Dear white people: We don't need a torch to be part of the problem - Metropolitan Planning Council

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Dear white people: We don't need a torch to be part of the problem

Alyssa Pointer / Chicago Tribune

Homes of identical structure line the 4000 block of W. Cullerton St., Sunday, Mach 5, 2017, in the North Lawndale neighborhood.

Denouncing acts of blatant hatred and bigotry is easy. But those of us who are white people don't need to carry a torch to be part of the problem. The subjugation of people of color happens every day by those who would never march with citronella torches or drive a car through a throng of innocent protesters, by people who would recoil at being called racist.

Subjugation occurs by white people across the Chicago region who protest public and affordable housing under the polite cover of parking and density concerns; by white people across the state of Illinois who, knowing we are 50th in school funding equity, stand in the way of a bill that even timidly moves us away from penalizing poor students; and by white people across the country who voted for and still support a president who took days to condemn white supremacy.

This year, the Metropolitan Planning Council released a groundbreaking report on what it costs our region to be so segregated. Now, we are identifying proven policy solutions to change those patterns and it's given me the opportunity to talk to a lot of different folks in our region about race. Here's what I've learned in those conversations: Many white Americans don't even think of themselves as having a race at all. And that's a problem.

In fact, most whites experience such profound discomfort with being a racial minority that we will arrange our entire lives — from home to work to school — to avoid being in that situation. When we create what sociologist Eduardo Bonilla-Silva refers to as "whiteness as a lifestyle," we have all the ingredients to cease to see our race in our own minds.

In a recent conversation with a leader of a majority white area, I asked if people in that town considered it to be segregated. He seemed puzzled by the question. "No," he replied. "We're all white." In short, many whites see race as something only people of color possess. This erasure of whites' own race makes it difficult to see ourselves implicated in Chicago's deep segregation problems; after all, if all-white neighborhoods are simply "normal," how could they be part of the problem?

In my own experience as a racial and economic minority in the West Side neighborhood of North Lawndale, where I lived and worked for more than a decade, I found most white people at a loss as to how to talk with my family about living there. The most common comment we received from well-meaning progressives was "It's so great that you're raising your kids in such a diverse environment." North Lawndale — which is majority African-American and low-income — is many things, but it is not diverse. Yet for many whites, the word "diverse" is a stand-in for "not white." We don't even have the language to talk about race, let alone examine our own limitations.

White folks, here's something for us to chew on: If we are not part of any spaces that are racially and/or economically diverse, or in which our presence creates more diversity, then we are furthering segregation. If we are silent when issues of equity arise in our neighborhood or our town or our state, then we are part of the institutionalization of racism.

In the words of Chicago writer and artist Eve Ewing, there is no "segregation fairy." It's built and maintained by you and me and the choices we as white people make every day.

White people, we all have our own torches. What are yours, and what are you willing to do about them?

This article first appeared on August 15, 2017 on the Chicago Tribune's Commentary page.

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