Institutional racism still going strong

Coming on the heels of statistics showing vast disparities between the educational outcomes of African Americans, Latinos, Asian Americans, Native Americans and whites, a new, comprehensive report shows how far we have to go in Chicago before institutional racism is a thing of the past.

The report, “Minding the Gap: An Assessment of Racial Disparity in Metropolitan Chicago,” was produced by the Hull House Association’s Human Relations Foundation/Jane Addams Policy Institute and the Center for Urban Research and Learning of Loyola University, Chicago. The Human Relations Commission of the City of Chicago also participated. It can be read on-line at

The report explores all areas of quality of life as they affect different racial and ethnic populations in Chicago, basing itself on both official and private statistics. It shows shocking discrepancies based on race and ethnicity. Even though the statistics used in the report mostly refer to the 1990s, described by the authors as a period when the United States experienced “unprecedented economic growth,” the results are sobering.

A few examples:

• Income: Though minorities registered considerable increases in average household income during the 1990s, in 1999 the racial/ethnic gaps were still huge. The average per-capita income was $29,043 for whites, but $15,272 for African Americans, $12,680 for Latinos, $16,489 for Native Americans, and $24,594 for Asian Americans. Illinois Department of Labor statistics show that when you remove the highest income levels from the averages, the gaps were even wider, with Black, Latino and Native American workers the worst off.

• Unemployment: “Communities of color experience unemployment rates almost twice that of whites.” This held true through the 1990s in spite of an overall decrease in unemployment. In Chicago, the official unemployment rate for persons of color was 11.5 percent, but 3.3 percent for whites.

• Housing: In 2001, according to an ACORN study, African Americans were denied mortgages five times as often whites, while Latinos were turned down two and a half times more than whites. Although there was a considerable increase in minority home ownership during the 1990s, African Americans and Latinos tend to live in housing that is much older and worth far less. Although African Americans are less than 20 percent of the population of the wider Chicago metropolitan area, they constitute more than half the homeless.

• Education: African American and Latino students have a much higher school dropout rate. White students scored far higher than African American and Latino students on state-required standardized tests – the Illinois State Achievement Test and the Prairie State Achievement Examination. Students in districts with higher median household incomes scored better. These districts are disproportionately located in white suburban communities.

• Transportation: African Americans and Latinos have been disproportionately impacted by cutbacks in public transportation and increases in commute time.

• Health and health care: African Americans have a cancer mortality rate twice that of whites and Latinos. While the death rate from breast cancer among white women has been dropping, it has stayed high among African American women. The asthma death rate for African Americans in Illinois is more than four times the national average. Death rates from diabetes and heart disease are far higher among African Americans than among whites, as are rates of morbidity and mortality rates for HIV/AIDS, tuberculosis and other diseases. In the Chicago area, 29 percent of non-elderly Latinos do not have health insurance, a figure which drops to 24 percent for African Americans, and only 10 percent for whites.

• Criminal justice: Here we see some of the most shocking statistics. African Americans and Latinos have a disproportionate rate of victimization by crime. In the specific area of drug arrests, African Americans have a far higher arrest rate although reliable statistics show drug use to be much higher among whites. The authors cite federal data showing that “whites are 125 percent more likely to use marijuana, 181 percent more likely to use cocaine, 413 percent more likely to abuse inhalants, and 516 percent more likely to abuse LSD” than are African Americans or Latinos. Yet four out of five people arrested on drug charges in Chicago in 2000 were African American, and were more likely to get a jail term rather than probation. Sixty-three percent of people incarcerated by the state of Illinois for all crimes are African American, 36 percent are white and 11 percent are Latino.

There will be a series of community meetings to strategize responses to the atrocious situation. It is to be hoped that these meetings take up the ideological and political dimensions of this blatant institutional racism, as well as its economic and social profile. As Holocaust denial is one of the most virulent forms of anti-Semitism in the world today, so we might say “racism denial” is one of the most insidious forms of racism in the U.S. To suggest that these discrepancies could be “merely a holdover” from racism of the past, and not a result of an ongoing presence of racism in our society, is simply not credible.

Emile Schepers is an activist in Chicago. He can be reached at