Evanston/North Shore

When are we called to speak up about racism?

by Eileen Hogan Heineman, Director of Racial Justice Programs
Posted February 1, 2018

Racial Justice Program Director Eileen Hogan Heineman was invited to preach at St. Nicholas Church in Evanston on Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. weekend. The following is an edited version of her remarks.

St. Nicholas Parish typically invites an African American to preach for Martin Luther King weekend. I am not Black, so you might be wondering why I am up here as the speaker. It seems to me that for too long, our society has acted as if people of color are the only ones who have anything to do or say about race. That belief has made it easier for the rest of us to just ignore the topic, or at least keep it arm’s length.

When are we called to speak up about racism? When have we seen others step up, into a “race conversation”, in ways that modeled a positive response from an ally? Here’s how I came to know that my history and African-American history were inextricably intertwined.

One of the first witnesses of this for me was my mother. I grew up in a completely white, mostly Irish, heavily Catholic neighborhood on the south side of Chicago, where the biggest “difference” that we ever talked about was whether someone was Catholic or “public”. That’s how we defined each other, and those were the two major groups. The publics (people who went to public school rather than Catholic) were “others”. I was one of those people who grew up so unaware of other differences, that if someone talked about a person being Jewish, I thought that meant they had been born in Jerusalem. Irish meant from Ireland, so Jewish must mean from Jerusalem, right? That’s how myopic my vision was.

But when I was in 6th or 7th grade, a neighbor came to our door with clipboard in hand, asking if my mother would take a shift the next day at the local public school. This was our across the street neighbor, member of our parish, mother of a few kids. My mother said, “Ethel, what are you talking about?” And this neighbor said, “Tomorrow is when they’re busing those “kids” to OUR public school. (I’m pretty sure she used the n-word, rather than kids.) We need to be there to tell them to go back to where they belong.”

And my mother, who was the mother of eight kids, a go-with-the-flow sort of person, said to her, “Please do NOT go to that school tomorrow. And please do not think that I would ever welcome you asking to do something like this again.” It was so surprising that my mother would talk like that to another adult. That was a tone and message usually directed to us kids, and she was using it on her peer. I didn’t fully understand what was going on between them. I DID know that Black students were being brought to this incredibly white, incredibly racist neighborhood, and I didn’t know exactly why. There was lots of talk in those days about busing, but it sure seemed unconnected to our neighborhood.

The next day, I saw neighbors on the television news, part of an angry group (some would call it a mob) outside of Mt. Greenwood School, where my siblings and I had attended kindergarten, before entering our local Catholic school. The people on our TV screen were screaming - and spitting! - at the seven students, who I think were 7th graders, as they arrived to start in their new school that winter day. What I remember to this day is their faces, filled with hatred, with an ugliness I had never seen before. These were grown people, most of them 1960’s stay at home moms, and they were spitting at children! These were women who went to church on Sunday, spitting at someone else’s children on Tuesday. 

My parents were appalled. They were actively involved with a social action program that was very popular in Catholic parishes during that time. Many adults in the parish were in these CFM groups that met monthly to study, then act on issues of social justice. My parents’ group was studying the question “What would it take to be welcoming, if people who are different from us moved into our neighborhood?” The people being referred to were black people, who were beginning to move west from their crowded neighborhoods east of the relatively new Dan Ryan Expressway.

Most people in our neighborhood were not looking for change, and not interested in welcoming anyone who was not white. Part of the soundtrack of my growing up was people saying, “They better not cross the Dan Ryan!” and “Well, they’ve crossed the Dan Ryan, but they surely won’t cross Halsted”, and then it was Ashland. Of course, “THEY” were black people. This was common talk for adults in my community, even though I’d venture to guess that most of the people saying this had never had a conversation with a black person in their lives. They were filled with fear of something with which they had no experience.

My parents’ CFM group was saying, “Let’s talk about what it would be like if our parish did figure out what it meant to be welcoming to black people.” They weren’t at all sure what that meant – or even if it was a good idea. Since our city was so profoundly segregated, they didn’t have many models of what successful integration would look like. When the pastor found out what question they were discussing, his response was, “You’re not to talk about that question, and if that’s the direction your group is headed, then you are not meeting on parish property.”

My parents and the others in their group were dedicated, involved parishioners. But this pastor wanted it to be clear: if they were going to talk as if they were encouraging people to explore what was the right thing to do, they weren’t going to do it on HIS property.  

So, there I was, 13 or 14 years old, having another defining moment: hearing that story, knowing that his response was wrong, and knowing too that there was something in there for me to understand.

Then Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated. Although his public protests were not something my parents were used to, or would even necessarily support, my parents respected Dr. King’s message. And when Dr. King walked through Marquette Park in the summer of 1966 to highlight the racist real estate practices in the area, my father was one of the white people who went to create a line of white people standing between Dr. King’s path and the MANY white people who would be there to protest his visit, and possibly to cause harm. 

My sister Katy, who at the time of MLK’s death was a high school senior, was also very involved in racial justice issues, and King was a hero of hers. She was part of a citywide group of Catholic high school students who called themselves Operation B.U.S., for Better Understanding among Students, and referring to the school busing programs that were further tearing the city apart. These students were breaking lots of barriers: crossing the south, north and west sides, white and black students, meeting together to talk about how they might do better than their parents had, at learning how to get along across racial differences. As a high school freshman, I wanted to be as smart, brave and socially aware as they were. They were prophets for me, although I wouldn’t have known to use that word at the time.

The morning after Rev. King was killed, we did what families like ours always did when something terrible (or wonderful) had happened: we went to morning mass before going to school. When mass was over, my sister was crying, and that same pastor said, “Why are you so upset?” and she responded, “Father, Dr. King is dead, the west side is on fire and police are shooting people!” She was distraught. His response? “Oh, you don’t need to worry about that. We’ll just let them shoot and burn each other out.” 

So these conflicting messages were in my head: “Let’s talk about what it would be like to be welcoming” and “Let’s get to know other students around the city” vs. “That conversation isn’t welcome here” and “You don’t need to worry about them.” It was easy to tell which voices were right, but confusing too, because grown-ups were supposed to tell the right messages, and I knew that this issue of race was huge in our lives, and some people were really right about it and some people were really wrong. And yet, some people who were really wrong about it were people I loved and/or people I was supposed to respect.

And what much of white society decided at that time, was that we couldn’t really talk about any of this very well. So the message was clear: race was something that was always at arm’s length, but not inside us, and not about us, only about “them”.
Fast forward to 1992. I was an elementary school principal in Edgewater, and the Catholic schools in the area began talks toward consolidating the schools, trying to be proactive, so the smaller schools would not just close, one by one, as their enrollments declined. This was not a popular idea with many of the school parents and parish families! Tradition, turf, “we’ve always done it this way” – all of that was in the mix. No one wanted their school building to be one that closed. This had happened here in Evanston in the 80s, when Pope John XXIII School was created out of the merger of St. Nicholas & St. Mary Schools. Evanston experienced some of the same issues and discussions because of folks not wanting things to change.

But added to the talks in Edgewater and Rogers Park was the issue of race. Not that folks said that word out loud. (Remember, race isn’t about people who look like me – it’s about those “others”.) But letters to the editor in local papers said things like: “Consolidating these schools is a terrible idea. If our kids are going to school with the kids from these other schools, the curriculum will be watered down.” These were code words, meaning that if my white child is going to go to school with the kids of color from other parishes (who we know are not as smart as “our” kids), the academic level will decrease. There were many more ugly letters, all coming from that same way of thinking – fear of the unknown, built on the foundation of very well-organized segregation. Again, very few of those writing the letters knew any of the families or students about whom they were assuming things, but that did not matter.

Those who were willing to step into the discussion and say, “This is the right thing to do, so we’re going to figure out how to do it” were heard. A new school, Northside Catholic Academy, was created. Yes, some families fled, sending their kids to schools where the curriculum would stay strong (code switch: “whiter schools”). But NCA’s curriculum wasn’t watered down and the school is now in its 23rd year, serving over 500 students.

Fast forward to 2011. I had become Director of Racial Justice Programs at YWCA Evanston/ North Shore, just as ETHS Superintendent Eric Witherspoon announced that the high school was truly going to address the achievement gap that exists between white kids and kids of color at the high school, which had been talked about for decades, but hadn’t changed. The plan was to really study what had to be done differently in order to level the playing field, so students of color would have just as much access to Honors and Advanced Placement level classes as the white students.

I began hearing echoes of the community outrage I had heard in Rogers Park: “This program is going to mean that some other student might take MY child’s spot in an Honors or AP class!” These words of white entitlement sounded just as bad as they always have. 

There were strong voices saying, “This isn’t fair!” and “My child’s education is going to suffer!” Fortunately, equally strong voices said, “Actually, it does seem fair, giving all the qualified kids equal access.” and “It doesn’t mean that there won’t be room for everyone, but it does mean there will be room for students who were never given the access before.”

As both an educator and a community activist, I have tremendous respect for Dr. Witherspoon. He did not have to commit himself to the razor-sharp focus he has placed on solving this problem. He did not have to say, “I am dedicated to changing our structures, so that students have the same access to these top level courses, and are better prepared to succeed in them.” When unjust structures are changed to be more equitable, that allows everyone a better chance to live out their full potential.

You see, the thing about speaking up for what it right, is that we are ALL called to do it. And being called to do what is right is our ongoing state, not something that happens and then it is over. We ARE called; not we WERE called. We are called right now, in this moment, and we will still be called tomorrow and ten years from now. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr understood that call. His call to be a minister wasn’t finished when he was ordained. Every day, every month, he had to determine how to live that call.

In the years since King’s death, many in our society defined who he had been by focusing only on his work for racial justice; some even criticized him saying, “He only cares about Black people.” That ignores the fact that Dr. King had spent his ministry trying to show how our country’s economic structures, housing policies, national spending on wars, are all part of the systemic support of inequity. In a 1967 speech, King said, “The time has come for us to civilize ourselves by the total, direct and immediate abolition of poverty” and “The government needs to make sure every American had a reasonable income.”

That was 51 years ago. Just recently, I heard a TED talk with that same idea being discussed: that our country could afford to provide a basic income to all citizens, in order to eliminate poverty. We ARE called to eliminate poverty. But do we have the will to do it? Can we let go of the notions we might have had that things are working fine?

Making the systemic changes necessary to create equity means changing the questions we ask; so it’s not simply a matter of “How does this affect me – and people who look like me?”, but “How does this affect everyone? How does it affect all of us as part of humanity?” “How can we make this good for everyone?” This requires a change. 

Growing up, a phrase frequently heard from parents, teachers, all adults was “Use your common sense.” Immediately, the person being spoken to knew what this meant. Common sense implied doing what made the most sense for everyone, for the community, in any situation. But common sense has fallen out of favor, because if we’re thinking about what’s good for everyone, it might mean giving up a little of what I’ve come to expect as mine.

No matter our fears, that would not be the end of the world. As a matter of fact, it would be the beginning of creating “the beloved community”.

I am called. You are called. As a community, we are called – and we have many guides. Dr. Martin Luther King gave many powerful speeches, but it seems that about 90% of what we ever hear is his I Have a Dream speech, and even that is just a small part of the entire talk he gave that day. I encourage you to listen to that whole speech, or his powerful address about the Vietnam War to the Riverside Church, given exactly one year before his murder. Read his Letter from Birmingham Jail or his 1964 Nobel Peace Prize Acceptance speech, in which he said, “There is nothing new about poverty. What is new, however, is that we have the resources to get rid of it.” And “The rich nations must use their vast resources of wealth to develop the underdeveloped, school the unschooled, and feed the unfed. Ultimately a great nation is a compassionate nation. No individual or nation can be great if it does not have a concern for ‘the least of these.’” 

Martin Luther King Jr. was called. WE are called. 

And our answer to the call has to be YES.

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