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A STATEMENT FROM GOVERNING READ MORE
(Photos by David Kidd)

How States and Cities Reinforce Racial Segregation in America

The black-white divide is still a major problem. Government policies are partially to blame.
by , , | January 23, 2019 AT 5:00 PM

This story is the first part of a series on segregation in Illinois that resulted from a six-month Governing investigation.

 

It didn’t take Silas Johnson long after he moved to Springfield, Ill., to identify the border that separates the black section of the city from the white one.

Growing up in Mississippi as the civil rights movement swept through the South, Johnson knew about dividing lines. In the town of Macon, blacks knew to stay on their side of the railroad tracks. “It wasn’t something that was taught,” he says. “It was just something that was known.” 

After he graduated high school in 1973, Johnson left the South to join his brother in Springfield, the state capital and former home of Abraham Lincoln. But Johnson soon discovered that race relations in his new home weren’t much better than what he’d left behind. Blacks and whites attended separate schools. Blacks were excluded from certain professions. 

And just like Macon, Springfield cleaved in two along racial lines, with railroad tracks again marking the split. This time, it was the Norfolk Southern tracks alongside Ninth Street. East of the tracks, the neighborhoods were predominantly black, and many blocks were pockmarked by vacant houses and boarded-up businesses. West of the tracks, the neighborhoods got progressively whiter and wealthier. “I experienced a lot of racism here. It was more covered up than it was open,” says Johnson, now 63. “In the South, blacks stayed in certain areas and so did whites. That’s the same here now in Springfield.” 

That pattern persists in cities throughout the state. In fact, according to a new Governing investigation, segregation between blacks and whites is worse in most of Illinois’ metropolitan areas than in demographically similar areas around the country. It’s particularly bad in large metro areas, and certainly the Chicago region is the most segregated in Illinois. But the state’s smaller cities are also disproportionately segregated. 

Springfield may have launched the political careers of Lincoln and Barack Obama, but it is among the worst third of American cities in terms of black-white segregation, according to our analysis of federal data. Both the Springfield and Champaign-Urbana metro areas are more segregated than that of Charlottesville, Va., or the Daphne-Fairhope-Foley area near Mobile, Ala., even though they all have similar populations and percentages of black residents. Peoria -- the veritable shorthand for Middle America -- is the country’s sixth most racially divided metro area in terms of blacks and whites. When it comes to schools, we found that the Peoria area is the most segregated in the nation.

The truth is that segregation isn’t limited to the South, or to large cities. America’s racial divide, in fact, runs right through the Heartland. 

Governing conducted a six-month investigation into segregation in downstate Illinois, and why and how it has persisted there. We spoke with more than 80 people, including mayors and other city officials, legislators, sociologists, attorneys, school district officials, historians, community activists, housing experts, and both black and white residents. We analyzed 50 years’ worth of U.S. Census data for economic and demographic trends, along with both state and federal school enrollment data. We also drew from hundreds of pages of court documents, information obtained through Freedom of Information Act requests, several books and dozens of academic reports.

What emerged was a picture of the way segregation continues to shape and reshape metropolitan areas in Illinois and, indeed, throughout many parts of the country. In these cities, segregation means not just a physical divide, but a huge disparity in resources. White areas of town benefit from more development, better infrastructure and more accommodating government policies. 

 


Peoria is the country’s sixth most racially divided metro area.

 

What’s more, we found local governments bear much of the responsibility for creating and maintaining segregated communities. Mayors and other city officials are often focused on immediate concerns, such as balancing tight budgets or attracting economic development. While those are legitimate, pressing issues, the resulting policies can often reinforce segregation. Through unspoken traditions and ingrained attitudes, as well as explicit government actions, city officials are in many ways responsible for maintaining a system that still divides whites and blacks. 

When it comes to land use -- what gets built where -- governments use zoning restrictions to keep out rental housing, which attracts blacks and other minorities, from predominantly white areas. They approve new residential subdivisions with strict deed restrictions that make large swaths of communities unaffordable to low-income residents and often explicitly bar any use other than single-family homes. As they restrict where apartments can be built, local governments also play a big role in deciding where public housing and other taxpayer-supported affordable housing projects are located. That often leads to concentrated areas of low-income housing in black neighborhoods. Those changes almost inevitably become permanent, because the income restrictions and other rules that come with public subsidies last for decades.

Public schools are a key factor as well. While segregation in schools is often viewed as a product of the neighborhoods the schools are located in, the truth is much more complicated because schools shape the neighborhoods they serve. In many cases, in fact, they exacerbate segregation by driving white flight to suburban areas. That is especially true in Illinois, because of its proliferation of small school districts. As cities such as Peoria and Springfield stretch beyond their original district borders, white residents flock to the suburban-style schools on their peripheries. Farther-out villages have transformed themselves from farm towns to bedroom communities by luring white families with new subdivisions and the promise of better schools in stand-alone school districts. The net result is that predominantly white suburban districts are flourishing, while urban districts have become increasingly black and suffer from declining tax bases.

Finally, residents in predominantly black neighborhoods routinely face more scrutiny from police and other government agencies, which reinforces the patterns of segregation that have already emerged. Government actions such as increased code enforcement, zero tolerance policies for drugs in public housing and disproportionately targeting black neighborhoods for traffic stops result in black residents facing more municipal fines or other minor punishments. Though seemingly small, those infractions, combined with the fact that blacks are far more likely to be arrested and imprisoned than whites, can make it harder for residents to clear their name and qualify for good-paying jobs that require criminal background checks. That barrier to jobs is significant for downstate communities: The Peoria, Decatur, Rockford and Carbondale metropolitan areas were all ranked among the top 10 for highest black unemployment rates in the country in 2017.

Taken together, the policies of local governments have helped divide black and white residents into groups of citizens who are still separate, and still unequal.  

 

Where Is Segregation the Worst?

Metro areas in the industrial Midwest and mid-Atlantic tend to have high levels of segregation between whites and blacks, while it’s generally lower in more recently developed parts of the Southern and Western U.S.

(SOURCE: Governing calculations of 2013-2017 U.S. Census Bureau American Community Survey data for metro areas with black populations exceeding 10,000. View methodology.)

 

Wrong Side of the Tracks

While people may associate segregation with the Jim Crow-era South, the truth is that the most segregated metropolitan areas today, in terms of where people live, are in the industrial Midwest and the Northeast, the destinations for most blacks fleeing the South during the Great Migration of the 1900s. The cities of those regions established housing patterns that persist today, especially where economic troubles have made new growth and investment difficult.

Nationally, overall levels of segregation have fallen in recent decades. That’s especially true in cities and other small geographic areas, like suburbs or school districts. Blacks and whites are slightly more likely to live in the same neighborhoods than they were in the 1980s. 

But that’s not the whole story. A more troubling pattern emerges when you widen the scope to look at entire metropolitan areas, focusing not just on individual cities or suburbs but looking at cities and their suburbs together. Instead of moving to different areas of the same city, whites are moving farther away to suburbs and exurbs. That’s why, measured at the metro level, progress toward more racially integrated neighborhoods over the past few decades looks decidedly less impressive. In fact, in the metro areas for Peoria, Danville and Champaign-Urbana, the degree of segregation remains roughly as high as it was in 1980.

It’s that metro area measure by which the Peoria area ranks as the sixth most segregated in the nation. The St. Louis area, a quarter of which is made up of Illinois residents, comes in 10th. Chicago is the nation’s third most segregated metro area.

Sociologists commonly measure segregation by calculating what’s known as a dissimilarity index. That shows what percentage of, for example, whites would have to move to black neighborhoods for them to live in a neighborhood that would have the same black-white ratio as the area as a whole. Governing calculated that measure to show the degree of segregation both in metro areas and in their schools. In the Peoria area, 72 percent of whites would have to move. Those percentages have fallen nationally for most metro areas, but in Peoria it is essentially the same percentage today as it was 40 years ago.

Illinois has several other highly segregated metropolitan areas. Danville, a small city near the Indiana border, is the 12th most segregated place in America with at least 10,000 black residents. Along with Springfield, Kankakee and Rockford are among the worst third. (The Governing analysis was confined to segregation between blacks and whites, because the number of Hispanics and Asians living in most downstate Illinois cities is relatively small.)

 

(NOTE: Higher index values represent greater black-white segregation.)
(SOURCE:
Governing analysis of 1980-2010 decennial Census, 2017 5-Year American Community Survey data)

 

Segregation is so stark in these communities that it’s obvious to the naked eye as you cross the roads, rivers or railroad tracks that symbolically separate white areas of town from black areas. There’s the Rock River in Rockford, University Avenue in Champaign, Main Street in Galesburg,  and the Kankakee River and a set of railroad tracks in Kankakee.

In Peoria, the Illinois River is a 900-foot-wide chasm between poverty and prosperity. On one bank is the city of East Peoria, which is 92 percent white, with big-box retail stores including Costco, Target and a Bass Pro Shop just a stone’s throw from the river. On the west bank is the city of Peoria itself, just 57 percent white and becoming less so every year. There, the riverfront features the Taft Homes, rows of barracks built after the Korean War that are now used as public housing, despite efforts to replace them. Farther south, one ZIP code on Peoria’s southwest side -- 61605 -- has become local shorthand for urban blight. It’s about 58 percent black, with a poverty rate of 44 percent and an unemployment rate of about 20 percent as of a few years ago.

But perhaps no Illinois city displays its segregation more plainly than the capital of Springfield itself. “You see it when you cross that invisible dividing line,” says Teresa Haley, the president of both the Springfield branch and the state chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). 

One way to see it clearly is to drive along South Grand Avenue, a major east-west thoroughfare that cuts across the city. Starting on the East Side, you’ll find Springfield’s poorest -- and most heavily black -- neighborhoods. Some blocks contain tidy, modest houses, but many are ramshackle. The streets are poorly lit, and they often lack curbs, sidewalks and gutters. In three East Side neighborhoods, about half the households live in poverty, according to the most recent data. The unemployment rate across those three neighborhoods is 24 percent. Life expectancy in two of the neighborhoods is 70 years old or below, compared with nearly 79 years nationally. Overall, the five-Census-tract area covering the East Side is 65 percent black, but in some neighborhoods it’s as high as 80 percent.

Drive west on South Grand, under the viaduct carrying the Norfolk Southern tracks, and things immediately begin to change. On the largely white West Side, just a mile and a half away, South Grand is covered by a canopy of trees as it makes its way past blocks of stately brick houses, many of them mansions on enormous lots. The street itself narrows and then disappears completely into Washington Park, 150 acres of rustling trees and rolling hills graced with a carillon, a rose garden, fishing ponds and a popular running path. Two golf courses adjoin the park. Also nearby is Leland Grove, a village of 1,500 people surrounded by Springfield. It’s an enclave within an enclave, where the median household income is double that of the rest of the city. According to the Census Bureau, the population of Leland Grove is 95 percent white and 1 percent black.

 


Springfield is divided along racial lines, with these railroad tracks marking the split.

 

Beyond that, Springfield keeps sprawling west. Residents in new subdivisions can see combines and grain elevators from their driveways. Commercial development has been in hot pursuit: Restaurants, dentists, banks, hair salons and a Walmart have opened up, not to mention the churches, schools and parks that inevitably follow wherever people move. “With Springfield,” says Mayor Jim Langfelder, a banker by trade, “everybody wants to go west. They want to go where the numbers are, where the incomes are. With the East Side, though, it’s a struggle. You have pockets of development, but there’s still a lot more to go.”

Of course, many of the symbolic racial borders in Springfield and other cities have been codified in official ways, with real-world consequences. Perhaps the best-known examples of that are the “redlining” maps first drawn by the federal government during the Great Depression. As part of the New Deal, Congress introduced new federally backed mortgages that were intended to make home loans more affordable for middle-class families for the first time. To keep from losing money on the loans, the federal government hired real estate agents in 239 cities to draw maps designating where the most “creditworthy” residents lived. Areas deemed high-risk were outlined in red. As a rule, the agents drew bright red lines around any minority neighborhoods. Thus, whites were able to buy new homes, build wealth and pass along that wealth to their families. Blacks could not get credit to even maintain or improve their existing properties. Their neighborhoods suffered as banks and businesses fled, buildings deteriorated and outside landlords scooped up the distressed properties so they could rent them out. Those policies have had a long-lasting effect at the individual level as well. To this day, 62 percent of black households in Illinois rent their homes, compared with 27 percent for whites.

The 1968 Fair Housing Act and subsequent federal laws ended legally sanctioned redlining, but the patterns from those maps persist today. One analysis by the National Community Reinvestment Coalition, for example, showed that 100 percent of the highest-rated properties in Rockford remained predominantly white, while 67 percent of the old redlined areas are still predominantly minority areas.

 

The Shadow of History   

Silas Johnson moved to the East Side of Springfield when he arrived in 1973 looking for work. He found jobs as a shoeshiner, a dishwasher and a janitor. In search of something more stable, he applied for several apprenticeships with trade unions. The federal government was ramping up its affirmative action policies at the time, so companies needed black workers to qualify for federally funded work.

Johnson managed to take the test for an apprenticeship with the electrician’s union, but was rejected. The Urban League had to sue to get the local union to accept minorities -- including Johnson -- into its apprenticeship program.

One day, while installing wiring in a stairwell at a new library at a local university, Johnson told a white electrician he was working with about the trouble he’d had getting into the program.

“Oh yeah,” the electrician told him. “I was sitting on the board.”

Johnson asked if he had failed the test.

“No, you didn’t fail. I just voted against you,” Johnson remembers the older electrician saying.

“Why did you vote against me?” Johnson asked.

“I just didn’t like you,” the man said, “because you were black.”

 


Silas Johnson moved to Springfield in the early 1970s. “I experienced a lot of racism here,” he says.

 

Blatantly racist employment practices like that have a prominent place in Springfield history. So does racial violence.

In August 1908, when blacks made up 3,100 of the city’s 48,000 residents, the town erupted in a race riot. A white mob had gathered at the county jail to try to lynch two black men who had been arrested for unrelated crimes: the rape of a white woman and the murder of a white man. Once the mob learned the sheriff had already snuck the two out of jail, the crowd of some 5,000 people rampaged through the black business district near downtown and torched black homes in a nearby neighborhood. They killed two black men who had nothing to do with the crimes, and then desecrated their bodies.

It took two days for the Illinois state militia to quell the violence. But the news reverberated through the nation. Whites in several other towns, especially in Illinois, followed Springfield’s example and threatened blacks with further violence. Meanwhile, black activists from around the country used the Springfield race riot as a rallying cry that led to the formation of the NAACP.

Blacks eventually returned to Springfield, but violent episodes like that dramatically increased segregation in many cities and towns. “After 1890,” writes sociologist James Loewen in his book Sundown Towns, “most whites no longer viewed slavery and racism as the problem -- slavery was over, after all, and racial discrimination had been made illegal under the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments. Now African-Americans themselves were seen as the problem, by white northerners and southerners.”

It was during this period, Loewen notes, that towns and cities started to become all-white. Often, whites drove out blacks through violence or the threat of violence. Blacks lived in every county in Illinois in 1890, he points out, but four decades later, six counties had none and 11 more had fewer than 10 black residents.

Illinois was never a slave state, but it nonetheless imposed harsh restrictions on blacks. It required them to carry papers showing they were legally free. Blacks couldn’t vote, sue whites, bear arms, serve in the state militia or gather together in groups of more than three at a time. Lawmakers didn’t get rid of those restrictions until 1865.

In the decades following the riots, blacks’ rights in Springfield were severely curtailed. As in many other places around the U.S., black residents were kept separate from whites in everything from hospital delivery rooms to graveyards. Schools, hotels, pools, restaurants, skating rinks -- they were all segregated.

Worse yet, in 1911, three years after the riots, Springfield voters enacted a new form of city government led by five commissioners who were all elected citywide. It replaced a system in which council members were elected from wards. The new system was ostensibly put in place to clean up corruption in city government. But it also effectively blocked any blacks from being elected to city positions until 1987, and that change only came when a federal judge ruled that the commission system violated the Voting Rights Act.

Frank McNeil was a plaintiff in that lawsuit and one of two black aldermen elected in the subsequent election. It was not a smooth transition. “I was the first guy to get to the table. There was more than a little animus when I got there,” he says. “I just came from North Carolina and overturned the system, so for the first three or four years as an alderman I had to fight.”

McNeil pushed to get sewer improvements for East Side areas that routinely flooded. He pressed the public housing agency to make sure it wasn’t just building its “scattered site” housing on the East Side but distributing it throughout the city. He wondered why the local bus service had a route from the East Side to the mall on the other side of town, but not to the J.C. Penney department store nearby. He tried to get a swimming pool opened on the East Side after the mayor closed it for budget reasons.

Slowly, his relationships on the council improved, and McNeil stayed in the job for 20 years. But in those early days, he says, “everything was a fight.”

 

(NOTE: Estimates subject to margins of error.)
(SOURCE: 2017 5-Year American Community Survey)

 

White Flight Continues

Increasingly, the disparities caused by racial segregation aren’t within local jurisdictions but between them. Just look at downstate Illinois schools. The core urban school districts in Bloomington, Champaign, Urbana, Springfield and Decatur -- all still predominantly white cities -- had majorities of white students in the 2002-2003 school year. Now, none of them do. Over the same period, the share of white students in Rockford Public Schools also dropped, from 48 percent to 30.

Urban districts are losing white students far faster than their metropolitan areas at large. Decatur Public Schools, for example, lost 38 percent of its white students in the last 15 years, but the rest of the metro area only lost 7 percent of its white students. By comparison, the district lost just 11 percent of its black students in the same time frame. 

Peoria, again, provides the starkest example. The main school district there has fewer than half of the white students it had 15 years ago, but the decline in white students for all of the other school districts in the metro area was less than 8 percent.

In other words, white flight to suburban areas is drastically altering the makeup even of small metropolitan areas in Illinois. Once-sleepy farm towns are now attracting residents by the hundreds. In a bid that’s familiar to suburbanites in bigger metro areas, these hamlets market themselves as both conveniently close to the job centers in nearby cities and as distinct from them. “With excellent schools, a low crime rate and beautiful natural parks, Roscoe is the perfect place for your business, family and home,” crows the website of Roscoe, a village of 10,500 people north of Rockford that’s close to the Wisconsin border. From 1990 to 2010, the white population there tripled from 2,326 people to 9,544. Meanwhile, the number of black people in the village grew from 13 in 1990 to 325 in 2010. Chatham, a village just south of Springfield, touts the motto “Family, Community, Prosperity.” It saw its white population grow by 4,356 people over those two decades, while it added 265 black residents. 

The outflow is having a major impact on core cities. Since 1970, the cities of Decatur, Peoria and Rockford lost between 25 and 40 percent of their white residents, while surrounding jurisdictions within the same regions collectively added white residents. At the same time, black residents are moving into older, traditionally white neighborhoods in many of those cities. In three neighborhoods just north of downtown Peoria, for example, a total of more than 3,400 white residents have moved out since 2000, while the number of black residents increased by nearly 2,000.

The popularity of the farther-out enclaves puts big-city leaders in a bind: They can either compete with the suburbs by annexing new subdivisions and strip malls carved out of farmland, or they can lose that tax base to nearby suburbs that are only too happy to take it off a city’s hands.

Dave Koehler, now a Democratic state senator, remembers wrestling with that issue when he served on the Peoria City Council in the 1990s. The only place the city could attract new developments was in an area outside of the jurisdiction of Peoria Public Schools. (In Illinois, school districts are separate entities from municipalities, and their boundaries don’t often coincide with city limits.) “It was a concern for some of us, but there was not a lot we could do about it,” Koehler says. “We knew we were creating a tax base for [suburban] schools. Peoria’s population loss was Washington and Germantown Hills’ gain across the river.” 

 


Dave Koehler struggled with the implications of white flight during the 1990s when he was on the Peoria City Council.

 

The city was able to convince some owners of unincorporated land to agree to annexation by promising to connect them to the city sewer system, but that came with its own costs. “The more infrastructure you build, the more you have to maintain it,” says Koehler, who supported the approach at the time. “That’s where the city right now is having a hard time, because infrastructure needs, especially in older parts of the city, are pretty high, and you don’t have the tax base to [pay for] it.”

Meanwhile, local governments in predominantly white areas have made it difficult for many blacks to move to the areas of new development. Very few of the predominantly white suburbs that have sprung up in recent decades allow for apartment-style multifamily units to be built within their borders. The lack of rental choices disproportionately affects black residents, because, again, they are more than twice as likely to rent their home as whites. The housing stock determines where they can live. In Tazewell County, just across the river from Peoria, only 1 percent of residents are black. Of those who do live there, nearly all households live in rental units, compared to less than a quarter of whites. Put another way, the Census counts nearly 41,000 white households who live in homes they own, but fewer than 50 for blacks.

Predominantly white areas also regularly fight efforts to build public housing developments near their neighborhoods, even when the goal is to get residents out of much larger housing projects that are dangerous and dilapidated. Four years ago in Peoria, a bitter fight arose after the housing authority began exploring the idea of moving some residents from the Taft Homes along the river to a different location. A few of the suggested sites were in white neighborhoods in the northern part of the city. Some 300 people showed up at one meeting to lambaste the idea. The crowd cheered when a Taft resident said that, given the hostile reaction she saw, she no longer wanted to move to the area. The Peoria Housing Authority quietly shelved the idea, and most of its top administrators have since left.

But Peoria Mayor Jim Ardis says his city still bears a disproportionate share of the responsibility for addressing the needs of low-income people. “There’s been a reluctance from some of the smaller communities to share in the distribution of the people in need. It always has the tendency to fall on the big city,” he says. The suburbs, he believes, could stand to add significantly more affordable units than they currently have. “Folks who are in the market for affordable housing options [should] not have to live right in the core part of the city.”

 

1980-2017 White Population Change
 
< -5,000
 
< -2,500
 
0
 
> 2,500
 
> 5,000
 

One Neighborhood at a Time

Bringing affordable housing to Springfield’s East Side is exactly what Silas Johnson is trying to do, and he’s already made a lot of progress.

Johnson made a good living as an electrician. He went to work for the city, and eventually saved up enough money to buy a house. But in 1984, when he was 29, Johnson took on another job, too, as pastor of Calvary Missionary Baptist Church on the far East Side. He saw firsthand what decades of disinvestment had done to the immediate neighborhood around the church. Clutter and tall weeds filled vacant lots. People were dealing drugs across the street, and the houses next door were rundown eyesores.

He knew he needed to act. “In order to control your neighborhood, your area, you need to own stuff around you,” he says. “You can’t wait on everybody else.”

The church started acquiring property, so it could have the trees trimmed, the grass cut and the drug-dealing eliminated. Johnson also created a nonprofit to buy rundown houses from absentee landlords, fix them up and sell them to neighborhood residents at a low price.

The nonprofit’s original plan had some serious weaknesses. One reason why people hadn’t already been buying homes on the East Side is because they couldn’t get a loan from the bank. Either their credit wasn’t good enough, or the banks didn’t want to invest in an East Side property. One drawback to living in a predominantly black neighborhood is that property doesn’t hold its value well there, because whites generally don’t want to live there, lowering the property’s marketability. The other reason was the homes themselves. Not only were they old, but, because they were old, they tended to be small and crowded onto lots just 40 feet wide. The city of Springfield started mandating that lots be at least 60 feet wide in 1966, but the houses predated that requirement.

So Johnson worked with a developer to come up with a different approach. The nonprofit, Nehemiah Expansion, would build its own single-family houses using the federal low-income housing tax credit. The tax credit allows corporations and other big taxpayers to reduce their taxes by funding affordable housing through credits bought from state agencies. The states then distribute the money they raise to projects on a competitive basis.

What that means is that it costs Nehemiah substantially less to build new housing. The nonprofit also borrows money at low interest rates from the Illinois Housing Development Agency (IHDA), which it pays back using the rent paid by occupants. And the city and other creditors agree to remove the liens they hold against some of the vacant homes, sometimes using the in-kind contribution as a tax write-off.

As for the houses, Nehemiah looks for places it can buy three 40-foot-wide lots next to each other and split them into two 60-foot-wide lots. That’s enough to build one of five models of houses, with anywhere from two bedrooms to four bedrooms, a laundry room and a one-car garage.

But the real impact of the houses comes at the end of 15 years, when they’re permitted to go on the market. The renter in the unit gets first dibs, and he or she only has to pay what Nehemiah owes IHDA, but not the cost covered by the tax credit. The theory is, in other words, that occupants could buy a $70,000 house for $50,000. That would give the buyer instant equity, something that’s long been in short supply in black neighborhoods, and signals to the market that homes can sell on the East Side.

Nehemiah has built 80 new homes so far, with plans for more. The first batch of 20 homes will go on sale in about three years. Most of Nehemiah’s renters are black, although several are white. “When we started this project, [this area] was 75 percent rental, 25 percent owner-occupied housing,” Johnson says. “My goal is to reverse that whole trend, to go back to being 75, 80 percent owner-occupied.”

It’s certainly an ambitious goal, considering just a third of people in surrounding neighborhoods own their own homes. But it seems to be one that’s paying off already. For several blocks on the East Side of Springfield, resources available to black residents such as quality housing and perhaps even home equity seem to be slowly building, rather than constantly draining as a result of racial segregation.

 

(SOURCE: Governing Analysis of 1980-2010 Decennial Census, 2017 5-Year American Community Survey Data)

 

The Government Role

Johnson’s Nehemiah project shows how one intensely focused effort can begin making improvements in neighborhoods that have been left behind by segregation. But confronting segregation on any appreciable scale would require sweeping policy changes, a prospect that’s all the more difficult because many of the ways that local governments operate are tied to the same forces exacerbating segregation. Even when local officials want to take action, few feel empowered to do much about it.

One clear place to start would be local government consolidations. Illinois had 6,963 units of local government as of 2012, by far the most of any state. That means that cities operate separately from counties, park districts, library districts and, of course, school districts. The fractured structure of local government in Illinois dilutes responsibility for regional problems and pits neighboring jurisdictions against each other as they compete for new residents and their wealth. This limits their ability to reinvest in neglected areas where minorities tend to live. They are, in effect, encouraging white flight.

That’s especially true when it comes to schools. Illinois has about 850 school districts, and they come in all shapes and sizes. Some are citywide, covering everything from kindergarten to high school. Others just have one high school, or a single elementary school and junior high. Just south of Peoria’s airport stands Limestone Community High School in Bartonville. It is the only school in its district. But it accepts students from eight separate junior high schools, all from different districts.

Politically, though, the idea of widespread consolidation is a nonstarter. Ardis, the Peoria mayor, says he’d prefer to have the five school districts in the city limits consolidated to better serve students, but it’s not something he’s pushing. “I don’t see it ever happening in my lifetime, frankly,” he says, “because whoever the state senator or representative that brought up the idea that they would like to consolidate the schools probably wouldn’t be around the next election when it came time to do that. It is what it is.”

 


“There’s been a reluctance from some of the smaller communities to share in the distribution of the people in need,” says Peoria Mayor Jim Ardis.

 

Another big constraint is city resources. Champaign-Urbana is growing, but many other Illinois metropolitan regions are struggling to keep their economies humming and their budgets balanced. To accomplish both of those goals, city officials are promoting growth at their edges. But the default way of doing that encourages white flight.

That said, there are a number of smaller changes officials are looking at to start addressing the bigger problems.

Karen Davis, the former head of Springfield’s planning and economic development department, says cities need to develop more expertise, or bring in outside expertise, about how to use federal money and nonprofit resources to revitalize neighborhoods. “You have to seek outside help when you’re thinking about neighborhood revitalization and high unemployment rates,” says Davis, who now leads the Peoria office for the Local Initiatives Support Corporation, a nonprofit that helps revitalize neighborhoods. “Look to see where models or examples have gone on in other areas like what you’re experiencing, be able to be courageous enough to bring them to your area.”

Rockford Mayor Tom McNamara, who assumed office in May 2017, says one of the first things he noticed was that women and minorities were not well-represented on city boards and commissions. So one of his first priorities was increasing those levels, and he selected women or minorities for two-thirds of his initial appointments. He is also establishing a human relations committee to help city government on issues of diversity, including in procurement. The mayor is shifting the way capital money is spent in the city; rather than each alderman getting an equal share for his or her district, the city is moving to need-based funding. McNamara points to the efforts by the city to move residents out of high-rise public housing facilities and into smaller facilities instead.

McNamara says he’s working on ways to counter federal policies that encourage lower-income residents to rent in higher poverty neighborhoods. And he’s working with county officials to better manage blighted properties. 

McNamara championed an effort to convince voters to give the city back its home-rule powers, which would have given it more leeway to come up with creative solutions for problems like impoverished neighborhoods, rather than just accepting the options offered by the state. But Rockford voters narrowly defeated that proposal in a March referendum, after real estate agents and anti-tax advocates argued that the city could use those powers to increase taxes on local residents. 

Still, McNamara shies away from describing Rockford’s segregation problem in the simple geographic terms that many of his constituents do. “The East Side and the West Side is a misnomer now. It’s based on old logic and outdated information,” he says. “Like any community, we have the vast number of people who really excel and have fantastic neighborhoods. And then we have a pocket of areas that we need a lot of improvement, but they’re on both sides of the river.”

To a certain degree, he has a point. While most of Rockford’s black population lives west of the Rock River, there are majority-black neighborhoods on the East Side, too. They include some of the most notorious housing projects in the city. And the Hispanic population largely lives on the East Side as well.

On the other hand, there’s no denying that Rockford, like many of the other regions examined, is sprawling away from the historically black neighborhoods. The more integrated the city core becomes, the more the outlying suburbs boom.

And it underscores perhaps the biggest obstacle to addressing racial segregation in the Heartland: People, particularly public officials, don’t like to discuss race, segregation and disparities in candid terms. They may acknowledge, in a broad sense, that their communities are divided and conditions are unequal. But politicians, especially those who represent large constituencies of white residents, prefer to talk about lifting up all neighborhoods in their jurisdictions rather than specifically correcting injustices of the past, many of them inflicted by local governments themselves.

As part of the 1980s lawsuit over Springfield’s form of city government, a lawyer asked then-Commissioner Ossie Langfelder, the current mayor’s father, whether Springfield politicians viewed the black community as “an entity that needs to be dealt with.”

“Oh, not by me,” the elder Langfelder said.

“Why not by you?” the lawyer asked.

“I treat every area of the community the same. I ask every person for their vote,” the commissioner responded.

“In your opinion,” the lawyer continued, “does the black community in Springfield have any special needs or interests that are different from the white community in Springfield?”

“I don’t believe so,” Langfelder said.

Larry Golden, a professor at what is now the University of Illinois Springfield, pointed to the exchange in a report he prepared for the court on racial discrimination in Springfield. “In order for there to be responsiveness by the city to the needs of the black population, there must first be a recognition by public officials that there is a ‘collective’ black population and that they do have special needs,” Golden wrote in 1986. “The commissioners,” he added, “seem particularly hesitant to accept any existence of institutional racism, for one consequence of accepting such a reality is to institute new policies, laws and practices to counter the discrimination -- not just on an individual, but also on a collective level.”

Ossie Langfelder became the first mayor elected under the new form of government, and he served eight years from 1987 to 1995. Langfelder’s family fled Austria when he was 12 years old to avoid the Nazis’ persecution of Jewish people. He cited that experience when, as mayor, he dedicated signs around Springfield that commemorated the 1908 race riot. He also led several projects to improve the East Side of Springfield

But in an interview this fall, the current mayor, Jim Langfelder, who once said he would be his own administration’s diversity officer, sounded much like his father. “I always said I don’t see color,” he said. “For myself, I don’t care what neighborhood you live in. We want it to be safe. Everybody wants decent housing, and everybody wants the amenities. That’s what I look at: How do we get to that? Segregation, it’s an issue, but if you get to the point where it’s safe, and it’s a nice neighborhood, everybody is going to want to live there.”
Even if that premise is true, the historically neglected areas on the East Side of Springfield, like predominantly black sections in towns throughout Illinois and much of the country, would need considerable special attention to ensure that they are all as nice and safe as the city’s white neighborhoods. 

 

Read more stories and see more data and maps from our series on segregation in Illinois.

 

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