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Racism and white supremacy have been present in Chicago since its beginning. This heinousness has been noted by many renowned individuals including Martin Luther King Jr., who once called Chicago the most racist city in the United States.
In 1890, about 15,000 African Americans lived in the Windy City. By 1970, roughly one million Black individuals lived in Chicago which equaled nearly one-third of the city’s population.
The Great Migration happened from around 1916 to 1970. This brought millions of African Americans from rural South to the cities in the Midwest, North, and West. Chicago was one of the most popular destination sites.
It did not take long for Black Americans to realize that things in the North were far from perfect. From hateful rallies to mob violence to segregation, Chicago has a long history of racism.
During the 1919 race riot, Irish American gangs, like Ragen’s Colts, attempted to draw out the bloodshed. Some of the group concealed themselves in blackface in order to set Lithuanian and Polish neighborhoods in the Back of the Yards area ablaze. The group hoped the white ethnic immigrant population would begin their bloody reprisal against the African Americans.
The Colts became a symbol of extreme racial intolerance and terror in the early 20th century for their bizarre battles with the forces of inclusion.
Black Chicagoans dealt with white supremacy and racism intertwined with the weight of segregation.
As the Black population began to rise in Chicago, so did similar Southern discrimination. Many African Americans found it difficult to find employment or decent housing.
Housing segregation through redlining and exclusive zoning to single-family housing began to be adopted by political leaders of Chicago in 1927. These segregations could be seen in churches, YMCAs, PTAs, women’s clubs, chambers of commerce, Kiwanis clubs, and property owners associations. The Chicago Real Estate Board promoted racially restrictive covenants. As much as 80% of the Chicago area was included under restrictive covenants at one point.
Instead of being included throughout the city, Chicago’s African American communities were pushed into certain areas. When Black families moved into mixed neighborhoods they were met with racism and hostility.
After combating for the area, ethnic white moved, leaving the area to be dominated by Black families. This caused the Black Belt of Chicago to increase in size.
In the 1948 case of Shelley v. Kraemer, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that racially restrictive covenants were unconstitutional. Unfortunately, this did not produce immediate relief for Black individuals and families looking for adequate housing.
Racism and white supremacy still affect Black Chicagoans today. For years, families have had to have “The Talk” with their children. Meaning they have to teach their young different etiquette they need to follow in order to survive an encounter with authorities.
Sounds odd that a parent would need to teach their children special etiquette, but for Black and brown communities this is a necessary conversation.
Executive Director of Black Lives Matter Chicago, Tree Tendaji, shared a racial injustice experience her family had when she was 5 years old. Her godfather — who was also her cousin — was killed by police officers. “No one explained to me that the police were bad. They tried saying he committed suicide. No one explained to me that it was their opinion and that’s not what happened. I just knew,” she said.
She knew because, “at 5 years old, I had seen enough to know that was the way the world worked.” Tendaji added to her childhood memory saying that she; “Grew up with the government bringing in drugs to Black communities to use as an excuse to oppress the hell out of them.”
Authorities used these types of tactics to lock up a multitude of Black and brown people. The effect of these arrests and tactics can still be seen today.
For example, many people were imprisoned — or are still locked up — for marijuana when cannabis is now legal. Tendaji, like many others, feels these individuals should be given ” access to some of the money and some forgiveness for those crimes.”
She is a firm believer that in order to end racism and white supremacy: “We need to untie the structural part. The main thing is upending the impact on Black and brown folks, people of color.”
Furthermore, it is necessary for this leveraging of resources to become available so that the “hood communities have what they need.”
Growing up in the 1980s, Tendaji witnessed “mass incarceration, the war on drugs, the war on poverty…particularly on poor Black people.” These experiences have “remained constant throughout the years.”
The pandemic seems to have added “new layers of systemic racism but it seems to be the same story for the most part.”
Racism and white supremacy are like a disease that is hard to eliminate. However, with awareness and overall cooperation, it can be done.
Written by Sheena Robertson
Encyclopedia of Chicago: Racism, Ethnicity, and White Identity
Encyclopedia of Chicago: African Americans
All That is Interesting: Inside Chicago’s Chilling History Of Racism, From Firebombings To KKK Rallies To Nazi Marches; by Genevieve Carlton and Checked by Jaclyn Anglis
Holocaust Encyclopedia: MARTIN NIEMÖLLER: “FIRST THEY CAME FOR THE SOCIALISTS…”
Second Inset Image Courtesy of James Fremont – Four Star Images’ Flickr Page – Creative Commons License
First Inset Image Courtesy of risingthermals’ Flickr Page – Creative Commons License
Top and Featured Image Courtesy of Chris Rycroft’sFlickr Page – Creative Commons License