Systemic Racism Starts and Ends with Housing

Along with standing up against police violence and systemic racism, we must also fight to end housing systems that devalue Black people.

A large number of people take a knee at the Winnetka Village Green in Chicago in June. Photo by Gail Schechter
A solidarity sign is placed next to a monument that marks where Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. spoke in 1965. Photo by Gail Schechter

All I could think of as I scanned a crowd of 4,000 mostly young, white, earnest faces on the Winnetka Village Green was that to end the shame of systemic racism on Chicago’s North Shore, their next step should be to advocate that their suburbs permit affordable housing. Together, those young people can shape a local ethos of welcoming Black neighbors of all incomes and stop the nonsense of treating anyone who is not white or rich as “other.”

That June 6 solidarity rally was nearly 55 years to the day since another generation of north suburban Chicago residents, organized as the North Shore Summer Project and riding the crest of the mass movement for equal rights for Black Americans, held a demonstration of 10,000 people on that very spot. There, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. famously exhorted, “We must learn to live together as brothers or we will perish together as fools.”

Open housing was indeed the focus of the civil rights movement in the North the way voting rights was in the South. If you wanted to put your finger on the most egregious manifestation of institutionalized racism, it was the unapologetic public and private real estate policies of steering Blacks to substandard housing in isolated Chicago neighborhoods and whites to job-rich and tree-lined neighborhoods and suburbs.

Choosing open housing as the organizing goal was clear. James Bevel, a key strategist of King’s Chicago campaign, said, “Coming up here in 1965, when they were telling me you can’t live here, there, I would not stand for that. That is more of an affront to me, and a violation of me, than not eating at a lunch counter, not going to the theater, or having to go to the back of the bus, and can’t vote. You just can’t tell a man he can’t live somewhere.”

Although President Lyndon Johnson signed the Fair Housing Act into law days after King’s assassination in 1968, real estate professionals, lenders, and indeed local governments have continued to discriminate against Blacks. Blacks are still shown fewer homes than whites and many municipalities and developers alike still use white-only models in promotional ads, perpetuating the perception that African Americans are not welcome. This is why affirmative marketing—taking steps to not merely post “equal opportunity” for all but to invite Black people and other underrepresented legally protected populations to move in—is essential.

Our whitest suburbs are also our most affluent suburbs. The dramatically widened racial income gap since the 1960s, restrictive zoning, and the reliance on property taxes to pay for public school play a role in keeping communities white with inflated property values without directly violating fair housing laws.

Zoning that allows for only one house per acre, say, or a laissez-faire attitude favoring high-end housing or small apartments for “young professionals” or “empty nesters” rather than families effectively limits the housing of people of color.

In Chicago’s northern suburbs, if Evanston and Skokie, whose Black populations are 17 percent and 8 percent respectively, are removed from the equation, the region is just 1 percent Black.

Racial disparities in education and health all derive from racial segregation in housing. The very issue of police violence against Blacks that brought us to the Winnetka Green demonstration in June is the direct result of residential segregation, as Boston University researchers reported last year in the Journal of the National Medical Association.

Today’s racial segregation in housing is so entrenched that well-meaning people of all races are unaware that reforming police departments or, for whites, changing their personal behavior, can be only one part of the solution.

We had an opportunity to chip away at structural racism in the suburbs by persuading city councils to submit their new or updated affordable housing plans to the State of Illinois by the June 28 deadline under the Affordable Housing Planning and Appeal Act.

I know all of this because I have probably the loneliest appointed position in the State of Illinois, the affordable housing advocate seat on the State Housing Appeals Board that enforces the Act.

The Illinois Housing Development Authority (IHDA) deemed 46 municipalities in December 2018 to have an insufficient supply of housing affordable for families earning no more than $60,000. All of them are Chicago suburbs. They have had 18 months to comply with the act. Most have not even bothered to respond to IHDA. And some have declined, citing “home rule” status. But home rule itself, which also emerged within the last 50 years, has been linked to the “power to exclude.”

These communities—indeed, all communities—could take tangible steps to create housing for people at all income levels such as mandating inclusionary zoning—that is, designating at least 15 percent of new multifamily units as affordable. They could sponsor affordable developments. They could give out rental subsidies. Above all, they could affirmatively invite people of color and people of all income levels in, welcoming the fact together, long-term and new residents will create a new and better community for all.

The ZIP code in which we are raised should not determine our destiny. Segregation is not the fault of any single person who knelt in silent tribute to George Floyd on the Winnetka Green. But it’s every person’s responsibility to end housing systems that devalue Black people. Let us take as our imperative the inscription on the belly of a pregnant young Black protester whose photo was in the Washington Post: “My future depends on today’s change.”

This article first appeared on Patch.

Gail Schechter is the executive director of Housing Opportunities and Maintenance for the Elderly (H.O.M.E.) in Chicago . Schechter, a longtime fair and affordable housing organizer and advocate, is the author of “We’re Gonna Open Up the Whole North Shore” in the anthology The Chicago Freedom Movement: Martin Luther King Jr. and Civil Rights Activism in the North.


  1. We are starting to see signs of interracial joint action in protests related to George Floyd’s murder and the wave of protests that have been triggered in 2020. These have been the most racially integrated activities seen in the USA since Ronald Reagan legitimized racism and set the country back to the days before the Fair Housing Act. Now is the time to capture the noble integration of the protests and advertise that people need to return home to neighborhoods with true mix of races. Neighborhoods should not be pitted against each other as centers of single-race populations. We are starting to see, in TV shows and commercials, the beginning of the interracial marriages, families and neighborhoods that reflect the mix in the marches. But the mixing must be encouraged. The mix is not the displacement of gentrification or the defacto segregation of white flight. Integration has been abandoned in favor of the simpler, legalistic strategies of Fair Housing law.
    The protests have shown us that the mix is something people want. When we go home after a day of demonstrating against police brutality, the neighborhoods to which we return should reflect the mix of people we have been marching with.

  2. White liberals have been embarrassingly discriminatory in terms of selecting segregated neighborhoods to live in, perhaps all over the country. I recall a mapping program that was featured a couple years ago in the New York Times that depicted a dot in one color or the other for every 50 people. The dots were color-coded by race. New York, Chicago and well, almost every city, are highly, rigidly segregated. Liberals may be seeking the amenities and security of more affluent areas, but that most often means segregated too. This must be acknowledged and addressed, not only in the way zoning requests are handled, but also in the personal decisions we make.

  3. Everything in this article is 100% true, but the blame should not be assessed to segregationist practices by White suburbs alone.

    After 1968 “Affordable housing” became an industry, and, whether the housing program of the moment has been Section 236 or LIHTC projects with Section 8 mobile units, the ways that housing has been packaged has not been supportive of social integration in communities. Further, with “Income certification” integrated into the housing program, and rental management designed to promote high profits for investors rather than either stable housing or equity for residents, chronic disempowerment of residents of “Affordable housing” has become the norm for decades.

    If we want people in general, including White residents of suburban communities, to change their attitudes towards inclusive housing, we as advocates and developers of “Affordable housing” need to adapt our product so that it benefits residents and neighbors as well as investors and those who work for them.

  4. To the extent possible, issues like this should be treated as “classist” or “incomist.” Many whites are snobbish about other whites who make less than themselves; the polarization you hear about is a white thang mostly. I admit there are some issues, like police treatment of blacks, that have to be dealt with as racial. But classism is just as much a force behind these local restrictions.

  5. I sincerely agree with the comment above. It seems like this is another example of finding a discrepancy and blaming it on racism without providing any proof of the racism. Chicago’s housing issues straddle racial lines, upper middle class whites can barely afford single family homes without duel incomes.

    I also wonder how people propose to keep people in neighborhoods they don’t want to be in. People largely move to the suburbs so that they can experience low density and high quality living and are willing to pay a higher market rate for that. How do you propose keeping them if they choose to move. And why doesn’t this article address the large numbers of non-whites of higher incomes that populate the suburbs.


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.