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Considering Chicago and ‘The Case for Reparations’

Adrienne Samuels Gibbs  |  Rich Hein/Sun-Times

Adrienne Samuels Gibbs | Rich Hein/Sun-Times

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Updated: June 26, 2014 6:41AM

My father often told the story of how Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. came to Chicago in 1966, hung out on the West Side and abruptly left. He had been stoned by an angry mob while marching against housing segregation. When he left, King said Chicago’s racism was far more vicious than anything he’d seen in the South.

Tough words that still ring true.

Talented writer Ta-Nehisi Coates delved into the situation with his massively detailed June cover story for The Atlantic. Headlined “The Case for Reparations,” the heady piece asks us to fully consider how Chicago’s — and the country’s — systemic racism and discrimination policies tragically affect modern day lives. In an unusual move, the magazine posted the entire story online.

Within hours of the story’s release, Twitter exploded. Coates’ name and the story’s headline became trending topics. Essence magazine used it as the subject of a Twitter lunchtime debate, garnering hundreds of responses. Scott Stossel, The Atlantic’s editor, tweeted that you might not agree, but the story certainly highlights important facts. He’s right. The piece offers a good roundup of Chicago’s racial-political history and goes a long way toward explaining how decades of targeted social and government policy initiatives contribute to today’s economic and racial ills — hence, Coates says, the need for a real discussion about reparations.

This piece hits home, quite personally, for me. My grandparents arrived in Chicago around the same time that the story’s central character — Mr. Clyde Ross — arrived in North Lawndale. My family church, like so many in Lawndale, used to be an old Jewish temple that’s long since been rebuilt. A large chunk of my extended family lived on one block in K-town until one set of grandparents moved into all-white Gresham on the South Side. That was in 1966, the same year King left Chicago. By 1968 or so, according to my grandmother, Gresham was all black. Today? It and most of its surrounding neighborhoods are still mostly black. And struggling.

My parents and most of my uncles and aunts helped integrate Morgan Park High School (also my alma mater). My mother, who became a teacher, watched her father toil, underpaid, at the steel mill and saw her uncle serve as personal driver for the family behind the Hyatt name. My pops, against all odds, became an attorney who fought redlining policies with all his might. (He played the leading role in the Seaton v. Sky Realty case, which recognized racial discrimination as a tort.) I live southwest now — always have — but I know firsthand the effects of systemic neighborhood segregation. After my parents bought a house in Beverly, we came home from church one Sunday to find “N&*ggers go back to Africa” spray-painted on it. This was in 1983, weeks before Mayor Harold Washington was elected.

Coates’ journalism didn’t delve into my grandparents’ or parents’ histories, but he told a story familiar to most of black Chicago. Ross, originally from Clarksdale, Mississippi, moved to Lawndale in the 1920s and was tricked into a predatory, now illegal, lending situation. He and his neighbors tried to fight back legally, but they lost. And as such, that “trick” reverberates 50 years later, affecting prosperity and wealth. It also neatly ties into the ongoing story of inappropriate and unfair racially based lending policies that contributed to the nation’s current housing crisis.

Coates writes: “In the effort to uphold white supremacy at every level down to the neighborhood, Chicago — a city founded by the black fur trader Jean Baptiste Point du Sable — has long been a pioneer. The efforts began in earnest in 1917, when the Chicago Real Estate Board, horrified by the influx of southern blacks, lobbied to zone the entire city by race.”

Coates’ story is dense and nuanced, and it references so many atrocitieswe should know, such as the state-sanctioned air-bombing of “Black Wall Street” in Tulsa, Oklahoma, after poor white neighbors got jealous. He discussed Jewish reparations and says it is important to consider that few dispute the horrors of the Holocaust. Why then are people disputing, or rather, “forgetting” the horrors of Northern segregation? For Coates, the case for reparations is far less about money and more about full recognition of that history and its indelible link to the present.


Twitter: @adriennewrites

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