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How Systemic Racism Continues To Determine Black Health And Wealth In Chicago

Residents of Chicago's majority- Black Englewood neighborhood (shown above in 2014) have a life expectancy that's about 30 years shorter than residents of the mostly white Streeterville neighborhood.
Warren Skalski
The Washington Post via Getty Images
Residents of Chicago's majority- Black Englewood neighborhood (shown above in 2014) have a life expectancy that's about 30 years shorter than residents of the mostly white Streeterville neighborhood.

There is a 30-year gap in the life expectancies of Black and white Chicagoans depending on their ZIP code. On average, residents of the Streeterville neighborhood, which is 73% white, live to be 90 years old. Nine miles south, the residents of Englewood, which is nearly 95% Black, have a life expectancy of 60.

Journalist Linda Villarosa says the disparity in life expectancies has its roots in government-sanctioned policies that systematically extracted wealth from Black neighborhoods — and eroded the health of generations of people. She writes about her family's own story in The New York Times Magazine article "Black Lives Are Shorter in Chicago. My Family's History Shows Why."

Villarosa says her grandparents, who moved to Chicago from Mississippi during the Great Migration, faced restrictions on where they could live and how they could buy a home. Unable to get a traditional mortgage, her grandfather bought the family home with a contract sale that stipulated he could lose the home if he missed a single payment.

"It wasn't until you made all payments that you owned your home outright. So you really had to be in it for the long haul, and nothing could go wrong or else you could lose your home," she says. "Many of the people at the time bought them at inflated prices. So it was hard to keep up the payments. And you didn't have any equity in your home."

Villarosa says contract sales and other racists policies sucked away wealth and prevented extensive development in Black communities. Soon, Black families began leaving the city; in 1969, when she was 10, Villarosa's family moved to a white suburb in Colorado. Their old neighborhood began to deteriorate.

"That left the community with fewer people," she says. "Health care facilities started to just disappear and schools started to close and jobs dried up, so you saw a neighborhood in decline."

Now, more than 50 years later, the Chicago neighborhood where Villarosa's grandparents once lived is peppered with vacant lots and boarded-up buildings.

"These neighborhoods lack resources. They lack grocery stores. They lack healthy outdoor space. They often lack clean air and clean water and clean land," she says. "If you live in a place like that — that has few resources but also worse conditions — your health suffers."

Interview Highlights

On how banks justified redlining and not giving mortgages to Black families

[Banks] gave ratings of "hazardous" to communities where Black people lived [and] also [to communities] that were subject to pollution. And it wasn't only Black people; it was also some European immigrants — some of [their] neighborhoods also were redlined. But I think because it was a different time and there was the assumption that places where Black people lived, places where immigrants lived, places that ... were near polluting facilities were worth less. ... If the idea is that places where Black people live are worth less, then banks codify that and the government went along with that and didn't try to change it.

On what happens to a community when the middle-class people leave

The community before had been one of mixed income. So you might have someone like my father who was a bacteriologist living next to someone who worked on the railroad, living next to someone who was a clerk at a grocery store, living next to someone who was a nurse. But if the people who were the nurses or the people who were like the bacteriologists and the people who are more educated had more money, had more savings, had more wealth left, then it left the neighborhood with fewer resources and the tax base is worse.

On how being Black in America takes a toll on health

So it kind of works on a whole bunch of levels, and it intersects not just with class and race, but with race itself, separate from class. I look at it in three ways: The first way is if you're Black, even if you are middle class, there is something about the lived experience of being Black in America that weathers the body. And this is the theory of Dr. Arline Geronimus from the University of Michigan. And she believes that the high-effort coping of dealing with racism in America makes the body prematurely aged. And so if your body is older, then you're more susceptible to every kind of health problem. And certainly ... [if you are] struggling economically, it makes everything worse.

Then the communities where we live ... were subject to redlining, were subject to housing covenants, [and] the wealth was sapped away. ... And then finally, there's discrimination in health care that has gone on for centuries. We've known about it. It causes problems when you enter the health care system, and it also causes people to avoid the health care system. And that includes avoiding a COVID-19 vaccine. It includes avoiding doctor visits and avoiding even checkups and tests that you need to be healthy.

On racist beliefs that medical professionals have held about differences in Black and white bodies

There was a myth — and I say "myth," but it was not exactly a myth because it was widely believed by physicians and scientists, especially in the South during the years of slavery — that Black people had extremely high pain tolerance. You could whip Black people, you could work Black people from sunup to sundown, you could torture [them], and there was just a lack of feeling there. It wasn't the same kind of feeling. But also that Black people had less emotional pain, that you could take children away, that you could break up families, and it just didn't mean much. ...

Those beliefs ... helped scaffold slavery to say, "What we're doing here is fine because there's a physiological issue that is keeping Black people from really experiencing the pain the way white people do." So then the throughline to today was that many of these myths are still believed. And so I focused on a study that was from 2016, which really isn't that long ago. It was in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, and it asked white medical students about different myths. So the idea that Black people have nerve endings that are less sensitive, that Black people's blood coagulates more quickly, that Black people's skin is thicker and that Black people feel less pain. And most of the white medical students and residents believed at least one of the myths. So that's really bad. And that wasn't the only one. There were many other studies.

Amy Salit and Kayla Lattimore produced and edited the audio of this interview. Bridget Bentz, Molly Seavy-Nesper and Acacia Squires adapted it for the web.

Copyright 2021 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.

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