I wrote this in 2008 and not much has changed. We’re still not talking to each other.
Discussing Race Relations: Where DO We Begin?
In this time when an African American male leads us into our future, how do we talk about a subject we haven’t talked about much in mixed company: our personal histories with race/racism?
Back when the Reverend Jeremiah Wright’s rhetoric threatened Barack Obama’s candidacy, I reflected in print on my own experience with racism. It made some people in my personal circle furious. To them I had dishonored my mother. I didn’t see it that way. We have to begin somewhere to talk about a subject we tiptoe around. To do that, each of us has to do some soul searching.
Here is some of mine.
I grew up on the south side of Chicago, close to the neighborhood (if not the neighborhood) where Michelle Obama grew up. By the mid 1960’s, most all whites had fled, leaving their beloved neighborhood to decline. And it did. This gorgeous, oak tree lined working class neighborhood, the largest parish in all of Chicago, was hit hard by red lining and racial discord. Any time an African American family moved in, the children in our neighborhood turned into its centurions. We broke windows, deflated tires and did whatever we could do to keep ‘them’ out. The adults were our silent conspirators.
I was T’ween age when one incident turned terribly wrong. A toddler sitting on the floor in the apartment her parents had just moved into was hit by shards of glass splayed when my ‘gang’ went on a window-breaking spree aimed at busting every window in the three flat multi-unit building. It was a transformational moment for me; my mother’s reaction factored in. The police surrounded the building. Neighbors responded to the noise; the corner quickly collected a crowd. As criminals are prone to do, I returned to the scene. One woman standing next to my mom recognized me as a culprit. Pointing, she yelled “You did this!” I stood next to my mom with my best friend standing next to me; both of us sweaty from running. My mother stepped in front of us and stared that woman down. My mom never spoke another word about it. Not ever.
My neighborhood was an Irish/Polish/Italian Catholic Daley Democrat stronghold. Since that time, many members of my family have changed political parties. Daley Democrats turned into Republicans. The acquisition of money has factored in as it does when some Democrats acquire money. Other family members switched to the party closer to their belief system about race. So I’ve had this fantasy. In it, Michelle Obama and I stroll through my old neighborhood tripping down memory lane and sharing stories the way women do. She would have been around the age of that little girl that my ‘gang’ could have seriously hurt that day. I would tell Michelle Obama what we did not know back then. ‘Red lining’ triggered the panic and mass exodus from Chicago’s inner city; a tactic perpetrated by Chicago real estate leaders of that time, white men in search of more money.
Had we had the advantage of interfacing with community organizers back then, they might have educated us about this strategy some dishonorable realtors and politicians employ to make more money. Perhaps community organizers could have helped us find balance in our neighborhood. Perhaps, they could have helped us all find a way to stay there; all of us living with each other.
My extended family resides in Chicago suburbs now. They are devoted to family and very hard working. That said, I couldn’t imagine any of those who left the Democratic Party voting for an African American. They lost their beloved neighborhood where two generations thrived. They never found it again. We’ve got to get to these roots; it’s where a lot of bad blood is buried.
If Michelle Obama’s parents did move their young family into my neighborhood back then, they lived a guarded life, too. I have no doubt. It was a hate filled community. News footage from that time offers documentation.
So I fantasize about walking down the streets of Chicago’s Southside with Michelle Obama talking the way women do about our life experiences and how they shape us: the good, the bad and the ugly.