Words Matter

Words Matter


by Bill Droel

In 1984 Msgr. Jack Egan (1916-2001), who at that time was director of Human Relations and Ecumenism at the Archdiocese of Chicago, sent a memo about race relations to clergy and lay leaders involved with Chicago’s Northwest Neighborhood Federation and with Southwest Parish and Neighborhood Federation. Egan was reacting to A Declaration of Neighborhood Independence, issued by the two community organizations.

“The language contained in this Declaration is inappropriate, irresponsible and divisive,” Egan wrote. His memo objected to the Declaration’s “name-calling and vituperation” and more particularly to its “race-baiting” and its “tone of violence.”

A newly published book, Vanishing Eden: White Construction of Memory, Meaning and Identity in a Racially Changing City by Michael Maly and Heather Dalmage (Temple University Press), looks back at those days. The authors also report on interviews they conducted among those who were children in those neighborhoods at the time.

Southwest Parish and Neighborhood Federation (which is the main case study for Maly and Dalmage) began with fanfare in 1971 to “halt white flight and neighborhood deterioration.” The Federation quietly closed in the mid-1990s, following a long period of ineffectiveness and irrelevance to neighborhood needs. In its prime, the Federation used astute analysis and sophisticated research to make some positive contributions. It demonstrated that rapid demographic changes on Chicago’s south side during the late 1960s and 1970s were not natural occurrences. Several external actors caused south side neighborhoods to decline, the Federation leaders said. Realtors, mortgage bankers, Federal entities and even city agencies all contributed to instability—either out of benign neglect or for a financial motive. Thus the Federation campaigned against what it called “unscrupulous” entities, especially around housing. For example, in order to stop panic-peddling the Federation obtained 50 non-solicitation agreements from area realtors. That is, “Don’t call us; if we want to sell our house, we will call you.”

Maly and Dalmage, like Egan, look closely at the Federation’s language. From the start it was a “language of grievance,” “a language of loss and victimization.” The Federation constantly told “stories of innocence, virtue, loss and abandonment.” The Federation was correct in identifying problems. But a constituency that identifies itself as an innocent victim only stores up ineffective resentment; an ironic outcome for a power organization like the Federation.

A significant step occurred when the Federation referred to neighborhood residents as white ethnics. This term, Maly and Dalmage explain, “allowed whites to assert a racialized group identity while still making public claims that their neighborhood battles were not racially-based.”

The cognitive dissonance persists among a fair number of the children—now near retirement age and now living in a first ring suburb. When talking about social issues, the two sociologists found, those whites frequently use the pronoun we or us, often without a conscious understanding that the pronoun implies a them. They innocently believe that we are morally respectable, that we earned our place and that we treat everyone fairly. They don’t think about structures of unjust exclusion.

For the most part these whites are not overt haters, though some presumably voted for Donald Trump in the primaries. They do, however, resent the system for undermining their parents’ idyllic community, just as they fault the system today for its bias against the white working-class.

In this blog and in Vanishing Eden, the Federation represents many similar groups back then and today. The tragic flaw, say Maly and Dalmage, is resistance to words like integration, racial harmony or healing. At no point did the Federation reach out to any black group that was also dealing with improper housing policies. Neither the clergy, nor the local politicians, nor the Federation staff, nor leaders of other groups give people a language and forums with which to grapple with economics, race, culture and more.

Maly and Dalmage moralize a tad too much. It is not easy to live the virtue of solidarity on the ground.  Yet some community organizations on Chicago’s south side gave integration a try back in the day and some are effectively doing so today. For example, the nearby Organization of the Southwest Community was formed in 1959 to deal with the same situation faced by the Federation: a white neighborhood with unusual real estate turnover and some deterioration. OSC, to the displeasure of some of its white leaders, went out of its way to include black churches at its founding convention. The longstanding Southwest Community Congress tackled bad housing practices in the Federation neighborhood. It pledged “to work toward peaceful integration.” The local clergy never embraced SCC however. Not far away the Beverley Area Planning Association successfully integrated a once precarious but now desirable neighborhood. And, to give one more example, the Oak Park Housing Center brought together bankers, city officials and neighbors to build a thriving integrated community.

Language matters. There are, as Jeremy Engels explains in The Politics of Resentment (Penn State Press, 2015), always people with a microphone who artificially construct two opposing sides, thus deflecting attention from upper-tier decision makers who truly control local situations.  Sarah Palin, for example, is a master at using lots of violent metaphors and terms while simultaneously painting herself and her people as innocent victims. The strategy of blaming others does not lead to effective social change. In fact, it eventually further impoverishes those who employ it. And though Palin denies it, resentment can easily spill into violence.

Droel is a board member of National Center for the Laity (PO Box 291102, Chicago, IL 60629), a faith in daily life organization