In chapter four of his book City of Rhetoric, David Fleming explains how American Ghettos were intentionally created and used to systematically oppress racial or ethnic groups through the example of African Americans in Chicago. Chicago is used to illustrate Flemings arguments because the city’s “extreme spatial manifestation of [its socio economic] subjugation” makes it a prime example of an American Ghetto (65).
Fleming explains how Chicago’s segregation was intentional by describing it’s ghetto’s formation. In the 1800’s slaves travelling on the Underground Railroad formed a neighborhood on the South branch of the Chicago River, however racist attitudes discouraged them from moving into white neighborhoods in the North, East and West parts of the city. By 1908, a group called the “Improvement Club” was created to keep African Americans confined the South Side by petitioning for segregated schools and blacklisting real estate agencies that allowed black residents move into white neighborhoods. Their efforts resulted in African Americans increasingly confined to areas where housing conditions were poor, in what is called “the black belt” (68-69).
Fleming then uses different events in history to illustrate how the city’s ghettos were utilized to isolate and oppress African Americans. During The Great Migration following World War I, Chicago’s black population more than doubled during this time as farmers in the South moved north to fill industry jobs created by the war. Chicago’s African American population dramatic increase caused white residents to fear an overflow of the black belt into their neighborhoods. This resulted in attacks on the black population including destruction of their homes and businesses. Not only did white violence keep the increasing black population confined, but Chicago’s Real Estate Board created covenants restricting African Americans from moving into white neighborhoods (73). A similar migration of African Americans to Chicago occurred after World War II. However, a building boom allowed for middle class white families to move to the suburbs. This dramatic shift in demographics allowed for the black belt to expand West and further South resulting in what is called “the second ghetto” (75). Fleming argues that although the size of the ghetto increased, the black population remained segregated due to white violence, urban renewal, and public housing. By the late 1960’s there was a massive decrease in manufacturing jobs resulting in severe underemployment in Chicago’s ghettos and increasing poverty. As these areas deteriorated, middle class African Americans fled. By the mid 1990’s Chicago’s ghettos were a site of extreme poverty (87).
The history of Chicago’s ghettos illustrate how racism drove residents and policy makers to isolate and confine African American populations, and economic changes in the country restricted these people’s socioeconomic mobility resulting in a cycle of poverty.
Fleming, David. “Ghetto.” City of Rhetoric: Revitalizing the Public Sphere in Metropolitan America. Albany, NY: SUNY, 2009. 65-90. Print.