Most Review readers know at least a little bit about the racial incident that happened at a Madison Street bar on July 9, which led to a Facebook post, which was shared over 500 times, and which led to a protest march from the middle of Oak Park to the corner of Madison and Circle in Forest Park.
As I followed these events — which, incidentally, led to a face-to-face meeting between the leaders of the march and the bar owner and some of his associates on July 19 — it struck me that Oak Park and Forest Park are heading in the same direction when it comes to racial justice.
The difference between the two is not the destination but how to get there. And the decision on “how to get there” is influenced by how each community sees itself, i.e. its self-image.
Oak Park’s image of itself, and the one it markets to non-residents, is that it is special, a city on a hill, a model for other communities to copy. And it’s been that way for most of the time it has been occupied by non-native residents. In an Op-Ed piece in Wednesday Journal (July 10, 2012), Rob Breymaier, executive director of the Housing Center, celebrated the success of what he called the Oak Park Strategy, an intentional effort to maintain racial balance since 1972.
“It has proven,” he wrote, “to be the most sustainable, successful effort to promote suburban integration in the country.”
That self-image, in part, motivated residents of Oak Park to respond to reports of an incident in Forest Park by staging a march. The image of Oak Parkers marching to Forest Park is telling. The march illustrates not only how Oak Parkers see themselves as a model to be emulated but also how they view their responsibility to work for change in neighboring communities.
At its best, Oak Park’s missionary zeal to improve the lives of those living outside its village limits is noble and caring. At its worst it is pretentious and condescending and can serve as a means of denying and/or avoiding what needs to be done at home.
Forest Parkers, in contrast, don’t see themselves as models to be emulated. If a racial incident happened in Oak Park — and, according to my friends of color who live there, they happen fairly often — Forest Parkers would never think of organizing a march into Oak Park.
The “moral ecology,” to use N.Y. Times columnist David Brooks’ term, in Forest Park includes “loving your neighbor as yourself,” and if you ask, ‘Who is my neighbor?’ residents will most likely answer, “Why, the people I bump into every day.” It’s all about local. There’s not much zeal to tell the Forest Park story to other communities.
Quietly, and without much recognition from the outside, Forest Park in its own way has become significantly more diverse than its neighbor to the east. Compare the following data from the 2010 census.
Race Forest Park Oak Park
White 55.20% 67.70%
Black 32.35% 21.65%
Hispanic 9.87% 6.79%
Asian 5.98% 4.84%
Native American .27% .18%
I see it lived out in Louie’s Grill every week. The most amazing mix of race, class and culture comes in every day for tasty, non-gourmet, relatively low-cost food served by a staff that really doesn’t care what you look like. It’s not part of an ideology they learned in college. It’s just who they are. It’s just who Forest Park is. It’s less political correctness and more ethical common sense, which they still believe is common to most people.
Eighth-graders at Forest Park Middle School — where black students are 53.8% of the student body, Hispanics are 17.2% and whites make up 16.2% — had this to say about where their school is at in terms of race. Ariaun Scott began by saying that at the middle school, teachers treat everyone equally, but outside of Forest Park and in other situations, “I have to try harder than white students simply because I’m black.”
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 sixth grade. We all get along well because we know each other well.”
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.”
Notice that those two adolescents, along with many others in their class, speak very pragmatically about race relations. They weren’t looking through an ideological lens. In fact, Jenny Bowman articulated Forest Park’s down-to-earth attitude and approach to race when she said, “I honestly think you can’t completely erase racism. 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.”
My point is not that one approach to race relations is better than the other. I’m trying to point out what I noticed during the interaction between Oak Parkers and Forest Parkers regarding the racial incident in the bar. The bar owners and staff were frankly baffled by the viral Facebook post and the march. It wasn’t much ado about nothing for them as much as it was, “We thought we had it all settled that night. We talked about it, apologized, said it would never happen again, shook hands and thought it was over.”
To the credit of the Oak Parkers, they connected the small, local incident with what has happened in American history and what has been happening in the nation and the world. To the credit of the Forest Parkers, they didn’t connect it with any of that. They saw it as a small incident and responded to it as such. They thought, “Let’s not throw the gasoline of the world’s sins on what amounts to a burning match. As painful as that experience was to some individuals, the house in fact was not and is not burning down. Let’s just blow out the flames as they appear, one match at a time.”
The question that Forest Parkers think but don’t often say out loud is, “We hear you, but how much do you want to learn from us? We don’t want to be a model of anything, but at the same time we’re doing OK with this racial thing. What we need are travelling partners, not travel guides.”