For a town that has made its reputation as progressive on race and integration we can sure be a quiet place.

For some, the quietude is a way to avoid putting the hex on the whole crazy experiment of the past 45 years. Is it really possible to have a town that is racially integrated and stays that way? Not sure, but for heaven’s sakes, don’t jinx it by talking about it.

Others just never want to talk about race for the same reasons 99 percent of Americans don’t want to talk about it. It’s complicated. We all carry prejudices we don’t have any intention of acknowledging. 

And the big one: Someone is going to call me a racist.

And finally there are those who contend that everything’s great on the racial front and maybe it didn’t used to be but it is now and the transformation was accomplished magically. And certainly this change did not happen because we talked about it, planned for it, mixed individual, governmental and non-profit efforts to accomplish it.

Well, the other night over at the Oak Park Public Library, we had a good long talk about Oak Park and race. The Oak Park Regional Housing Center, the library and Wednesday Journal sponsored the event. Maybe 90 people showed up. And they weren’t all white and they weren’t all 60-plus years old. So we’ll call that a success.

The idea for the forum was spurred by Ferguson, Missouri generally and more specifically by the realization that 20 years back Ferguson was actively aware of Oak Park’s integration efforts and wanted to try and replicate them. Why did the town fail? Why did a lot of the towns that took part in the Oak Park Exchange Congress back in the 1980s and 1990s fail to become integrated or fail to hold on as integrated communities?

Because this is hard to do. It takes a shared vision, hard choices, collaboration, failures, good will, patience and some pain. 

Integration happens on purpose.

Rick Tanksley, Oak Park’s longtime police chief, had a standout evening at the forum. For every haywire action and inaction we’ve seen among law enforcement officials in Ferguson as they tried to find justice, or even calm, Tanksley had a clear and candid response. 

He talked about joining a department, 30 years ago, with internal and external issues related to race. He said part of the answer was just waiting for some group of officers to depart, part was actively working to hire black and female officers, and later Hispanic and other minorities, and part was the active push to bring black officers into the command structure. 

Tanksley produced data showing how closely the racial makeup of Oak Park’s police department mirrors the population of Oak Park — and those specific numbers were supported by strong reporting on this subject this week by the New York Times and the Associated Press. Then Tanksley turned to stats reflecting traffic stops by race and the percentage of drivers who were ticketed, given a written warning or a verbal warning by officers. Again, a black driver was as likely, or as unlikely, to be ticketed as a white driver.

Oak Park, he says, has consciously declined offers of military equipment being offloaded by the feds because, he said, “you have to remember where you are.”

And where we are is a rare community that is integrated racially, that has a consciously shared power structure among elected and appointed officialdom, that has some success and some failings in fostering the sort of easy social integration that we aspire toward.

We worry that talking about race is too hard and too scary. But the other night up in the Veterans Room at the library the conversation flowed, even when it was blunt, even when it was soothing.

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Dan Haley

Dan was one of the three founders of Wednesday Journal in 1980. He’s still here as its four flags – Wednesday Journal, Austin Weekly News, Forest Park Review and Riverside-Brookfield Landmark – make...

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