Chicago was one of the main destinations of the 20th -century Great Migration by Blacks from the Jim Crow. It was a beacon of hope shining south along the tracks of the Illinois Central Railroad to the Delta. But these days, the Second City’s light of hope forBlack children has been nearly extinguished.

this_is_dropout_nation_logoToday the 860,000 African Americans in Chicago are much less than half as likely to have a college education than White residents of the city, more than twice as likely to be unemployed, almost twice as likely not be in the labor force at all, much less likely to be in management or professional occupations, much more likely to be in service occupations. Black household incomes are half those of White households, the poverty rate of Black individuals is more than twice that of White individuals and the poverty rate of Black families nearly three times as high.

By some of these measures life for the descendants of enslaved Africans is better today in Chicago than in Mississippi; in some ways not as good. All in all, it is both a wash and a clarion call for reforming public education and criminal justice systems.

Every Chicago Black age cohort from 25 to 69 years of age shows a deficit of approximately 6,000 males as compared to females in that cohort. Chicago is notorious for the homicides of young Black men. Total homicides in the city vary from 350 to 400 annually: 80 percent of the victims are Black. However, even 300 murders across all age groups account for only a small percentage of the missing working age Black males among Chicago residents. More die from preventable disease. Many of the rest are in jail.

Nearly half of Black residents of the city have incomes below the poverty level; just 13 percent of White residents live in poverty. On the other end of the scale, 20 percent of White families have incomes over $150,000 per year, as compared to just 4 percent of Black families. Over 90 percent of Chicago’s Black households have no net assets apart from small amounts of equity in their own homes: they could not pay an unexpected medical bill of a few hundred dollars without borrowing.

Few Black children in Chicago grow up to have incomes equal to that of their parents, as low as those may be, and most will have lower incomes yet as a result of the concentration of inferior schools, heightened police activity and unemployment. The Second City is also extraordinary in its housing stratification and, thanks to zoned schooling, officially-tolerated segregation. The White/Black “dissimilarity index” for the city, a measure of segregation on which values of 60 or higher are considered very high, was 82.5 in 2010. The result has been that in some cases adjacent census tracts have mirror-image homogenous populations, one 90 percent or more Black, the next 90 percent or more White.

There are two main causes for the vast racial inequities in the city: The public education and criminal justice systems.

Half of the adults in Black Chicago have only a high school diploma or less. Just 18 percent have a Bachelor’s degree or higher. This is crucial: income is directly related to education and, for Black men, incarceration for the 20 percent of that group without a high school diploma is more likely than not. The comparative low educational attainment of Chicago’s Black adults is a consequence of the failures of Chicago Public Schools to provide adequate educational opportunities in schools in serving the city’s black neighborhoods.

Three decades of reform efforts have achieved some progress in improving achievement for Black children. But it hasn’t been enough – especially for young Black men. While 51 percent of White students are reading at grade-level proficiency, according to the National Assessment of Educational Progress, a mere 11 percent of Black students read at grade level.


Chicago was once a gateway out of Southern poverty and segregation. Today, it is a elevated rail into poverty for black children.

The school discipline practices of the district, like those of other districts and school operations in the rest of the nation, add to the barriers to learning for its African American students. Sixty-nine percent of out-of-school suspensions and 71 percent of expulsions are inflicted on the 41 percent of the district’s students who are the descendants of enslaved Africans. Given this failure to teach basic skills and the routine displacement of African American students from the classroom, it is surprising that even slightly more than half of Chicago’s Black students in ninth grade in 2009 graduated with a high school diploma in 2013.

Which brings the question: What is the value of a CPS diploma? What does it really mean? How well prepared are its graduates for college and career?

We can consider career preparation by examining the district’s success in preparing its Black students for Associate’s degrees. The pipeline to an Associate’s degree for Chicago students begins with 18,000 Black students in grade 9, of whom approximately 9,400 are given diplomas four years later. The seven-campus City Colleges of Chicago system admit a third of those. We will assume for the sake of argument that all of those are Chicago school district graduates. (We do this to balance the number who seek Associate’s degrees in other institutions). The City Colleges of Chicago graduate 200 of those Black students it admits; a graduation rate of just 6 percent.

This is a measure of the success of the Chicago public schools in preparing students who are not immediately seeking a four-year college education.

Chicago has many four-year colleges and universities, including some that draw students from the entire world. One with a more local catchment area is Chicago State University, which admits 340 Black first-time degree-seeking undergraduates in a typical year. It graduates 58 of them; a graduation rate for Black students of 17 percent. Again for the sake of argument, we will double the numbers of Chicago State University to represent district graduates who enroll in 4-year colleges. This gives us about 680 Black admissions and 116 graduates with Bachelor’s degrees.

In round numbers, of 18,000 African American ninth-graders in Chicago schools, 200 (or one percent) would be expected to attain Associate’s degrees and half that number (and percentage) would attain baccalaureates. If we multiply these numbers by, say, five, we are still well below 10 percent of district African American students whom the schools have prepared for careers or college.

This is just looking at numbers for local universities. The Consortium on Chicago School Research determined last year that just six percent of young Black men in ninth grader will graduate from college with baccalaureate degrees within 10 years, while 13 percent of their female peers do so. No matter which numbers you look, Chicago Public Schools fails to fulfill the key part of its mission for most of the Second City’s descendants of enslaved Africans.

And then there are the cops and the courts.


For young black men, the Second City isn’t a place to jump for joy. Photo courtesy of the Chicago Tribune.

Illinois imprisons 10 times the proportion of the state’s Black residents as it does its White residents. Almost exactly half of the state’s prisoners are from Cook County, and nearly a third of those are incarcerated for drug offenses, most frequently, possession of a controlled substance (usually marijuana).

Although under a recent law, possession of small amounts of marijuana can be dealt with by a ticket, rather than arrest, the Chicago police almost always make an arrest, rather than issuing a ticket, as is common in the White suburbs. More than three-quarters of those arrested are Black; just five percent are White, non-Hispanic, although it is well-known that drug use is similar in both groups. The Chicago police arrest eight percent of the city’s adult Black men each year. What are the chances that a young Black man in Chicago will avoid arrest by, say, age 30? An arrest record, even one for such a trivial cause, is enormously damaging to the victim. If someone with a conviction on record is seeks a license in, say, teaching or healthcare, their conviction may make them ineligible. This has direct economic effect on Black Chicago, as education and healthcare are among the chief employers of Chicago’s African American workforce.

The drug laws and police practices in relation to them have deleterious consequences beyond arrest for possession. People generally buy drugs from others of their own race or ethnic group, retailers, dealers, who find this employment available when others may be closed to them. They are liable to more severe jail sentences. As disputes in an illegal trade cannot be settled in the courts, they are settled by recourse to the ubiquitous supply of guns. And so forth.

Meanwhile, Chicago’s young White men go to college.

The laws against possession and use of marijuana, cocaine and the rest are arguably in place in order to have the effect that they do in fact have: to criminalize Black men. This is so blatantly obvious that the mere documentation of the operation of these laws is a demonstration of their purpose.

There are at any one time between 30,000 and 40,000 adult Black men from Chicago under the control of the criminal justice system. That’s 15 percent of all of the Second City’s Black men. That is an average, of course; in some Chicago neighborhoods a third or more of the male adults might be under the control of the criminal justice system—unable to find regular employment, liable to be picked up by the police at any moment for trivial violations of parole, unlikely to make enough money to lift their households out of poverty, or to pay the rent for an apartment in a neighborhood with good schools—if they could rent an apartment in a Chicago neighborhood with good schools.

Inequity in Chicago—the caste-like subordination of much of the Black population—is enforced on the one hand by the education system, which prepares fewer than 10 percent of its Black students for success in college or well-paying careers. It is also enforced by the criminal justice system, with which five times as many Black as White men are entangled. A first, simple step toward progress would be to end the unequal enforcement of drug laws. As it is unlikely that this would be accomplished by bringing the arrest rates of White Chicago residents up to those of Black Chicago residents, it most likely would result in thousands of the latter walking free, able to contribute to economies of their families, neighborhoods and the city. (It would also save tens of millions of dollars in costs to the police department.) Ending the unequal enforcement of drug and other laws can be done any day the Mayor wishes to do so, as is happening in New York City.

Increasing the high school graduation rate of Black students in the Chicago public schools to that of White students, or higher, would reduce the pool of undereducated African American men that the state’s prisons draw from by half or more, significantly lowering their incarceration rate, if policing practices are reformed, and increasing labor force participation. An increase in educational attainment will also have strong positive effects on incomes. If the educational attainment of Black adults reaches the current level of White residents of Chicago, those with Bachelor’s degrees or higher will increase by 150,000. This would increase the annual income of Chicago’s Black community by $5.2 billion.

Improving the schools attended by Black children is also quite possible, given the political will. So is reforming Illinois’ criminal justice system. The question, therefore, is not how to bring about the better lives sought by the generation of the Great Migration. It is why are those with the power to do so are not doing it?