While it’s become quite common for social-justice-oriented community groups to begin their events with an acknowledgment that the panel/forum/workshop is taking place on land once violently usurped by white colonists from this or that Native American tribe, the practice hasn’t yet become typical of more mainstream civic circles. But on Tuesday morning, as the Metropolitan Planning Council unveiled an extensive new report detailing strategies for achieving racial equity in the Chicago region, MPC vice president Marisa Novara emphasized that the conversation about remedying segregation must begin at the beginning.
“We recognize that discussing people of color in the simple binary of African-Americans and Latinos is incomplete,” Novara told dozens of local government officials, business executives, and community leaders who packed the Gallery Guichard in Bronzeville. “Where we stand today is the traditional homeland of the Ho-Chunk and other Native Americans who’ve lived in the Chicago area for over 10,000 years and continue to today. And we name colonialism and the removal of indigenous people as some of the earliest acts of segregation and discrimination in this country.”
With that, a series of speakers and panels touted progress in racial equity efforts by local government, corporations, and nonprofits; discussed shortcomings; and outlined visions for a more integrated future in all aspects of life in Chicago.
The MPC’s report is sweeping in its scope. Last year, the group published an analysis of the financial and human cost of segregation for the region: $4.4 billion in income, some 83,000 college degrees, and hundreds of lives lost each year. With this follow-up report, the group wanted to identify concrete strategies for remedying racial inequity. In collaboration with 100 advisers it came up with 24 proposals—some brand-new, others already in the process of being implemented—targeting economic development, wealth creation, housing, education, and the criminal justice system.
Some of the recommendations are rather general, such as that the region should “prioritize and measure economic growth that creates opportunities for everyone,” or that Chicago should “ensure affordable [housing] units are leased to those most in need.” But other ideas are much more specific: MPC recommends more cooperation between suburban municipalities and the Cook County Land Bank Authority, which works to promote redevelopment of unused property; the passage of a state law to create universal child savings accounts; the curtailing of aldermanic prerogative in affordable-housing development; merging geographically proximate schools to integrate students; and eliminating money bail.
But the organization has also emphasized that creating social change begins at home—or, as it were, at the office. The speakers told the audience about steps their organizations have taken to achieve greater racial equity in their workplaces and through the services they provide. The heads of banks and philanthropic organizations spoke of their experiences in “racial equity training” and advised everyone to work on undoing race-neutral professional codes that hamper rather than fuel workplace diversity. They also shared personal stories about benefiting or suffering from segregation.
Cook County Board president Toni Preckwinkle, not usually known for sentimentality, talked about growing up in an almost completely white neighborhood in Saint Paul, Minnesota. “It was a place in which I had more opportunity but missed the connections to the broader African-American community,” she said. “I learned that I can be successful in an environment that is not predominantly African-American,” she explained, but added that she was also frequently called the N-word by other kids. “It made me, in a way, more courageous. Because I know I never have to be six, or seven, or eight again and have to fight my way home from school,” she said. “I’m not afraid of white people.” Nevertheless, she said she was glad her children didn’t have to grow up in the same circumstances. “I was in a strange way empowered by that awful experience and also damaged.”
Preckwinkle underscored her commitment to racial equity by talking about the main public health and criminal justice initiatives undertaken in Cook County during her tenure: bail reform efforts have reduced the jail and juvenile detention populations, and the County Care program has expanded medical insurance to more than 340,000 local residents.
“I have struggled in that space of being a ‘race-neutral’ person,” said Joe Neri, the white CEO of IFF, one of the country’s largest community development financial institutions. He described his upbringing in various progressive white communities such as Santa Cruz, California, and Grinnell, Iowa, explaining that living in places like that “creates this scenario where you get this comfort about being race neutral and it begins to make you think that being race neutral is the goal. . . . It’s the problem.” He said developing a personal consciousness about his own role in perpetuating segregation has been a challenge, but that he and his organization are striving to achieve racial equity in deciding who to hire and which nonprofits to fund.
Julie Morita, commissioner of the Chicago Department of Public Health, described the stigmatization of Japanese-Americans after Pearl Harbor as a by-product of their segregation on the west coast and talked about her family’s experience in Japanese internment camps. She said that a large proportion of the CDPH staff participated in a three-day anti-racism training last year, which left many of them feeling “a bit raw,” but caused the department to review its hiring practices, expand foreign language requirements for staff, and focus on racial equity in its services. “Health equity is really race equity,” she said.
The recommendations of MPC’s report and the tone of Tuesday’s event didn’t seem novel because of what was being said but rather because of who was saying it. If high-ranking public officials, business leaders, and philanthropists are ready to talk about America as a country that began with violent white colonization and publicly reject the idea of “color blindness” or “race neutrality,” then perhaps Chicago can finally take a tiny step toward—not away from—integration.
“The point of an explicit commitment to racial equity as a municipality is acknowledging that we have stark inequities in our neighborhoods,” Novara told the Reader on the eve of the report’s release. “For too long we as a country have tried to address inequities with race-neutral language and race-neutral policies that ignore the reality that people in this country do not have a race-neutral experience.”