Jamila Williams gave her third period, eighth-grade class a homework assignment in preparation for a discussion on race held at Forest Park Middle School on Feb. 4: Ask your parents or grandparents what the race situation was like when they were in eighth grade. The assignment was part of the work they are doing for Black History Month.

Most of their parents told stories of getting along with other races in the 1980s, back when they were 14 years old. Nakeya Smith, who identifies as African American and Native American, said, “My step-daddy said he went to a mixed school in a Mexican and Caucasian neighborhood and that he didn’t relate to other races much, but when he did, they got along fine.”

“My mother went to an all-white high school,” said Abria Whitehead. “She said she got along with every race. They were nice to her, so she was nice to them.”

“My mom is black and my dad is white,” said Jenny Bowman. “They each grew up in neighborhoods where everyone was the same, and so they didn’t hang around with people of other races. They met in college. That’s where they started to experience people who had different colored skin. They didn’t have any particular bias against anyone, but the only time they had seen other races was on TV.”

Aldo Carrizales said his father grew up in Mexico without a real education, but when he came to the Chicago area, a white man gave him a job, and that’s why they have some financial security today.

It was the grandparents, however, who revealed how much things have really changed. “I interviewed my grandpa,” said Anyiah Thornton. “His family was the second black family to move into Roseland, and in 1968 [when Chicago was in the throes of rioting] they were confined to a two-block radius. They couldn’t cross Cottage Grove or King Drive without fearing for their lives because they were surrounded by white people who didn’t like them.

“When he went on a vacation in Mississippi,” she added. “It was the first time he had ever been called ‘boy.’ I feel like there is still racism, but it was way worse when he was in school.”

“My granddad was from Tennessee,” said Cameron Hollins. “He had to sit with ‘his group’ in the back of the bus. He tried to sit with the white kids at school and get to know them, but when he did, he’d get beat up. He went to college in the North and moved to Bellwood where it was nice and quiet and safe.”

There was a consensus in the class that race relations in Forest Park Middle School are pretty good. Catherine Clarke, whose mother is white and father Mexican, said she gets along with everybody in the school “for the most part.” When Williams pushed her a little on the “for the most part” and asked if the reason she didn’t get along as well with some people was because of their race or personality, Clarke answered, “their personality.”

Leadrick Hill said, “At lunch I sit with five people who are Mexican and I’m the only black person at the table. It’s nothing weird or anything. We have sat together since the sixth grade. We all get along well because we know each other well.”

Samantha Apraham, who designated herself as simply “American,” said, “I sit with a diverse table — Jenny, Catherine and a couple others.” Regarding tables at which everyone is of the same race, she said, “I see a lot of tables where everyone is of the same race. That doesn’t bother me.”

Keaira Randle is one of the students who eats lunch at one of those tables. She said, “I sit at a table with my own race. It’s not that I have anything against a different race. I just prefer my own race.”

Ariaun Scott explained, “I sit at a table with mainly black kids. It’s not that I don’t talk to any other race. I get along with other races and talk to them, but it’s just easier to sit with my own race. I can relate to them more. With other races, we don’t talk about the same things and don’t think alike. With other races it will work eventually, but it takes longer.”

“I sit at the same table with Ariaun,” Jazmyn Peoples added. “We’ve been sitting at the same table since sixth grade. It’s just easier, but I get along with other races fine.”

Demirus Dunbar pointed out that, at least for African Americans, their experience of race might be different than black kids at other schools because they comprise not an overwhelming majority but over half of the students. The statistics for the middle school are:

  • Black: 53.8 percent
  • Hispanic: 17.2 percent
  • White: 16.2 percent
  • Multiracial/ethnic: 7.2 percent
  • Asian: 4.8 percent
  • Native American: 0.7 percent

[The 19 students interviewed in Ms. Williams’ class self-identified racially as follows: African American (4), black and white (2), Mexican (2), mixed African American and Mexican (1), African American and Irish (1), Latino (Puerto Rican) (1), African American and Native American (1), Black/White/Indian (1), White (Irish) (1), Black/French/Irish/Native American/German (1), German/Mexican (1), White (English/Norwegian/Swedish) and Spanish (Mexican) (1), American (1).]

Williams’ eighth-graders are very aware of the stories of Travon Martin and Laquan McDonald. When asked if they have fears that the same kind of thing could happen to them, Ariaun Scott answered confidently, “I’m not afraid to walk to school. I’m not afraid of anybody. I stand up for myself.” 

But when pushed by Williams, she acknowledged that “in Forest Park it’s kind of diverse so I’m not afraid here, but downtown and stuff, when I’m surrounded by white people, I get a little scared.”

When asked what they think their children will say about race 20 years from now when they are in the eighth grade, Nakeya Smith replied, “It might get a little better, but I don’t know. In some parts of the country it’s not an issue, but in other parts it is.”

“I honestly think that you can’t completely erase racism,” said Jenny Bowman. “There will always exist people who believe there are people who are less than them. Not everyone is like that. The least we can do is try to make sure that it isn’t as big as it was before.”

Catherine Clarke agreed. “In 20 years, I think at least the problem will improve, but like Jenny said, it won’t ever go away.”

Perhaps that view of the future explains why so many in Williams’ class expressed an intense resolve to get a good education, almost an “I’ll show them” attitude. 

Keaira Randle said, “As African Americans we are criticized because some whites think we can’t do what they can do. If we don’t get educated, we’ll in effect be proving them right.”

Ariaun Scott began by saying that at the middle school the teachers treat everyone equally but added that often outside of Forest Park and in other situations, “I have to try harder than white students simply because I’m black. Like former President Bush said, he graduated as an average student and became president of the United States. If I graduate with a C average, I won’t even be able to get a job.”

“I agree with Ariaun,” said Anyiah Thornton. “We have to try harder than everyone else, which should not be, but that’s how it is.”

Leadrick Hill put it this way: “I feel like we have to be educated about the world because some people think we don’t know such things and use that against us to have power over us. We have to overcome that and become educated so we can make a change in the world.”