When Oak Parker Denise Rose, who has lived in the village since 1979, had finished doing 40 interviews with Oak Park residents-20 white and 20 black-about race for her Ph.D. dissertation in sociology, she looked at her data and found something surprising: white Oak Parkers generally don’t believe racial barriers affect blacks very much whereas blacks do.
She talked with whites about the minority achievement gap in the village’s schools, for example, and many of them said it was caused by class differences. What they didn’t say was that there might be racial biases in the schools that contribute to holding black students back. Blacks mentioned economic causes, too, but also often added that teachers might have low expectations for black students, which could be self-fulfilling.
Beyond the schools, Rose said white residents she interviewed weren’t conscious of how race affects the lives of blacks on a day-to-day basis.
“Whites need to broaden their perspective of what blacks are experiencing,” she said.
Rose has been interested in race since she attended high school in Evanston. “From that early day on,” she recalled, “I couldn’t look at blacks as stereotypes,” she said, “but as individuals.”
After writing a master’s thesis on the racial achievement gap at Oak Park and River Forest High School, she began hearing that racial tensions were on the rise in Oak Park. In the 1990s, she would meet blacks who had left Oak Park. They would share their complaints about the village.
“A black male professor who had lived in Oak Park said white liberals were some of the worst racists,” she recalls.
These conversations made Rose want to better understand black residents’ perspectives on life in Oak Park-as well as whites’. She decided to write a Ph.D. dissertation in sociology at Loyola University based on interviews with Oak Parkers, titling it, “Racial Roadblocks: Pursuing Successful Long-Term Racial Diversity in Oak Park.”
The 40 adult residents interviewed for her dissertation in 2000 and 2001 were not leaders in Oak Park. Most lived in homes, not apartments, and homes where there were two college-educated, professional parents. Rose interviewed the white residents and half of the blacks. She asked an African-American interviewer to talk with the remaining blacks because she wanted to see if there would be major differences in the content of the interviews. There weren’t.
Rose searched for explanations to explain why white and black Oak Parkers have such different opinions about how race affects blacks, and she found a big one.
“I asked people how many friends they had of the other race, and whites had between one and three,” she said. “Blacks said way more-more than 10.”
But these numbers are misleading. “In general these were acquaintances, neighbors, not people they had over to their house for dinner,” Rose said. “Those kind of friendships aren’t those where you really start talking.”
In fact, the primary concern blacks had about their experiences in Oak Park, Rose found, was unequal treatment in personal interactions. The blacks in Rose’s study were mostly middle-class, so unequal treatment is not, as is sometimes believed, solely a class issue, she said.
Many of the blacks she interviewed felt that whites would often assess them to see what kind of black person they were. One woman’s husband didn’t feel comfortable going to the yearly block party to socialize with the white male residents. And many blacks “have a perception that you’re not just being treated as an Oak Park resident who happens to be black,” Rose said.
District 200 board President Jacques Conway, a former Oak Park police officer, said he has experienced racial bias frequently over the years. “A woman in front of me moved her purse,” he remembers. “As a police officer, they respected the uniform. But when I didn’t have the uniform on, I was still a black male.”
Most blacks also felt that village institutions weren’t willing to allow blacks to be leaders or have major input. According to Rose’s dissertation, 57 percent of white and 82 percent of black residents she interviewed believe that blacks participate less in civic affairs than whites. To address this, Rose said, the government along with village organizations should more actively seek out black participation.
To solve the problem of racial bias and bridge the gap between white and black perceptions, Rose recommends more intentionally interracial community events and groups, as well as an effort by all to be more race-conscious. “The more you’re race-conscious, the more you can be alert to yourself” and your unconscious biases, she said.
Sherlynn Reid, Oak Park’s former director of Community Relations and one of Rose’s community collaborators, agreed. “I don’t believe in color-blindness-I’m black and I’m proud,” she said. “We’re all racists, and we should all be working on it.”
On the other hand, Oak Park is already much closer to eliminating racism than most of America, Rose said. “Both whites and blacks showed higher levels of comfort in terms of living with diversity than national research typically shows,” she said. “Black residents are not saying to me that Oak Park is a neighborhood where they are always confronting racial bias.”
One sign that both blacks and whites fully support diversity and integration is that 100 percent of the residents in Rose’s study support the Oak Park Regional Housing Center’s renter referral programs. In fact, whites’ biggest concern is maintaining white demand and making sure that black concentrations in neighborhoods don’t go over their comfort levels.
Oak Park’s Diversity Assurance Program, which, in part, tries to attract whites to apartments on the more heavily black east side of Oak Park through the Housing Center, directly addresses white concerns that some areas of Oak Park will become too black.
The blacks in Rose’s study, who, according to the 2000 Census, make up 22 percent of Oak Park’s population, support programs like this as well.
“Black residents I spoke to see programs that try and bring white residents to black-concentrated areas as a good thing,” she said. “The main issue for them was that it was not overwhelmingly white.”
But Rose said among black residents, “There’s a feeling these policies can be racially offensive when they’re talked about and discussed,” and that they might constrain the options of black renters. She argues that integration maintenance policies should be pitched as affirming integration, not trying to limit the number of blacks in Oak Park. “We have to talk about it as a positive value,” she said, “where you’re not making one group a problem.”
Reid said that no matter how you frame the discussion, it’s important to keep the policies. “Whites keep the community integrated, and it’s hard to break the pattern [if] once blacks start moving in, no more whites move in,” she said.
Rose supports integration maintenance policies as well. She added that it’s important not only to attract whites to heavily black areas, but to increase the number of blacks in heavily white areas of Oak Park, such as the northwest side of town. She proposed increasing the incentives for blacks to move to these areas.
Ahead of unequal treatment in housing and close behind unequal treatment in personal interactions, black Oak Parkers criticize the village’s schools for their treatment of black students. In addition, white parents are concerned about low standards in diverse District 97 classrooms and in the diverse non-honors college preparatory courses at the high school.
Rose said middle-class blacks, not just lower-income blacks, were wary of racial bias in Oak Park schools. “People think of the achievement gap as something that’s just affecting people of lower socioeconomic status,” she said.
To close the gap, Rose proposed, the community needs to offer early childhood programs and, later on, pay attention to parents and school bias.
“We’re going to have to do a lot more with parental outreach,” she said.
To address bias, she recommended teacher training in subconscious racism and hiring more black teachers. “Black parents suggest it’s important,” she noted, “because black teachers may have an ability to understand things from a cultural viewpoint that white teachers are just not going to get,” Black teachers also might be able to bond with black students more easily, she added.
Conway agrees. “When you have a teacher whose background is different from the populace they’re teaching, they might not have a rapport,” he said. “If I have a student who’s much different from who I am and where I came from, I’m at a disadvantage in teaching the student to be successful.”
In addition to outreach and more black teachers, Rose also called for more testing-especially in students’ early years. “Assessing where students are-what they bring to the table when they arrive in school-is important,” she said.
Reid suggested that blacks who are doing exceptionally well should be celebrated-a theme Rose also develops in her dissertation.
“Black kids who achieve aren’t getting any attention, so why not not achieve because that’ll get you attention?” said Reid. “Attention is what everybody wants.”
Though Rose thinks black concerns about racial bias are valid, she said that white fears of diminished white achievement are overblown. She did an exploratory comparison of white test scores in Oak Park to white scores in the North Shore over two years, and found that Oak Park students scored near their counterparts in less diverse, more affluent communities. “There’s more anxiety among some parents than there needs to be,” she said.