Oak Park's experiment, 40 years later

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By Dan Haley

Editor and Publisher

Ten years into the century, 40-plus years after Oak Park first contemplated racial integration, we're about to find out how the experiment is going. The question, asked with trepidation and doubt, in the late 1960s was whether it was really possible to craft and nurture a racially diverse community. Could it happen anywhere? Could it happen on the border of America's, then and now, most segregated city? Could Oak Park, then a very traditional, very white suburb, invent enough varied responses to stop what had been an endless, block-by-block resegregation of the city's West Side, a wave that had started post World War II and was, in the late 1960s, washing across Austin?

The 2010 Census numbers are about to drop. They were expected Tuesday afternoon. By now I expect we will have reported at OakPark.com on the broad strokes of the numbers as they apply to Oak Park.

Any census is an imperfect snapshot of a place at a moment in time. But it will be a compelling and complex read for Oak Park. This first batch of numbers, I'm told by people more expert than I on interpreting census data, will tell us about our population. Is it up or down since 2000? What is the racial mix of our village — white, black and now, more notably than in the past, Hispanic and Asian? How has the blend of housing, the mix of single family and rental, changed due to the condo-conversion boomlet that came before the economic fall?

More than just village-wide, the data will allow us to bore in on the dozen census tracts in the village and go still deeper into what the statisticians call "block groups." We're going to know a lot, soon.

And when paired with census data from the past several decades we'll start to get the wide arc of our integration story. There is beauty in data. It is the concrete foundation, the underpinning and companion piece to our years of racial storytelling. It will be the basis for assessment and reevaluation of our policies specific to diversity going forward. In the weeks ahead we'll also all begin to look at Oak Park's integration efforts compared to what has gone on in our neighboring communities, both suburban and city.

Only when we have assessed and interpreted this census can we think about celebrating all that we've accomplished together as a remarkable community. And we'll need to pair deserved self-congratulation with a tough self-assessment.

Yes, the data is going to show us we are diverse and we are stable. But as individuals and as a village, we'll need to determine how we are facing up to the continuing challenges of integration and class.

For me there are three. Can we break through in education? Through concerted, diligent means can we bring many more of our black students to a higher and sustained level of success? Can efforts at genuine sharing of power expand and improve? Ten and 20 years into Oak Park's integration efforts, a white power structure continued to be condescending to black demands for inclusion in making decisions. Things have improved notably. But all the candidates for the village board this spring are white and that is troubling to me.

Finally, we need as individuals to remain focused on social integration. Watch our kids and it is clear we are making progress in building friendships across racial lines. But we older folks shouldn't be giving up on this either. The ultimate blessing of integration isn't stability or economic development. It is connection.

Contact:
Email: dhaley@wjinc.com Twitter: @OPEditor

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