A resident greets a demolition worker while one of two twin buildings is torn down (57th Place (The Area), October 2012)
Gubernatorial candidate Chris Kennedy took a lot of flak for accusing the Emanuel administration of deploying a “strategic gentrification plan” aimed at forcing African Americans and other people of color out of Chicago to make the city “whiter” and wealthier.
Back in January, he said, “I believe that black people are being pushed out of Chicago intentionally by a strategy that involves disinvestment in communities being implemented by the city administration.”
Referring to Chicago Public Schools’ then-plan to close all four of the high schools in Chicago’s South Side Englewood neighborhood a year before a new one was opened, he added “It’s just a device to empty out the community.”
Something about those remarks never quite sat right with me. This weekend as I watched a screening of The Area, a documentary about the displacement of more than 400 African-American households from the northeast corner of Englewood for a railyard expansion, I realized why: The truth is worse than Kennedy describes. Here’s why: There is no single malevolent actor causing the massive loss of black households from Chicago. It’s way more complex than that. And it’s infinitely harder to fix.
No doubt, there are some clear villains in the film: a railroad company engaging in modern-day panic peddling to get homeowners to sell, mortgage lenders that prey on residents with misleading information, and an alderman who knows the big picture but doesn’t use that knowledge to help homeowners collectively bargain.
But to me, the biggest villain is structural racism—that is, the systems that perpetuate inequitable outcomes by race, regardless of intent.
Watching as the film painstakingly documents the loss of home and community, family after family, I found myself thinking of Kennedy’s comments and asking myself whether the players involved— railroad company executives, government and elected officials—were intent on pushing black people out of the city of Chicago? I think the answer is, not necessarily. It’s clear that the railroad wants these households off of this specific stretch of land, but they don’t particularly care where they go after that.
It’s actually the nonchalance of it all that is stunning to me. It’s difficult to wrap my mind around the fact that the individuals involved didn’t have to set out to deliberately hurt black people in order to in fact do so. And this is something that happens over and over again; this time, it just happened to be caught on film.
This is exactly how systemic racism operates: You don’t have to do anything special to make it happen. Systems do what they were designed to do.
In the words of Ijeoma Oluo, author of So You Want to Talk About Race:
“The truth is, you don’t even have to “be racist” to be a part of the racist system…It’s the system, and our complacency in that system, that gives racism its power, not individual intent…Systemic racism is a machine that runs whether we pull the levers or not, and by just letting it be, we are responsible for what it produces. We have to actually dismantle the machine if we want to make change.”
What we know about structural racism is that simply letting things unfold is not neutral.
A century of individual and systemic racism formed the backdrop for the railroad expansion. By the time the proposed expansion was on the table, this ‘Area’ of Englewood was already pocked with vacant lots and low land values, making the decision to displace 400 additional households for private sector expansion seemingly a simple case of “highest and best use” for low-value, underutilized land. Systemic injustice makes the next act of injustice ostensibly logical and inevitable.
Maybe we want to believe that people care enough to actively plot for the demise of black people in this city, because maybe this truth is worse: You don’t have to try, and it happens anyway. You would have to actually try for it to not happen.
What we know about structural racism and what we see play out in this film is that simply letting things unfold is not neutral. That’s the insidiousness of structural racism; unless we proactively organize against it, it will condemn us to do its damage. And while individual actions matter, it is not enough to individually be anti-racist. It is necessary but woefully insufficient.
How could a racial equity framework have changed what occurred in The Area? The most glaring difference that jumps out to me is that the railroad would not have been allowed to pick off homeowners one by one, such that, as community leader Deborah Payne described, much of the damage had already been done by the time residents understood the magnitude of what was happening. For government and elected officials, the imperative is to balance the power dynamics; in the face of organized money, the least those in power must do is to provide the full information and time needed to organize people. There is a role for philanthropy, too, in supporting the proactive engagement of residents in organizing around their collective self-interest. There is tremendous strength in local, grassroots resistance, but it is exploitative to rely on the unpaid labor of busy people to resist the powerful forces acting against them. And the costs can be steep: In the film, Ms. Payne ends up in the hospital with a stroke after two years of pounding the Area’s pavement in her spare time
By the end of the film, I found myself thinking of an urging from Holocaust survivor and writer Elie Wiesel: “We must take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented. Sometimes we must interfere.”
Are there those who intentionally want to run black people out of the city? I can’t say for certain. The worst part is, we don’t have to know individuals’ intent to see that it’s happening regardless. It’s time for us to take sides.
About the Film
The Area, the latest documentary feature from Scrappers Film Group, chronicles the five-year odyssey of a South Side Chicago neighborhood, where more than 400 African-American families are being displaced by a multi-billion-dollar freight company. The film follows homeowner-turned-activist Deborah Payne, who vows to be “the last house standing,” and the Row Row Boys, teen friends who must start new lives across gang lines.
For more information, visit theareafilm.com.