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In Englewood, about 60 percent of residents have a high school diploma or equivalent or less, and 57 percent of households earn less than $ 25,000 a year. Streeterville, on the other side of the Chicago sinkhole, has a median income of $ 125,000. The vast majority of residents have at least a university degree; 44% have a master’s degree or more. And, as might be expected, Englewood has long carried an uneven burden of disease. According to the Chicago Department of Public Health, it has one of the highest death rates from heart disease and diabetes in the city, as well as infant mortality rates and children living with high blood lead levels. These differences all lead to this irrefutable racial gap in lifespan.

“It’s very clear that life expectancy is most influenced by geography,” said Dr. Judith L. Singleton, a medical and cultural anthropologist who is leading an ongoing study at Northwestern University on the inequality of life expectancy in Chicago neighborhoods. Her father came to Chicago from New Orleans in the 1930s and settled in Bronzeville. In 1960, his parents bought a house in the far south. After her mother died, she finally moved her father from his home after 40 years due to a lack of services, including nearby grocery stores, and fears for his safety. “If you live in a neighborhood with lots of resources and higher income, your chances of living longer are better – and the opposite is true if your community has few resources,” she says. “There really is something wrong with this.”

Historically, there has been a damning explanation for why poor communities have dilapidated conditions and a dearth of services: not that something is wrong that needs to be fixed, but that something is wrong with it. people and the community themselves. It’s their fault; they did this to themselves by not eating properly, by avoiding medical care, by being uneducated. Almost every time former President Donald Trump has opened his mouth to talk about black communities in Detroit, Baltimore, Atlanta and, yes, Chicago, he has taken up the underlying assumption that black communities in America are uniquely responsible for their own problems. In 2019, during sworn testimony to Congress, former Trump attorney Michael Cohen claimed his boss called Black Chicago with disdain and blame: “As we once walked through a troubled Chicago neighborhood “Trump” commented that only black people could live. that way. ”In 2018, the American Values ​​Survey found that 45% of white Americans believed socio-economic disparities were really about not trying hard enough – and that if black people were doing more of effort, they could be as well off as the Whites.

What really happened was more sinister. On the south side of Chicago, a pattern of intentional, government-approved policies has systematically extracted wealth from black neighborhoods, eroding the health of generations of people, leaving them to live sick and die young.

Like mine, the family of Dr. Eric E. Whitaker traveled a trail from the north of the Mississippi to the south side of Chicago. I met Whitaker, a physician and former director of the Illinois Department of Public Health, in 1991 when I was a Health Communication Fellow at what is now known as the Harvard TH Chan School of Public Health. He was in medical school at the University of Chicago’s Pritzker School of Medicine, taking a year off to earn his master’s degree in public health. After we became friends, we found out that his maternal grandparents owned a three apartment building around the corner from our family home on South Vernon Avenue.

He remembers the area as a prosperous mixed-income neighborhood, a place of comfort, full of life and energy, even though all that remains of his grandparents’ building is a memory and a heap. rubble. “What I remember from my grandparents’ house is the vitality,” said Whitaker, who met his close friend Barack Obama during his year at Harvard while Obama was at Harvard Law School. “There were people on the porches, children playing in the street. It was ambitious. Now you walk through communities like Englewood and see empty lot after empty lot after empty lot. From time to time, I take my children to see where my father is from. When I show them the vacant lot where Grandma’s house was, they think: Wow, that’s sad.

But what Whitaker and I remember with a warm glow wasn’t the whole story. Even as our loved ones began their hopeful new lives in the 1930s, the government sanctioned practice of redlining emerged in response, enforcing segregation, lowering the value of land and property, and seeding divestment and degradation. for over 30 years.

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