by Samuel Scott III
Board of Directors, Get IN Chicago
Originally published in Crain’s Chicago Business
The black community in Chicago is in crisis. Let me start with a few facts: In 2015, there were 399 homicides in the African-American community in the city, 80 percent of Chicago’s total. There were 3,046 shootings. Over 80 percent of the victims were African-Americans. And the first quarter of 2016 is worse.
Here are a few other facts: 48 percent of African-American children under 17 are living in poverty; 21 percent of all African-Americans 16 and older are unemployed; 47 percent of African-American men age 18 to 24 are unemployed or not in school; and in 2014 the white-to-black earnings ratio was 1.4 to 1. In 1980, it was 1.23 to 1. We are going backward.
These sound more like numbers in a Third World country than a part of our city, yet the statistics represent one-third of the population of Chicago.
Many of you have run businesses or large organizations that are successful. If the Chicago black community issue were a business or a business problem, we would address it in a totally different way.
First, we would set a goal or vision for the end state we desire. Next, we would put together a comprehensive strategy to reach that goal. We would set annual targets that we can measure and hold ourselves accountable to. We would provide the required resources, both financial and human, to get the job done. And we would provide a structure that would manage the whole thing.
In a business context, the reward would be financial. In my scenario, the reward would be saving lives.
What I am suggesting is not happening in Chicago today. We are all supporting organizations that we believe in and that are doing good work with some positive outcomes that we can feel good about. But the problems in the black community keep getting worse.
In our black communities we have:
• A violence/safety problem
• A jobs/career problem
• A drug problem
• An education problem
• A policing problem
• A family unit problem
• A poverty problem
• A lack of quality health care problem
• And a lack of hopes and dreams problem
These are giving Chicago a reputation that we don’t need but perhaps deserve. We cannot be limited to examining the problem; we must find a solution.
One hundred years ago, in 1916, the Great Migration of blacks began with a move from the South to the North. Many came to Chicago and within 40 years had created a vibrant black community. They made up a considerable percentage of the labor pool during these times of industrial growth. These new residents from the South also were essential to the development of an artistic urban culture, one in which African-American pioneers of literature, poetry, music, performance and dance helped to develop and refine Chicago’s prominence as the architect of “cool.”
Added to this were the thriving neighborhood economies—black Main Street—where small, local shops, restaurants and services catered to the growing African-American population. Good jobs were plentiful.
In the early 1970s, my old company, then CPC International and now Ingredion, employed over 5,000 factory workers at our plant in Bedford Park. Eighty percent of them were black. Second and third generations grew up in our plant. Steel mills provided the same type of employment. Fourteen of the largest black-owned firms in America were headquartered here in Chicago.
Obviously, things have changed. Today Ingredion employs about 300 people in that plant, which produces about eight times what it did in the ’70s. The steel mills are mostly gone. And only three of the 100 largest black-owned firms are here.
Black Chicago in the ’50s and ’60s was a vibrant community that was an important part of the Chicago landscape. Of course, we have to modernize this vision with different types of jobs, different subjects taught in school and make it more compatible with today’s world. But the re-creation of a thriving African-American community would not only help our black communities; it would help Chicago become an even better city.
A couple of years ago, I had the opportunity to interview boys and girls, ages 13 to 16, for an opportunity to visit China. This trip was sponsored by the Chicago Urban League. One young man had terrific grades for three years in a row, but in the last year, they had plummeted. I asked him what had happened. He had moved and he told me he now had to cross gang lines to go to school and didn’t know if he was going to make it home each day. We cannot let these things continue.
If we all, collectively, don’t fix these problems, our city will continue to lose many talented young African-American men and women and the black Chicagoans who could and should eventually take our place in the fabric of Chicago’s leaders.
Samuel Scott III is a retired chairman and CEO of Corn Products International, now known as Ingredion. He is a director of Motorola Solutions, Abbott Laboratories and Bank of New York Mellon. This piece is adapted from a speech he gave recently to the Chicago Council on Global Affairs, where he also is a director.