Michael Romain’s Oct. 26 column, “An empowering history of residential segregation,” stuck a chord with me — a mixture of shock, shame, and regret. To read the passage from “a restrictive covenant drafted for the Chicago Real Estate Board in 1927,” was to realize that this was the mindset of the culture in which I grew up.
The covenant spells out in legal language the strict barriers against residences being “sold, given, conveyed, or leased” to “negroes,” and then, with additional insult and injustice, limits access to said properties to those negroes who are employed by white owners and occupants for service roles (lowercase “n” as quoted from the covenant). It is a blatant proclamation of white supremacy.
Growing up in an all-white community in the northwest corner of Chicago, I gave little thought to the subject of race. It rarely came up in conversation in the home, church, school, and community environments that made up my world, but it was there in the silent underground. It came to the surface when school busing was being considered for the Chicago school system. When I inquired of adults in my family why there were no Negroes in our neighborhood, I was told in a tone of authoritarian finality, that “they would not be happy here.” Such was the assumption, based on no knowledge of Black people or what they wanted that closed the door to further questioning.
Intuitively, I sensed that something was missing in my life and somewhere in my teens I made a private decision that I would seek a racially integrated community when I became old enough to choose for myself. The opportunity came when I married at age 21 and moved to Hyde Park, where my husband had a fellowship for graduate work at the University of Chicago. Subsequent moves were to South Shore and then to Oak Park.
I broadened my horizon as I made friends from various groups and countries, and began to learn about racism, tribalism, and other -isms that divide us from our fellow humans.
Of course, the safety of white privilege and economic security went with me into these experiences. I naively thought that racism would be solved if people just got to know one another. This would result in questioning and then changing one’s own racist attitudes. Common humanity would prevail over narrow-minded biases. Mutual understanding would correct false stereotyping of others.
There is some truth to this, but the next level of learning made me see that it would take far more than personal attitude change to begin to touch the deep roots of racism. The restrictive covenants in real estate contracts, now outlawed, are one small example of how embedded racism is in our societal and global institutions.
In her remarkable book, Caste: The origins of our discontents, Isabel Wilkerson identifies the obstacles to looking at systemic injustice. A main obstacle is that steps toward autonomy and achievement by lower caste individuals or groups often evoke an automatic fear reaction by those in the dominant caste. She writes: “In the zero-sum stakes of a caste system upheld by perceived scarcity, if a lower-caste person goes up a rung, an upper-caste person comes down. The elevation of others amounts to a demotion of oneself, thus equality feels like a demotion.”
From anthropologist Melvin Konner comes the concept of “structural violence.” Structural violence includes slavery, warfare, torture, severe punishment of minor offenses, squashing of dissent, confiscation of property, displacement of people, and other forms of suppression. It goes further with the discriminatory policies and practices that target certain individuals and groups; the barriers to equal access built into political and economic structures such as elections, finance, education, housing, health care, law enforcement, and the law itself. Buried in these institutions, this violence is covert. Because it is systemic, it is difficult to locate particular individuals or groups that are responsible.
The learning process confronted me with the question of my own responsibility. How do I inadvertently participate in systems of discrimination? In what ways have my advantages in life come at the expense of those who were excluded from the opportunities I enjoy? What could I do about it?
These are not easy questions, but I know many people who think about them, and I find in the culture of Oak Park, and in the pages of the Wednesday Journal, a level of thoughtfulness and dialogue that adds to my own discernment process.
Stephanie Ferrera, an Oak Park resident since 1971, is a partner in the Center for Family Consultation.