by Kathy Routliffe
email@example.com | @pioneer_kathy
Jan. 20 3:33 p.m.
Listeners who attended the Jan. 15 “Race and the Economy” presentation at the Illinois Holocaust Museum in Skokie got no comforting bromides from its tag team of speakers – an education and African American studies scholar and a North Shore activist who tracks and fights housing discrimination.
David Stovall and Gail Schechter bluntly said race is one un-ignorable root of American problems that range from failing education and neighborhoods to housing and economic discrimination.
Worse, they said, it is built into America’s infrastructure. Fixing the intersecting problems can’t be done by trying to disconnect race, jobs and housing from race’s effects – and it will be hard and uncomfortable, they said.
“There are no solutions tonight, y’all,” Stovall warned. “Just work.”
Schechter was just as direct, saying that when it comes to housing, racial segregation is “utterly pernicious” and just as deliberately engineered by municipal policies as other discriminatory initiatives built by other governments.
The hard messages came during the museum’s final “Scholars Series” event, co-sponsored by the Evanston YWCA as an adjunct to the museum and YWCA’s “Race: Are We So Different” exhibit, which opened last October and closes Jan. 25.
More than 20,000 individuals and groups have viewed the exhibit and taken part in related programs, museum head Wendy Abrams said, before YWCA Director Karen Singer introduced Stovall and Schechter.
An associate professor of educational policies and African-American studies at the University of Illinois at Chicago, Stovall studies race theory, educational social justice, housing-education connections, and relationships between schools and community members. Stovall has also taught courses in Niles Township High School District 219.
Schechter is executive director of Winnetka-based Open Communities, which advocates and educates for more open and affordable housing in North Shore communities. The group is celebrating the 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King Jr.’s visit to Winnetka with its 2015 Justice: The March Continues project.
Stovall took the stage first and opened by praising King, upon whose actual birthday the evening took place, as a warrior for peace and justice. Kindergartners who learn about King’s civil rights record don’t get taught about his later very pointed insistence on economic justice, Stovall noted.
American history can’t be talked about without acknowledging its connection to the trans-Atlantic slave trade Stovall said. He went on to say America’s school systems were formed to create literate but compliant factory workers, not thinkers who could challenge an economic system predicated on inherited wealth and racial separation.
Stovall also echoed the message of the museum exhibit. Race, he said, “is physically constructed and socially wielded.”
“People say, ‘Stovall, aren’t we past race? Aren’t things better?’ Let me be clear,” he said. “The answer is ‘Hell, no!’”
“What he said,” Schechter told the audience as she began her presentation by outlining a punch list of what she called the realities of unequal and unavailable affordable housing.
She topped the list with “race trumps class,” went on to say that income is as much of a barrier to getting equitable access to housing on the North Shore, and continued by asserting racially or class-segregated municipalities are caused by both conscious and unconsciously deliberate policy decisions that municipalities need to acknowledge and change.
“In Wilmette in 1910, the village asked residents with maids or gardeners to fire them, if they couldn’t live in (the residents’) own homes,” Schechter said. “They didn’t want them here otherwise.”
Schechter singled out the 1970 creation of municipal home rule powers in the Illinois Constitution. Home rule communities can avoid state fair housing requirements, she said, and asked, “Why should fair housing be left to a popularity contest?”
She also noted that the same Illinois Constitution put the burden of paying for schools on property tax revenue, further separating poor and rich communities.
Despite all those barriers, people shouldn’t despair, Schechter suggested. Just as the idea of race was deliberately used to engineer segregation, deliberate social engineering can help communities turn around and dismantle those systems. And sometimes the small size of communities can work to the advantage of at least local change, she said.
During two question-and-answer sessions, she and Stovall fielded queries about state proposals to make school funding more equitable – Stovall said current plans would probably not benefit students as much as administrators – and ways in which people could effect change.
“You can make change happen,” she said.