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Between the Great Migration and Growing Exodus: The Future of Black Chicago?

Inequitable access to public goods and economic opportunities must be immediately remedied, while continued consciousness of racial justice is necessary to ensure future changes in the city do not disproportionately disadvantage black residents.

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“Between the Great Migration and Growing Exodus: The Future of Black Chicago?” is the fourth installment in the UIC Institute for Research on Race and Public Policy’s ongoing series that explores racial justice in the city., Iván Arenas

[moderator: Printed below are the Introduction and Conclusion. The full report is found here]


For most of the 20th century, Chicago was a major destination for African American migrants. As part of the Great Migration, millions of African Americans fled the Jim Crow South, moving to northern cities like Chicago and transforming their destinations in the process. As the population expanded, black Chicago grew not just in size but also culturally and symbolically. From the nation-wide circulation of The Chicago Defender, one of the country’s first and most influential black-owned newspapers, to the arts, music, and literature originating from Chicago’s Black Renaissance, the Great Migration of African Americans to Chicago helped develop the city into the cultural, political, and economic center it is today. Indeed, while Louis Armstrong was born and raised in New Orleans, it was not until moving to Chicago in the midst of the Great Migration that he rose to prominence. Margaret Burroughs was born in Louisiana but was raised in Chicago where she developed her arts organizing and co-founded the DuSable Museum and South Side Community Arts Center.

Fleeing violence in Memphis, Ida B. Wells-Barnett relocated to Chicago’s Bronzeville neighborhood where she continued to publish influential articles and books on racial violence in the U.S. In countless ways, the Great Migration of African Americans to Chicago transformed not only the city, but also the nation as a whole.

While many continue to view Chicago as a “black mecca” that plays a central role in African American politics, culture, and economy, recent population trends indicate that the city may be at risk of losing this status. Starting in 1980, Chicago’s African American population growth not only halted, but reversed. By 2016, the population of black Chicagoans had decreased by 350,000 from its peak in 1980. These population trends have attracted significant media attention and speculation about why black Chicagoans are leaving the city. Some have argued this exodus is caused by violence in Chicago’s predominantly black South and West sides. Others argue that black residents are moving to pursue better schools for their children or to find opportunity in more affordable cities.

Given the complex intersecting dynamics that affect where people settle, this report is not intended to definitively answer whether black residents are being forcibly pushed out of the city or moving elsewhere to pursue other opportunities. Instead, we set out to analyze what the data on population trends in Chicago can tell us about black migration into and out of the city.  specifically, we examine Chicago’s demographic changes from three unique perspectives.

First, we contextualize recent population changes by placing current patterns within a longer historical context of shifts taking place over the past 100 years. Taking the long view helps us to see the more recent patterns as part of a long and evolving history. From this vantage point, we find that black population trends in Chicago are associated with trends in levels of racial inequality, as indicated by racial disparities in unemployment and wages. When inequality in Chicago was lower than many Southern cities during the mid-20th century, black migration to Chicago was very high. After 1980, however, racial inequality in Chicago became worse, both compared to historical levels within Chicago and in relation to other cities. At this point, Chicago’s

black population started to decline. Viewing these population dynamics over the past century allows us to see how inequities built into the fabric of Chicago during and after the Great Migration, particularly the segregation of black residents to the “black belt” and subsequent economic disinvestment from these communities, had enduring effects that would surface more prominently in the 1980s and beyond.

While the contemporary exodus of Chicago’s black residents is driven in part by the ongoing consequences of a long history of injustices, it is also driven by current, ongoing policy decisions that negatively affect Black Chicagoans.

Second, we zoom in to provide a more detailed analysis of population change across Chicago neighborhoods from 1990 to 2016 (dates for which data are available). Here, we find major variation across areas of the city with unique local dynamics. While some neighborhoods have had a rapid depopulation of black residents, others have had an increase in black residents. Comparing changes across race, we also find that white and black population growth are often inversely correlated. Neighborhoods that have had an increase in white population have generally had a decrease in black population, while areas with an increase in black residents have had a decline in white residents. Highlighting neighborhood trends sheds light on the complex array of factors contributing to city-wide population shifts. In some neighborhoods, gentrification appears to be a driving force. In others, the destruction of public housing played a more prominent role in population change. While some places have experienced economic disinvestment, other areas of the city have experienced an economic boom. Policy that takes into consideration the specificity of local neighborhood histories and conditions will be best positioned to improve the wellbeing of all those who call Chicago home.

Third, we examine where Chicagoans who are leaving the city are going. Our analysis reveals that more than half of those leaving Cook County are not actually moving very far. While whites are more likely to move to the northern suburbs in Lake County, black movers are more likely to relocate to Northern Indiana. Among those leaving the region, whites are heading to coastal states while blacks are more likely to move South. These trends indicate that many of those who leave Chicago remain anchored to the region, whether through jobs, family, or just mere familiarity.

To help us make sense of these trends, we have invited several experts to write short commentaries. These commentaries provide a more in-depth perspective on factors related to the decline in Chicago’s black population. Following this Introductory section, Stacey Sutton, Assistant Professor of Urban Planning and Policy at the University of Illinois at Chicago, writes our first expert commentary, raising an important question about why Chicago’s black population loss has garnered attention at this particular time. As Dr. Sutton notes, while the legacy of structural racism has deep roots in Chicago, an effect of current policies is that the black population is shouldering what she terms “the economic burden of the punitive city” and this is fueling black dispossession and black exodus.

After our section on Chicago Population Trends Over the Last Century, the second commentary in this report centers on the role of economic abandonment in population decline and is written by Teresa Córdova, Director of the Great Cities Institute and Professor of Urban Planning and Policy at the University of Illinois at Chicago. Drawing from the voices of student activists protesting municipal neglect as well as empirical data presented in reports from both the Great Cities Institute and IRRPP, Dr. Córdova illustrates how cycles of economic disinvestment, job loss, and population decline are facilitated by the absence of government programs providing youth and young adults with employment opportunities and labor force development.

After our section on Chicago Population Trends by Neighborhood, the third commentary is by Mary Pattillo, Harold Washington Professor of Sociology and African American Studies at Northwestern University. Dr. Pattillo reminds us that, despite massive population loss, “Black Chicago Ain’t Dead!” Chicago’s black population is one of the largest in the U.S. (second only to New York), and continues to be a major center of black political leadership, culture, and community. These assets make efforts towards a Black Chicago Revival all the more important — efforts where investments in black communities counter long-time government neglect and where protections such as rent control and community benefits agreements ensure that neighborhood change doesn’t happen at the expense of long-term residents (as has occurred through Chicago’s history).

Our fourth expert commentary is authored by Lisa Yun Lee, Executive Director at the National Public Housing Museum and Associate Professor of Art History and Gender and Women’s Studies at the University of Illinois at Chicago. Drawing on the history of urban design in Chicago, Dr. Lee shows how outright neglect of Chicago’s lowincome residents, coupled with racial discrimination in access to housing, created the conditions whereby plans for economic growth in Chicago were antithetical to social welfare, particularly for the city’s black residents.

After our section on Emigration Routes from Chicago, Eve Ewing, Assistant Professor in the School of Social Service Administration at the University of Chicago, contributes our fifth expert commentary and expands our understanding of the factors contributing to inverse population shifts among Chicago’s black and white residents. Complicating agentic notions of “moving” as a personal choice, Dr. Ewing highlights the powerful structural factors pushing black residents from the city, such as poor schools, limited healthcare, inadequate transportation, and a lack of political accountability from city officials.

Our sixth expert commentary is by David Stovall, Professor of African American Studies and Criminology, Law, and Justice at the University of Illinois at Chicago, who describes how black population decline in Chicago is symptomatic of deeper, historically rooted, and ongoing practices of racial exclusion. Dr. Stovall explains how the privatization of public goods, decline of jobs, and increasing income inequality in the city constitute different aspects of “engineered conflict” systematically driving black residents from Chicago.

After our Conclusion, two additional expert commentaries offer insight on future change in Chicago. Our seventh expert commentary is by Barbara Ransby, Director of the Social Justice Initiative and a Distinguished Professor of History, Gender and Women’s Studies, and African American Studies at the University of Illinois at Chicago. Highlighting the major presence of social activism in Chicago, Dr. Ransby comments on the importance of collective resistance in informing our approach to addressing the problems contributing to black population loss and in making Chicago a home for black residents.

Alden Loury, Senior Editor for Race, Class and Communities at WBEZ Chicago, closes the report with our last expert commentary. Synthesizing the many data points throughout this report, Loury highlights one over-arching take away: Black exodus in Chicago is a direct result of racial inequality in the city. With this understanding, Loury makes a call to action. Residents, business owners, and policymakers alike must adopt a lens of racial justice to better identify and address existing racial disparities. Inequitable access to public goods and economic opportunities must be immediately remedied, while continued consciousness of racial justice is necessary to ensure future changes in the city do not disproportionately disadvantage black residents.

Addressing rising concerns around population decline, this report focuses primarily on black Chicagoans because they are a group leaving the city at high rates. For example, we do not devote significant attention towards population dynamics among Chicago’s Latinx community. These trends are documented extensively in previous reports highlighting racial disparities facing this group and the limited resources available in Latinx neighborhoods. While black and Latinx communities share some of the same challenges in Chicago, each have unique histories in the city that shape contemporary experiences, barriers, and opportunities. By specifically examining Chicago’s black population, we provide a deeper analysis of the factors related to population shifts for this group.

Our aim in this report is to use available data to advance our understanding of racial/ethnic issues in Chicago so we may be better positioned to address the challenges facing our city. To this end, we adopt the provisional use of racial categories to identify disparities, divergent patterns, and inequities. We recognize that the use of racial categories in research is often an imprecise measure of personal identity and experience and can suggest that racialized categories are fixed and immutable. We draw upon decades of scholarship within the social sciences and ethnic studies that identify the social, political, and historical processes involved in the construction of racial/ethnic groups and that contribute to differential outcomes between these groups. While race and ethnicity are social categories — they are not biological or permanent — they have material consequences and have played an important role in organizing social relations nationally and within the city of Chicago.

Our use of racial categories throughout this report is intended to shed light on how racial inequities emerge and their consequences for social life. One way we identify such patterns is through the analytic comparison of black and white Chicago residents in various outcomes (e.g., income, employment, and population shifts). This approach is not intended to re-affirm the black-white racial binary often used to characterize U.S. race relations. Racial diversity and dynamics in the U.S. are far more complex than such a binary would imply. The creation and evolution of racial

hierarchies have always been relational processes that simultaneously benefit some to the detriment of others. Whites have generally benefited from the very systems of racial hierarchy, both nationally and in Chicago, that have harmed blacks. Thus, the comparison between white and black Chicagoans not only helps us identify the gap in social outcomes between the group most systematically advantaged in U.S. society — whites — and one of the groups most systematically disadvantaged — blacks — but also centers two groups whose experiences in Chicago have been inversely impacted by local, state, and federal policies. While this comparison allows us to examine the disparities between these two groups, the comparison is not intended to normalize the place of white society at the top of the racial hierarchy or how whites benefit from systematic advantages in our society. By highlighting disparities between white and black Chicago residents, we hope to inform policy that may reduce racial inequity, as well as provide a foundation for further research that may add detail to trends we uncover.

Population decline among black residents suggests that Chicago may no longer be viewed as a place of opportunity for this segment of the population. Throughout this report, we shed light on some of the antecedents of these trends while also paying attention to how they play out across neighborhoods in more recent decades. By taking a data-driven approach to document population trends and their association with other markers of inequity, we expand current conversations that interrogate the decline of Chicago’s black population. Our goal is that the 

information provided in this report will inform policies that create a more welcoming and equitable city for all residents.


By reporting on these three components of Chicago’s population dynamics, we aim to inform ongoing discussions about the future of Chicago and the people who call the city home. Our analysis was not designed to directly investigate why people leave the city. We did not interview former Chicago residents to ask why they left or conduct a study tracking families throughout their departure from the city. These would be valuable approaches for future research examining the determinants of emigration from Chicago. Instead, our analysis provides an over-arching review to uncover broad population trends and their correlation with other aspects of equity and wellbeing. Mapping these general trends has directed our attention to a number of possible factors contributing to black population decline.

At a very broad level, we believe racial inequities in Chicago are pushing black residents out. The history of racial segregation and economic exclusion in the city are reproduced in the present moment through ongoing practices that marginalize the interests of Chicago’s black community in the name of attracting investment and generating growth. Much research has documented the relationship of political neglect and disinvestment of black neighborhoods that has preceded population decline.

At the time of writing this report, Chicago’s city government is planning to provide $1.7 billion in subsidies for developments around downtown. Each of the proposed development sites are located in a neighborhood where gentrification has resulted in a decline in the black population and an increase in the white population. Meanwhile, four high schools in the city’s South Side are slated to close. Viewed against the backdrop of Chicago’s high levels of racial inequity, such funding decisions reflect and reproduce the city’s institutional commitment to white residents and the neglect of its black residents.

At the same time that we consider city-wide processes, our findings also call attention to the particularities of neighborhoods as contributors to racial population dynamics. In some places, the decimation of public housing precipitated massive population decline. In others, gentrification has forced long-term residents out. Several communities have lost schools or health clinics, and many more have been affected by high rates of crime and/or police violence. Across the city, there are dynamic changes within neighborhoods that draw certain groups in and push others out. Aldermen and community leaders must be cognizant of these changes and design inclusive policies to ensure neighborhoods are welcoming and livable places for residents of all  ackgrounds. In gentrifying neighborhoods, this will require ensuring affordable housing. In economically depressed areas, incentives and small business grants may help stimulate economic activity.

When looking more broadly at population trends in the Chicago Metropolitan region, what stands out is that the region has lost a significant number of people since the Great Recession. As a 2019 Chicago Tribune article pointed out, in the past eight years that characterize the recovery from the Great Recession, the collar counties have grown by a total of 38,273. For comparison, in the eight years before 2007 and the start of the Great Recession, the collar counties grew by 428,954 residents. The Chicagoland region, in other words, seems a less favorable destination than it did a decade ago. With employment in the region at its highest levels since the Great Recession and the city of Chicago increasing the number of households making $100,000 or more, perhaps it is more accurate to say that, for those with means, Chicago offers opportunities to thrive. Indeed, it is precisely because of measures such as these that Chicago was one of only four U.S. cities on the latest PricewaterhouseCoopers list of “Cities of Opportunity.” For middle and lowerclass households, however, rather than opportunity, Chicago poses significant 

barriers to upward mobility and is an increasingly unequal and unwelcoming city when compared to other cities and regions.

The aim of this report is to shed light on population trends as one consequence as well as indicator of racial inequity in Chicago. We believe that it is imperative that political leaders and institutions generate equitable policies to reverse the loss of Chicago’s black population and that doing so will improve the lives of all Chicagoans. After all, the decrease in Chicago’s population is an issue that affects all of us; the population of the city determines how state and federal dollars are distributed, the number of representatives in the federal government, the strength of the labor market, school enrollment and resource allocation for education, and the size of the tax base.

As policymakers debate the future of the city, it is crucial that they recognize racial inequity as a central issue shaping the lives of Chicagoans. From the history of residential and economic exclusion to the more recent destruction of public housing, school closings, and the gentrification of neighborhoods, Chicago has always struggled to provide an inclusive home for all individuals. A policy framework that centers racial equity will make Chicago a more desirable place to live not just for current and future black residents but for all Chicagoans.

Black Chicago’s Future Depends, in Part, on Black Community Organizing

By Barbara Ransby

Home is a precious ideal. We romanticize “home” as a place where we are accepted, recognized, comfortable and affirmed. While most homes don’t do all that, we hope they will. At a basic level, home is where we have a sense of belonging. Chicago was once a mecca for Black people fleeing Jim Crow segregation and racial violence in the Southern states. It was never the ideal that many had hoped and dreamed it would be, but to hundreds of thousands, it was indeed home. It was where people raised their families, created neighborhoods, incubated new cultural and art forms, worshiped, protested, and contested for place and power. While some people have packed up and headed to places where they feel they have a better shot at a decent life, others have stayed — fighting to make Chicago a place they can live in and thrive in. 

Health, housing, schools, and jobs are the bread and butter issues that make a city livable for its residents, or not. In Chicago, the cost of housing has skyrocketed, schools and services feel out of reach or only for the few, and surveillance and police violence make some neighborhoods feel under siege even as street level violence, fueled by economic factors, continues to destabilize where poor and working-class Black people live. This report helps to map this trend, and to diagnose some of its causes. Yet, people have not only fled the growing inequality and injustice in the city, but have confronted and resisted it. Community and labor activists have fought hard to make Chicago a more equitable city where everyone has access to good schools, jobs, health, and affordable housing. That fight has occurred on picket lines, in street demonstrations, in City Council chambers, and at the ballot box. The 2019 mayoral race was a testament to movement organizing as the top two contenders leaned into a progressive set of campaign promises in direct response to grassroots organizing in the city.

Three key campaigns have been critical variables in the struggle for who will or will not have a home in the City of Chicago. One is the campaign against gentrification and displacement. The new Obama Presidential Center has been heralded as a feather in the city’s cap but the terms of the deal to build the new multimillion dollar institution on the city’s Southside is key. The project is a partnership between the Obama Foundation, the City, and the University of Chicago. However, the Obama Community Benefits Coalition has been fighting for a community benefits agreement under the banner “push back against being pushed out.” The goal is to insure that inflated rents don’t make the area around the new center unaffordable to current low-income residents, and that new jobs that are created actually benefit those same residents, who are disproportionately Black.

The campaign for quality community schools is another longstanding fight that seeks to make Chicago a livable and comfortable home for working and middle class Black families. When in 2013 then Mayor Rahm Emmanuel closed an unprecedented 50 Chicago public schools, located primarily in Black and Brown neighborhoods, activists went into action redoubling their efforts to defend public education for all of Chicagos’ children. Some were affiliates of the national Alliance to Reclaim our Schools (AROS) and other national and local coalitions. Its not surprising that the recent Chicago Teachers Union strike that included issues of wraparound services for Chicago students had strong parent and youth support. The group hunger strike to keep the predominately Black Dyett High School open was another watershed moment in the campaign for educational equity in the city. Not surprisingly, one of the hunger strikers, local parent and activist Jeanette Taylor, was later elected to City Council from the 20th ward on a progressive and anti-racist campaign platform.

Access to healthcare is a third critical issue for Black Chicagoans. Groups like the faith-based organizers in SOUL (South-siders Organizing for Unity and Leadership) have pushed to re-open closed mental health centers, another example of depleted services, a reality that chases poor Black people out of the city. A coalition of groups including STOP (South-Siders Together Organizing for Power), Kenwood Oakland Community Organization (KOCO) and Fearless Leading by the Youth (FLY) allied with labor groups like the National Nurses Union, joined together to fight for an adult trauma center on the South Side. In 2016 they won that fight. This center will save lives of Black trauma victims that no longer have to be shuttled to the North-Side of the city for care. So, while progress is slow, some victories have been won.

Numerous demonstrations, City Hall sit-ins, street takeovers, and other direct actions have forced the city to address issues of police accountability. Still, much needs to be done. Finally, in addition to petitions, protests, and public hearings, a vibrant arts community is also the heart of Black Chicago life. The Black Arts Movement, the Wall of Respect project, the South-Side Community Art Center, the art-infused Bronzeville neighborhood, and Third World Press are all historic examples of the richness of Chicago’s Black cultural eco-system. Today, life-affirming Black music, spoken word poetry, theater, and dance are still alive and well, but in need of resources and more support. Chicago’s Black community organizations and leaders, in collaboration with other activists, artists, and advocates in the city, have inched the needle forward in terms of the future prospects for Black Chicagoans.


In Pursuit Of Equity

By Alden Loury

I’m hopeful that this report’s detailed and comprehensive analysis of the black population decline in Chicago over the past 40 years will broaden the ways in which we understand this phenomenon — and shape public policy to address it. While we may never know the wide array of explicit reasons why hundreds of thousands of black Chicagoans over the past few decades have decided to no longer make Chicago home, the report makes a rather strong suggestion of the bucket into which we can toss that multitude of individual choices: racial inequality.

As the report notes, when racial inequality in Chicago was lower than many Southern cities in the U.S., black folks flocked to Chicago. And after 1980, when racial inequality in Chicago surpassed its levels in those Southern cities, the black population here began to decline. 

Researchers and policymakers looking for deeper answers and possible remedies for the city’s steep decline in black population should set their sights on racial inequality. And the report’s framing of that inequality in wages and unemployment provide an even clearer target. The report offers a sobering reminder that Chicago is simply a different place for its black residents and black communities on the South and West Sides than it is for its white residents and North Side white communities. 

It’s a fact that can’t be lost on those who set public policy and others who influence it. In an inequitable city, we can’t presume that rising tides will lift all boats. The report references research that Chicago’s impressive downtown job growth hasn’t produced a net gain in employment among South and West Side communities. The report also highlights that the use of tax subsidies to spur development haven’t been equally applied throughout the city.

The end result has been that black residents and black communities haven’t fully benefited from Chicago’s expanding economic base. And while policymakers and civic leaders can stand firm that they haven’t sought to exclude anyone, their benign neglect to the realities of an inequitable city have proven to produce just as much harm. At its worst, Chicago has become a hostile environment for black people — and public policy has played a role. The report highlights clear examples including the city’s massive transformation of public housing, its punitive onslaught of fines and fees, overly aggressive policing, and sweeping closures of public schools. For decades, in some cases, these policies have exacted a great toll on the residents of Chicago’s black 


While those measures were offered as prescriptions to uplift the poor, fill budget holes, prevent crime, and improve education, the disparate impact of those policies on black communities should have been clear. And for that reason, policymakers should’ve treaded lightly. In the case of the city’s Plan for Transformation, its impact on black population loss is dramatic and 

undeniable. To illustrate that point on a granular level, using data from the U.S. Census Bureau, I analyzed black population change for all census tracts in the nation from 1980 to 2010. The analysis showed that Chicago was home to six of the eight most severe cases of black population loss in the nation during that span. And four of those six Chicago census tracts were home to public housing communities. The black population declined by more than 5,000 in each of those public housing census tracts, which included portions of the Robert Taylor, Ida B. Wells, Stateway Gardens, and Rockwell Gardens developments.

Disparate impact on black communities should always serve as a stop sign for policymakers. When private sector actions lead to disparate impact, it’s a sign for policymakers to investigate and to possibly intervene. And when public policy itself can have a disparate impact, policymakers should pause and consider the possible ramifications of their actions.

Even the best of intentions can lead to profound and unintended impact. For the ever-blowing winds of structural racism are strong and often invisible. And black communities seem to be downwind most often. Those winds can serve as an accelerant, breathing oxygen into a spreading fire that can grow beyond our ability to control or contain it — no matter how well-intended our actions may be.

The explicitly racist policies of redlining, restrictive covenants, and contract buying of the past have given way to the disinvestment, gentrification, and subprime lending of today. Even without an explicit aim to discriminate, the actions of government and the private sector often do just that. The group Chicago United for Equity (CUE) has long advocated that the city’s policymakers apply a racial equity lens to all of their major decisions. This report’s connection of racial inequality to the growing exodus of black folks from Chicago should serve as a wake-up call to political, business, and civic leaders.