Peeling back the layers of racial bias

Opinion: Columns

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Rich Kordesh

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It was 1967. Our grade school basketball team at St. Mary of Celle in Berwyn had just lost a game to an African-American team from a school in Chicago. My coach, Gary, told me that despite our loss, I had played my best game of the season. I had performed, he said, focused and intense. He complimented my rebounding and defense in particular. I thanked him. Then, after hearing the coach's praise of me, one of the guys on our team, Charlie, conjectured cynically about why I had really played with such intent: "That's because he hates 'em!"

Charlie's remark jolted me, and I responded, "No, it's just that they were really good. It fired me up." Despite the animosity expressed by Charlie, the game had in fact been hard-fought, clean and respectful. They had won because they were just a better team.

The summers were getting hot in the city — politically hot. Not far from our neighboring Oak Park and Cicero, in Chicago's West Side, rioting had erupted, both in 1966 and '67. Whites argued over what to do to protect their towns, and how to respond to coming pressures at the national level to make racial integration a goal of federal policy.

I left for college in 1971. That was the last full year I lived in Berwyn. Oak Park was going to work with the provisions of fair housing legislation. Berwyn was more circumspect in its formal policymaking, but a couple of well-organized citizens groups, with the support of some officials, were vigorously opposed to integration. People in each community would see the other's stance as threats. Little did I know that in three years I would return to the area — to help Oak Park.

"Open Up Berwyn." That's what the document was titled. It was 1974. Now 21 years old, I had begun my two-day-a-week internship with Oak Park's Community Relations Department (CRD). I had earned my B.A. in three years, and was now in graduate school at UIC, studying Community Development and Planning. While in the CRD office one day, I noticed a list sitting on a desk that the Community Relations Commission had just compiled. The document enumerated the commission's strategic priorities. The one at the top read, "Open Up Berwyn."

My hometown across Roosevelt Road was the target of the agency now training me. Realty testing was one of CRD's main tactics deployed against Berwyn's closed posture. Posing as home buyers, CRD staff had documented how realtors drew on racial references in their sales language to steer white people to determinedly white suburbs, and Black people to Oak Park.

In fact, I stumbled into one variant of this practice in my parents' home. My mom and dad had put their Berwyn house on the market. I was visiting with Mom one day when her realtor happened to be sitting on the couch. While explaining in an upbeat tone about how she would market my parents' bungalow, the agent matter-of-factly related how she reminded prospective buyers that Oak Park was becoming a riskier place to move because of the way it was changing. As best I can remember, my mom, who had been attending Mass at Ascension Church in Oak Park and liked the community, muttered something awkward like "Ohhh …" And then the agent moved onto other matters pertinent to home selling.

 

I was sitting off to the side, listening, and thought, "Well, there it is. That's how it happens." The next day, back in the CRD office, I related the incident to Kris Ronnow, the CRD director, and my supervisor. He asked me if I would be willing to write it up in a complaint that the village attorney would review. I said sure, and I did.

A couple of weeks later, my mom called, sounding agitated. "Richard, what did you do?" She explained that her realtor had just called, very upset, stating that "your son" had filed a complaint against her agency, referencing what she had said in the living room. Now all of their staff would have to attend training. That's often what the village negotiated when a complaint stuck: mandated training for real estate personnel in how to sell properties without racial bias.

I told Mom that, yes, I had done so, and explained why. She said she understood, but remarked, "That poor woman!" And that's all the conversation I remember having about the matter with Mom or Dad.

Realtor monitoring was actually not my assignment in the CRD. Rather, I was tasked with helping citizens create a forum in which they could discuss their concerns about the coming change. Most of the neighbors I met embraced the goal of racial diversity; some regretted the village's getting out ahead of other suburbs in pursuing it.

What came of the effort was a fledgling group, led by a Presbyterian pastor in the area, the "Beye-Whittier Community Council." Folks were holding small group meetings at Dole Branch Library when I finished my internship in May 1975. I don't know how long these forums lasted, at least under that name.

Twenty years later, I returned as a father of four to buy a house in Oak Park. My wife, Maureen, and I raised our kids in a Victorian near Lake and Elmwood. One of my children attended Beye Elementary School; the others, Longfellow. One of them now owns a home in northeast Oak Park. Another teaches fifth grade in Berwyn.

Oak Park and Berwyn took different paths to diversity; each made progress in its own way.

Berwyn's now longtime mayor had been a grade school classmate of one of my sisters at St. Mary's. The affirmative statement about diversity on his city's website shows how far the place has come.

I share these memories as another march flows past my apartment in Chicago's South Loop. George Floyd's murder in Minneapolis demands a deeper reckoning with the continuing reality of racism. There is the obvious, flatly-stated hatred, as reflected in Charlie's remarks after our basketball game. There are the veiled, thinly-disguised variants, evidenced by the realtor's remarks in my mom's living room.

Racial bias wears other masks, and hides in deeper layers, in me and around me, that I'm still trying to peel back.

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