More lenses: Racism

I am from the Chicago area. I was born in Zion and raised in Waukegan. I have lived in Round Lake, St. Charles, Evanston, Oak Park, and Chicago (the city I will always call home.)


Zion was a town formed by the Christian Catholic Church as sort of a separatist community. The church owned all the property, stores, etc. They had a couple of factories (if you lived in the area for a long long time maybe you remember the Zion brand of cookies (best darned fig bars ever)). The church needed workers so they advertised in the bible belt. So the population of Zion had family connections to rural Mississippi and Alabama, even 30 years after Zion became a real town. Now there were blacks in Zion, but you really didn’t see them much. I was born here prior to the civil rights movement so there were strong anti-black sentiments and attitudes. (My parents rejected racism as best they could, they were from Madison, WI that hotbed of liberalism.)


Waukegan was a little more progressive, yet there was still a segregation. Blacks had their neighborhoods, whites theirs. The grade schools and junior high schools were segregated due to districting. I did not attend school with a black person until high school in spite of the fact that my neighborhood was in close proximity to the black neighborhood (I had black friends whose houses I walked to, yet they didn’t go to my school, which was closer for them). I was lucky enough to watch this change over the years.


Zion, too became more integrated over the years. I think people learned that people are people. White and black living side by side when not so many years before they would never. Zion became a poor community, poor whites, poor blacks living side by side. Maybe not hanging out together, but living together.


Now I must talk about Winthrop Harbor. As late as the 1980s it was rumoured that the Imperial Wizard or Grand Dragon of the KKK lived there. No blacks lived in the town. When I was with the blues band and we were the house band at a club in Winthrop Harbor, I’d try to get my black musician friends to stop by and play. Well, they felt it unsafe for them to be in town after dark. Whether there was a real threat or not, these people actually felt one.


When I lived in the city of Chicago, I lived in several different areas. The North side was ethnically diverse when I lived in Wrigleyville. Little Italy over by the University of Illinois had at one time been Italian, but because of the university it had become diverse. We lived just blocks from the Abla Homes on Racine (I lived in these projects for a time too.) Then we moved into Bridgeport. Bridgeport was pretty white and racist, there and Canaryville. Matter of fact while we lived there a 13 year old black kid was beaten almost to death by two whites for daring to ride his bicycle through the neighborhood, this would have been 1997. Think he was in a coma for awhile and awoke brain damaged.


Prison in Illinois was quite integrated, the divisions were along gang lines with each major faction having members of all races. I was shocked at the racism in the California prisons.

I was arrested while walking through the Abla Homes for being white in a black neighborhood. I had a black lawyer who was incensed by me being a victim of racial profiling. The judge saw it exactly the same as if I had been black in a white neighborhood. Interesting because this was a single incident for me, but for blacks in white neighborhoods it is a frequent occurrence. Another day, when I was staying in the projects (Abla) I was walking with a friend or two, I was the only white guy. A young black man, a teen probably, it was dark, who was loaded accosted me (verbally, though there was some body language/positioning) for being white and the hundreds of years of oppression his people experienced at the hands of “my” people. My black friends almost got violent, I stopped them. Let this kid have his say, I am sure he has experienced worse from those who look like me. The kid didn’t really know how to deal with that and just sort of walked away. I saw this young man the next day or day after. He apologized and we were friendly after that.

As the song goes, “I’ve seen the goodside of bad, and the downside of up and everything between.” I have come to believe people are people and like Josie Wales tells Ten Bears, “Governments don’t live together, people do. With governments you don’t always get a fair shake….I’m saying men can live together.” From what I have seen and experienced people can set aside their racist tendencies when they can break away from the systems that encourage racism. That young man accosting me was a systemic evil manifesting itself in him for a moment, a systemic evil he had experienced from very early on. Yes, I could have taken offense, I never did anything to him, I never called him a n*&&%^, I was being falsely accused, yet I wasn’t. By accident of birth I inherited the legacy of my race and gender. I chose not to be offended, that in itself took the fight out of him and led to dialog and friendliness later.


I’m not sure any of this makes any sense to anyone. This is my limited America

    • Rebecca Trotter
    • June 23rd, 2012

    I really admire the way you dealt with the young man who accosted you. We are all so busy looking out for ourselves that we forget to actually look at each other, imo. If there is one thing I wish more white people could do it would be to stop being defensive and just listen. Don’t take things personally. Really look at the “other” and let yourself see the hurt and pain that they carry. When you do that you can come along side them and help to carry the load and heal the wounds.

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