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The American Dream, In Black and White

Steve Nelson/Head of the Calhoun School in Manhattan Posted: 8/25/11 06:30 PM ET


Obscured by incessant chatter about the credit rating and national debt is the sad reality of poverty and hunger in America. At the root of these issues is the ugly legacy of racism and the failure to recognize white privilege. Some will argue, with justification, that many white Americans are suffering these days too. But those problems are not the consequences of systematic oppression. To acknowledge white poverty does not absolve us of our responsibility to address racism. Here’s part of my family story:

The small house at the corner of 89th and South May in Chicago has seen better days. Surrounded by a patchwork quilt of tired houses and vacant, weed-choked lots, at least it’s still standing. A few nearby houses are freshly painted with tidy lawns, proudly refusing to succumb to the neglect trying to swallow the neighborhood.

This entire South Side Chicago neighborhood has seen better days. As in so many urban pockets across America, unemployment is epidemic, municipal services are spotty and all the faces are black or brown. According to the Chicago Urban League, real unemployment in this community may be as much as double the “official” rate of 21.9%. The Urban League also reports that, in one neighborhood, 70% of young black men are in prison or ex-offenders, many for minor drug offenses. Try competing for a job with those credentials.

There isn’t much hope for neighborhoods like this. In the post-racial world invented by political conservatives, the problem with most poor folks is that they just don’t try hard enough. This is particularly true for poor folks of color, for whom the most demeaning epithets are reserved: Shiftless, unmotivated, irresponsible parent, welfare queen, etc., etc. America is a great meritocracy, conservatives claim. Racism was yesteryear’s problem so help won’t be coming soon.

These attitudes are often accompanied by rags-to-riches or up-by-the-bootstraps stories. The most vehement resistance to social programs seems to come from those whose immigrant ancestors made their way out of poverty through hard work and sacrifice — the American Dream. “If my grandparents could do it, why can’t those folks?” they ask.

My grandfather did it.

John Rinkema was born and raised in Holland and came to Chicago in the early 1920s, seeking a better life for his young family. John was unsuccessful finding a job at first. Noticing that a great deal of construction was going on, he bought a toolbox and a set of tools and combed the neighborhood looking for work. A genial foreman, after taking him on, watched with good humor as John tried to figure out which end of the hammer to use. He learned.

John worked hard, honed his skills, and pulled hard on the bootstraps he was given. For several years he built houses, moving his growing family into a house while it was under construction, providing shelter until the home was completed and sold. By then, if his timing was good, the next house was habitable (barely) and the family would move again.

There were bumps in the road. Deflated by the Great Depression, John, like many others, used Prohibition as a safety net. He rented a bigger house in a more prosperous neighborhood and distilled large quantities of moonshine in the basement. He ended up serving a short jail sentence after discovering, too late, that a mob lieutenant lived across the road. In those days the police often served as enforcement agents for Al Capone’s gang. Capone’s boys didn’t like the competition, but at least they didn’t kill him. Fortunately, white men distilling thousands of gallons of illegal liquor in the ’20s didn’t suffer stiff penalties like those conferred in more recent decades on black men who possessed a few grams of cocaine.

I am the beneficiary of John Rinkema’s hard work and his good luck. My mother was well educated and met my father, a graduate student at the University of Chicago, at a rooming house John owned through his hard work. My father benefitted from a similar immigrant story and together my parents made a solid, middle-class life — a platform from which my siblings and I had a plate full of opportunity to seize or squander. I did some of each.

Only in recent years have I fully recognized the deep flaws of the post-racial myth and the equally deep roots of my own white privilege. Equal opportunity has been a mirage for generations of black women and men. For several centuries in America, the law didn’t even recognize the humanity of people of color, much less allow them to vote or own property. Even after emancipation, skin color served as a stern gatekeeper, limiting access to everything from housing, education and employment to the lines of credit that fueled the rise to prosperity for my grandfather and millions of white immigrants.

Around the time my grandfather came through Ellis Island, tens of thousands of black folks were fleeing the South for Chicago. They had no social or economic capital and, sadly and ironically, arrived to find a new set of racial barriers. By the 1920s strict racial covenants limited housing choice for blacks. Employers, most of whom were white European immigrants, were not so benevolent when it came to unskilled black men fresh from the Deep South.

Through the middle of the 20th century a thriving black community took root in parts of Chicago, but the gains were not sustained. The civil rights movement of the 1960s finally delegitimized racism, but attitudes are much harder to change than the law. After several decades of progress and hope, America’s cities now look worse than they did before Martin Luther King, Jr. dreamed. Neighborhoods and schools are sharply segregated and poverty in black communities is lethal.

As you may have guessed, my grandfather built that small house at 89th and South May and my mother lived in it for a short time. It was the beginning of a journey that ended with a very successful life as a general contractor in an affluent Chicago suburb.

The description of the house and neighborhood came from my younger brother, who visited the corner several years ago. He knocked on the door of the house. A young boy opened the door with wary curiosity. The interior was oddly dark for midday. The boy said his mother couldn’t come to the door because she was “coming down” from whatever substance she used to numb herself.

The corner of 89th and South May is the crossroads of America, where opportunity began for some and ended for others.

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