Correspondence from Chicago

by Sophie Johnson – Chicago, Illinois

You’re a racist.

I’m not saying this to attack you. I understand that you’re a liberal, that you recycle, that you vote in every election. I even know that you don’t judge people based on their skin color, religion, or sexual orientation. Still, I think it’s best that we get this out in the open: You are a racist.

I suggest it because I’m not sure that in this day and age in America any of us can really be anything but racists. If you had said something like that to me a year ago, I’d have scoffed at you. I’d have argued that race issues were largely on the decline and that we needed to concentrate our political efforts on international policy. In Chicago, though, my perspective has shifted.

I came to this city hoping to benefit from its diversity, from its progressiveness and integration. But while the city is one of the most diverse in the world, it is also one of the most segregated.

“You could pass out in one neighborhood and wake up in another and you would know exactly where you were based entirely on the demographic of people around you.” That was the response I got when I mentioned to a friend my interest in Chicago’s racial integration. Her statement was largely true. There are 25 official neighborhoods in the city of Chicago. They are built around outdated racial and economical attitudes that keep the whites among the whites and the blacks among the blacks; the rich among the rich and the poor among the poor.

I spent an afternoon in South Chicago last week to work in a community garden—the largest area of green space for miles in all directions. South Chicago is notoriously poverty-stricken and almost entirely African-American. The area is right between gang lines, and the children playing in the street had to go in before it was dark because it would be too dangerous for them otherwise. This is a place where you can’t get fresh produce or health foods because they are too expensive; where kids don’t go to school on Halloween because walking alone in the street reads like a death wish. Most of Chicago’s working poor live in neighborhoods like this; white people simply don’t go down there.

How can neighborhoods like this still exist? How is it that the poverty line and the race line are still so synonymous in a city like Chicago?

There are entire books that attempt to tackle this question, and people who spend their entire lives trying to remedy the situation. It is multi-faceted and deeply rooted in our history—the history that is largely unwritten or ignored (Thomas Jefferson, for example, argued that Native Americans had to be pursued “to extermination”; even Aristotle wrote in his “Politic,” that “It is clear that just as some of us are by nature free, so others are by nature slaves, and for these latter the condition of slavery is both beneficial and just”). Attempting to understand how racism as an institution permeated this country would be an impossible subject for an editorial.

The question, then, becomes one concerning current racial attitudes that continue to manifest themselves in all of us. It is an uncomfortable topic, I’ll admit. We pay attention to race whether or not we wish to admit it, and this often affects the way we interact with people. As a white person, I don’t want to hear about it or talk about it. I’d rather just let it be.

What we, as whites, really don’t like to admit is that we continue to benefit largely from racial policies that we would rather believe are over and done with. In fact, one of the greatest factors in the prolongation of racism is our refusal to admit to our white privileges.

In Race Scholar Peggy McIntosh’s essay “White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Backpack,” she lists 50 privileges we have—but often don’t think about—because we are white. Among them are being able to shop in a store without being followed or harassed, seeing our race well-represented on the cover of every newspaper, and buying Band-Aids that will always be the same color as our skin.

Think back to your high school “Global Studies” course. What do you remember? Chances are, you’ll remember the Renaissance artists, the Vikings, the Spanish Inquisition, and maybe the War of 1812. Look at your Core syllabus. Except for the requisite Toni Morrison novel, the required reading for your entire college career is manipulated by writers of European descent.

These are the benefits that come with the color of your skin.

It shouldn’t be like that. When you hear the words “welfare mother” you shouldn’t automatically picture a twenty-something uneducated black woman; nor should you immediately picture a middle-aged white man in a suit when you hear “corporate executive.” These, however, are the stereotypes that still exist in staggering numbers.

I am begging you to pay attention to it, to talk about it, to acknowledge it. Ask President Bridges why we don’t have an African-American Studies program at Whitman. Read the statistics, buy the books. Be aware of your white privilege and the way it affects your every move. And for the love of God, get pissed off.

This is not the way this country should be, and we can’t simply blame the current administration. A problem like this too easily gets swept under the rug, and wrongfully so. There is more to do. The cause didn’t die with Martin Luther King, Jr., as so many of us thought; it was not over with the Million Man March. Racism is still a thriving institution in this country, and its termination is long overdue.


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