Something remarkable happened in the Chicago suburb of Elmhurst on June 13th. Well over a thousand residents gathered for a Black Lives Matter protest, carpeting the town’s Wilder Park with a massive, mask-wearing crowd. Nothing like this has ever before been seen in this quiet, affluent, almost entirely white town.
By contrast, a counter-rally anchored last week by the former Elmhurst Mayor and current County Board member, Pete DiCianni, was a pathetic spectacle. A few supporters turned out at the town’s police station, challenged by several local Black Lives Matter protestors. When he received an email from a constituent expressing concern about the rally, DiCianni replied in childish frustration, “Go stick your vote up your ass. I stood up for my cops today.” He faces a censure motion at the July 14th County Board meeting and a dim political future in this rapidly changing suburb.
As scenes like these play out in suburbs all over the country, it feels like the ground is shifting beneath our feet. However, behind the public expressions of anti-racism lies a contradiction we seem reluctant to address. Speakers at the Elmhurst event landed blows on all the usual woke punching bags from colonialism to predatory policing, but no one asked the most obvious question raised by looking at that sea of faces – Why is Elmhurst white?
If Elmhurst is willing to turn out in such numbers to support the concept of racial justice, why is the town also so intensely segregated? How can a community be, at the same time, welcoming toward other races and closed to them?
Though the rally attendees certainly don’t represent the attitudes of every resident, they do seem to reflect the tenor of the community, as demonstrated by the sad turnout for the counter-rally at the Elmhurst Police Department. Across its history, Elmhurst has never carried the sundown-town reputation of other suburbs like Naperville or fostered any prominent displays of racial animus. The town even hosted a packed lecture from Dr. Martin Luther King in 1966, arguably at the peak of his regional unpopularity.
Elmhurst was once solidly Republican in that boring, Chamber of Commerce way typical of affluent Northern suburbs, but as the national GOP took its hard turn toward white nationalism Elmhurst leapt off the train. Obama was the first Democratic Presidential candidate ever to carry the area. Eight years later, Trump barely reached 30%. Suddenly, across the span of a single decade, the entire area has switched parties, represented now by a slate of new Democratic officials at every level except for a few remaining dinosaurs like DiCianni sitting on the county board and city councils. Elmhurst is not the kind of place that rewards noisy displays of white nationalism.
For generations this was a community relatively free of overt racism which was simultaneously closed to black residents. How? Why is Elmhurst today every bit as racially segregated as it was in our grandparents’ time?
It’s a lot easier to paint signs and march around town than it is to confront the thorny challenges of systemic racism. Displays like the June 13th march in Elmhurst should be a seen as beginning, not an end. If we want to convert the hope and goodwill we saw in Wilder Park into meaningful progress on civil rights, we need to understand why Elmhurst is white.
When we think of racism as an attitude of the heart rather than as a complex embedded system, that scene at Wilder Park seems confusing, and almost all of the energy spent fighting racism is wasted. That contradiction between the will toward equity we saw on display and the racist outcomes unfolding all around us only makes sense when we understand racism as a system.
Imagine that nasty, bigoted racists built a machine designed to sort people by skin color, extracting value from black and brown people and redistributing it to whites. Further, suppose that generations later, white people decided that the bigoted attitudes which inspired the machine were dumb and counter-productive, and rejected that racism. Great. Now, what if they failed to unplug the machine? What if they forgot it even existed?
What you’d see is ever greater expressions of non-racism or even anti-racism from white people, while people of color continued to experience disproportionately negative outcomes and whites accumulated ever more power, wealth and privilege at their expense. How do you expect those well-meaning, non-racist whites would react when someone reminded them of the machine and asked them to shut it down?
How white is Elmhurst? According to census records, the Chicago metro area is roughly 52% white and 16% black. DuPage County, where Elmhurst sits, is about 66% white and 5% black. Elmhurst is 82% white and barely 1% black. With a population around 45,000, Elmhurst is home to a few dozen black households and a few hundred Hispanic families, in a region where almost half of the residents are non-white. As the Chicago area has become markedly less white over the decades, Elmhurst’s demographics have been almost entirely untouched. You are hardly more likely to be greeted by a black face in Elmhurst today than you would have been in 1950.
Why is Elmhurst white? History plays a part, but the machine set in place to create this outcome still operates today. Down through our history, documented displays of racial hostility in the community are hard to find. They were never necessary. For generations it was virtually impossible for any black family to finance the purchase of a home in Elmhurst, or in much of DuPage County.
Though laws explicitly segregating neighborhoods were struck down in the 1940’s, banks’ discriminatory lending practices, including neighborhood “redlining” continued to be legal well into the 1970’s, and continued as a practice for well over a decade more. A complex of laws at all levels, from lending restrictions to local zoning rules, set in place to meet ostensibly race-neutral goals, have worked to wring wealth out of minority families while shifting capital into white neighborhoods right up to the present.
Elmhurst remains white today as a legacy of openly racist housing policies from the past and a present-day practice of subtly racist zoning and leasing policies, none of which required anyone locally to take an overtly bigoted stance. Rules barring construction of affordable housing, apartments, or high-density housing while allowing landlords to reject Section 8 recipients performed the job of a burning cross without the unpleasant odor. In the name of “property values” and attracting “the right kind of neighbors,” communities like Elmhurst could exclude minorities without unseemly displays of racism.
Over its history, Elmhurst has been white because a wider collection of racist practices crafted the community into that mold. Elmhurst remains white today and is likely to stay that way for the foreseeable future for one simple reason. White residents benefit from Elmhurst’s segregated character and they will not take steps to change it. The machine is still running and we benefit from it too much to shut it off.
What would it take to turn Elmhurst into an inclusive community? It would start with a change in the way the city is regulated, built and developed. Those changes would be beneficial beyond racial lines, helping to blunt the economic damage of artificially high home prices on families regardless of race.
Local zoning decisions do more than any Klansman could to reinforce residential discrimination. All of these measures would be defended today by Elmhurst residents in the name of “property values” or other race-neutral terms. Their impact is to extract value from families struggling to rise while accumulating value among those who have already achieved the benefits of whiteness. Once the machine is built, you don’t need racists to keep it running.
Why does segregation matter? In our system, a home isn’t just a place to live. My address is my membership. A popular sign posted in yards around town, promoted by the Elmhurst Pride Collective reads, “Elmhurst is for Everyone.” Yet, like “Black Lives Matter,” that statement is entirely aspirational, not reflective of realities on the ground. Elmhurst most certainly isn’t for everyone. Choices we make about who gets to live here and who doesn’t alter the shape of lives beyond our vision.
Bill Gates and Paul Allen met at their exclusive Seattle-area Lakeside School. They were drawn together by the school’s rare investment in access to a mainframe computer, an investment that transformed not just their lives, but ours. How many new Gates’, Allens, or Steve Jobs are we failing to develop because Americans hoard our resources in white neighborhoods? Communities matter beyond their boundaries.
It’s easy to recognize the power of communities to influence individual life outcomes once you strip away the American mythology of individual achievement. Neighborhoods store, nurture and magnify wealth. No one family in Elmhurst possesses the wealth to individually support the school district’s nine-figure annual budget. No single family can, on their own, buy and sustain the rail system that provides convenient, walkable access to downtown Chicago. None can individually fund the town’s spectacular library or deliver the dense network of health, educational and infrastructure support that amplifies the wealth of every Elmhurst family. Community is communal. And community is defined as much by who we exclude as by who gets to live here. Racism is not an attitude. Racism is a system.
A 2019 report from DuPage County’s Community Development Commission on fair housing impediments documents a notable instance in which a local resident said the quiet part out loud. Neighboring community, Oak Brook, recently considered zoning changes which might have opened this white community to minority residents. From page 16 of the report:
“You start bringing in renters and when they leave, they leave an empty apartment,” he said.
“It’s going to destroy Oak Brook as we know it.” The resident said he was afraid that the apartments would become Section 8, part of the Housing Act, which authorizes the payment of rental housing assistance to private landlords. “The border we have on the east side is something we don’t want in this town.”
Even if we succeed in dismantling institutional barriers that keep Elmhurst white, further steps would be needed to make the community more inclusive. Maria Krysan and Kyle Crowder, researchers at the University of Illinois at Chicago and the University of Washington, respectively, have reviewed successful efforts at residential desegregation in the Chicago area. In their book, Cycle of Segregation: Social Processes and Residential Stratification, they explain how “social-structural sorting” keeps racial segregation in place even without deliberate, open campaigns by bigots.
Potential homebuyers or renters are never coming to their search with a blank slate. They bring expectations about which neighborhoods are “right for them” influenced by engrained habits of thought, what Krysan describes as a heuristic, a mental short-cut. In our culture, those shortcuts are heavily influenced by racist falsehoods.
People assume that if they know a neighborhood’s racial composition, they also know things like how much its housing costs, its crime level, how welcoming it is to people of color, and so on. And too often, the application of these shortcuts, which vary to some extent based on a person’s racial background, results in perceptions that lead whites away from black or integrated neighborhoods, and which also lead African American homeseekers away from predominantly white communities.
Even after breaking down the subtly racist economic and zoning barriers that limit access to Elmhurst for non-whites, we’d need rewrite the heuristics that leave people of color nervous about their potential investment in the town.
Publicizing a commitment and openness to people of all races and ethnicities could be done through public statements, public relations campaigns, and/or visual images conveying a diverse community. In addition, mobility counseling and other efforts to disrupt the use of racial composition as the ‘best cue’ of whether a place is welcoming to people of color need to pay explicit attention to this issue.
In a place like Chicago with some of the deepest residential segregation in the country, desegregation will not happen passively. Communities like Elmhurst, if we are serious about addressing the issues outlined in the Black Lives Matter march, will not only have to dismantle the machine that produces racist outcomes through carefully tailored land use and zoning laws. We will have to demonstrate a very visible openness to people of color, breaking down the embedded impressions among black families about what they should expect here.
For a model, Krysan mentions successful campaigns in communities like Oak Park and Cleveland’s Shaker Heights to address this problem. What are the odds that Elmhurst would be willing to even consider such an idea?
Seeing a mass audience of white Elmhurst residents marching to bring racial justice to other places is nice. Converting that energy into a concern for conditions in our own zip code is the acid test that separates Instagram posers from citizens and leaders. It’s early and there is reason for optimism. Turning enthusiasm into progress means finding the ground beneath our feet and investing our energy in the place we live. Building a country in which people from all backgrounds can have the opportunity to flourish starts with understanding why Elmhurst is white, and confronting the habits and practices keeping it that way.