in Chicago‘s Gold Coast and Lincoln Park, most of them live on the right and disproportionately white sides of what King called “the tragic walls that separate the outer city of wealth and comfort from the inner city of poverty and despair.” Many, if not most, of them have been taught and conditioned to hate and fear the ghetto; to ignore the circumstances that create and sustain the impoverished, black inner city; and, worst of all, to blame the modern black metropolis’ inhabitants for their own precarious position at the bottom of the nation’s steep and interrelated hierarchies of race, place, power, and class.


It will be good time to reflect on the following passage written by Martin Luther King Jr. in the last year of his life:


“Let us be dissatisfied until America will no longer have a high blood pressure of creeds and an anemia of deeds. Let us be dissatisfied until the tragic walls that separate the outer city of wealth and comfort and the inner city of poverty and despair shall be crushed by the battering ram of the forces of justice. Let us be dissatisfied until those who live on the outskirts of hope are brought into the metropolis of daily security”



This book’s title is not meant, finally, to imply that there are and/or have been no significant actors, sentiments, and movements against racism in and around Chicago or that there is no hope there for future developments beyond racial apartheid and oppression. The book concludes, in fact, with ideas for progressive, antiracist change that builds on a long record of racial and social justice thinking and action within and beyond a post-racist, post-apartheid Chicago. It ends also, however, with the warning that the first step toward solving the continuing black urban crisis there, as elsewhere, is to uncover its continuing existence and to acknowledge the full range and living nature of the historical and social forces that have fed and sustained it for so long.






Part I: Forgotten People, Invisible Oppression


1. It’ll Take More Than a Hurricane: Race, Place, Chicago, and America‘s “Enduring Shame”

- Triple Ghetto” and “Triple Evils”

- “How You Gonna Export Something You Ain’t Got at Home?”

- Post Civil Rights Wisdom: “All the Corrections Have Been Made”

- Framing Katrina: Rediscovering and Re-forgetting America‘s “Enduring Shame”

- Living Racism and Racial Apartheid as Persistent and Deepened Social Barriers for Black Amerixcans

- Why Chicago?

- History, Sentimentality, Progress, and the “Myth of Time”

- Structure


2. Whitewashing “Global Chicago“: Racial Invisibility in the Neoliberal Era

- A Sixties Memoir

- Neoliberal Racism and the Post-Civil Rights Era

- Deleting Race Altogether   

- Race Without Racism 

- Not in Our Modern, Northern, and Global Metropolitan Backyard



Part II: History: The Not-So Good Old Ghetto


3. The First and Only True Ghetto (1900-1944) 

- Two White Supremacist World Fairs

- Explaining Blacks’ Relative Absence before the Great War

- When Work Discriminates: Labor Market Apartheid through the Interwar Years

- Residential Apartheid: “Chicago‘s Only Real Ghetto” and the Binding Power of Whiteness

- “Bronzeville’s Lower Depths” and the Fordist Production of a Proto-Underclass

Toward the Not So Golden Age


4. The Second, “Golden Age” Ghetto (1945-1970)

- Making the Second Ghetto

- “A Whole Constellation of Institutions”: The Structures and Ideology of “Golden Age” Inequality

- The Big Chicago Chill: The End of the Sixties and the Great Migration



5. The Nadir: The Third and Apocalyptic Ghetto and the Retreat from Race (1970-1992) 

- The Kerner Commission’s Belated Nightmare Come to Life

- The Retreat from Race: The Cry No Longer Heard

- The “American Millstone”: The Tribune Weighs In on the Sheer Horror of the “Permanent” Black Urban Poor



Part III: Still Separate and Unequal: The Ugly Details of Recent Racial Domination


6. Metropolitan Apartheid 

- Physical Segregation and Racial Ignorance

- Shifting Color Lines

- Dark Continuities

- Still Segregated Schools

- Is Racial Segregation about “Class, Not Race”?

- Why Separatism Matters


7. Savage Inequalities: The Cold Facts 

- An Expanding Black Bourgeoisie

- The Deeper, Darker Reality: Income/Poverty; Labor Force; Race, Place, and the Color of Job Growth; Housing; The Color of “Economic Vitality” and Deindustrialization; “Hypersegmented” Finance; Education Attainment and Test-Score Gaps; The Color of Campaign Finance; The Color of the Executive Suite; Black Business Enterprise; Incarceration and Felony Marking; Health; The Limits of Black Middle-Class Escape

- “A Community That Is Slowly Dying”: A Walk Through Englewood

- Evils That Are Interrelated: Viciously Circular Connections

- “Progress?”



8. What’s “Racism” Got to Do with It? 

- Policy and Housing Opportunity

- Labor Market Racism: The Smoking Gun and Beyond

- Racist Mass Criminal Marking and Warehousing

- Media Racism: The Black Inner City as “a Police Problem”

- Apartheid Schooling

- The “Global Economic Sector” and the Racial Basis of the New Daley Regime

- The Glories of Globalization: It “Depends on Who You Are and Where You Live”

- Class over Race?

- Race, Welfare Myths, and “The Color of Opportunity

- Race, Class, and Personal Responsibility



9. Contesting Corporate Urban Neoliberal Racism 

- “They Have No Alternatives”

- There Is No Alternative”

- Looking Forward




Paul Street is author of numerous books, article, speeches and editorials.  He can be reached at [email protected] Racial Oppression in the Global Metropolis can be ordered at http://www.amazon.com/Racial-Oppression-Global-Metropolis-Chicago/dp/0742540820/ref=sr_1_1/103-5609845-5411032?ie=UTF8&s=books&qid=1185897915&sr=1-1






1 In their classic 1945 study of the interwar and World War II black ghetto in Chicago, St. Clair Drake and Horace Cayton repeatedly used the phrase “Midwest Metropolis” to describe Chicago. I will occasionally employ that usage in this study. See St. Clair Drake and Horace Cayton, Black Metropolis: A Study of Negro Life in a Northern City (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1997), pp. 3–29 and passim.


2 See, for example, Joel Feagin, Racist America: Roots, Current Realities, and Future Reparations (New York: Routledge, 2000) and Michael K. Brown, Martin Carnoy, Elliott Currie, and Troy Duster, Whitewashing Race: The Myth of a Color-Blind Society (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2003).


3 Stokely Carmichael and Charles Hamilton, Black Power: The Politics of Liberation in America (New York: Vintage, 1967), p. 4, quoted in Stephen Steinberg, Turning Back: The Retreat from Racial Justice in American Thought and Policy (Boston: Beacon Press, 1995), pp. 75–76.


4 David Garrow, Bearing the Cross: Martin Luther King, Jr., and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (New York: Harper and Row, 1986), p. 537.


5 Garrow, Bearing the Cross, p. 537.


6 Martin Luther King Jr., “Where Do We Go from Here?” in James M. Washington, ed., A Testament of Hope: The Essential Writings and Speeches of Martin Luther King Jr., pp. 250–51 (New York: HarperCollins, 1991); Garrow, Bearing the Cross, p. 564. On King’s basically democratic-socialist anticapitalism, see Garrow, Bearing the Cross, pp. 42–43, 45–46, 140, 153, 164, 369, 382, 524, 533, 537, 539, 545–46, 551, 564, 591–92; Michael Eric Dyson, I May Not Get There with You: The True Martin Luther King, Jr (New York: Touchstone, 2000), pp. 78–100.


7 Garrow, Bearing the Cross, p. 382.


8 Steinberg, Turning Back, p. 149.


9 Michael Maly, Beyond Segregation: Multiracial and Multiethnic Neighborhoods in the United States (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2005), p. 29.


10 Maly, Beyond Segregation, p. 29.


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