David Mekarski, the village administrator for the south Chicago suburb of Olympia Fields, told a startling story this week at the American Planning Association’s annual conference about a debate he recently had with a restaurant official.
The reply: “Black folks don’t tip, and so managers can’t maintain a quality staff. And if they can’t maintain a quality staff, they can’t maintain a quality restaurant.”
A gasp then rippled through the room in front of Mekarski. “This is one of the most pervasive and insidious forms of racism left in America today,” he says.
There’s a term for the phenomenon he’s describing: retail redlining. The practice is a more recent and less studied variation on redlining as it’s been historically recognized in the housing sector. In the context of retail, grocery stores, and restaurants, redlining refers to the “spatially discriminatory practice” of not serving certain communities because of their ethnic or racial composition, rather than their economic prospects.
Olympia Fields and three adjacent south suburbs wanted to better understand this phenomenon (and if it really existed). So they undertook a quarter-of-a-million dollar, multi-year study in conjunction with researchers at the University of Illinois. In the 1960s, these four suburbs had almost no black residents.
By 2010, 72 percent of the population was black, with three of the communities having above-average income levels for the county. These are among the most racially mixed higher-income communities in the region.
The researchers tried to approach a seemingly immeasurable question (is there racial bias here?) by examining case studies of retail outlets that had recently left these communities; by studying stores that one would expect to find in these places based on their buying power; and by comparing the quality and variety of merchandise in stores in this area compared to identical brands elsewhere.
The researchers concluded that the location decisions of businesses were so complicated (involving varied property tax rates, the co-location of related retail, and the presence of daytime workers) that their demographic and survey data was inconclusive. “However,” the researchers wrote, “findings do suggest that race may be a driver or mitigating factor in some retail decisions.”