For most of African-American history, class divisions (forged during centuries of slavery, when slaveowners were happy to divide the loyalties of their chattel) have bedeviled attempts to unify the black community around a common strategy. In black Chicago, these tensions have smoldered for many years, flaring occasionally. The contrast between the poor West Side and the better-off South Side has become a crude geographical surrogate for black Chicago’s stark class divisions. Disadvantaged blacks have really been hard hit by changes in the economy. Meanwhile, trained and educated blacks are benefiting from changes in the economy. William Julius Wilson said in an interview on PBS’s Frontline in 1998. “Take a look at black income today. If you divide black income into quintiles, the top quintile has now secured almost 50 percent of the total black income, which is a record.” This skewed distribution of income continued throughout the 2000s
70 percent of all North Lawndale men between the ages of 18 and 45 have a criminal record, a figure almost three times higher than the national average. Sharon Dixon, the former alderman of the 24th Ward, which includes North Lawndale, says the community has the state’s highest homicide rate and the third-highest overall crime rate. his neighborhood, together with adjacent West Side communities like East and West Garfield Park, Humboldt Park and Austin, has a 52-percent youth unemployment rate—the highest in the entire nation.
“When we began the struggle for community development, we kept running into roadblocks set up by the very people who were supposed to be helping us. We began to realize that the death and destruction in our community could not have happened without the black leadership elite’s cooperation.” explains Martavius (Mark) Carter, a resident of Chicago’s distressed North Lawndale neighborhood and a founding member of the Voice of the Ex-Offender (VOTE), a group created to empower black people who were once imprisoned He declares “The black elite are playing with fire if they think they can keep fooling the masses of black people with their deceptive rhetoric. Things are getting hot out here and pretty soon that heat is going to light some fuses.” He is convinced that churches, businesses, fraternal groups, civic and social service organizations, and other established black institutions could more effectively plan strategies and marshal their collective wherewithal and resources to better serve the community. They don’t do this, he believes, because they have their own class interest at heart. The black middle-class seems to regard ex-offenders and other low-income African Americans as another race altogether. “In Africa, I suppose they would say different tribes, but here they treat us like a different race.”