You know what NIMBY stands for: Not in my backyard.
Back in 1892, a Supreme Court cased referred to as Plessy v. Ferguson said that segregation, i.e. separating people by race, was OK as long as the separate facilities, like schools and washrooms, were equal.
It was, in effect, a justification of NIMBY. You know, “We’re all for those negroes getting an education, starting a business and buying a home. Just not in my backyard.” Go figure. Brown v. Topeka Board of Education in 1954 said Plessy v. Ferguson was misguided and that separate, in reality, is always going to be unequal. It took 62 years to get a legal ruling declaring that NIMBY creates injustice.
That was a legal ruling. If you compare Proviso East High School with OPRF, you’ll quickly figure out that separate and unequal still exists. And that’s where NAMEX comes into play. It’s an acronym I made up for Not At My Expense.
In many ways NIMBY and NAMEX reinforce each other. Except for Claudia Medina and Ned Wagner, how many of us are doing much to improve Proviso East High School or the village of Maywood? We pay taxes to Proviso Township, grudgingly, because we feel like it’s money that disappears down a black hole (pun intended). We put up with the taxes, because NIMBY still works for us. We stay in town until our kids graduate from the eighth grade. School District 91 does a good job and housing and property taxes are more affordable here than in the towns east of Harlem and north of the railroad tracks.
In my case back in the 1990s, I sent my kids to Fenwick and that was at my expense, but that decision didn’t contribute anything, in effect, to make Brown v. Topeka a reality in the near west suburbs.
Right now in Forest Park, when it comes to race in particular and the quality of life in general, we’re doing all right. Nothing is perfect in this village with its big city access and small town charm, but those two characteristics themselves are worth quite a bit. On top of that, most of the institutions in town — library, community center, park, FPPD, FPFD, village government, churches, Chamber of Commerce — get a pretty high approval rating from me and most of the residents I know.
I interviewed Ms. Williams’ third-hour social studies class a few weeks ago to get their thoughts on Black History Month. All of them agreed that the teachers at the Middle School treated them fairly, color blind so to speak. But all of them added that they knew it isn’t always so outside this particular bubble, which many of them would soon be leaving to one degree or another.
Likewise, the black adults I talked to felt relatively safe and treated like human beings in this community — i.e. based on the content of their character rather than the color of their skin. But that’s if we confine our daily business inside the village limits of River Forest, Oak Park and Forest Park. OK, we might drive all the way to Caputo’s in Elmwood Park to buy some ethnic ingredients you can’t get anywhere else or to FitzGerald’s in Berwyn to hear some good live music. But when is the last time any of us spent money west of the Des Plaines River?
Not at my expense. “So what’s wrong with that?” we respond. “It takes all my energy to make life work in this village where I have a lot of things going for me. What do you expect? There were 13 homicides in Maywood last year. Look at the disparity in ratings between Proviso East and other schools within a roughly 10-mile radius:
Northside College Prep High School (9.5 miles): 100
Oak Park and River Forest High School (2.5 miles): 96
Lincoln Park High School (10.1 miles): 83
Addison Trail High School (10.3 miles): 60
Chicago International Charter School (8.4 miles): 23
North Lawndale Charter High School (6.7 miles): 5
Proviso East High School: 2
So here’s the reality. In terms of race we have a pretty good thing going here — as long as we stay within the boundaries of our lifestyle enclave. The reality is that if we want to make a difference, it will be at our expense.
Bryan Massingale, in Racial Justice and the Catholic Church, quoted Martin Luther King Jr.: “The great majority of Americans are suspended between opposing attitudes. They are uneasy with injustice but unwilling yet to pay a significant price to eradicate it.” That was in 1967.
Massingale himself puts it more bluntly: “Most Americans are committed to both interpersonal decency and systemic inequality.”
Again, I’m no hero. I sent my kids to Fenwick. But the reality remains: If NIMBY and NAMEX remain in force, the racial cup will remain half empty. It requires changing the system as well as individual attitudes, and for most of us who live here and are privileged — even though we might not recognize it — that means being willing to make changes at our expense.