Monday, August 06, 2007

Happy International Blog Against Racism Week! It's cool to see bloggers joining together to raise awareness about racism. I thought I'd write a little bit about racism and housing.

The novel that I recently turned in (and that was even more recently turned down) is set in 1966, during the Chicago Freedom Movement when Martin Luther King, Jr. moved to Chicago (specifically the neighborhood of Lawndale, which once was a Jewish ghetto but had become an African American one) to spearhead a campaign for open housing.

I'll share part of a scene that takes place right after Al and his 12 year old daughter Mina attend a speech given by Dr. King at Soldier Field; they join a procession to City Hall where Dr. King posts the demands of the Chicago Freedom Movement on the door. Here's Al's response:
How could he not have known how bad the housing situation was in Chicago? Rats biting babies, trash piling in hallways, no coal for furnaces. Much worse than when he was a boy. It wasn't just in Dr. King's building. It was a plague, a blight in the city. White landlords--Saul!--not fixing anything. Asking for higher rents in slums because they could get away with it. The nearby areas—neighborhoods where white people with more income were paying less for bigger homes—wouldn't even give colored people rental applications.

He and his dad always knew their cramped apartment in Lawndale was temporary. Sure, they couldn't buy a home in northern suburbs like Kenilworth—Jews were barred from ownership by law at the time. But in the early 1900s, the Irish and German residents of Lawndale didn't want to rent to Jews, either, and look what happened—40% of Chicago's Jews ended up living there. Once his dad found a better job, spoke better English, they knew could find a better situation, even if that just meant a better apartment, one of their own, down the street. The families in the neighborhood now were stuck.

The crowd filled the street curb to curb. Some carried signs such as "End Modern Slavery—Destroy Daley Machine" and "Open Up Chicago" and "Hate Costs Too Much!" Some carried banners announcing their affiliations—Methodist groups and Quaker groups, peace groups and housing groups. Someone would start a song--”We Shall Overcome”, “Amazing Grace”--and it would spread through the crowd, more and more voices joining until the lyrics became a roar Al could feel vibrating inside his ribs.
Things have improved since then thanks to these marches, this effort--housing laws have evolved, and the real estate industry can no longer sanction discrimination in their practices--but inequality continues to plague our country's housing. We can see that in this Chicago study, but especially in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina during which housing discrimination was laid painfully bare. Thank goodness organizations like the National Fair Housing Alliance exist to act as watchdogs and advocates, but it breaks my heart that such groups are still necessary today.

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