By Mike Amezcua
The police killing of George Floyd has sparked urban rebellions and demonstrations across hundreds of American cities. The accompanying looting and destruction of property has generated passionate debate from those who say it derails the message of the Black Lives Matter movement to others who see it as a legitimate and even necessary form of political protest. In Chicago, the looting of stores and social unrest prompted mayor Lori Lightfoot to order police to close off downtown streets to demonstrators, after a night in which thousands marched through the Loop clashing with police. Now the Floyd demonstrations have fanned out into communities across the city, among them the Southwest Side of Chicago, where a series of working class and immigrant Latinx neighborhoods grapple with a legacy of anti-Black exclusion. These areas became the site of dangerously-escalating episodes of Latinx racial profiling that were cloaked in a rhetoric of protecting the neighborhood from looting.
Sensationalized social media reports of Black protesters looking to loot and destroy Latinx businesses were digitally delivered to people’s cell phones through Twitter, TikTok, and Facebook, generating high levels of alarm and even an armed response. In largely Mexican immigrant and Mexican American areas of the Southwest Side, business owners took that raw and unframed information and used it to patrol streets and arm themselves, justifying their actions as necessary to protect their small businesses. This added a chaotic element to the Floyd demonstrations, exacerbating the long underlying tensions that exist between Chicago’s African American and Latinx communities, and serving as a grim reminder of the history of anti-Black racism that permeates the very grid of the city’s Southwest Side.
To be sure, the Floyd demonstrations include among its multiracial masses, a multi-generational cohort of Latinx peoples who are in support of BLM. Many who see their own bodies and presence in America as targets of state violence. Latinx people are the second most likely group after African Americans to be killed by police, according to the data collected by the research group Mapping Police Violence. This community also consists of Afro-Latinx who are erased by anti-Blackness and who become suspect as outsiders and subject to a kind of doubled scrutiny. In response to the hyper-patrolling of Black bodies in Chicago’s Southwest Side, well-meaning Latinx community organizers intervened to peacefully and non-violently aid the protection of immigrant and Latinx small businesses who had been reeling from the economic catastrophe caused by the Covid-19 pandemic, while trying to de-escalate anti-Black violence.
But what is most disturbing is the atmosphere of racial profiling and the anti-Blackness perpetuated by some community members in the historically Mexican immigrant and Mexican American neighborhoods of Pilsen, Little Village, Back of the Yards, along with the suburbs of Cicero and Berwyn. Social media reports on Twitter showed that current Black residents of Pilsen were fast becoming the targets of violence simply for being Black in a neighborhood they call home. Other reports on social media noted that notorious Latinx gangs pursued Black people, chasing them out of neighborhoods. Videos posted on Facebook and Twitter show dramatic confrontations between Latinx people in a defensive stance outside of their businesses ready to aggressively engage any approaching African Americans who are considered “threats” and “troublemakers.” These were just some of the ways Chicago’s hyper-segregation has been normalized and accepted by residents of working class, immigrant, and marginalized areas. Beyond the troubling individual acts however, lies the city’s deep racist history that perpetually presents twenty-first century segregation as a logical and rational societal arrangement, making it appear necessary to defend these neighborhoods from “outsiders.” The Southwest Side has never fully reckoned with its legacy of racist violent exclusions of “outsiders,” not only against African Americans, but Mexicans as well.
In the 1940s and 1950s, these working-class white neighborhoods displayed a fierce brutality against any Blacks and Latinxs who dared rent or purchase a home in these areas. Even walking to work through the Southwest Side communities could be deadly. In 1944, a Mexican packinghouse worker, Jesus Amador was gunned down while walking to work by a white man who was simply annoyed at the presence of Mexicans in his Back of the Yards neighborhood. When some residential housing was finally opened to Mexicans, it was conditional and limited, designed to serve as a buffer between whites and African Americans. By the 1950s and 1960s, white real estate agents worked in tandem with neighborhood councils to build a racial wall along Ashland Avenue, a major thoroughfare that runs north and south across the city, where whites would live free from the dangerous diversity to its west, while Mexicans and African Americans would be contained to the east.
Throughout the 1960s, the population growth of Mexicans in Chicago, and in particular in the Southwest Side, provoked white real estate agents to turn their diversity problem into an opportunity to help reinforce neighborhood boundaries by moving in Mexicans (seeing them as more preferential neighbors) to prevent Black settlement from moving into housing left vacant by white flight. This was how South Lawndale properties were kept afloat, while North Lawndale languished. White neighborhood civic leaders rebranded South Lawndale as a “Little Village” to sever its ties to its northern, blacker counterpart. In doing so, these leaders appeased its last remaining white families and allowed Mexican Americans a restrained and controlled entry.
Anti-Black racism has been at the core of the rebuilding of these neighborhoods. As Black Chicago suffered the political roadblocks foisted by the white backlash that was headquartered in the Southwest Side communities of Cicero, Gage Park, and Marquette Park. Mexican Chicago made small but meaningful inroads into these unstable vacancies. Over time and not without its challenges, a spatial racialization process took shape that helped concretize a Latinx Brown identity to the geography of the Southwest Side, one that mattered most not so much for its brown-ness, as for its non-Blackness. This is a process of racial and spatial formation that has been deeply bound to the area’s long history of anti-Black racism.
The spatialized racial configurations of “Black” and “Mexican” neighborhoods are tethered to real material consequences that shape the everyday lives of these residents. For several generations, public and private institutions have divested from the Black South Side, making it difficult for Black entrepreneurs to access loans and creating food and educational apartheid. Black Chicagoans try to mitigate this by purchasing food from the more bountiful ethnic supermarkets, restaurants, and street vendors in the Mexican Southwest Side. But last week, living in or buying food while Black in the Mexican Southwest Side placed the Black community at great risk. This food insecurity was doubly strained by the suspension of free food programs operated by the public school system.
So what accounts for this violent response of brown localism to faceless Black “looters”? The unreckoned history of the Southwest Side and its legacy of anti-Black racism. As one Latina educator from a local Pilsen high school posted on Facebook on Monday of last week, “As I watch footage of my own people participating in righteous acts of violence against Black people it sickens me. It disgusts me. Please stop thinking people are protecting their neighborhoods.” Many local community members have denounced the violence and condemned anti-Blackness, taking to the streets last week in a series of Brown and Black Unity Marches and a parade. And while this shows that some residents are committed to the BLM movement, clearly much more work lays before them. Recognizing the shared legacy of exclusion is a critical step toward restoration and residents must contend with how these communities were created and developed in an Anti-Black context.
Mike Amezcua is an assistant professor of history, Latinx studies, and urban studies at New York University. He is currently at work on a book about Mexican immigrants and Mexican Americans and the politics and struggle over white flight neighborhoods in postwar Chicago.