Wednesday, September 7, 2016

An Interview with Natalie Moore

Natalie Moore graciously afforded me a brief phone interview to discuss her book The South Side, which we'll be discussing on Tuesday September 20th. Below is an edited transcript of our conversation.

Lesley Williams: In the New York Times article "Affluent and Black and Still Trapped by Segregation,  the authors point out that African Americans of all income levels tend to live in segregated neighborhoods near poverty. Does segregation always equal poverty and lesser resources? Why have other ethnically homogeneous communities managed to thrive when African American ones have not?

Natalie Moore: It’s a race issue not a class issue. That's a point I try to drive home. Unlike other ethnic groups, Black people in Chicago were the ones subjected to restrictive housing policies and laws. They were the ones affected by block busting, redlining, and panic peddling. A great example is Lorraine Hansberry’s family, held back by restrictive covenants in the 1950s. Blacks of all incomes have been affected by these policies, which have reduced Black wealth.

Williams:  Your book brought up many memories for me of growing up in "Pill Hill" a very middle class neighborhood, yet being embarrassed to invite white friends home because of the derelict look of Stony Island: liquor stores, boarded up businesses, "hourly rate motels". Like you, I’ve moved from a primarily Black neighborhood to a more integrated community with more resources. How do you respond to critics who claim we are "traitors" to the Black community, that middle class Black people have an obligation to stay in Englewood, Bronzeville, etc?

Moore: No one has directed that particular criticism to me; it's not something I've had to explain myself over. I think that Black people want to live in multiple places, including the suburbs, just like everyone one else. I lived in Bronzeville for several years until that became economically unfeasible, so I don't think anyone would begrudge me the chance to live elsewhere now.

Williams: I was glad to see you combat  “Jim Crow nostalgia”. I’ve noticed that even younger people, in their 30s look back to an imaginary halcyon childhood when all the neighbors were together, watched out for each other etc. In Evanston, there is a lot of nostalgia for defunct, segregated institutions like the African American YMCA, and there is a movement to bring back a (de facto) segregated school in the historically Black neighborhood. Why do you think this Jim Crow nostalgia is so strong? Has integration failed African Americans, or is it still a worthy goal?

Moore: Segregation was not a good thing, let's be clear. How did integration hurt the Black community? Yes, the Black metropolis had beauty and drive, but the Black Belt also had overcrowded housing and schools. Most of the businesses were not black owned, contrary to popular belief. You might be surrounded by other Black professionals, but maybe you would die because you couldn't get to a hospital that would treat you. The issue is equity and lack of resources, not just people living next to each other.

Williams: A few years ago, our book group discussed Our Black Year, Maggie Anderson's memoir of committing to buy only from Black-owned businesses. Finding Black-owned grocery stores was by far the most difficult commitment, yet she found accessible stores that served African American needs and hired African American employees but were white owned. How important is it that businesses in Black communities be Black owned if they are serving Black residents well? (For example, you mention that white owned grocery chains like Whole Foods are a threat to local Black owned convenience stores, which don't serve healthy food.)

Moore: Because of the lack of economic development it is important for residents to see Black owned businesses, and for those owners to get loans to sustain themselves. But ultimately consumers are looking for the best deals, the best customer service. Non Black owned businesses can be beneficial to Black communities, as long as they are giving back to the community. We need to ask, How are they giving back? Do they have any social investment in the community? Do they treat the community with respect? Black business owners tend to live in the communities where they own stores, non Black business owners are less likely to do so.

Williams: My parents were both public school teachers who sent me to private schools. My friends who live in the city all send their kids to selective enrollment schools. How effective can magnet and selective enrollment programs be when they always skim the children from middle class, college educated families? How does this help the children of the less advantaged?

Moore: We definitely have a tiered system here in Chicago. A lot of families are jockeying to get into those classical selective enrollment schools, yet there are a number of high performing schools on the south side that have zero white enrollment. You'll hear parents say that they want "the best" schools for their children and yet they ignore these schools.

However I'm not interested in attracting white parents to successful Black public schools. I'm more interested in seeing CPS use changing housing patterns to achieve integration. Take a look at WBEZ's piece "How Chicago school construction furthers racial and economic segregation" which points out that new construction is disproportionately going to schools that serve the white, middle class, sometimes ignoring opportunities to create more diverse schools. Richard Kahlenberg, of the bipartisan think tank The Century Foundation states that, "in trying to raise academic achievement, providing an economically integrated environment for students is far more powerful than spending extra resources in high poverty schools". Yet CPS is not looking at opportunities to do so.

Williams:  Steve Bogira presented at the Open Communities justice day about his work bringing high school students from New Trier together with kids from south and west side schools, and how shocked they were by the disparities. Recently a group of African American Chicago kids demonstrated  the inequity by attempting to enroll at New Trier. Do you think that more forthright discussions of these disparities will lead to change? In discussing equity, how do we address  the role of property taxes and school foundations, which guarantee that poorer children will get less per pupil spending than wealthier children in the suburbs?

Moore: Property taxes do play a role of course. We should be having a larger conversation about cities vs suburbs and the equitable division of state and city resources.

But my focus was on segregation. Segregation allows us to know only our default, not the broader community we’re a part of. We don't get to see other parts of our community.When kids see this unfairness it may translate into activism. Why have things stayed the same for so long? Because politicians respond to to what they hear their constituents saying. If more people, like those New Trier and Englewood kids, start demanding more equity, it can happen.

Williams: What would you say to white people who have never been south of Chinatown or Sox park? What are they missing out on?

Moore: I don't want to turn this into cultural tourism, but I would say: You’re missing out on most of the city. The largest geographical part of Chicago is one you have no interaction with. Think about exploring a new neighborhood, cultural institutions, museums, organizations, food, spaces, arts. Get out of your bubble; don't judge everything based on what you hear on the news.

Williams:  Growing up I had white friends in Beverly with relatives in Bridgeport and Oak Lawn who honestly didn’t realize how racist their neighborhoods were, or why my parents were so loathe to visit them there. Do you think the Black Lives Matter movement is helping to break down these barriers? Are younger people, of all ethnicities more aware of these issues, and more prepared to address them?

Moore: I still think we have quite a ways to go. We are having some more conversations around race, but most of it is around policing and mass incarceration. But the root of a lot of problems goes back to residential segregation in many American cities.

One of the things I would like people to to get out of this is to look at your own housing choices and how you participate in segregation. Integration is not the be all and end all. But we’re not having a conversation on its benefits, for all communities.

What do YOU think of Natalie Moore's book? Join the discussion  on September 20th, 1st floor meeting room of the Evanston Public Library.