“…If the lid is taken off suddenly there will be hell to pay, and a just debt it will be, too. …I hope I can prepare the children for it, so they won’t be bitter, whatever happens; and whichever ones survive can help rebuild a better world after the air clears…” –Martha Raper, 1977 
I’m receiving texts and calls from people I haven’t heard from in some time. “Are you all right?” they ask. “I just wanted to see how you were: I heard what was happening in Hyde Park.” I tell them we’re fine; I don’t mention that I don’t expect to hear from them for another few years, after this story blows over, which it already has.
Just half an hour before the original warning was sent out, before anyone knew anything, I’d received a call from another University of Chicago Laboratory School parent, asking if I’d heard from our sons. She said that they had gone out for a run and that her son had deliberately left his phone on the porch against her wishes. We discussed GPS, and cell-phone belts for runners, and I admitted I would be more comfortable if they carried their phones, especially while running in Hyde Park in the dark. The other youth is from a very influential family indeed, and so when I get calls like this I take questions about care and negligence quite seriously. Fortunately, the boys returned just minutes later.
Just moments after closing out that matter, we began receiving mass e-mails and robocalls from the University, filled with instructions: “…10 a.m. tomorrow…threat…specifically mentioning ‘the campus quad’…stay indoors…police personnel with visible weapons…in close contact with the FBI… .” Later, after the suspect was arrested, we all relaxed and, perhaps over a nice cup of espresso, read our support e-mails from the ever-scrupulous Lab School administration: “As teachers of the youngest members of the University of Chicago community, we know that parents have a very special role in helping children understand the complexities of the world around them.” Sip coffee or other beverage. Lean back on comfortable sofa. Read attentively.
All this is taking place because I happen to be living in Hyde Park, after a UIC student named Jabari Dean warns that he will shoot up the University of Chicago quad.
* * *
Just a couple of weeks ago, I sat in on my first school parent conference about diversity. With the major expansion of the school buildings, they have hired a new cadre of administrators ready to tackle this and other questions. The school has hired Ken Garcia-Gonzales to be the new coordinator for Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion, and has assembled a parent advisory group to lead several meetings over the next few months.
Most parents at the meeting expressed concerns about how our children can learn to be more sensitive to those with differences. One mother of a multiethnic child told me that her daughter was recently told by someone in the school that she couldn’t possibly be Asian, because she had blue eyes. That comment, perhaps among others, perhaps not, apparently was enough to prompt the mother to become one of the leaders on this committee. This, I thought to myself, is the face of diversity in this school.
For once I really didn’t have the stomach to say anything. I certainly had no intention of speaking my mind, but one of the facilitators walked up and actually pushed the microphone into my hand. I stood up reflexively. “Uh, I think that there’s an elephant in the room,” I said, uneasily. “It’s about what each of us respectively means when we say ‘diversity.’” (Several people nodded approval.) “I mean, we have always waved around plenty of anti-bias curriculum, we seem to be doing the pro formas on that. We’ve got the nice Harriet Tubman posters up in the library every February. But there is another side to the question, and that is, dare I say it, the question of the fact that we are an elite and mostly white school in the middle of a sea of deprivation and want. Does the concept of ‘racial quotas’ scare anyone?”
I was encouraged to elaborate, but I thought it best to demur. After sitting down, I wasn’t even sure whether people thought I was for or against whatever it was we were discussing. At the end of the meeting, I introduced myself to Garcia-Gonzales and expressed my concerns privately. My question was, how can we ever overcome the hypocrisy of calling our school diverse and inclusive if at the very most one or two kids in each class are black? I was also vaguely connecting the $52 million recently invested in the school’s expansion with proportionally somewhat more seats for disadvantaged African-American children. That’s what I thought all of this diversity business was about. Am I misguided in making this connection?
“This isn’t going to be that kind of school,” Garcia-Gonzales replied, in perhaps a sympathetic tone. Naturally, if he wanted to be at that kind of school, working on that kind of problem, there are plenty of opportunities. Yet he has made this career choice, the market rose to his need, and so this was all he could afford to give me. When I say “diverse” I do not so much mean Korean, Palestinian, Indian diverse. I generally mean black diverse, and in Chicago that means that I mean generally black and poor. I believe that this is not at all what the University of Chicago means when it says “diverse.”
Actually, I may be the first parent in the history of the University of Chicago Laboratory Schools who did not want his child to attend. We’d spent over a year obsessing over selective-enrollment public schools and having our son take admissions tests. I’d already done enough nail-biting on that, writing several newspaper columns on the Chicago Public Schools, how the selective systems were unfair and how we privileged parents were to blame for drinking the kool-aid. However, since my wife was invited to return to teach at Lab, suddenly it was on the table. The highly impressed judge ordered it in our divorce decree — over my objection, if you can believe it.
When we met with the principal, she asked us if we had any questions about the upcoming school year. I very specifically emphasized my concerns about diversity, saying that I wanted Abraham’s class to have as many African-American students as possible. Accordingly, for the first two years, there were zero. I believe there may have been one in second grade. At one point around that time, I was told that a diversity committee was forming, and I sent several e-mails expressing interest. I never received a reply.
At the recent diversity event, as instructed, I wrote my contact information on sticky-notes and stuck them to several of the charrette boards under such interesting headings as “expanding the meaning of diversity” and “class ethnicity makeup.” We were told that we would soon be asked to sit in on more organizing and listening sessions dealing with these topics. I haven’t heard from anyone. I actually don’t expect to be invited back.
What makes this even more bizarre is the practical climate at the school. In fact, my son was recently called to account for an incident. He had made some casual comment about slavery among some friends. This apparently was misinterpreted and blown out of proportion by a new African-American student recently entering the high school. Immediately the overzealous administration put more than 12 adults onto high alert, with numerous meetings and conversations among four boys. They issued a “no-contact” order for the new boy. Wishing to exercise a bit of parental input over this, I contacted the parents and met with the boy’s mother. All appeared to be in agreement both that the comment had been badly misinterpreted, and that staff were generating far too much red tape from it. In this school, founded by John Dewey, we felt the boys should learn how to resolve such matters mostly on their own, with a little scaffolding from us. Soon after, I received a strange “cease and desist” e-mail from the other boy’s mother, presumably because the staff had invited her not to communicate with me.
Earlier the same day as the parent diversity conference, we were treated to an entirely separate event on campus, a talk by Angela Duckworth about — predictably — grit. Yes, another great catchword, breathlessly brought to life by a refreshing young Asian professor mom, and taken up by adoring parents with equal zeal. Mandel Hall was fairly packed. Our own Dr. Charles Payne was one of the respondents, and he lightly upbraided Duckworth, suggesting she was churning old and tired milk. On the one hand, he pointed out, grit is only a new term for ideas far older than Duckworth, and it is a disservice to filter and focus on such a narrow band of the broad spectrum we know of as multiple intelligences. For that matter, Payne hinted that it is dangerous to be serving more of the same fare to privileged audiences, since our private and public schools will respectively misinterpret grit as pedagogy, and set yet another predominantly white generation forward and a brown one backward.
One afternoon some months ago, the high school’s Black Student Association gave a viewing of the video “I’m Not Racist, Am I?” Aside from a few BSA members and their parents, and one or two faculty, I was the only person there. There are over 1,000 parents and hundreds of faculty at the school, not to mention the students. The notice went out on the appropriate channels. Where was everybody?
Last year, the University had a visit from Ta-Nehisi Coates about reparations. We do love our catchwords, and the “R” word has almost as much currency as grit, at least for the moment. I have little doubt that it will submerge once again before long. Coates is already in danger of losing America’s attention, probably because he is trying to sound more and more like an intellectual, adapting his tune to the tastes of an appreciative audience.
As Paul Robeson once said, “singing pretty songs” is not enough. The furious calls for a single trauma center on the South Side have finally been answered by the university, and the school is doing something about public schools in the area, but this is nothing compared to what is needed here. As of this writing, a person is murdered every 17 hours in Chicago, and most of them are young African-American males, many too young to drive. And it seems that every step the university takes in race relations, it takes as many steps backwards.
There is so much oblique discussion about race here. To claim that Hyde Park and the University of Chicago are racist would be a fool’s errand. But to say that we here are deeply and irrevocably bound to historical racial discrimination, and that there are pounding questions better answered comprehensively today than pushing off for tomorrow, are probably tragic understatements.
* * *
“Why do they hate us so?” Dan Rather tearfully asked after 9/11. He was referring to radical Islam, but when we unravel the threads, we find that we are working with very much the same materials here, from related historical bases. We deem these cultures antisocial, what with their extraordinary differences to ours, and the attendant resentment is helped along by our own culture’s passive aggression. Here we have created a homogeneous world that greatly privileges one form over another, and so we all strive to follow white culture. It bends over backward to argue that the system is fair, and yet the equivocations are so thick and greasy as to call into question the very purpose of the exercise.
When my son is getting a little complacent, I’m sometimes inclined to point out to him that he is one of the most privileged people — on the entire planet, in all of history. This is no exaggeration. Like his friends, he has grown up in the shade of the most exclusive enclaves on Earth, is attending one of the most elite schools anywhere, and is likely to enjoy a future as full and bright as the upper-middle nobility ever did in bygone days.
In my view for our youth and for ourselves, this privilege carries with it immense social responsibilities. Specifically, and paradoxically, as our own hereditary faith would have it, we are commanded to repair the world so as to clear away the disparities. And yet this is not what is happening.
Why do people hate us? Of course, there is no excuse for raging violence as an answer to the world’s social problems. Nevertheless, I would ask Dan Rather and others this: In a world constructed in this way, what would you ever expect to be different? These angry reactions to our protected lives are precisely what one would predict under the circumstances.
We may wall Hyde Park and other neighborhoods off from African America, but the spectres of Jabari Dean, Laquan McDonald, Ronald Johnson, and many others will always float through. Today marks exactly 60 years since Rosa Parks sat on a bus, igniting the Civil Rights Movement. Like Jabari Dean, Parks was protesting the senseless, racially charged murder of a black youth, that of Emmett Till. One must not forget that the Black Belt was just across the street from the University of Chicago. Sixty years ago, Till’s mutilated body was displayed for thousands to view, in a funeral home a few blocks north of campus. The home that inspired Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun still stands only a few hundred feet west of campus. Till’s family lived just two blocks south of the Hansberry home, on St. Lawrence. Furthermore, Hyde Park was the setting for James Baldwin’s Native Son. Amazingly, after all these years, black children are still routinely shot just outside of Hyde Park. All of this is a short walk from where I sit in comfort and write. Hyde Park is our local emblem for the everlasting symptoms of social domination. Although there are many Hyde Parks in the world, this one is a living time capsule of all that can go wrong in America’s race relations.
I’m not worried for my son and his friends. You see, as any University of Chicago economist could tell you but won’t, statistically speaking our children are blessed, while Jabari Dean was predestined for a very different life. My child, one might say, was always likely to come home in one piece every night. Not so for Jabari Dean. None of this is accidental, and to me it is little wonder if things seem to be getting worse.
I’m wondering what is happening to Jabari Dean and hoping that he hasn’t thrown his life away. He felt a very justifiable obligation to speak out, though he did it in the wrong way. His family says he made a mistake. He lacked the means to do anything like what he threatened. But he will live with his empty threat in two important ways: it will very likely greatly affect an otherwise promising career, and it will probably squelch any desire to speak out in the future on behalf of black lives.
Is your child in jail today, or in school? Where is Jabari Dean right at this moment, and where is he going?
1. Epigraph from Raper, Arthur, and Martha J. Raper. “Two Years to Remember and Other Writings.” Unpublished manuscript, August 1977, p. 119. Raper, the wife of American sociologist and civil rights reformer Arthur Raper, was referring to the hate crimes against blacks in the South. Quoted in Mary Summers, “New Deal Farm Programs,” in Jane Adams, ed. Fighting for the Farm: Rural America Transformed. Philadelphia: University of Philadelphia Press, 2003, pp. 149-50.