Bob Avakian has written that one of three things that has “to happen in order for there to be real and lasting change for the better: People have to fully confront the actual history of this country and its role in the world up to today, and the terrible consequences of this.” (See “3 Things that have to happen in order for there to be real and lasting change for the better.”)
In that light, and in that spirit, “American Crime” is a regular feature of revcom.us. Each installment focuses on one of the 100 worst crimes committed by the U.S. rulers—out of countless bloody crimes they have carried out against people around the world, from the founding of the U.S. to the present day.
See all the articles in this series.
For decades in the 20th century, the deliberate policies of the U.S. government and actions of the courts, local political and law enforcement forces, racist white residents, and—driving it all forward—predatory real estate interests and blood-sucking banks and other financial institutions forced millions of Black people in Chicago into confinement in ghettos under extremely oppressive living conditions. This played a key role in cementing in place a system of white supremacy that has super-exploited and suppressed the African-American people since the Great Migration not only to the North but to cities more generally, beginning in the 20th century.
Part 1 of this two-part American Crime installment covers the period up to the 1960s. Part 2 will look at the decades since then, including the destruction of the huge Chicago housing projects and what happened to the tens of thousands evicted from them. But while this focuses on Chicago, the dynamics exposed here were similar in cities throughout the Midwest and the North, and indeed Chicago “set the pace” when it came to nailing into place new forms of white-supremacist oppression.
Chicago as “Laboratory for Segregation”
From the early 1900s to the end of the 1960s, six million Black people moved from the rural South to urban areas in the North and West—this was the Great Migration. There were two major periods in the Great Migration—around the time of World War 1, and then around the time of World War 2, when capitalists needed workers and Black people from the South were allowed into the workforce in the North… on the bottom floor. Sometimes, especially early on, Black people were fleeing the rural South to what they were told would be new opportunities in the North, and they often had to do this in the dead of night to avoid the KKK trying to hold them in place. Later, as the white plantation owners began to mechanize in order to keep up with global competition, Black sharecroppers were driven off the land, with no consideration for the superprofits that had been extracted from their labor—their very flesh and blood—over generations.
Hoping to escape the bitter poverty and lynch mob terror of the South when they reached the supposed “Promised Land” in cities like Chicago, Black people found themselves exploited and oppressed in new but no less vicious ways. They were forced into the dirtiest, most dangerous, lowest-paying jobs, becoming the “last hired, first fired”... targeted by brutal police and racist white mobs… packed into hyper-segregated ghettos.
Black people coming to Chicago seeking a new life were at first confined into a narrow sliver of land called the “Black Belt” on the South Side, resulting in extreme overcrowding. Real estate speculators and absentee landlords made big profits by dividing up buildings into small “kitchenettes,” some separated by just cardboard, and charging exorbitant rent while ignoring maintenance. Many units lacked plumbing, and multiple families had to share the same bathroom. Families faced the brutal Chicago winters with little or no heating. The infant death rate was 16 percent higher in the Black communities than for the city as a whole. Rats infested the ghetto.
Although there were no signs mandating separate water fountains for whites and Blacks like in the Jim Crow South, blatant discrimination enforced by official policy as well as mob violence was no less a reality in Chicago. There certainly was segregation in other northern cities. But as a writer for Chicago magazine put it, Chicago “was a laboratory for segregation,” and “tools to segregate the city based on race were created here.”
Before getting into how this developed in Chicago, let’s take a brief look at some of the various ways that being forced to live in segregated areas has devastated, and continues to devastate, the lives of Black people:
- Poor and racist education. Children are confined to schools with the most run-down facilities, and the least resources and, despite the best efforts of some teachers, students get the worse education. In the early 1960s, for example, the “solution” that the Chicago power structure had to overcrowding in the Black neighborhood schools was to put kids on double-shift schedules and to cram many into portable aluminum units that people called “Willis Wagons”—after the school superintendent who was intent on keeping Black students segregated even as schools in white areas had plenty of room. Such segregation, and the stigmatization it reinforces, drills into Black children that they are somehow “lesser” than whites, and does great damage.
- Environmental hazards. The ongoing crisis in Flint, Michigan, where lead-contaminated water has especially affected children in Black neighborhoods, puts a spotlight on how oppressed areas in this country face environmental dangers way out of proportion. In Chicago, the Altgeld Gardens housing projects, with almost all Black residents, was built in 1945 on an area surrounded by facilities handling toxic material and many of the city’s landfills. Exposed to a host of poisonous chemicals, the residents have suffered for decades from higher than normal rates of cancer, children born with brain tumors, and other health problems.
- Worst health care. In addition to overall poverty and environmental dangers severely affecting their health and life expectancy, Black people in segregated neighborhoods have to deal with health care facilities with the fewer technological resources and the less-trained staff compared to facilities serving white areas.
- Predatory merchants. People are forced to use stores that peddle rotten food at high prices, taken advantage of by loan sharks, both legal and illegal, who squeeze victims desperately trying to survive week by week, and in other ways targeted by unscrupulous businesses.
- Terror by police. These hellish conditions are enforced by the police who, acting like an occupying army, carry out daily harassment, beatings, torture, and murder. The police tactics include political assassinations when those in power deem it necessary—as in the 1969 murder of Black Panther leader Fred Hampton by Chicago police working with the FBI. More recently, Chicago Police Commander Jon Burge carried out over 200 documented instances of torture at a South Side precinct, extracting “confessions” through electrical shocks and beatings. The police allow and control organized crime and gangs when it serves their purpose—and crack down on them, as part of an overall clampdown on the people, at other times. They act with the official and unofficial approval of the political and legal authorities—almost never receiving punishment for murders and other crimes they carry out, even in front of witnesses or when caught on video.
All these horrors—and more—are what living in the segregated ghetto has meant for millions of Black people in Chicago, decade after decade, continuing to today. People were confined as if in an open-air prison, preyed upon from all sides, and continually under the threat of both purposeful and random police terror. This is a form of genocide.
Deliberate Segregation via Restrictive Covenants
After a 1917 U.S. Supreme Court decision blocked the Chicago Real Estate Board’s attempt to openly divide the city into separate zones by race, real estate interests devised another tactic: “restrictive covenants” that forbade white home owners from selling or renting to African-Americans. Other cities also used such covenants, but Chicago led the country in their use, with eventually three-fourths of all residential neighborhoods covered by them and therefore off-limits to Black people. Courts, including all the way to the Supreme Court, repeatedly ruled that restrictive covenants were legal because they were “private” agreements.
Black people who went against the exclusionary measures to keep them “in their place” were met with mob violence as well as the official violence of the police, often working together with the mobs. In 1919, for example, whites enraged by a Black youth on a “white” beach went on a murderous rampage. Black people fought back in self-defense, but they were outnumbered by the white mobs who were better armed and had the sympathy and often open backing of the police. The white goons killed 23 Black people, and over a thousand were left homeless.
The restrictive covenants often involved an association of white owners or a whole neighborhood, and these segregationist pacts were frequently endorsed or led by non-profit institutions like churches (which received government tax exemptions) aiming to keep Black people out of their area. According to the book The Color of Law, “On Chicago’s Near North Side, a restrictive covenant was executed in 1937 by tax-exempt religious institutions, including the Moody Bible Institute, the Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary, and the Board of Foreign Missions of the Methodist Episcopal Church. Other nonprofit organizations also participated, including the Newberry Library and the Academy of Fine Arts.”
Federal Affirmative Action… for Whites
Along with the predatory real estate forces, the courts, city police and institutions, and racist whites, another force was directly involved in keeping Black people penned in the ghetto—the federal government. In 1934, a law signed by President Franklin D. Roosevelt (FDR) created the Federal Housing Administration (FHA), which insured private mortgages. This led to a decline in interest payments and the amount of down payment needed to buy a house—allowing wider sections of the U.S. population to buy homes. Owning a house was promoted as a key part of the “American Dream.” But Black people—in Chicago and elsewhere across the U.S.—were deliberately shut out of this “dream.”
Today, FDR is upheld and promoted as a liberal icon—“a champion of reform, architect of the New Deal, and a hero for the downtrodden.” The use of federal funds for the deliberately segregationist FHA loans shows how FDR was not just passively accepting the oppression of Black people—he actively enabled and enforced the continued confinement, plunder and subjugation of African-Americans.
In his article “A Case for Reparations,” Ta-Nehisi Coates writes: “The FHA had adopted a system of maps that rated neighborhoods according to their perceived stability. On the maps, green areas, rated ‘A,’ indicated ‘in demand’ neighborhoods that, as one appraiser put it, lacked ‘a single foreigner or Negro.’ These neighborhoods were considered excellent prospects for insurance. Neighborhoods where black people lived were rated ‘D’ and were usually considered ineligible for FHA backing. They were colored in red. Neither the percentage of black people living there nor their social class mattered. Black people were viewed as a contagion. Redlining went beyond FHA-backed loans and spread to the entire mortgage industry, which was already rife with racism, excluding black people from the most legitimate means of obtaining mortgage.”
The Supreme Court ruled against restrictive covenants in 1948. But the FHA continued their racist policy of backing loans for white people buying homes in white neighborhoods and suburbs, while shutting Black people out by denying them such loans. After World War 2, the newly established Veterans Administration (VA) also began to guarantee mortgages, designed to help ex-soldiers buy houses. And the VA used the same discriminatory guidelines as the FHA—in other words, this federal agency helped white vets buy homes while denying assistance to Black vets. The Color of Law notes that in thousands of locales across the country, “mass-production builders created entire suburbs with the FHA- or VA-imposed condition that these suburbs be all white.”
Home ownership played a big role in tens of millions of white people, including those who were newer immigrants from Europe, being able to become part of the white American “middle class”—the federal government programs, in effect, were affirmative action for them.
In contrast, as Black people began pushing out from the Chicago “Black Belt” into neighborhoods further south and then west, they had to move into areas that were already deliberately run down. In a practice known as “block busting,” real estate interests, with the collusion of city officials and police, took various steps leading to the deterioration of a neighborhood in order to force white homeowners to sell at low prices. Then the same houses were sold to Black people at inflated prices, enabling real estate interests to reap huge gains.
Bob Avakian, in The New Communism, gives a vivid account of how this block busting worked (he describes a situation in the 1970s, but the same type of thing went on through the ’50s and ’60s):
There was a phenomenon involving some of the big real estate interests in the Chicago area (of the kind that Obama became all tied in with a little later, but here I’m thinking back to the period of the 1970s, before Obama came along), and when these big real estate interests wanted to “turn a neighborhood” that had been mainly white, and they wanted to get people to flee the neighborhood so they could buy up the houses cheaply and then resell them at a big profit, these real estate interests would work with the police. They had a whole unit within the Chicago police that was responsible for dealing with the gangs—and that had infiltrated the gangs—and they would put out the word through their contacts: If you go over into this neighborhood and create mayhem and havoc, we won’t do anything about it. Well, pretty soon, even the white people who weren’t coming from such a bad place would get up and leave, sell their property cheaply, because the neighborhood became intolerable; and then Black people were allowed, even encouraged, to buy those homes, but they would be charged a price much higher than what the houses had just sold for. So the real estate interests made a real killing in that way.
Because Black people did not have access to “legitimate” sources of credit, they had to turn to buying homes “on contract.” The contract sellers kept the deed, and if the buyer missed even a single payment, they would be evicted, with the seller keeping the equity and reselling the house to another desperate buyer. Historian Beryl Satter, whose father was an attorney fighting against this profiteering, writes: “In Chicago, my father estimated that 85 percent of the properties purchased by blacks were sold on contract. He calculated that by selling buildings to house-starved African-Americans on such exploitative terms, speculators were robbing Chicago’s black population of one million dollars a day. These sales stripped black migrants of their savings during the very years when whites of similar class background were getting an immense economic boost through FHA-backed mortgages that enabled them to purchase new homes for little money down.” (Emphasis added.)
Racist Mobs, Continued Segregation, and the Hand of Those in Power
In 1951, thousands of whites in Cicero, just west of Chicago, attacked an apartment building that housed a single Black family. A Cook County grand jury refused to indict the racist rioters, instead indicting the family's lawyer and the apartment's white owner for "conspiring" to lower property values.
In the years and decades after World War 2, Black people in the Chicago area continued to face KKK-style violence if they defied segregation. In 1947, when a few Black veterans moved into the Fernwood section, gangs of whites rioted for three nights, pulling Black people off streetcars and beating them. In 1951, thousands of whites in Cicero, just west of Chicago, attacked an apartment building that housed a single Black family. A Cook County grand jury refused to indict the racist rioters, instead indicting the family’s lawyer and the apartment’s white owner for “conspiring” to lower property values.
In the summer of 1966, in the context of uprisings of Black people in cities across the U.S. that would become even greater through the rest of the ’60s, Martin Luther King Jr. led his first marches beyond the South in Chicago against school and housing segregation. King was a promoter of reforming the system, working consciously against more radical and revolutionary forces, and had been in close contact with President Lyndon B. Johnson, at times talking on the phone daily to coordinate actions. But Johnson—widely hated at the time for the U.S. war in Vietnam, but whose reputation is being rehabilitated today as the architect of the “Great Society” reforms—was opposed to King going to Chicago. As historian Taylor Branch recounts, Johnson talked directly on the phone with Chicago Mayor Richard J. Daley, who was trying to hamper King’s campaign and drive him out of the city—which is what essentially happened.
The non-violent marches that King and others led through different white neighborhoods came under violent attack from howling racist mobs. Among those injured in one march was a nun hit by a brick thrown at her head. In another march in Marquette Park, King himself was hit in the head by a rock. He later said, “I have never in my life seen such hate. Not in Mississippi or Alabama.” These vicious assaults happened as the marches were supposedly under police “escort” provided by Mayor Daley. This was the same police force that, only two years later, Daley would order to brutally crack down on peaceful young protesters at the Democratic National Convention. Who can seriously believe that Daley had nothing to do with allowing the King marchers to come under attack from the lynch mobs?
King stopped the campaign in Chicago and left, after signing a toothless agreement with Daley and real estate interests in the city that promised a few paltry reforms—promises which weren’t even kept. It was not until 1968—after the most massive urban rebellions in U.S. history, in the wake of Martin Luther King’s assassination—that Johnson signed the federal Fair Housing Act, a basically toothless law that was a mere show of action against segregation.
Making of the “Second Ghetto”
The Robert Taylor Homes housing project in 1988.
While the U.S. government subsidized housing for white people through FHA and VA mortgages, the form of government-subsidized housing for a significant section of Black people after World War 2 was the inner city housing projects. The projects were built in already-established Black ghettos because of official government policy. During the FDR era, the Public Works Administration had mandated a “neighborhood composition rule,” under which government projects were not allowed to alter the “racial composition” of the neighborhoods they were built in, and this rule was still in effect. In other words, projects built in white areas had to be for white people, and those built in Black areas were restricted to African-Americans. While there were some housing projects built in white areas before World War 2, the post-war projects in Chicago were mainly built to warehouse and control poor Black people.
In 1949, a new federal housing act sent millions of dollars into Chicago and other cities for housing projects. Ta-Nehisi Coates points out, “Beginning in 1950, site selection for public housing proceeded entirely on the grounds of segregation. By the 1960s, [Chicago] had created with its vast housing projects what the historian Arnold R. Hirsch calls a ‘second ghetto,’ one larger than the old Black Belt but just as impermeable. More than 98 percent of all the family public-housing units built in Chicago between 1950 and the mid-1960s were built in all-black neighborhoods.” These projects—Robert Taylor, Cabrini Green, and others—became highly concentrated areas of poverty, the site of eight of the poorest 20 census tracts in the U.S. And the police targeted the people living in these projects with pervasive, dehumanizing brutality, murder and terror.
The construction of the Black housing projects—and the maintenance of blatant segregation in the city overall—was orchestrated by the powerful Democratic Party “machine” in Chicago and Cook County, headed up by Richard J. Daley. Daley would be mayor for 20 years, and his connections and influence reached way beyond the city to the Democratic Party on the highest levels nationally. The Daley “machine” controlled officials—including Black politicians—in all of the city’s 50 wards, commanded thousands of precinct captains spread out over every block of the city, dispensed tens of thousands of city patronage jobs, ran the police department notorious for brutality and torture against Black people, and used ties to organized criminal groups for their own ends.
One biography of Daley, who himself lived in the almost all-white neighborhood of Bridgeport, describes his “commitment to racial segregation”: “He preserved the city’s white neighborhoods and business district by building racial separation into the very concrete of the city. New development—housing, highways, and schools—were built where they would serve as a barrier between white neighborhoods and the black ghetto. Daley worked with powerful business leaders to revitalize downtown by pushing poor blacks out, replacing them with middle-class whites. But Daley’s most striking accomplishment was Chicago’s deeply troubled public housing projects. Daley used public housing as a repository for thousands of blacks who might otherwise have ended up moving into white neighborhoods.”
The Democratic presidential administration of Franklin D. Roosevelt (FDR), which oversaw the oppressive policies of the FHA and VA that provided federal help for white people buying homes and the building up of white neighborhoods and suburbs, while denying such help for Black people; and successive presidents, Republican and Democratic, who continued the same practice. The Roosevelt administration also introduced the “neighborhood composition rule” mandating that any government housing projects not alter the racial composition of the neighborhood—which was a factor in the building of huge projects in poor Black areas of Chicago and other cities.
These discriminatory housing policies were part of FDR’s New Deal laws and policies that the U.S. rulers as a whole saw as crucial to protecting and moving forward their system in the wake of the Depression and into World War 2. Nowadays, the New Deal is praised widely by liberals and some even call for a “new New Deal.” In reality, the reforms of the New Deal included steps by the U.S. ruling class to reinforce white supremacy, in the context of a new and changing situation internationally and domestically, as well as FDR’s compromises with the “Dixiecrats”—segregationist southern Democrats—in return for cooperation with the federal laws and policies.
The segregation of Black people has served, and continues to serve, the U.S. rulers and their system in many ways. The ghettoization of Black neighborhoods has been part of the extreme exploitation—keeping Black people in the lowest rungs of the workforce, when they can get work, and then further gouging them through inflated living costs, financial chicanery and so on. And there are important ideological dimensions. The physical separation, and the deliberate deterioration, of the Black neighborhoods serve to codify the demonization and stigmatization of Black people. At the same time, this reinforces the glue of “whiteness”—the ways in which the system trains white people to consider themselves entitled to privilege and to see their position and interests in opposition to Black and other oppressed people, and with the white ruling class of capitalist-imperialists.
Mayor Daley and the Democratic Party “machine” in Chicago, including Black politicians, who continued and, in some ways, as in the building of the huge housing projects, intensified the segregation of the city, as part of the overall oppression of Black people in all areas of life.
Real estate interests, who—with collusion of city officials and police—made huge profits through “block busting” and selling houses on extremely exploitative terms to Black people.
THE ALIBI: The FHA justified its policies favoring whites and discriminating against Black people for mortgages by saying they were aiming for “stability,” racial “harmony” and preservation of real estate values. An FHA manual for appraisers, for example, said: “If a neighborhood is to retain stability it is necessary that properties shall continue to be occupied by the same social and racial classes. A change in social or racial occupancy generally leads to instability and a reduction in values.”
Along with this, a whole white-supremacist mythology was promoted claiming that white people earned their homes by “working hard,” while Black people lived in slums because they did not. As Thomas Sugrue observed in The Origins of the Urban Crisis, “Residence in the inner city became a self-perpetuating stigma. Increasing joblessness, and the decaying infrastructure of inner-city neighborhoods, reinforced white stereotypes of black people, families, and communities.” This, of course, is tantamount to blaming those held in concentration camps for the wretched and horrific conditions imposed on them—which the Nazis in Hitler’s Germany, like all racial supremacists, in fact did.
In Chicago, Daley and the Democratic Party “machine” touted the building of the Black housing projects as part of the “urban renewal” of the city.
THE REAL MOTIVE:
The story of how Chicago’s Black ghetto came to be is part of the whole ugly history—and the continuing nightmare—of the oppression of African-Americans, as a people, in the United States. The exploitation and oppression of Black people and other oppressed people is a key pillar of the capitalist-imperialist system—and, as we have shown in this one example here, it is kept going by institutions, interests, and ideology at the very marrow of the bones of American capitalism-imperialism. And the rulers will not—and, more profoundly, cannot—get rid of it.
The early history of segregation in Chicago—and in Part 2, we will detail how and why Chicago remains a “hyper-segregated” city and what that means for today—shows one aspect of what Bob Avakian points out in BAsics, from the talks and writings of Bob Avakian:
If you want to talk about who owes whom—if you keep in mind everything the capitalists (as well as the slaveowners) have accumulated through all the labor Black people have carried out in this country and the privileges that have been passed out to people on that basis—there wouldn’t even be a U.S. imperialism as there is today if it weren’t for the exploitation of Black people under this system. Not that the exploitation of Black people is the whole of it—there has been a lot of other people exploited, both in the U.S. and internationally, by this ruling class. But there wouldn’t be a U.S. imperialism in the way there is today if it weren’t for the exploitation of Black people under slavery and then after slavery in the sharecropping system and in the plants and other workplaces in a kind of caste-like oppression in the cities. (BAsics 1:12)
Bob Avakian, BAsics, from the talks and writings of Bob Avakian, RCP Publications, 2011
Bob Avakian, “Forced Segregation: A Neighborhood Story,” revcom.us.
Bob Avakian, “Suburbanization, Segregation and the Promotion of White Supremacy,” in THE BASIS, THE GOALS, AND THE METHODS OF COMMUNIST REVOLUTION, revcom.us.
Steve Bogira, “Separate, Unequal, and Ignored,” Chicago Reader, February 10, 2011.
Taylor Branch, At Canaan’s Edge: America in the King Years 1965-68, Simon & Schuster, 2006.
Ta-Nehisi Coates, “The Case for Reparations,” The Atlantic, June 2014.
Adam Cohen and Elizabeth Taylor, American Pharaoh, Mayor Richard J. Daley—His Battle for Chicago and the Nation, Back Bay Books, 2001.
Arnold R. Hirsch, Making the Second Ghetto, Race and Housing in Chicago 1940-1960, The University of Chicago Press, 1983.
Tami Luhby, “Chicago: America’s Most Segregated City,” cnn.com, January 5, 2016.
Whet Moser, “Housing Discrimination in America Was Perfected in Chicago,” Chicago, May 5, 2014.
Whet Moser, “Chicago Isn’t Just Segregated, It Basically Invented Modern Segregation,” Chicago, March 31, 2017.
Revcom.us, “How the System Ghetto-ized Black People in Chicago,” December 6, 1998.
Richard Rothstein, The Color of Law: A Forgotten History of How Our Government Segregated America, Liveright, 2017.