Black and White and Wrong All Over

So now it’s finally: on record how perverted the Oak Park Regional Housing Center has become: the center’s “counselors” now don’t even bother to show Oak Park apartments to African-Americans and other blacks. Blacks can rent in Oak Park but there’ll be no help from the Housing Center, as there is to whites.

Going on 30 years old, the center–in the name of “diversity”–has strayed far away from its original mission and has delved into true steering. That’s the indication, anyway, from the October 27, 2000, cover article in the Chicago Reader about the Housing Center and its ubiquitous founder and former executive director, Oak Parker Bobbie Raymond.

Unfortunately titled “The Gatekeeper,” the profile-and-article focuses on Raymond and her still powerful hold on the Housing Center, which she founded in 1972 to insure long-lasting racial diversity in Oak Park. The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, fourth edition, 2000, defines “gatekeeper” this way: “1. One that is in charge of passage through a gate. 2. One who monitors or oversees the actions of others.”

So now the Housing Center, which this year will again get more than a half million in monies controlled by the village board, performs in, as Oak Parker Ron Lawless tells the Reader, an “integration system … based on whether or not we have enough blacks in Oak Park.”

The Housing Center for so many years has been a free service that helps people of all races find apartments with an eye toward improving the racial balance in Oak Park. But now the Housing Center’s Apartments West program recommends apartments to blacks only outside Oak Park. As a peripheral issue, there’s a major debate that continues to fester in the community about the size of African-American student population at a couple of Oak Park schools.

Forces aligned with the Housing Center have been leading the charge about so-called racial tipping points at the two schools, and I believe they’re misguided. It’s not important that a school–or an entire village–is, as the saying goes “majority minority,” it’s that no effort is made to also insure the racial integration of a predominantly white school in the northwest corner of the village.

That’s where Oak Park shows its inconsistency–maybe even hypocrisy. Much concern is expressed publicly and privately about the population and attitude of African-Americans in various areas: Oak Park-River Forest High School, black columnists in the local press, sitting together in school lunchrooms, and the like, but there’s little worry with all-white school activities, the all-white makeups on local policy-making boards, and other areas. And don’t villagers also have quite the racial double standard when it comes to being outspoken on public issues.

Instead of insulting blacks by discouraging the rental of apartments in Oak Park, the Housing Center needs to focus on the key to its success over the years: boosting demand for housing in the village by white people. It’s been shown over the years that white demand is needed to insure integration: in housing, business, good schools, and the rest. Given Oak Park’s expressed double standard, the steps the Housing Center and other Oak Park agencies have taken to boost white demand have themselves been viewed skeptically by many black residents, but they’ve been nowhere near as blatantly offensive as the Housing Center’s Apartments West tactics.

The Housing Center’s moves that focused on boosting white demand have benefited from federal court rulings that it’s not racial steering, but I wonder if the current no-blacks practice could survive legal scrutiny. I don’t believe it should.

If the Housing Center can’t succeed on that original level, it ought to be disbanded.

And before panic sets in from anyone reading, that does not mean the presence of “resegregation” dreaded by so many in Oak Park–and which in itself should be an arguable point. There’s nothing wrong with a majority-black, stable community with good public services and schools, but–to me anyway–it’s vastly preferable to live among different races and cultures. Given the current and sad thinking of too many whites, stable integration still can’t happen by accident.

If the Housing Center continues its offensive tactics–clearly now aimed at limiting the number of black residents in Oak Park–there will be no “resegregation” because blacks will continue to be discouraged from living here.

But the center’s original mission–again, boosting white demand–should not be abandoned. And neither should the other elements of Oak Park’s vaunted “managed integration” programs.

Continuation of those programs should be enough to insure our dream of a racially mixed community.

Keeping in touch with realtors and avoiding any hint of racial steering should remain. Keep the equity assurance program that insures home values, just in case. Keep offering the housing bond loan programs that encourage property upkeep. Get enforcement of housing codes–now done by the recently snazzily renamed Building and Property Maintenance Department–up to speed. Keep the restrictions on for-sale signs that encourage property turnover. Keep working with local banks and thrifts to avoid any hint of mortgage redlining.

Those and other steps are part of managed integration in Oak Park, which has worked and could continue to work without the Oak Park Regional Housing Center continuing to go way too far.