March 25, 2004

I just returned from a trip to Chicago, where I met my new, and first, grandchild, who was born on March 8th. There's not a lot to say about a two-week old person except that he appears to be trying to figure the world out but not quite succeeding (the universal human condition) and that he has the ability to win people over, which is perhaps the most important ability of all.

Though he's much in my mind, he's not my main topic for today. Rather, I want to talk about his parents and the housing decision they made about six weeks before he was born. They bought a house on the south side of Chicago, which, if it were located on the north side would have cost at least $200,000 more than they paid for it. The reason is, for those of you who don't know Chicago, that the north side is inhabited mostly by white people whereas the south side, except for a few exclusive pockets, is almost uniformly black. And the house my daughter and her husband bought is not in one of those pockets. They are the only white people in their neighborhood and probably the only white people within five or six blocks of where they live.

Their primary reason for buying where they did was not idealistic or ideological. Their reason was they wanted a comfortable house they could afford, and no such house could be had in an area where white people live. The house they got is indeed comfortable - brand new, tastefully laid-out, spacious. It's a house any young couple could be proud of. But it's a house no one of their associates at the University of Chicago would buy because of where it's located. Their friends prefer to pay twice as much for cramped space located elsewhere.

The reason people give for refusing to live on the south side is that they would feel threatened there. But it's an irrational fear and I'm not even sure it's real. While I was there, I took a walk around my daughter's neighborhood. Everyone I met was friendly and nodded to me courteously. I saw nothing that was threatening in any respect.

I think it's a mistake to call the refusal of white people to live among blacks racism. None of my daughter's friends are racists. They wish black people well. They take political positions that are supportive of the black population. But they don't want to move into a black neighborhood. Why not?

The reason, I think, is something that digs deeper than racism and that we might as well call by its right name: tribalism. People want to be among the members of their own tribe, identify that tribe however you will. That's the only place they feel comfortable. That's the only place they feel safe. Tribalism is not an altogether bad thing. It gives us many of the pleasures life has to offer. But, in our day and age, it creates a big problem. It causes us never to know the people of other tribes. And people we don't know are easy to demonize. I don't know that we can expect full residential integration any time soon. But we do need to find ways to know people in tribes other than our own. That's what my daughter and her husband are doing. And I'm proud of them for doing it, even though they would dismiss my pride as something silly.

©John R. Turner

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