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Thursday, September 20, 2012

Why is Cousin Vinnie So Angry? (Part 2)

Some of us young Jesuit seminarians were asked by Father Jack Egan to help him in his new parish in West Lawndale. This was a parish from which all the white people, many Irish, Italian, and Polish Catholics, had fled when the neighborhood turned totally black and mostly Baptist in about 4 years. It was also, as predicted, becoming overcrowded, dilapidated, dirty, and dangerous.

The black families who had bought homes there were the last of the waves of immigrants that had come before. Instead of coming from Europe, they had come from the South to the promised land of the North.  But with them the pattern of immigration broke down. These were upwardly mobile African American families with steady jobs trying to get out of slums. Yet they seemed to have brought the slums with them.

We knocked on doors and talked to community leaders to do self-help projects--get a youth playground, work for a community clean up and regular garbage collection, do a block club or two.  We were trying to listen but had not heard. We heard African American people blaming themselves and their neighbors for their deteriorating condition and maybe the prejudiced white people who moved out: "but who can blame them when you look at what is happening here?"

Finally we did hear and began to discover what was really going on. Sure "culture of poverty among black folk" and "prejudice and fear among white folk" played a role. But behind all that were banks who refused conventional loans, a Federal Housing Authority which refused to insure loans, an insurance industry which refused to insure houses, and a group of realtors and savings and loan institutions ready to take advantage of the situation. They used contract buying to overcharge and keep the deed, bleeding the community and its families of assets. Local businesses couldn't get loans and ran.  And new unorganized residents had little political power in the Daley machine.

I had the opportunity to interview hundreds of families, black families who had moved in and white families who had moved out. I was also fortunate to later work, again through a Catholic parish, in a community further West where many of the white families had taken refuge.  I heard the anger and fear of both the black families and the white families, their desire for work, for education, and a safe community.

I saw that the anger of both the white people blaming black families and black people blaming themselves and white families was misdirected.  They didn't see the invisible structures which shaped their behavior and prejudices.  The patterns of behavior of financial, political, and cultural institutions, often run by "have blacks to dinner" white liberals or even African American machine politicians, that were working for some and not for many and that was destroying the commons.

What I learned was that sociology trumps psychology, institutions trump attitudes.  Yes, we have developed biologically and culturally sensitivities to in-groups and out-groups. Yes, our neurons light up tribal connections and fear of strangers. But the economic, political, and cultural habits, i.e. institutions, that we have fashioned are what reenforce our personal habits of behavior. And if we really want to change minds, we need to change the social habits (institutions) that sustain them.

Overcoming racism and poverty in Chicago was not a matter of black people meeting and getting along with white people, though that wouldn't be so bad.  It was a matter of changing the institutions and knocking down the obstacles that kept white and black families from seeing that the same institutions and the people running them were screwing them both.

I tell this story because it is not so different today.  Anger justified, but misdirected!

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