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Barack, Gates, and America’s Most Segregated City

A reporter asked me recently how I feel, as a Jew, when I tour in Germany. I said I feel like a ghost–in every major city there’s a Jewish museum with an armed guard outside, housing relics of a people who’ve vanished. At the same time, I find that history weighs heavily on people, making them grave and thoughtful.  I never feel more fully engaged with the people I meet than I do in Germany.

I wonder sometimes how our history weighs on us European Americans, not just the history of slavery, of Jim Crow and lynch mobs, but of the deliberate creation of a poverty-ridden ghetto in a city like Chicago.

In April, 1917, the Chicago Real Estate Board drew up a plan for block-by-block segregation. Housing would be opened to Negroes in an adjoining block only when every unit in the current block held an average of four people per room.

Chicago’s realtors adhered enthusiastically to this plan until it was finally declared illegal in the late 1960’s. The city was by then the most segregated in the nation, a dubious title which the Chicago Tribune says still stands today. Not only that, the forced over-crowding created poverty-ridden slums. Schools in the black community were never funded at the level they were in white neighborhoods.

One of the programs I support in Chicago is called Girls in the Game, which provides a combination of sports, health, and self-esteem education to about 2,000 Chicago public school girls. The need is particularly important for black and latina girls, because recess and physical education have all but disappeared from schools in Chicago’s non-white neighborhoods. It’s cheaper, and easier, to keep kids penned up all day, cramming rote memorization down their throats so they’ll do better on test scores.

In many Chicago public schools, children are punished for speaking to each other in the lunch room. The now-dead and unmourned Henry Horner homes on State Street were dubbed “Public Penitentiaries” when the first Mayor Daley built them: many of our city’s schools take on that role today.

Boys have as much need for physical exercise as girls, but for them, at least, there are organized sports programs after school. Girls in the Game reaches about 1 percent of Chicago’s public school girls. It’s a drop in the bucket, but at least someone is putting in a drop.

I thought about this history during the recent brouhaha over Professor Gates and the Cambridge police. When the great John Hope Franklin taught history at the University of Chicago, his teenaged son was stopped by the police when he was going up the steps to his home.

When Barack Obama was first elected to the Illinois legislature, he also taught at the University of Chicago law school. One of his colleagues, a friend of mine, told me back then that Barack had been stopped by Illinois State police for driving while black between Chicago and Springfield. The President has never alluded to his own experience with Chicago’s fraught racial history, but that might explain his own off-the-cuff remark about the Cambridge police when he first heard of the incident.

I don’t know how we move away from the slums and the gangs they foster to a vibrant city.  I don’t know how we get a mayor who’s not much interested in such problems to pay attention to them.  I guess I don’t know much, so if anyone has helpful advice–pass it on.

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