State of Racial Justice in Chicago Blog

When faced with a large or complex social problem, a common belief is that “if only we could get the right people in the same room, then we could come up with a solution.” In May of 2017, we had just published our State of Racial Justice in Chicago Report. Its data and analysis offered a stark and troubling picture of racial and ethnic disparities between whites, blacks, and Latinxs in relation to housing, economics, education, justice, and health over the last half century. The report’s central finding was that racial inequity in Chicago remains “pervasive, persistent, and consequential.” Although the picture of racial inequity it presented was daunting, we knew that there were many smart and dedicated individuals and organizations actively working in Chicago to transform this reality. What insights could they offer if we brought them all together? We decided to find out.

So, on May 19th of 2017, the Institute for Research on Race and Public Policy held a leadership summit. We brought together over 100 policymakers, scholars, community organizers, professionals, and activists — all leaders in Chicago passionate about social justice — to discuss the report, the work they were doing, and what it would mean to imagine solutions. The leadership summit featured two panels and numerous roundtable discussions that reflected on the report and its broader implications for racial justice efforts. Participants shared their perspectives, offered critical insights, and discussed strategies to address racism in its various manifestations and the enduring and entrenched legacy of racial inequity. While the adage quoted above assumes that bringing the right people into the same room will produce a solution, we found (not surprisingly) that the problem of racial inequity doesn’t have a simple or single solution. This doesn’t mean that it has no solution, or that we didn’t learn anything important at the leadership summit.

Here, we report back on the discussions that took place at the leadership summit. We show what happens when you bring over 100 leaders from Chicago into the same room and have them discuss the state of racial inequity in Chicago. Reviewing notes and transcripts from the dialogues that took place at the summit, we found three common themes that emerged in participants’ conversations.

First, individuals spoke often about the importance of connections between leaders, communities, and residents as a basis for effective organizing. The importance of focusing on connections also came up when participants discussed how issues related to racial inequities are interrelated. Participants lamented that many groups work in silos or focus narrowly on one issue. This prevents them from addressing the connections between housing and health, for example. They also noted that racial inequity is connected with other systems of power such as class, gender, and dis/ability.

The second theme that came up at the summit was gaps. While the State of Racial Justice in Chicago Report provided a wealth of information on racial inequities in Chicago, its focus on data on whites, blacks, and Latinxs meant an incomplete picture of the racialized experiences of other Chicagoans, such as Asian-American and Arab-Americans. Participants discussed how the focus on the last half-century also meant that the deep historical roots of these inequities were not always visible, complicating any discussion of solutions. A further gap involved pointing out that the focus on analyzing racial inequities meant highlighting critical deficits that communities face, but did not provide space to assess the assets that communities also have. Finally, participants also noted that solutions to racial inequities in Chicago require a regional perspective that accounts for racial dynamics beyond the city borders.

The third theme we noticed centered on the challenges that we face in efforts towards racial justice. These included: the need to listen to and develop future leaders from the communities most impacted; how to change systems of government and hold them accountable and responsible to communities; understanding and addressing the complex relationship between race and class, including an honest conversation about integration as a solution to segregation; and, finally, the continued challenges created by the trauma of racial oppression.

In these “Post-Summit Report” blog posts, we will provide more detail on each of the main themes emerging from the dialogue. To do so, we draw heavily on the detailed notes made by IRRPP staff and volunteers during the summit. That said, we want to be clear that the reflections drawn here are ours alone. Surely, each participant at the leadership summit walked away with unique insight from the day that differ to some degree from what we write about here. Our intention in these blogs is to keep the conversation going so that the questions posed, plans made, and lessons learned at the summit are not forgotten but contribute to further collective efforts to advance racial justice.

Posted on February 2, 2018