Weekly Reflection, June 22, 2017

I moved to Chicago in June of 1976, subletting a room in an apartment in Hyde Park near the University of Chicago, where I was enrolled in a Master of Arts in Teaching program.  My best friend Eric came to live with me for a few weeks before heading off on some post-college adventures, and we often went to an outdoor basketball court a block north of where we lived to play in pickup games.

I wasn’t good at basketball, but Eric was.  He built up a good reputation among the locals. They were all African-American, kids and young men, almost all from Kenwood, a poor neighborhood with a high crime rate just north of Hyde Park. Thanks to Eric, they treated me with kindness and respect despite my manifest limitations on the court.

It took me a little while to notice that none of them ever ventured further south, not even by a block.  They would have crossed the invisible boundary that marked the University’s security perimeter, and been subject to very close scrutiny, later called “profiling” (I was too, but for different reasons; once that same year I was sitting in a parked car on a Kenwood street waiting for a friend, when an African-American police officer asked me if I was OK, and advised me not to linger). Better just to stay north of 53rd St.  And just as the Kenwood contingent looked out for its own interests, so did the University, which could only thrive if its students felt safe. The security perimeter made sure they did.

Hatred underlies some, but not all, expressions of racism. Many are woven into the communal and institutional fabric even, perhaps especially, of liberal bastions like Hyde Park in Chicago and Northwest Washington DC.  Anxious to protect our interests and fortify our sense of personal rectitude, we avert our gaze, and racism entrenches itself yet more deeply in our midst.  The arrangements we accept as legitimate accommodations do as much damage as the ugliness we readily condemn.  If this were not the case the sin of racism, and all other sins, would lose much of their power.

John Graham