Chicago has largest racial gap in life expectancy among major U.S. cities, report says

Chicago has the largest racial gap in life expectancy among the 500 largest cities in the U.S. Black Chicagoans live an average of 30 years less than White residents. Medical and cultural anthropologist Judith Singleton is an adjunct assistant professor at Northwestern University. She joins CBSN's Elaine Quijano to discuss the report.

Video Transcript

ELAINE QUIJANO: Chicago has the largest racial gap in life expectancy among the 500 largest cities in the US. That's according to data compiled by New York University's Department of Population health. Black Chicagoans live an average of 30 years less than white residents. Other cities that follow Chicago with the largest life expectancy gaps include Washington, New York City, New Orleans, and Buffalo, New York. Experts say that gap has only widened during the pandemic where Black Americans have been nearly twice as likely to die from COVID-19 than white Americans.

For more on all this, I want to bring in medical and cultural anthropologist Judith Singleton. She's an adjunct assistant professor at Northwestern University's Feinberg School of Medicine where she's conducting an ongoing study on life expectancy across Chicago neighborhoods. Judith, welcome. Thank you so much for being with us. I think a lot of people might not realize just how deeply rooted some of these disparities are, so let's start there. What factors are currently contributing to such a significantly lower life expectancy for Black Chicagoans?

JUDITH SINGLETON: Thank you for having me. There are a lot of factors. And I want us to also keep in mind that these are not issues that just happen overnight. There has been a long historical legacy.

One of the immediate factors, I think, is the shift from going from the manufacturing economy to the technological economy so that in a lot of marginalized communities, there was never that opportunity to bring along the jobs that were once in the manufacturing sector into the new technology sector. And everything that goes along with it, the training, the education, that is, you know, one issue.

I also think that there has also been a lack of investment in these communities and investment meaning also education. Education is investing in people but the lack of investment in terms of businesses, job training, and everything else.

ELAINE QUIJANO: Well, let's talk a bit about the history that you mentioned as well, a bit more about it. The redlining and systemic segregation is a huge part of Chicago's history. I was born in Chicago. I'm well aware of just how segregated that city really is. It is literally like a different universe crossing from one area to another. And you see those disparities. How does all of that play a role in those factors that you just mentioned?

JUDITH SINGLETON: Well, I would say as you just said the disparities, it's like going from one century into another. You'll have one part of the city that's still in the 20th century and another part that's-- that's living in the 21st century. And I think, you know, what segregation does is it keeps people apart. And it not only keeps people apart, but keeps people from having opportunities, right?

And I think that our current economic structure in terms of the lack of programs that are in these communities and the dependence on the free market has only made those disparities wider. We see lack of access, lack of access to healthy food, lack of access to health care, lack of access to a good education, lack of access in-- in social support systems.

All of this is part of having healthy, quality lives. It isn't just-- health is no longer just about the medical factors, but it's also all about everything around you, lack of access to transportation. So it all plays a role in how long you live and the quality of your life.

ELAINE QUIJANO: Well, Judith, as you know, gun violence is also a major issue in Chicago. Could some of those things that you just outlined also be contributing to high rates of gun violence in some of the city's Black communities?

JUDITH SINGLETON: Absolutely because these communities have been forgotten about with high rates of unemployment, I mean, basically feeling that no one cares. The world has moved on. And all of a sudden, you're not a part of it. This all plays a role, I think, in the frustration and wanting to be heard and wanting-- wanting to have a voice and wanting to be heard. Absolutely.

ELAINE QUIJANO: Judith Singleton, I really appreciate it. This is why when people are looking at policy prescriptions for ways to address what is happening in some communities, they talk about systemic solutions. Because after all, it was the result of some systemic policies and discrimination systemically that that is the reason, at least partly, why we are seeing some of these consequences and huge disparities today. Judith Singleton for us. Really appreciate your time. Thank you.

JUDITH SINGLETON: Thank you.