We need more people in the discussion, not less

When the conversation is about race and racism, it is becoming increasingly unclear who should have a place at the table and when it is appropriate for them to speak up.  There seems to be a disturbing inclination to limit the number of seats at the table. Or so some recent Oak Park developments would suggest.

John Hubbuch, a Wednesday Journal columnist, announced recently that he was “done with discussing race and racism” [Viewpoints, April 8]. His announcement came only a few weeks after the principal of the high school had organized an assembly exclusively for black students, on the grounds that black students would speak more freely among members of their own race.

These are only two small data points in the long history of largely successful racial integration in Oak Park. But they are current incidents, and the reactions to both suggest that villagers would prefer fewer voices rather than more on the subject of racism. When Hubbuch noted that he had never lived in the skin of a black person and would therefore “just listen” to courageous conversations about race from now on, the responses on the paper’s website were supportive and succinctly summarized in the words “bravo” and “well-stated.”

After the high school assembly on “Black Lives Matter,” a large number of parents, students and teachers appeared at the next board meeting to offer their support of the assembly. One supporter pointed out that an important part of being a supportive white person “is to know when to be quiet and listen.”

Let’s not be foolish or naïve. Public discussions of contentious topics are rarely the place for the faint of heart. And racial policy — the most important issue in the history of this country — is the most divisive and sensitive of topics.

But since the 1970s, Oak Park has aimed to be an open community, not only in the mix of neighborhoods but also its public forums. We expect that people of widely differing backgrounds will “do more than live next to one another.” There is a commitment to “celebrate our differences” and encourage the contributions of “all citizens, regardless of race, color, ethnicity.” [Oak Park Diversity Statement]

We might be well served to ask a pointed question about the status of the Oak Park experiment. Are its citizens — who have now settled into blocks and cul-de-sacs populated by different races — eager to speak and listen honestly with their neighbors about racial integration? The question probably answers itself.

Our cultural transformation will be truly remarkable when we are not frightened by the cacophony of voices on our core issue. And the invitation list for every public forum and media will be as long as the village census.

Dale Sorenson is a 35-year resident of Oak Park. 

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