Matters, in Black and White

Author: Don Wycliff '69

Situated on Chicago’s Far West Side, miles from the glitter and beauty of the lakefront, the Magnificent Mile and the Loop, the Austin neighborhood has long been synonymous with racial isolation, poverty and disinvestment.

Almost nine of every 10 Austin residents are African American. According to the latest available figures from the City of Chicago and the U.S. Census Bureau, Austin has a per capita income just over half the citywide average, unemployment almost double the citywide average and a household poverty rate almost a third higher than the appalling citywide rate of nearly 19 percent. All this half a dozen years after the start of a recovery from the devastating economic collapse of 2008.

One local publication, lamenting Austin’s exclusion from a list of neighborhoods ticketed for extra attention and funding from City Hall, recently asked: “Is Austin Chicago’s Ugly Stepchild?”

Given all that, why would a group comprising mainly white people — Irish and Italian Americans, prominently — along with some local allies, decide that Austin is the place to create a private, Catholic high school? And not just to create a school but also to invest in a $30 million building designed by an award-winning architect?

As a Chicago newsman for more than two decades, I became steeped in the if-your-mother-says-she-loves-you-check-it-out approach to journalism. After serving for five years on the board of Christ the King Jesuit College Prep, I think I would have sniffed out the nefarious ulterior motive if there were one. I have not.

The fact is that these people — with names like Kelly, Heaton, O’Laughlin, Jiganti, Crowe, Barbato, Murray, Kunkel, and Garrity — seem to have decided that the question is not why they do what they do for the children of Austin, but how could they not? Like that ancient traveler on the road to Jericho, they decided they couldn’t leave that battered, injured fellow lying by the roadside, even if he wasn’t of “their kind.”

In a nation riven by racial discord, Christ the King and the Cristo Rey schools model on which its program and operation are based have become for me a beacon of hope. Or, to use the image borrowed from writer Marilynne Robinson and employed in Charleston, South Carolina, by President Barack Obama in his eulogy for the slain Rev. Clementa Pinckney, they are evidence of “that reservoir of goodness, beyond, and of another kind, that we are able to do each other in the ordinary cause of things.”

If my Facebook newsfeed is indicative — and I hope it is not — faith in that “reservoir of goodness” is largely out of fashion among African Americans, along with faith in such things as “respectability” and forgiveness and America’s capacity to do the right thing in matters of race and justice for her black citizens.

Or maybe it’s just that I’ve been listening to the loudest voices instead of the most representative ones. Perhaps it shouldn’t have surprised me, but it did: Two days after their loved ones were cut down inside Charleston’s Emanuel AME Church by bullets from the gun of a hate-filled racist, family members of the nine African-American victims, one after another, confronted the gunman and told him, “I forgive you.”

Maybe those forgivers, who clearly possess a faith and a strength most of us can only wish we had, are the truly representative ones. Actions like theirs make me want to drop to my knees and say, like the Roman soldier before the crucified Christ, “Surely these people are children of God!”

Maybe I’m just a sentimental old man or I’ve drunk somebody’s mind-addling Kool-Aid, but I refuse to lose faith in my nation. We have a long way to go to perfect this society, but my own life and experience, and those of numerous other African Americans of my acquaintance, tell me it can be done — and it will. There really is a “reservoir of goodness” and there really is an “amazing grace” that can change America.

Not for a second would I deny that the outrages that have given rise to the #BlackLivesMatter movement are legitimate, and that they cry out for changes in a host of areas: police practices, policies on incarceration, housing policy, educational funding. Indeed, there have been moments during the last year — actually since Obama took office in 2009 — when I have wondered whether Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and all the other heroes of the Civil Rights movement died in vain and what we have been pleased to call racial progress has been merely a chimera.

The viciousness of the birther movement and other delegitimizers has turned the cup of celebration over our nation’s accomplishment on election night 2008 into a cup of gall. Such things, along with the ever-lengthening list of law enforcement abuses of black citizens, have given rise to a cynicism among many blacks that at times seems as blinding and corrosive as the actions of those they oppose. Add to all this the anguish created by rampant black-on-black crime in places like Chicago and they are enough to make one despair.

Then I go to a Christ the King meeting and listen as my fellow board members, who have given time and energy and treasure in copious amounts, talk about “our kids,” and I come away knowing that, to these people, at least, black lives matter.

Or I encounter a man like John Cummings, a New Orleans lawyer who has spent a fortune to create a slavery museum in the midst of the antebellum plantations on the River Road in Louisiana. He calls it a place where Americans can have “a chance to grieve even when they didn’t know they needed to grieve.”

Or I read reports showing that more and more Americans are identifying themselves as multiracial, taking pride in what not so long ago and in many places used to be a badge of shame.

Racial progress in America is real and continues to be made. It’s not perfect and it too often seems to come only after the shedding of innocent blood, such as that of Rev. Pinckney and eight others in Charleston last June. But it is real.

Call these things, if you will, bridges across the racial divide. They affirm that, as Dr. King used to say, paraphrasing a 19th century Unitarian minister, “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”

Mike Heaton earned his bachelor’s degree from Notre Dame in 1968, thanks to a football scholarship. He graduated from its law school in 1971, again thanks to a scholarship.

“I feel I’ve been very blessed with good parents and people who helped me along the way,” says Heaton, who practices law in Chicago and who just finished the maximum two three-year terms on the board of Christ the King Jesuit College Prep.

“I’ve just always thought that you’ve got to help those coming behind you. I believe those young people in Austin . . . need a helping hand. They’ve been dealt a tough hand, and I just feel like I’ve got to help them.”

Jack Jiganti ’62, ’64J.D., also a Chicago lawyer, took me to lunch five years ago and invited me to join the Christ the King board. At a more recent lunch, I ask why he became involved with Christ the King. He talks about his upbringing, living above his dad’s store in an Italian immigrant neighborhood on Chicago’s South Side.

He recalls the pastor at his parish church, who had two obsessions: keeping kids away from pornography, and keeping “them” out of the neighborhood. “Them” were the black migrants from the South who were pressing against the boundaries of the ghetto to the east and advancing westward toward the white ethnic neighborhoods. “I never understood why we had to be afraid of ‘them,’” Jiganti says.

He says he has long been disappointed in the Catholic Church’s response to the challenge of racial inequity. So when a friend, Dr. Anthony Barbato, former head of the Loyola University health system, asked him to join the board of the new Cristo Rey-model school in Austin, he readily agreed.

The Cristo Rey model was pioneered at Cristo Rey Jesuit High School in Pilsen, a predominantly Hispanic Chicago neighborhood, also on the West Side. It was the first in what now is a nationwide network of 30 schools, serving almost 10,000 students in economically disadvantaged areas.

Work is the cornerstone of the model, and one of the things that attract donors. Students and their parents pay tuition, but the bulk of the cost of their education is covered by paid work by the students. Banks, law firms, foundations and businesses of all kinds contract with the school to provide the jobs. The schools provide transportation. Teams of four students share a job, each member working one day per week. Their salary goes to the school.

Occasionally a parent of a prospective student will ask: Why should we pay tuition and my child have to work, when they could go to a public school for free? But most parents readily perceive the benefits of the deal. Not only do their children get a rigorous, college prep education, but they also get exposure to workplaces and experiences and role models they never would have otherwise. Throughout the Chicago area, kids who have never ridden in an elevator or traveled beyond the borders of their own neighborhoods are going to work in skyscrapers, seeing the city’s lakefront, or learning what lawyers, bankers and business people do all day.

Also as important, the people in those workplaces are seeing, sometimes for the first time, that not every kid from Austin or Pilsen or any of the other Cristo Rey neighborhoods is a gangbanger or a thug. Ideally, they begin to see in these young people something of their own young, unsophisticated selves, trying to find their way in the world and looking for a hand up, not a handout.

Mike Heaton devoted most of his effort on the Christ the King board to finding jobs for the students. On the night of his retirement from the board last spring, someone joked that Heaton, a big, gregarious guy who seems never to have met a stranger, had no friends left because he was always hitting them up for jobs for the kids of Christ the King and Cristo Rey.

Heaton, tears glistening in his eyes, replied, “I’ve gotten more from these kids than I’ve given them.”

The most insidious piece of propaganda in U.S. history has been Gone With the Wind, the book and the movie. This clever and mendacious fairy tale, full of genteel white people in fancy clothes and childlike darkies whose greatest joy lies in making their white masters and mistresses wealthy and happy, has done more than any other single thing to keep the American people from confronting the ugly reality of the antebellum South and America’s original sin, slavery.

If we are to finally know the truth and be set free, it will be because of truth tellers like John Cummings and Edward Baptist, who are challenging such ignorance.

Last December, Cummings opened the nation’s first slavery museum, Whitney Plantation, in Wallace, Louisiana, about 50 miles upriver from New Orleans. Whitney is a next-door neighbor to Evergreen Plantation, the façade of whose “big house” was used as the front of Leonardo DiCaprio’s “Candyland” in Quentin Tarantino’s 2012 movie Django Unchained, and just down the road from Oak Alley, a plantation in the Gone With the Wind mold.

Cummings, a retired New Orleans trial lawyer and a descendant of Irish-Catholic immigrants, has spent $8 million — and counting — of his own money on this project: buying land; acquiring and moving original slave cabins, a jail, a church building and other slavery-era structures; and commissioning art, monuments and research.

There’s nary a hoop skirt or tailcoat in sight at Whitney Plantation. Instead, there are haunting reminders of what American chattel slavery really was: a truly peculiar institution that reduced black human beings to the status of livestock; that brutalized and dehumanized them for the profit and pleasure of their owners, and that left a legacy of disadvantage and inequality that persists to this day.

A memorial garden attempts to restore to the slaves something of their lost identities: Etched into granite panels are the names — first names only, since most slaves were not allowed surnames — of 107,000 slaves held in Louisiana between 1719 and 1820. The names are drawn from a database compiled over many years by New Orleans-born historian Gwendolyn Midlo Hall, and they are supplemented by fragmentary excerpts from slave narratives, describing brutalities such as whippings, or the sale of a child out of the arms of its mother.

But the most powerful aspect of the Whitney Plantation experience is the slave children. Actually, they are sculptures of slave children, but they are so eerily lifelike that a visitor can be taken aback on entering the plantation’s Antioch Baptist Church building and seeing them clustered in the sanctuary. They are the creations of Woodrow Nash, an African-American artist whom Cummings commissioned to fashion them. Their clothing is tattered and their hair unkempt. Their faces are uniformly unsmiling; their eyes manifest a sad kind of adult sorrow.

Along with Percy Pierre ’61, ’63M.S., a Notre Dame trustee emeritus, I visited Whitney Plantation last December, on the day before its formal opening. We sat with John Cummings in the church and he described his vision for the slave museum. At one point, he called one of the sculptures by a name, Mona. It turned out that Mona’s fate in life had been to be turned by her owner into a “breeder.” She ended up having 15 children by a series of different men.

Cummings is straightforward about his purpose for Whitney Plantation. He hopes it may allow the country to finally confront its original sin and begin to deal with the “overhang” from slavery — the kind of conditions that leave neighborhoods like Chicago’s Austin or cities like Baltimore feeling like an “ugly stepchild.”

What Cummings has done with land and buildings and art and artifacts, Edward Baptist, a Cornell University historian, has attempted to do with a book, The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism.

“The idea that the commodification and suffering and forced labor of African Americans is what made the United States powerful and rich is not an idea that people necessarily are happy to hear,” Baptist writes early in the book. “Yet it is the truth.”

Among those not happy to hear that truth was the reviewer for the widely read British newsmagazine The Economist, which published — then withdrew — a stupendously obtuse review that concluded: “Mr. Baptist has not written an objective history of slavery. Almost all the blacks in his book are victims, almost all the whites villains. This is not history; it is advocacy.”

Black people do not, in short, possess the power and privilege that white people do. White privilege. Like it or not, the term captures perfectly the dominant racial reality in the United States in 2015.

What Baptist actually did was write an exhaustively researched, unsparing history of slavery, one without qualifiers and apologies for those who dealt in human flesh and freedom. He presents it as it was: brutal, utterly unsentimental, just business. Just American business — and the foundation of the white privilege that remains the dominant racial reality in our nation today.

On June 26, President Obama delivered the eulogy for the murdered Rev. Clementa Pinckney at Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina. Here is a portion of his tribute:

We do not know whether the killer of Reverend Pinckney and eight others knew all of this history [of the black church]. But he surely sensed the meaning of his violent act. It was an act that drew on a long history of bombs and arson and shots fired at churches, not random, but as a means of control, a way to terrorize and oppress. An act that he imagined would incite fear and recrimination; violence and suspicion. An act that he presumed would deepen divisions that trace back to our nation’s original sin.

Oh, but God works in mysterious ways. God has different ideas.

He didn’t know he was being used by God. Blinded by hatred, the alleged killer could not see the grace surrounding Reverend Pinckney and that Bible study group — the light of love that shone as they opened the church doors and invited a stranger to join in their prayer circle. The alleged killer could have never anticipated the way the families of the fallen would respond when they saw him in court — in the midst of unspeakable grief, with words of forgiveness. He couldn’t imagine that.

The alleged killer could not imagine how the city of Charleston, under the good and wise leadership of Mayor Riley, how the state of South Carolina, how the United States of America would respond — not merely with revulsion at his evil act, but with big-hearted generosity and, more importantly, with a thoughtful introspection and self-examination that we so rarely see in public life.

Blinded by hatred, he failed to comprehend what Reverend Pinckney so well understood — the power of God’s grace.

Part of that “introspection and self-examination” of which the president spoke was a debate in South Carolina and around the nation about the significance and continued use of the Confederate flag. South Carolina ultimately decided to take down the flag. And so did one man, as recounted in this excerpt from a June 23 story in The New York Times:

“In Austin, Texas, a tall bearded man went into the tattoo parlor where Kelly Barr works with a request: the removal [of] a 10-year-old tattoo of the Confederate flag.

“He told Mr. Barr that he had decided to get the flag removed when he saw the pained look on a middle-age black woman at his gym on Monday.

‘“If South Carolina can take theirs down,’” Mr. Barr recalled him saying, ‘“I can take mine down.”’ I told him, ‘Right on.’”

I was standing in a line one day last March, waiting to pay my bill at a Cracker Barrel restaurant outside of Indianapolis. My wife, Pam, and I were driving south to visit family near Baton Rouge and had stopped for lunch. Pam was standing a short distance from me, examining some of the gewgaws they always position near a Cracker Barrel’s cash register. And a few yards away, just at the edge of my field of vision, was a man who kept eyeing us furtively.

People often tell Pam and me that we make a “striking couple.” We’re both tall — she’s 5-feet-11 and I’m 6-feet-3 — and Pam has a full head of beautiful curly, silver-gray hair. But what most distinguishes us, I suspect, is that we are a biracial couple: Pam is white, and I am black.

I paid our lunch tab and we started moving toward the exit. It was then that our watcher — a white man of middling height and who looked to be about 70 — approached.

“Are you together?” he asked.

“Yes,” I replied, worried that we might be about to have one of those encounters.

“Did you go to Notre Dame?” the man asked.

“Yes, I did,” I replied, remembering then that I was wearing a blue cap with the University’s name on it.

“My son went to Notre Dame,” the man said as he pulled a wallet out of his back pocket. He opened it and proudly displayed a photo of a young white man, a young black woman and a child with skin the color of café au lait.

“That,” he said, “is my son, that’s his wife, and that’s their daughter.”

The three of us clogged the aisle for several minutes while we talked about our families, our Notre Dame connections and the school we all had in common.

On June 12, the 48th anniversary of the Supreme Court’s decision in Loving v. Virginia, the case that legalized interracial marriage nationwide, the Pew Research Center reported that a record 12 percent of newlyweds in the year 2013 married a person of a different race. Few people any longer say interracial marriage is the ultimate solution to America’s racial problems, but that statistic is evidence of progress nonetheless. So is the fact that, again according to Pew, only 9 percent of Americans see interracial marriage as a bad thing for the society.

Maybe even more important is the Census Bureau’s finding that, in 2013, some 9 million Americans picked two or more categories when asked to describe their race. Between 2000 and 2010, the number of black/white biracial Americans, traditionally the two groups least likely to mix (or at least to do so openly), more than doubled. From 1970 to 2013, the annual percentage of multiracial American babies has grown from 1 percent to 10.

This suggests that, slowly but increasingly, “white” is losing its status as the default and the preferred racial self-description among young Americans. No doubt the fact that “one drop” of African blood is no longer an automatic sentence to second-class citizenship is part of the reason for this change. Also as important, I suspect, is that younger Americans have looked out on the world and realized that it is, as Nina Simone sang, “full of folks like me who are black, yellow, beige and brown.” Racial purity is a dead end.

These progressive demographic straws in the wind are offset to some extent by findings like those from a 2013 Reuters poll that four in 10 whites and one in four nonwhites in the United States have no friends of a race other than their own. And among those who do have cross-racial friendships, most are confined mainly to the workplace. Some people, it seems, prefer their worlds small and narrow. But they are a minority and a shrinking one.

In 1899, the poet James Weldon Johnson wrote “Lift Ev’ry Voice and Sing.” Twenty years later, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People unofficially dubbed it the “Negro National Anthem.” We still sing it when black folks gather in formal settings.

Among the lyrics are these words of bitter remembrance:

We have come over a way that with tears has been watered,
We have come, treading our path through the blood of the slaughtered

But the lines that resonate most powerfully and are sung most lustily are these:

Sing a song full of the faith that the dark past has taught us,
Sing a song full of the hope that the present has brought us,
Facing the rising sun of our new day begun,
Let us march on till victory is won.

Johnson wrote those hopeful and determined words only 34 years after the end of the Civil War. He wrote them at a time when lynching was widely practiced and treated in many places as a form of public entertainment. He wrote them only three years after the U.S. Supreme Court gave the green light to segregation with its infamous ruling in Plessy v. Ferguson, enshrining “separate but equal” as the law of the land. He wrote them 55 years before another Supreme Court, in Brown v. Board of Education, would begin dismantling that pernicious doctrine. He wrote them 65 years before the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and 66 years before the Voting Rights Act of 1965. He wrote them, in other words, at a time when there was far greater reason to be pessimistic about the future for blacks in America than there is now.

Bad as things are today — the mass incarceration, the unjustified police killings, the poverty, the unemployment — African Americans as a people have known worse. And have overcome worse.

But bridging the black-white racial divide is a two-way project. And it needs to be said straightforwardly: As in the early days of the abolitionist movement, white Americans need to take the initiative. The cold truth is that African Americans have never resisted peaceful social contact with whites. On the contrary, we have often been pathetically, embarrassingly eager for it (think, for example, of Jim Jones and the Peoples Temple). There has been no “black flight” from advancing whites, unless they were wearing hoods and burning crosses. There has been no black stereotyping of whites as lazy, undesirable and intellectually inferior, even when they were living off the fruits of uncompensated black labor. There has been no large-scale black terrorization of whites, or black incarceration of whites in numbers far out of proportion to their numbers in society. And black people do not possess the ability to, with a single vicious word, deflate white people, remind them of their wretchedness and make them feel demeaned. Black people do not, in short, possess the power and privilege that white people do.

White privilege. Like it or not, the term captures perfectly the dominant racial reality in the United States in 2015. White skin confers on its possessors privileges and immunities that those of darker hues do not routinely enjoy, whether they be manifest in contacts with the police or in opportunities for wealth-accumulation through home ownership or in good education.

Sharing that privilege, extending it to previously excluded groups, is what Christ the King and Cristo Rey are about. Forcing recognition of its source is what John Cummings’ Whitney Plantation is about. Forswearing it, even if only in a small degree, is what that fellow who had the Confederate flag tattoo removed was doing.

Nobody forced any of them to do it. Only their consciences and their characters.

Don Wycliff is a retired journalist and co-editor of the 2014 book of essays Black Domers: Seventy Years at Notre Dame.