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Barack, Gates, and America’s Most Segregated City

A reporter asked me recently how I feel, as a Jew, when I tour in Germany. I said I feel like a ghost–in every major city there’s a Jewish museum with an armed guard outside, housing relics of a people who’ve vanished. At the same time, I find that history weighs heavily on people, making them grave and thoughtful.  I never feel more fully engaged with the people I meet than I do in Germany.

I wonder sometimes how our history weighs on us European Americans, not just the history of slavery, of Jim Crow and lynch mobs, but of the deliberate creation of a poverty-ridden ghetto in a city like Chicago.

In April, 1917, the Chicago Real Estate Board drew up a plan for block-by-block segregation. Housing would be opened to Negroes in an adjoining block only when every unit in the current block held an average of four people per room.

Chicago’s realtors adhered enthusiastically to this plan until it was finally declared illegal in the late 1960’s. The city was by then the most segregated in the nation, a dubious title which the Chicago Tribune says still stands today. Not only that, the forced over-crowding created poverty-ridden slums. Schools in the black community were never funded at the level they were in white neighborhoods.

One of the programs I support in Chicago is called Girls in the Game, which provides a combination of sports, health, and self-esteem education to about 2,000 Chicago public school girls. The need is particularly important for black and latina girls, because recess and physical education have all but disappeared from schools in Chicago’s non-white neighborhoods. It’s cheaper, and easier, to keep kids penned up all day, cramming rote memorization down their throats so they’ll do better on test scores.

In many Chicago public schools, children are punished for speaking to each other in the lunch room. The now-dead and unmourned Henry Horner homes on State Street were dubbed “Public Penitentiaries” when the first Mayor Daley built them: many of our city’s schools take on that role today.

Boys have as much need for physical exercise as girls, but for them, at least, there are organized sports programs after school. Girls in the Game reaches about 1 percent of Chicago’s public school girls. It’s a drop in the bucket, but at least someone is putting in a drop.

I thought about this history during the recent brouhaha over Professor Gates and the Cambridge police. When the great John Hope Franklin taught history at the University of Chicago, his teenaged son was stopped by the police when he was going up the steps to his home.

When Barack Obama was first elected to the Illinois legislature, he also taught at the University of Chicago law school. One of his colleagues, a friend of mine, told me back then that Barack had been stopped by Illinois State police for driving while black between Chicago and Springfield. The President has never alluded to his own experience with Chicago’s fraught racial history, but that might explain his own off-the-cuff remark about the Cambridge police when he first heard of the incident.

I don’t know how we move away from the slums and the gangs they foster to a vibrant city.  I don’t know how we get a mayor who’s not much interested in such problems to pay attention to them.  I guess I don’t know much, so if anyone has helpful advice–pass it on.

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  • genny winne

    Sara, you certainly pose interesting and difficult questions.

    I have trouble understanding how people can hold so much misguided hatred in their hearts from unfounded reasons.

    NJ State Police have been investigated in recent years for stopping drivers for “driving while black”.

    I was just talking to a former co-worker that I hadn’t talk to in several years. He spent the early part of his life as a police officer in NJ and retired from there when he was 50. He went to other careers after that and that’s where I met him. As our conversation was winding down, he made called Barack a “communist”. I said–“you can’t really believe that”. He said “yes I do”. I said “we’ll just have to agree to disagree because I think he’s going to make things better”. I just don’t understand how that type of thinking develops from a seemingly intelligent person.

    I grew up in a small town in IL in the 50’s and 60’s-about an hour or so south of Chicago. Our small town was all white. There was a small black population that lived near, but not in the town. Our grade school was all white. The high school was integrated–although the vast majority was white. When I was attending the grade school, the town residents were concerned that if they put money into the school to update/expand that the black kids would be brought into the school. They were already in the high school but they were trying to limit the integration possibilities.

    When I was in college 67-72 I was optomistic that my generation would generate the social changes that would truly improve the country and the world. I thought that my generation would not just blindly follow the narrow-minded opinions that may have been held by their parents but would truly embrace everyone without regard to race, religion, gender, or sexual preference. There was a hopefulness for the future during the 60’s that has been lost.

  • I cannot even begin to relate to this – I was 16 years old before I even saw a black person — when the Harlem Globetrotters came to town. When you grow up without the prejudices of previous generations, it makes a world of difference.

    Kudos to you, Sara, for supporting the Girls in the Game program. It is difficult for me to comprehend the need for such programs – I live a world away from the inner city problems that plague so many large American cities.

  • I must have been naive in thinking that black Americans had become somewhat more accepted than this. As for calling the President a communist, I suspect in some instances people don’t actually know what a communist is. It’s a good insult for anyone who seems a bit wrong to them, a little to the left of them, politically.

  • Barack a Communist? On the Slate site, they have a questionnaire as to whether he’s a Nazi. This level of personal invective is horribly disgusting, and yet clearly gets a response from a big chunk of the population, not to mention Fox’s extremist mouthpieces.
    Bag Lady, who knows when we’ll all wish we could flee north of the border to your ranch, so best keep your coordinates to yourself!
    And finally, just as I was writing about the thoughtful Germans, comes this story in today’s New York Times: http://www.nytimes.com/2009/08/15/arts/15abroad.html?_r=1&hp

  • Just read the NY Times article. My paternal grandmother was a devout “Christian” who was incredibly intolerant. She was the most “un-Christian” person I’ve ever known. I think the last sentence,”…the enemies of civilized society are always just outside the door.” says it all. It’s called ignorance.

  • I grew up in a typical Detroit suburb, and had parents that smoked and a father who was just a plain bigot. I’ve learned, from my past and up-bringing, how disgusting both habits are….

    I don’t smoke, and my wedding party looked like a scene from Welcome Back Kotter.

    We can learn from our mistakes, and the mistakes of others. It just take effort, and heart.

    I love your writing…

    Peace be with you,

  • Wulfgar, Cheryl, Genny–thanks for your frank and courageous comments.

  • Laurie Jane

    I was thinking the same thing regarding our president’s comments. I wondered how he has had to deal with prejudice throughout his lifetime, and if that had any bearing on his comment. I think that unless a person has lived an entire lifetime with slights and innuendos being made regarding his or her ethnicity or race that it might be hard for some people to understand the depth of emotion an incident such as what occured might generate. I think that a lot of individuals have trouble putting themselves in another’s shoes, and how difficult it must be to live with prejudice and discrimination for a lifetime.

  • Thanks for that insight, Laurie Jane

  • L.M.

    I just finished reading Indemnity Only. An acquaintance recommended it to me after I told him I was a lawyer for union related pension funds. A very fun read.

    I also grew up in Chicago’s South Shore neighborhood in the 1960’s and 1970’s. I was a white girl in a majority black neighborhood. It was tough, at times, and difficult to understand as a child. I now assume I was treated like others thought white people treated them. Our neighbors were mostly good people. I am sure they wondered why we stayed, but that story is for another day.

    I agree that if the mayor of the City wants a legacy that isn’t just about patronage run amok, then he might want to try really hard at helping the worst neighborhoods develop economies that are not based in the drug trade. The rate at which children are killed in certain neighborhoods here is a horrible tragedy.

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