PEORIA, Ill. (WEEK) — A racial disparities study in the River City paints a picture with shades of poverty and unemployment as the canvas upon to which many black Peorians are seemingly stuck.
It’s been raising eyebrows for months…and black leaders say it shouldn’t have taken an analyst to draw attention to problems their communities have been experiencing for decades.
“It’s definitely fractured…without a doubt,” said Pastor Marvin Hightower, president of the Peoria NAACP chapter.
With a heavy heart, Hightower said segregation is alive and real.
“When you come down Bradley from the Main Street area, coming south…once you cross Moss, you can almost literally feel the oppression,” he said.
But this didn’t happen overnight. J. Brian Charles, an urban affairs reporter for Governing magazine, points to industrial decline in the Midwest as a starting point when things began to crumble.
“Factories close in places and job prospects getting worse,” said Charles.
He adds probably one of the hardest hits for Peoria was when Caterpillar reversed course on a plan to expand their corporate headquarters in the downtown area.
“You also have to think about Caterpillar closing down some of its industrial operation and corporate operation,” Charles said. “So the people who replaced some of those families that were kind of engaged of more of the heavy lifting of industrial production get replaced by a lot of folks at the executive level that end uo going into the nice homes in places like Dunlap and pulling those resources away.”
And the lack resources he says only magnified segregation which then bled into virtually every aspect of black Americans lives in Peoria.
“Access to jobs. Access to quality education. Access to safe neighborhoods, quality healthcare. Statistically African Americans fare less than their white counterparts,” said Dr. Marwin Spiller, a sociologist at Illinois Central College.
Spiller said education is at the root of it all.
Federal data reveals the Peoria metro has the most segregated schools between black and white students across the nation.
“[It’s] a school system that does not necessarily prepare all of its students in the same way to meet the demands of a modern economy,” said Spiller.
City leaders agree, and acknowledge the reality that many Peoria students are worried about more than straight A’s before even setting foot on school grounds.
“Water’s gonna be shut off or they’re living in a car homeless. Their mother may be in prison. Their father may be in prison or dead. So they’re dealing all types of psychological situations,” said Hightower, the NAACP president.
Hightower said Peoria Public Schools does a great job introducing students to a variety of career opportunities, but things haven’t always been that way.
“…and then they put a stigma on trades. (sarcasm) Don’t do vocational school. Go to college. You’ll be something,” he said.
Charles explains statistically, quality and access to education directly impacts future employment.
One in 4 black Peoria residents don’t have a job. That’s 18.1 percent unemployment for black residents versus just 5.5 percent for white residents.
“If you were to take a snapshot of 2017, black unemployment is the highest in the country,” said Charles, the Governing magazine analyst.
And for the 3 out of 4 that are clocking in, they’re either under employed or they’re working 2 and 3 jobs,” said Hightower.
Which brings us to poverty.
The 24/7 Wall Street study shows Peoria’s black poverty rate is 37 percent higher than the national average of 26.2 percent. The white poverty rate for Peoria is just 9.2 percent.
“When you already have lower income, your cost of borrowing money reduces your ability to have disposable income to invest,” said Larry Ivory, President and CEO of the Illinois Black Chamber of Commerce.
Ivory said a major solution would be creating a space for entrepreneurship…an area black communities are barely charting locally.
“If you’re not at the table, you’re on the menu. Unfortunately, black people have been on the menu because they haven’t been at the table,” said Ivory.
The takeaway…that all these black and white comparisons of education, upward mobility and success show that while not true for every black Peorian, are certainly clearly true for many
“A salient marker of what it means to be African American in this community, is to struggle,” said Spiller.