Local leaders missed a chance to reduce racial anxieties

Opinion

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Carl Nyberg

'Black people ruined the world," a neighbor told me. I'm glad he didn't say the N-word because then he would have been a racist.

I didn't argue with the guy. It seemed kind of pointless to argue with someone who thought there were no worthwhile fashions after 1943. The so-called "greatest generation" may have endured the Great Depression and defeated Imperial Japan and Nazi Germany, but they also handed down a legacy of segregation and racism and engineered the debacle in Vietnam.

Liberals righteously tell people public schools should be equal for blacks and whites, but equality feels like a threat to lower-middle class whites. They fear the most expedient road to equality is to bring their children down to the level of black kids, while at the same time denying white children the advantage of affirmative action in college and professional school admissions. The applicant who has the toughest challenge to get into college, they think, may be the poor white kid who went to a substandard majority-black high school.

When the West Side changed from mostly white homeowners to becoming the home for many black Americans, some white homeowners lost property value in the panic. Liberals from outside the affected neighborhoods judgmentally decried white flight. But families with their entire net worth invested in their homes faced only bad options.

Forest Park in 2006, however, isn't the West Side in the 1960s. Yes, black and Latino families are moving into Forest Park, but home values are going up faster than in surrounding communities.

If housing values are going up, why object to black and Latino families moving to Forest Park? It makes Forest Park different than it was. Madison Street is different than it was. Is this a problem too?

There are at least three different approaches Forest Parkers can take to change: resist change, work to make change less traumatic, and avoid change by leaving the community.

I was disappointed by how Mayor Anthony Calderone and Village Administrator Michael Sturino responded to concerns about the elementary schools being invaded by out-of-district students. The police department also seems to reinforce the idea that people who look like "outsiders" are more likely to be engaged in crime. How is Jane Q. Forest Parker supposed to identify which teenagers are outsiders? Could it be by the color of their skin?

Maybe I had an advantage over Calderone and Sturino. When the issue of out-of-district students arose in the past, I called Superintendent Randy Tinder and asked him about it. If Dr. Tinder returned my calls, I assume he'd return calls from Calderone or Sturino. It's a good idea to get the facts before speaking about policy issues.

Yes, there are students who return to parents who live outside Forest Park. But most of these students have a legal guardian living in Forest Park too. Yes, there are more black and Latino students in Forest Park elementary schools than in the past. There's nothing intrinsically nefarious about this. Black and Latino families are allowed to buy homes and don't need special authorization to live in Forest Park.

If Calderone and Sturino were more responsible leaders, they would have either helped the residents at the crime forum deal with their anxieties or at least said the village would check into the issue and get back to them.

By validating concerns that are overblown and inappropriate, Calderone and Sturino missed an opportunity to work with residents to make change less traumatic.

Why are concerns about out-of-district students inappropriate?

If 1,000 students sign up for classes, then Forest Park elementary schools have to provide teachers and facilities for 1,000 students. If during the year 10 students are forced to withdraw because of residency issues, then the school district loses the reimbursement from the state for those 10 students without being able to cut any major expenses in response. Expelling non-residents costs the district money in the current year. Over time it makes sense for the district to be reasonably vigilant. The district doesn't want to gain more and more students on the attendance rolls year after year because it's indifferent to the issue. But the perception that there is a black conspiracy to sponge off Forest Park taxpayers is inaccurate and, well, racist.

Tinder explained that parents typically have a work or child care situation that makes Forest Park schools more convenient than the school in the district of the parent's legal residence. Or the student may have started school in Forest Park elementary schools as a resident and wants to finish with her/his friends.

I met a woman recently pushing for her child to get an intra-district transfer in Bellwood. Her mother works at one of the schools in Bellwood as a crossing guard. Her child could go to grandma's house after school if she attended grandma's school instead of the school serving the woman's address. Is it inappropriate for the woman to ask for a permissive transfer within the district?

Crossing from district to district is different from moving within a district, but the motivations for non-residents using Forest Park public schools are usually similar to the Bellwood case-not just a plot by dark-skinned "outsiders" to increase Forest Park's property taxes.

Another manifestation of Forest Park's racial anxieties is the effort some people are making on the Internet to link Commissioner Patrick Doolin to Maywood, African-Americans, and black street gangs. Doolin has announced his challenge to Calderone in next year's mayoral election.

This is another opportunity for Calderone to show leadership by telling his supporters to knock it off.

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