In Englewood, about 60 percent of residents have a high school diploma or equivalent or less, and 57 percent of households earn less than $ 25,000 a year. Streeterville, on the other side of Chicago’s Abyss, has a median income of $ 125,000. The vast majority of residents have at least a university degree; 44 percent have a master’s degree or higher. And predictably, Englewood has long taken an uneven burden of disease. It is among the highest death rates in the city from heart disease and diabetes, as well as child mortality and children with elevated blood levels, according to the Chicago Department of Public Health. These differences all lead to this irrefutable race gap in the lifespan.
“It is very clear that geography affects life expectancy most,” said Dr. Judith L. Singleton, a medical and cultural anthropologist at Northwestern University who is conducting an ongoing study of life expectancy inequality in Chicago neighborhoods. Her father came to Chicago from New Orleans in the 1930s and settled in Bronzeville. In 1960 her parents bought a house in the far south. 40 years after her mother died, her father moved out of his home for good because of the lack of services, including nearby grocery stores, and he feared for his safety. “If you live in a resource-rich, higher-income neighborhood, your chances of living longer are better – and the opposite is true if your community is resource-limited,” she said. “Something is wrong here.”
In the past, there has been a damned explanation for why poor communities suffer from collapsing conditions and a lack of services: not that something is wrong that needs fixing, but that something is wrong with the people and the community itself. It’s their fault; They did this to themselves by not eating properly, avoiding medical care, and being uneducated. Almost every time former President Donald Trump opened his mouth to talk about black communities in Detroit, Baltimore, Atlanta, and, yes, Chicago, he reiterated the underlying assumption that black communities in America are solely for their own problems are responsible. In 2019, Trump’s former attorney Michael Cohen claimed during an affidavit before Congress that his boss had characterized Black Chicago with contempt and guilt: “While we were once driving through a struggling neighborhood in Chicago,” Trump commented that only blacks could live Gone. “In 2018, the American Values Survey found that 45 percent of white Americans believe that socioeconomic disparities are really due to not trying hard enough – and that blacks might be as well off as they are Whites when they try harder.
What really happened was more sinister. On the south side of Chicago, a pattern of deliberate, government-sanctioned action systematically extracted wealth from the black neighborhoods, eroding the health of generations of people, making them live sick and die young.
Like mine, Dr. Eric E. Whitaker made a route north from Mississippi to the south side of Chicago. I met Whitaker, a doctor and former director of the Illinois Department of Public Health, in 1991 while serving as a health communications scholar at what is now the Harvard TH Chan School of Public Health. He studied medicine at the University of Chicago’s Pritzker School of Medicine and took a year off to do his Masters in Public Health. After we became friends, we discovered that his maternal grandparents owned a three-story building around the corner of our family home on South Vernon Avenue.
He remembers the area as a thriving mixed income neighborhood, a place of comfort, full of life and energy, even though all that remains of his grandparents’ building is a memory and a heap of rubble. “What I remember about my grandparents’ house was the vitality,” said Whitaker, who met his close friend Barack Obama the year he was at Harvard when Obama was at Harvard Law School. “There would be people on porches, children playing in the street. It was ambitious. Now you drive through towns like Englewood and see empty lot after empty lot after empty lot. Every now and then I take my kids with me to see where dad is from. When I show them the vacant lot where Grandma’s house used to be, they think: Wow, that’s sad. “
But what Whitaker and I remember with a warm glimmer wasn’t the whole story. Even as our relatives began their hopeful new lives in the 1930s, the government-sanctioned practice of redlining emerged in response to enforcing segregation, lowering land and property values, and sowing divestment and decay for more than 30 years.