U.S. Representative Danny Davis sits in his west side congressional office, long ago the headquarters of Sears Roebuck & Co., and watches black Chicago slip away.
The third-largest U.S. city lost 17 percent of its black population -- 181,000 people -- in the past decade, according to the Census Bureau. In their place, Hispanics gained 25,000, or 3.3 percent. To explain the seismic shift those numbers represent in economic and political power, Davis drew on the words of Chicago blues legend Buddy Guy.
“While you’re steppin’ out, somebody else is steppin’ in,” said Davis, 69, an eight-term congressman and pillar of Chicago’s black political establishment.
In the city that drew waves of blacks during the Great Migration of the early 20th century, their descendants barely remain the largest racial or ethnic group, at 32.4 percent. Blacks earn less and are more likely to live in poverty than Hispanics, who make up almost 30 percent of Chicago, a city of 2.7 million that lost 6.9 percent of its population since 2000.
The reversal of fortunes for the two groups is echoed nationwide, where blacks have fallen to 12.6 percent of the total U.S. population of 308.7 million, and Hispanics have risen to 16.3 percent. Hispanics are also outpacing blacks economically: Their median household income rose 21.6 percent in the decade to $40,946, compared with $34,445 for blacks.
Black lawmakers in Illinois and other states have managed to hold onto most legislative and congressional districts by giving up their supermajority numbers. The proportion of blacks in Davis’s district will drop to just more than 50 percent from 65 percent, according to a map approved by the Illinois General Assembly on May 31.
The mapmakers didn’t eliminate the growing tension between blacks and Hispanics, who are pushing for boundaries they say would better reflect their population gains.
“There’s no place to divide us up anymore,” said U.S. Representative Luis Gutierrez, whose Hispanic-dominant, horseshoe-shaped district wraps around Davis’s in the center of Chicago.
The Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund criticized state legislative boundaries for failing to “create a sufficient number of districts for Latino electoral opportunities.” Nina Perales, the group’s vice president for litigation, stopped short of saying it would challenge the map in court as it has successfully in the past.
Reversing Great Migration
The population shift in Chicago is part of a nationwide phenomenon of blacks moving out of cities and into suburbs or reversing the Great Migration and returning to Southern U.S. states, William Frey, a demographer and senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, wrote in a May 4 report.
“There’s a national trend of black suburbanization, a new generation of African-Americans who both have more opportunity and don’t see their future living in cities, like their parents and grandparents,” Frey said in a telephone interview from Washington.
The dispersal of the black population may dilute traditional voting clusters, Frey said.
“As blacks become more a part of the mainstream of American voters, not only geographically but economically, those kinds of older blocs will be melted down,” he said.
For the first time, Hispanics now outnumber blacks and represent the largest minority group in major American cities, 26 percent to 22 percent, according to census data.
Demographers and political analysts expected the past two rounds of redistricting to produce a “bloodbath” between blacks and Hispanics, said Arturo Vargas, executive director of the Los Angeles-based National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials. That didn’t happen in part because the Hispanic population still has a higher percentage both of non-citizens and young people who aren’t old enough to vote, Vargas said.
“Our potential electorate is much smaller right now,” he said. “We don’t yet have the potential electorate to draw these lines.”
Gutierrez’s district, which connects Chicago’s Puerto Rican community on the northwest side and Mexican-American neighborhoods on the southwest side, offers a glimpse of the future. The district was 65 percent Latino when he was first elected in 1992, with 40 percent of those people registered voters. Today, it’s 75 percent Hispanic, with 60 percent registered, Gutierrez said.
Hispanics also are strengthening their financial position at a faster pace than blacks. In Chicago, the median household income of Hispanics in 2009 was $41,802, up 14 percent over 2000, compared with $30,769 for blacks, up 6 percent over the same period, according to the Census Bureau’s American Community Survey. The poverty rate for Hispanics in 2009 was 21.6 percent, compared with 31.7 percent for blacks.
Almost three decades after Chicagoans elected Harold Washington as their first black mayor, the city’s political landscape has been transformed. In the February mayoral election, voters elected Rahm Emanuel, former White House chief of staff to President Barack Obama, with 55 percent of the vote. The next two finishers were Hispanics, Gery Chico, with 24 percent, and Miguel Del Valle, with 9 percent. Former U.S. Senator Carol Moseley Braun, the only major black candidate, received 9 percent of the vote.
To Davis, a former Chicago alderman who campaigned for mayor before dropping out and endorsing Braun, the election results reflected the rising power of the city’s Hispanic population. Their unity and “sense of nationalism” reminded him of Chicago’s black community a generation ago before it got complacent, Davis said.
“African-Americans stopped organizing,” he said in a telephone interview from his office in Chicago, a city whose community-organizing culture birthed Obama’s political career.
The importance of organizing waned, Davis said, first when Washington was elected in 1983 and again after Obama won the White House in 2008. Davis said he heard black constituents say: “I ain’t going to no meeting. I’m going to watch the Bulls,” the city’s NBA basketball team.
Davis’s 7th congressional district runs east-to-west from some of the priciest real estate along the downtown lakefront to the public housing ghettos described in journalist Alex Kotlowitz’s book “There Are No Children Here.” The Chicago Housing Authority has demolished most of those high-rises, contributing to the exodus of blacks from the city in what Davis called “population annihilation.”
People aren’t the only ones who have departed from Davis’s neighborhood, which was devastated by the riots following the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. in 1968. His district also was once home to Sears, Western Electric, International Harvester and Allied Radio -- “all of them gone,” Davis said.
In Illinois, blacks now make up 14.3 percent of the population, compared with 15.8 percent for Hispanics and 63.7 percent for non-Hispanic whites. Blacks saw their first decline in total numbers in Illinois in the state’s history, according to an analysis of the new data by Frey.
Davis sees a similar decline in the political influence of blacks in his hometown. He delivers his assessment in song, quoting The Righteous Brothers classic “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feeling.”
“Gone, gone, gone,” he sang in his baritone voice.