As I look around the city, I don’t see fewer Black people on the streets of Chicago, but that isn’t what the 2010 Census found. According to the Census, the city has lost some 200,000 people since 2000, as reported last week, primarily due to

As I look around the city, I don’t see fewer Black people on the streets of Chicago, but that isn’t what the 2010 Census found. According to the Census, the city has lost some 200,000 people since 2000, as reported last week, primarily due to what some are calling a “historic” drop in the Black population.

The number of Black residents fell from 1.065 million to 888,000 while the population for Hispanics rose slightly and remained about the same for whites. Sadly, that is all we know at this point. We don’t know anything about the people who left or why Chicago’s Black community is shrinking. In the interest of federal funding for educational programs, law enforcement, community-based assistance and highway projects that will be diverted elsewhere, we must find out.

There are countless theories circulating in the media and the blogosphere. Some say the high cost of living in Chicago, from sales and property tax rates to “the parking meter fiasco,” has led to a mass exodus of people who would rather leave than go broke.

In one blog post, the author suspected the government’s “plan” to relocate Blacks to the south suburbs and take over minority voting districts, years in the making, had finally been realized. Then, there is another theory – this one makes me drop my head – that a large number of Black people did not fill out and return the census form. (Please, say it isn’t so?)

We may never know what really happened. It’s too late to ask the people who left. But my gut feeling tells me that none of these explanations are dead on. Take the high cost of living, for instance. People of all races and ethnicities in Chicago are affected by it. Why would Black people be more inclined to leave than other groups?

Whether you believe the conspiracy theory or not, the outcomes are eerily parallel. The 2010 Census results will most likely have an impact on election outcomes and district remapping. The four smallest congressional districts in the state are represented by minority congressmen. All are in Chicago and all but one, Luis Gutierrez, is Black.

So what is happening here? Did a bunch of Black people move away? Are more Black people dying, or are they having fewer children? Or more people identifying as biracial or multiracial now that that is an option on the Census form?

Or is it true that a lot of people simply failed to fill out the form?

I recall reading several commentaries last year, including in the pages of this newspaper, imploring Black Chicagoans to fill out and return the Census forms, arguing what was at stake. When I think back to the record numbers of us that voted in the 2008 election, it is hard for me to reconcile that so many would be lax about something as easy to do as returning a Census form.

However, if apathy is the real reason those numbers are down then we do have a real problem in the Black community. Apathy is repairable, but only in theory. In fact, it might be easier to get people to move back than to get some people to actually fill out and mail the form.

There is another possibility, drawn from a controversy last year that involved the use of the word “Negro” along with “Black” and “African American” on the Census form to describe race. Some cautioned that younger Blacks might take offense to the word and refuse to fill out the form. Census officials warned that more than 50,000 people actually wrote in “Negro” on the 2000 Census. To be certain, the Census Bureau included a survey in last year’s package to assess opinions on whether “Negro” should remain or be removed. The survey was meant to help the bureau make a decision about whether to use “Negro” on subsequent surveys and the 2020 Census.

It is an interesting hypothesis but, again, nearly impossible to prove. The foreclosure crisis and its disproportionate impact on the Black community is certainly one quantifiable explanation to take into account.

Tragically, it’s too late to do anything about the 2010 Census. By the time the next Census rolls around, communities in greatest need of resources will have had to work with even less for a full decade. Gaps in funding will require organizations such as the Chicago Urban League that provide job training, career assistance, entrepreneurial counseling, youth and adult education programs and human capital development to dig even deeper to locate additional resources to meet the needs of the people we serve. Chicago, those of us who remain are going to have to pool our resources together and commit to doing our part to build and sustain communities to make up the difference.

Apathy, like the economy, runs in cycles. Let’s not make it a vicious one.

Andrea L. Zopp is president and CEO of the Chicago Urban League.

comments – Add Yours