Report about black Chattanoogans offers bleak picture, calls for unified action

Report about black Chattanoogans offers bleak picture, calls for unified action

September 13th, 2015 by Joan Garrett McClane in Local Regional News

Ken Chilton

Ken Chilton

Photo by Tim Barber /Times Free Press.

Quick facts

* In the city’s 11 low-income neighborhoods, the average poverty rate is 63.5 percent.

In the same neighborhoods, 73 percent of residents are black and 26 percent are white.

In the city, the percentage of blacks in poverty rose from 28.5 percent in 2000 to 35.5 percent in 2013. The percentage of whites in poverty increased from 11 percent in 2000 to 14.5 percent in 2013.

In most of these neighborhoods the income of whites far exceeds those of blacks. For example, in the Southside, blacks earn, on average, $50,000 less than whites.

Unemployment in these neighborhoods is staggering. In the Westside, for example, 40 percent of blacks are unemployed. Three quarters of households in Alton Park earn less than $25,000 a year.

In these neighborhoods, with the exception of the Southside, renters devote more than 50 percent of their income to rent.

Source: Ken Chilton, NAACP

The lives of too many black Chattanoogans are marked by poverty, struggle, poor health, violence, low wages and an inability to break free from the segregation and isolation that follows them from birth to adulthood, a new report published by the Chattanooga NAACP says.

"The Unfinished Agenda," written and researched by Ken Chilton, a professor at Tennessee State University's Department of Public Administration and a former head of Chattanooga's Ochs Center, uses sobering statistics to call for a unified movement change. The NAACP is looking for a response similar to the one that spurred downtown's revitalization and Chattanooga's economic comeback.

Document: The report

A report published by the NAACP calls for effort to address the inequality suffered by black Chattanoogans

This time, leaders with the NAACP say, the focus should be on creating opportunity for all, especially those who have yet to benefit from Chattanooga's expanding national prominence.

"Our goal is to spark a comprehensive dialogue within the African-American community. We want to gather their insights, their opinions and perceptions, and we want to give voice to their needs," Chilton told the Times Free Press. "The objective is to carve a community consensus that would drive proactive strategies instead of reactive responses to tragedies."

The 23-page report reviews the history of segregated neighborhoods and the use of redlining — a once-common practice of banks to deny loans in black and poor neighborhoods — to discourage investment in certain parts of town. Some of those places are now redevelopment success stories. Cameron Hill, once redlined, is now the home to the BlueCross BlueShield of Tennessee campus. Parts of North Chattanooga also were redlined, and that area is now a coveted area for the upper and middle class. Another redlined area, the Southside, is now a trendy district with upscale restaurants, artisan food vendors, boutiques and homes and condos selling for hundreds of thousands of dollars.

And when the neighborhoods improved and changed because the city offered incentives to developers, blacks were mostly left out, the report states.

"Despite all of these projects and programs, African-Americans in Chattanooga remain outside looking in," Chilton wrote. "Many African-Americans who used to live in Hill City, Cameron Hills, Southside and North Chattanooga have been either forcibly removed or displaced by gentrification."

So the demographics of the city have shifted.

In 1990, the downtown white population was 2,402, while the black population was 3,720. Twenty years later, those numbers have reversed. In 2013, 4,880 whites were living in downtown and 2,358 blacks.

In the 1960s, Chilton said those who pushed for federally driven urban renewal called the process "Negro removal." Now, while political officials and nonprofits likely don't intend to displace black families, their choices to incentivize development that benefits and attracts artists, software coders and entrepreneurs have the same effect, according to the report.

The absence of policies that would truly fold affordable housing into redevelopment plans has pushed many poor black families, who cannot afford the rents and home prices in rebranded areas like North Chattanooga or the Southside, into certain neighborhoods and schools mired by violence and chaos, Chilton writes.

"A complex set of structural economic forces, cultural adaptations and benign neglect have contributed to the maintenance of marginalized communities," he wrote.

The despair in these communities could easily bubble up and manifest in ways that have created serious problems for cities like Ferguson, Baltimore, Cleveland and New York.

After hundreds of urban riots in 1967, the Kerner Commission surveyed residents in 23 cities to determine the contributing factors or "level of intensity." Police practices, unemployment and underemployment, inadequate housing, inadequate education, poor recreational facilities and programs and ineffectiveness of the political structure and grievance mechanisms were named as elements that drive unrest.

Too many of these elements remain concerns in Chattanooga's urban black communities, despite generous foundations and political efforts to bolster high-poverty schools and build economic opportunity, the report states.

"Civic leaders would be naive to think it couldn't happen here," Chilton wrote.

While manufacturing once provided between 20 and 40 percent of the jobs in urban neighborhoods, that percentage has dwindled to 12.5 percent for all of Hamilton County. Chattanooga's new economy is built around white-collar jobs that require a college education and low-wage, service-sector jobs. Because some mostly black neighborhoods have more adult high school dropouts than college graduates, many are forced to rely on low-paying jobs for survival. Forty-two percent of whites in Hamilton County are employed in management, business, science and arts, while just 22 percent of blacks hold those jobs.

Twenty-seven percent of blacks work service-sector jobs, while 15 percent of whites in the county work service jobs, the report states.

Too often, service-sector jobs don't lead to a middle-class existence. In fact, 36 percent of blacks in Chattanooga live in poverty, as defined by the federal government, compared with 14.5 percent of whites. In the 11 low-income neighborhoods in Chattanooga, the average poverty rate is a staggering 63.5 percent. Seventy-three percent of residents in those parts of town are black.

Also, the number of unemployed in these neighborhoods is distressing. In the Westside, where College Hill Courts is located, 40 percent of blacks who could be in the labor market are unemployed. In Alton Park, 34.5 percent of blacks are unemployed.

NAACP President Elenora Woods said more members of the black community who understand the issues facing families in East Lake and Alton Park need to be at the table for future decision-making and trust-building.

Woods and board members, who plan to hold a press conference Tuesday and go door to door talking with residents in hard-hit neighborhoods, say they want to partner with others who desire to address these issues. With community input and funding, they hope to develop a plan with recommendations for change, Woods said.

"The same level of commitment, stubbornness and determination that transformed Chattanooga's downtown is needed to lift all boats in Chattanooga," the end of the report reads. "We believe it can happen here."

City officials had not yet had time to review the report when this story went to press, but Lacie Stone, spokesperson for Mayor Andy Berke, said the city is striving to be inclusive and diverse.

"We work hard to ensure community input through public meetings and engagement with residents across our city," Stone wrote in an email. "We are always open to feedback and would encourage anyone to reach out to us directly with thoughts or if they want to get more involved in any city initiatives."

Contact Joan Garrett McClane at jmcclane@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6601.