By Erick Johnson, Chicago Crusader
The question was “Do you believe that racism is still a significant issue in Chicago in 2017? And if yes, do you believe the racism experienced today is by intentional design?
“How much time do we have on this?,” one woman asked, sparking a burst of laughter across the room.
“Fifteen minutes,” replied the moderator.
And so the conversations began among 200 people who on Monday, May 15, crammed into a room at the Chicago Urban League headquarters at 4500 South Michigan Avenue. They were all part of an experiment that made some squirm and others boil during a candid discussion about a topic that’s tearing through Chicago and the rest of the country: race.
It was 8 a.m. that morning. Fresh from outings at fancy restaurants and Mother’s Day celebrations, things were about to get real and ugly. Time to talk about police profiling and how often Black people wash their hair or why Black teenagers have so many babies. For curious white people, it was time to ask the race questions that many are too afraid to ask. For many Blacks, it was time to listen, but for some, it was the opportunity to vent from years of frustration.
At one table, one Black woman pointed her finger at the other guests asking if they had any Black friends. She was loud and had a lot to get off her chest.
At table Number 10, things were more civil but nevertheless interesting. The table was mostly empty but among the people who were seated there was Cory Cassis, a white attorney who practices in Chicago. The other two people were Doresah Ford-Bey, an educational consultant and Philadelphia native who lives in Chicago. The other Black person was Chicago Police Commander Kenneth Johnson. As it turned out, he was among a diverse group of Chicago police officers who were at nearly every table participating in the experiment on race.
With the clock ticking, Cassis made the first attempt to answer the question of whether race is still an issue in Chicago in 2017.
“I don’t know if racism in Chicago was by design or not, but most Black neighborhoods tend to be the same and not in a good way. There is also segregation if not by distance, but by fine lines, the highway being one of them. I had heard- I don’t know if its true or not- that there was an intention to keep the highway-90/94 between certain classes.”
That’s when Doresah Ford-Bey, an educational consultant who is originally from Philadelphia, asked Cassis “Have you read Boss?”
“Huh?“ Cassis asked. Ford-Bey was referring to the 1971 book by the late prominent Chicago Sun Times journalist Mike Royo, who wrote about the dark side of late Chicago Mayor Richard J. Daley. Ford-Bey said she read the book and like many, believes that Interstate 90/94 was built to separate poor and affluent neigborhoods.
“Everything (in Chicago) is by design,” she told Cassis.
“Yeah exactly,” replied Cassis. “If you look at these neighborhoods now-and these were previously affluent neighborhoods-but look at food deserts, the lack of fresh foods available in certain neighborhoods. We were talking about the neighborhoods around the Museum of Science and Industry. If you look at the availability of quality foods it could be just 10 blocks apart. When you go on the North Side, it’s so dotted (with stores) that you can’t see if there is one (food desert).”
“There’s two things. I’m not from Chicago,” Ford-Bey said, following Cassis’ comments. “I’m from the Philadelphia area. There are a lot of similarities. Philadelphia is segregated – very much so. But the divisiveness I’ve seen in Chicago is unlike anything else I have seen. It’s a lot more political here. I came here to run an office. My office is a charter school office for Chicago Public Schools and I have a very diverse team. I re-read the Boss book because I was confused why my white employees who reported to me did not go past Roosevelt (Road). Like why can’t you go past Roosevelt? Aren’t you from Chicago? They said we don’t go past a certain street and I said “Our office is to serve all of Chicago. So if you feel like you can’t go past a certain street we have a problem.”
In Philadelphia, I had a very strong view about schools, especially charter schools because I saw who opened up charter schools. I’m in the background so I see what a lot of other folks don’t see. And then I get to go into the schools, and so when you’re in neighborhoods where kids are being taught by people who don’t look like them, and the folks who don’t look like them have a fear of them, and speak that fear of them, and they’re disciplined at an alarming rate, I think racism exists.
It’s definitely by design. It’s what you read in Boss and what you see now. The kids I worked with – because I mentor kids as well – I brought the cops in one day and these kids were so terrified. I told them ‘I’m bringing them in to help you. I’m not bringing them in to hurt you.’ And so there is that disconnect just in and of itself, where there are negative experiences. I don’t know how we can fix it. I just think there has to be a level of trust and there’s so much mistrust. I think a lot has to be done on different levels.
Cassis: “I guarantee you that this conversation has happened before, so where’s the disconnect? How do you get that effective communication, that effective connection where they can actually talk and really be open and honest?
Commander Johnson: I think we have to get police officers to step out of that barrier and open up themselves.
(Johnson spoke more, but his words were drowned out by the loud conversations coming from the other tables.)
Throughout the meeting, some leaders used the moment to express years of frustration from souring race relations. One of them, Chris Cleveland, chairman of the Chicago Republican Party said, “We in the Republican Party have been called racists regularly-frequently; every single day on social media and everywhere. What we’re doing today is reopening the dialogue. It’s time to start talking again. Republicans have answers for minorities in urban communities.
“When we Republicans say that Illinois needs a business friendly environment, it’s not because we’re Mr. Smithers and we hate employees. It’s because we understand that jobs do not come from a jobs fairy and that a good job is the single greatest social services program the world has ever known. This is what minorities in Chicago need. They need jobs.” Chicago Police Superintendent Eddie Johnson said having an open conversation about race is a step in the right direction.
“Talking about it in Chicago is difficult, but you will never ever change things unless you talk about it. Ignoring it just perpetuates the problem. We all know it exists. We can’t hide from it. We have to talk about it. That’s the only way we can effect change.”
Shari Runner, CEO of the Chicago Urban League said, “The divisiveness politically that we’re experiencing around the city and the country is really not helpful. We have made it our goal and our mission to really start talking about the things that divide us.”
This is the second year the Chicago Urban League has hosted an experiment on race. This year’s experiment was an “On the Table” event – an initiative of the Chicago Community Trust — bringing together people from diverse backgrounds and ideologies to focus on questions of race and equity.
The Urban League said it will have more conversations and gather more data as part of an effort to erase biases and assumptions that stand as a roadblock for Blacks.