Chicago Trending Brown: Black-Latino Relations, 1990-2010

A promise from the [Chicago Housing Authority] . . . if they promise you something you better look at your other hand to make sure it’s still there.

— Beauty Turner of the Residents’ Journal (1)

Obviously the Chicago Housing Authority and Chicago’s African American community have not enjoyed a particularly healthy relationship. The CHA’s legendary mismanagement and its role in establishing Chicago’s housing patterns have not endeared it to the hearts of many in the Black community. Though as sociologist Sudhir Venkatesh illustrated in American Project some of the housing projects in their initial decade accomplished the goal to which they were created: quality housing was supplied and the residents enjoyed a relatively safe community. However, the 1960s disinvestment, civil unrest, and a shifting economy began the decline in housing standards. By the 1980s conditions had collapsed to the extent that even when the CHA had resources they failed to reach residents. In one famous incident, literally 2000 appliances, never used, were found rotting in a basement in the Henry Horner homes – appliances many of the residents desperately needed. (2)

If the Chicago Housing Authority (CHA) has a troubled history in regards to Black Chicago, their experience with the city’s bursting Latino population reveals a studied negligence. Few episodes reveal its struggles more clearly than the 1994 lawsuit brought by Latinos United. Well before 1994 CHA residents were nearly uniformly black. Mexicans and Mexican Americans had been a small but significant population for decades, by the 1980s, Pilsen and Little Village emerged as hubs of Chicago’s Mexican community. While the Mexican population grew steadily in the 1980s, it exploded in the 1990s with some observers estimating that their numbers exceeded one million persons during the decade. By 2000, Latinos constituted 26% (753,644) of the city’s total population with the vast majority of those hailing from Puerto Rico or Mexico. [Author’s note: As in other cities, Chicago’s undocumented population is probably quite large leading to higher estimates than reported census figures.] Despite this demographic growth, by 1994 they made up roughly only 2.25% of the CHA population .(3) Some officials, such as chief operating officer Robert Whitefield, argued that far fewer Latinos applied for vacancies. As Whitefield claimed, “It’s one thing if 45 percent are applying and only 2 percent are accepted . . . But a small number are applying and a slightly smaller number actually participate.” (4) In a later interview, Whitefield ironically blamed past CHA policies for the paucity of Latinos in its housing, saying “the reason so few Latinos apply or live in CHA development is because HUD and CHA years ago engaged in racial site selection by locating most of the family public housing in all black, poor neighborhoods.” (5) However five years prior in 1989, several leading Latino advocacy groups, including Latinos United, pressured the CHA to sign an agreement in which the CHA would attempt to raise Latino occupation in its units to 25 percent. (6)

It did not work. Despite estimates placing nearly 25 percent of the city’s Latinos at the poverty level, their presence in CHA housing remained a paltry 2.25%. (7) As further evidence of CHA indifference, critics pointed to the CHA’s workforce where Latinos made up fewer than 2% of employees. (This reflects a well known trend. Studies show Latinos do better in private sector employment but that African Americans attain much higher rates of government employment). Thus when several advocacy groups brought a 1994 lawsuit against the CHA and HUD for housing discrimination, few observers should have been surprised.

Settling the suit a year later, HUD promised to set “aside 500 section 8 vouchers, worth about 19 million and provide more than one million in counseling to help Latinos use the vouchers.” (8) While the suit did bring increased numbers of Latinos into its “scattered site” programs, boosting participation in the section 8 program from 3% to 12%, the rise coincided with an increase in the number of Latinos eligible for housing, which, in 2005, rose from 25% in 1994 to 33% (9). Moreover, the settlement’s provisions had been undoubtedly influenced by a HUD report that described the CHA’s section 8 plan as “in disarray and riddled with corruption.” (10) The city’s housing authority reported a 15 year waiting list for section 8 applicants. Unsurprisingly, one CHA insider noted “people were being moved around on waiting lists. If you knew someone or paid someone off, you may only have to wait two months to get a certificate; if you didn’t, you may die before you get to the top.” (11) In addition, the same report suggested some landlords had paid off “CHA inspectors to overlook maintenance violations.” (12)

Within the city’s two largest Latino communities, Mexican and Puerto Rican residents expressed skepticism toward public housing. At a 1993 public meeting, Pilsen and Humboldt Park (a community long recognized as the center of the Puerto Rican community, though there is some debate about how many Puerto Rican Chicagoans have been displaced due to gentrification) residents voiced their doubts regarding CHA public housing plans. Few wished to occupy vacancies in the high rises. Some harbored clear prejudices regarding public housing residents; as one factory worker from predominantly Mexican Pilsen remarked, “If the CHA were to open apartments in ABLA [a public housing project near the Pilsen community] to Latinos ‘I’d wake up dead’.” (13) Still, many at the same meeting said that rent subsidies or scattered site units appealed to them.

However, even this proved to be contentious in moments. One year prior to the lawsuit, the CHA hoped to build 130 scattered site units in noted the previously mentioned Puerto Rican neighborhood Humboldt Park. Residents and members of the West Humboldt Park Fair Housing Coalition (WHPFHC) opposed the idea since “dumping 130 scattered site units in a small seven by two block area is contrary to the federal mandate and will create a racially segregated and economic ghetto,” noted a WHPFHC spokesman. (14) Echoing the complaints of blacks in the 1960s and especially during the Gautreaux lawsuits, residents demanded to know why scattered site units were not being placed in more affluent white communities.. (15)

The CHA continued to illustrate an inability to construct scattered site housing in white communities, leading it to place such residences in predominantly Latino and black communities. “Most scattered site housing has gone into Uptown, South Shore, South Chicago, and three predominantly Latino areas on the Northwest Side,” the Sun Times reported in 1994. “Meanwhile, upscale, predominantly white communities such as Lincoln Park and Beverly have none because it’s hard to stay under the spending limit . . . in those white communities.” Lamented one resident, “It’s always minority neighborhoods they put it in . . . why can’t they make white neighborhoods take them too?” (16)

How did this debate affect relations between the Latino and Black community? The media chose to portray it in terms of conflict. One headline in the Chicago Sun-Times read “Latinos, Blacks Draw CHA Battle Lines” . (17) Such articles quoted activists and leaders from both communities highlighting conflict. Hipolito Ramirez of the Humboldt Park community group Block Club Federation remarked, “This is not about wanting to live together . . . This is about getting our fair share,” while Francine Washington, a long time resident of public housing countered “I’ve been waiting a long time for one of those scattered site units myself . .. I don’t hear them talking about moving into Stateway, Robert Taylor, or Rockwell. Stateway’s got vacancies. They’re welcome to move into my building any day.” (18) Black elected officials also voiced concern as US House Democrat Charles Hayes cautioned in 1989, five years prior to the suit, “I don’t agree with circumventing and jumping over people who have been on the waiting list, regardless of their nationality. Dividing up scarcity is not the answer.” (19)

The city viewed the conflict as serious enough to devote its Human Relations Commission to mediating aspects of the division. Of course, some of this intervention was done to avoid the lawsuit itself, but once that failed, it moved to reduce tensions between the two communities. Its commissioner Clarence Wood encouraged the two groups to “redirect resentments toward failed public housing rather than each other.” (20) Gentrification of city communities and a scarcity of affordable quality housing drove such tensions, but long term resentments harbored by some Blacks toward the Latino community contributed in some respects. As several sociologists noted, a perception among some in the African American community suggested some blacks believed Latinos had leapfrogged their position in society without having to face the same levels of discrimination and racism.

A 1992 “survey” conducted by the Metro Chicago Information Center “found Latinos less likely to favor integration than either African Americans or whites.” (21) In 2006, Duke released “Racial Distancing in a Southern City: Latino Immigrants Views of Black Americans.” The study found that Latinos identified more closely with whites than they did African Americans. One of the more disturbing aspects of the report suggested that even when Latinos lived within the same community as blacks, prejudices or preconceived notions regarding African Americans hardened with increased interaction. (22) Thus increased interaction, a strategy frequently promoted as a tool to bridge gaps in understanding between communities failed to reduce bias, rather such interaction worsened stereotypes. Sun Times journalist Monroe Anderson commented on the article’s findings, recalling an old African American folk saying, “’If you’re white, you’re right. If you’re brown, stick around. But if you’re black, get back.” (23)

This tension between the two communities is not new. Nicolas Vaca’s Presumed Allaince: The Unspoken Conflict Between Latinos and Blacks and What It Means for America explored this conflict locating several examples of contention between the two groups throughout the latter half of the 20th century. Similar to Chicago whites’ increased racism in response to the sudden influx of African Americans during the Great Migrations, blacks mirrored this attitude to some extent as the tide of Mexican immigration washed over the city. Vaca points to prejudices held by both groups toward the other as evidence of biases in each community. However, unlike the Great Migration in which Blacks were long citizens, a significant portion of the Latino community in Chicago is not, thus, adding a dynamic that had been previously absent. The CHA housing conflict in 1994 illustrates well the undercurrent of ethnic/racial tension between the two communities. Limited housing resources due in part to historical housing patterns that had been established by institutional and government sponsored segregation, squeezed two communities both with significant populations living below the poverty line. Economic development driven by market forces and public policy but manifested in white gentrification of previously “ethnic” neighborhoods applied further pressure.

Several forces drive tensions. The perception among some blacks, that Latinos undercut African American wage earners by working for less, dominates one strain of thought in the community. Second, African Americans view the private sector’s favoritism toward Latino labor as an insult, implying that blacks somehow are lazy. As one interviewee complained, “Mexicans are doing the jobs Americans don’t want to do. Well what jobs are they doing? The [worst] jobs around. The implication is that blacks are too lazy to do the job.” (24)

Activists in Chicago such as Bronzeville’s Beauty Turner argue that the “system [favors] immigrants over people who were born here.” Community leader and long time Bronzeville resident, Harold Lucas recalled as a youth, he could find work at Chicago’s famous Palmer House but that today such jobs are dominated by Hispanics. Underscoring this dynamic Mr. Lucas remarked “there is not a good relationship in Chicago between blacks and [Latinos].” (25) Loyola University sociologist Philip Nyden suggested that when studying economic indicators, Latinos seemed to be “leapfrogging” blacks and that rising immigration, especially in the Chicago region, has begun to concern blacks. Chicago’s black population remained relatively flat in 2000, declining by slightly less than 2%, whereas the Latino population has boomed. With this increase, Latinos, most notably the Mexican community has become more active, demanding more electoral representation. Initially, these seats in the city council came at the expense of the black community, but University of Illinois-Chicago political scientist Dick Simpson noted that upcoming aldermanic races would begin to whittle away at white seats. According to Simpson, based on the percentage of the population, Latinos are underrepresented. As for the usual argument that prescribes the deficiency in elected representation to a lack of citizenship, youthful population, and political apathy, Simpson disagreed: “I don’t buy that . . . [Proportional] political representation for every other group” is based on population figures so why would it be “any different for Latinos?” (26) Daley’s creation of the Hispanic Democratic Organization in 1993, a precinct organization that fundamentally acts as a patronage machine, won converts support from the Latino community. Corruption scandals in the mid 2000s involving HDO furthered the black community’s concerns. A decline in the number of black city contractors reached its lowest level in years, which coincided with a rise in Latino firms receiving municipal work. So without even bridging the discussion of race and perceptions of race three factors already can be seen as influencing relations between the two communities: available housing, employment, and political representations.

Racial issues remain a salient factor in the discussion. When discussing Chicago Latinos, one must distinguish between the Puerto Rican and Mexican communities. Issues of citizenship divide the two communities. Moreover, Puerto Ricans have a longer and more diverse relationship with the city. Politically, the Puerto Rican community awakened during the 1966 Humboldt Park uprising creating a visible presence in the city’s public sphere. Following these early steps, they entered the electoral arena. Thus, they have participated in the city’s political world for some time whereas Mexicans are newer to the city’s political life. For example, the city’s most powerful Latino politician, Congressman Luis Guiterrez, is a Puerto Rican. Spatially, the Puerto Rican population remains dispersed across the city enabling it to interact more with blacks and other ethnic groups. Though Humboldt Park remains a symbol of the Chicago Puerto Rican identity, it contains a level ethnic/racial absent in many of the city’s Mexican American neighborhoods most notably Pilsen.

Columbia anthropologist Nick De Genova documented aspects of this community in Working the Boundaries: Race, Space and “Illegality” in Mexican Chicago. De Genova argues that Mexican immigrants locate themselves somewhere between “whiteness and blackness and produc[e] collective understandings of themselves and their own “Mexican”-ness that were preeminently racialized.” (27) He goes on to explain that some Mexican migrants view African Americans as “lazy.” The idea of welfare “was typically equated in both Mexican/migrant as well as hegemonic public discourse with “dependency” and was routinely invoked by Mexican migrants as a supposedly self-evident manifestation of laziness.” (28)

If one concedes that American society remains to some extent institutionally racist, the question then is how much do Mexican immigrants inherit upon immigration into the U.S. and how much of it do they bring with them? The Duke Study pointed out that researchers found a correlation between the reduction of racism and the presence of an established Latin American community. This suggests that Mexican immigrants bring with them certain preconceptions about race that are somehow blunted by longer established Mexican/Mexican American migrants and citizens.

Of course, segments of African American community exhibit their own prejudices. Some African Americans view Mexicans as transient interlopers. Though a large portion of the Latino community in the Chicago region recently immigrated (47%), an even larger portion has resided in or around the windy city for decades. Second, the assumption that all Latinos immigrated ignores the fact that Puerto Ricans have citizenship and are not immigrants. Former Mayor Jane Byrne’s proclamation that Chicago’s main problem was “all the illegal Puerto Ricans” illustrates ignorance surrounding these issues. Undoubtedly, some African Americans, notably those lacking high school degrees, do compete with many Latinos for employment. Despite this, according to the same Duke study, unlike Latinos, blacks share a sense of ”linked fate” meaning they identify more with Latinos than whites and see the future of the black – Latino community as traveling on a related course.

However, public policies, the city’s long established pattern of segregation, and organization of gangs along racial/ethnic lines have increased tensions in recent years. The recent housing debacle only made matters worse. In the late summer of 2008, the Chicago Lawn community organized a “weekend of ‘unity’ events” meant to bridge interaction between Latino and Black young people. Spats of gun violence terrorized the community, as residents reported armed 12 and 13 year olds. HOPE VI redevelopment had displaced many former public housing residents into the Chicago Lawn neighborhood while Latino immigrants also began to move into the area. The housing crisis contributed to this decline as the Chicago Tribune reporter Antonio Olivio described Chicago Lawn as a once stable area where “homeowners fight against foreclosure and drugs creep on to schoolyards.” (29)

The 2008 Democratic primary between Barack Obama and Hilary Clinton provides at least the suggestion that in addition to the social distance between the groups they differ politically. Chicago’s Latino voters clearly preferred Clinton as Juan Rangel, chief executive officer of the powerful Latino organization, United Neighborhood Organization (UNO) noted, “Not only did Obama lose Chicago’s more progressive Latino 22nd and 25th Wards, but he also lost the majority of U.S. Rep. Luis Gutierrez’s 4th Congressional District. Latinos, heavily Mexican, also denied Obama a win in the former white ethnic enclaves of the 10th, 12th, 13th and 14th Wards.” (30) Rangel went on to declare the assumption of a black brown alliance as little more than “myth.” According to Rangel, even the most famous example of such interracial unity withered under scrutiny. The 1983 multiracial coalition constructed by Harold Washington, the city’s first and only elected black mayor, actually featured far less support from Latino voters. Rangel argued that Chicago’s first black mayor had “lost the Latino vote in the earlier primary,” he continued, “in fact, Latinos in that primary race were split between Mayor Jane Byrne and Cook County State’s Atty. Richard M. Daley.” In the end, Rangel argued the two communities “share very little in common. They face different challenges, are products of different histories and experiences, yet they’re lumped together in public debate without much thought.” (32)

All this is not to say conflict is inevitable. The role of Chicago’s entrenched municipal government certainly deserves a great deal of blame. Undoubtedly racist, Richard J. Daley treated the black population at best poorly and at worst criminally. One need only to point to the spatial lay out of the Robert Taylor homes, bordered by a highway that prevented expansion or connection to any white areas, for evidence. Martin Luther King’s civil rights attempt another.

Daley did not have to be overtly racist or obviously corrupt to achieve such negative results. If many argue that the current Mayor Daley (Richard M. Daley) has restructured the machine along lines of regional and transnational corporate businesses while privatizing parking lots and freeways, his father had shown him the way. In 1989, the Chicago Reader’s David Morbert described the machine as one not of “pinky rings and tavern owners, but one of alligator briefcases and law-firm partners.” Moberg acknowledged the connections between this new machine and the municipal government would be “less direct but more lucrative.” Dick Simpson, political scientist and former alderman, concurred. “By the late 60s, if you had a multimillion-dollar contract, it was more of an alliance between institutions and political leaders,” Simpson said. “It wasn’t paying $500 and getting a vote. It was a knitting together of institutions, but businesses made sure Daley knew they had contributed to the party and to the mayor.” (33) It is not too hard to guess which groups were not part of the institutions and businesses favored by Mayor Daley. Unlike his father, the current Mayor Daley has established strong connections to Latino voters, and though his support in Black communities has risen, voter participation in city elections frequently dip into the low 30s. During the 1990s, voter participation in some of the city’s poorer black wards dropped below 30%. Moreover, though his father sometimes struggled to put out ethnic uprisings, such as Polish American insurgent Benjamin Adamowski, he never faced the delicate balancing act of his son as Chicago’s 2000 census illustrated its majority minority status: 41.7% White, 26% Latino (any race), and 36.77 Black. [Author’s note -see here for Bill Rankin’s map on the city’s racial spatialization.] Racial complexities aside, the political mix such demographics produce run the gamut ranging from inspirational unity to tragic division to coma like stasis.

However, the recent announcement that Daley will step down at the end of current term, suggests changes are in the works. Recently, the New York Times spoke to democratic strategist Kitty Kurth who pointed out Daley’s support among business donors was based on familiarity (“they knew him”) and intimidation, “quite honestly because they were threatened a little bit. But trying to get them to invest in a new mayoral product is going to be pretty tough.” Rahm Emmanuel and the aforementioned Luis Gutierrez have been mentioned as likely front runners. With the city’s demographics and first open mayoral contest since 1989, the victorious candidate might require cooperation between its Black-Brown residents, an alliance that in Chicago, has seemed ethereal.

Ryan Reft


1) Beauty Turner interview with author, 26 March 2007.

2) Kotlowitz, Alex, There are No Childeren Here: The Story of Two Boys Growing Up in the Other America, (Anchor Books: New York, 1991), 239.

3) Chicago Tribune, “New Directions at CHA,” 8 June 1995.

4) Chicago Tribune, “CHA Neglecting Hispanics, Group Charges,” 11 January 1994.

5) Chicago Tribune, “Suit Alleges CHA Segregation Hispanics Cite Discrimination,” 1 March 1994.

6) Chicago Tribune, “Bigger CHA Share Sought by Hispanics,” 20 June 1989.

7) Chicago Tribune, “Bigger CHA Share Sought by Hispanics,” 20 June 1989.

8) Chicago Tribune, “HUD Settles Latino Bias Suit”, 9 June 1995.

9) Juanita Irizarry interview with author, 10 April 2007

10) Chicago Sun Times, “HUD Hits Lane’s Voucher Fiasco,” 28 May 1995.

11) Chicago Sun Times, “HUD Hits Lane’s Voucher Fiasco,” 28 May 1995

12) Chicago Sun Times, “HUD Hits Lane’s Voucher Fiasco,” 28 May 1995

13) Chicago Tribune, “Bigger CHA Share Sought by Hispanics,” 20 June 1989.

14) Chicago Sun Times, “Scattered Site Plan Angers Humboldt,” 11 December 1993.

15) Chicago Sun Times, “Scattered Site Plan Angers Humboldt,” 11 December 1993

16) Chicago Sun Times, “South Chicago Residents Say No to CHA Units,” 30 November 1994.

17) Chicago Sun Times, “Latinos, Blacks Draw CHA Battle Lines,” 8 March 1998.

18) Chicago Sun Times, “Latinos, Blacks Draw CHA Battle Lines,” 8 March 1998

19) Chicago Tribune, “Bigger CHA Share Sought by Hispanics,” 20 June 1989

20) Chicago Sun Times, “City Targets Black-Latino Housing Rift,” 9 March 1994.

21) Chicago Sun Times, “Latinos, Blacks Draw CHA Battle Lines,” 8 March 1998

22) McClain, Paula et al, “Racial Distancing in a Southern City: Latino Immigrants Views of Black Americans, Journal of Politics, 68 August 2006, 9.

23) Chicago Sun Times, “Mexican Immigrants Bring Negative Images of Blacks,” 23 July 2006.

24) Monroe Anderson interview with the author 27 March 2007.

25) Harold Lucas interview with author 6 April 2007.

26) Dick Simpson interview with author March 2007.

27) De Genova, Nicholas, Working the Boundaries: Race, Space, and “Illegality” in Mexican Chicago (Duke University Press: Durham, 2005), 141.

28) De Genova, Nicholas, Working the Boundaries, 194.

29) Olivio, Antonio, Chicago Tribune, “Chicago Lawn Tries to Curb Violence,” August 15, 2008.

30) Rangel, Juan, “Challenging the Coalition Myth,” Chicago Tribune, March 10, 2008.

31) Rangel, Juan, “Challenging the Coalition Myth,” Chicago Tribune, March 10, 2008.

32) Rangel, Juan, “Challenging the Coalition Myth,” Chicago Tribune, March 10, 2008.

33) Moberg, David, “The Fuel of the New Machine,” Chicago Reader, March 30 1989.

34) Libit, Daniel, “Running for Mayor without the Machine’s Muscle,” New York Times, Sept 26 2010.