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Crossing the Tracks

There have always been two sides of the tracks in the United States, the wrong side heavily populated by enslaved Africans and their descendants, indentured servants, first and second generation immigrant families, Appalachian whites, southern share croppers, etc. A recent study on the growth in the residential segregation of families by income in the last four decades shows, however, that the tracks are getting wider, the crossings more heavily gated. In 1970 only 15% of families were in neighborhoods classified as affluent or poor; by 2007 over thirty percent of families lived in such neighborhoods. (http://community-wealth.org/content/growth-residential-segregation-families-income-1970-2009)

This doubling in the pattern of income segregation exacts heavy social costs on neighborhoods of concentrated poverty as anyone driving through the south and west sides of Chicago can observe. The report points out that “the increasing concentration of income and wealth (and therefore of resources such as schools, parks, and public services) in a small number of neighborhoods results in greater disadvantages for the remaining neighborhoods where low-and middle-income families live.” Other research shows how income segregation reinforces advantages and disadvantages for both affluent and poor neighborhoods, limiting opportunities for low-income children for upward mobility, “reproducing inequality over time and across generations.” In other words, affluent children are increasingly shielded from the dangers of relocating across the tracks, while poor children are increasingly barred.

One effect of this is that affluent people, who most often make decisions in business and government affecting everyone, are increasingly isolated from the realities poor people experience and oblivious to the privilege which has allowed them to gain their wealth and keep it. For example, Bruce Rauner, a candidate for governor in Illinois, likes to describe himself as “just a middle-class kid who worked his fanny off.” As his campaign ad declares, “Bruce has never let his success change him. He still drives a 20 year-old camper van, wears an $18 watch, and stays in the cheapest hotel room he can find when he’s on the road.” Not mentioned are the 6,800 square foot mansion in Winnetka, two units, including a penthouse in a luxury high-rise overlooking Millennium Park in Chicago, a waterfront villa in Florida, ranches in Montana and Wyoming, a condo in a Utah ski resort, and a penthouse overlooking Central Park in New York. Also overlooked is the fact that this “middle-class kid” grew up in the upscale north shore suburbs of Chicago and that his father was a vice-president at electronics giant Motorola.

Then there’s Michael Jordan who is selling his 56,000 square foot (that’s right, 56,000!) mansion in the Chicago suburbs with its nine bedrooms, nineteen bathrooms, full sized basketball court, etc. Michael also “worked his fanny off.” He reassured his fans in Chicago that he is not abandoning the city where his fame was achieved (listening, LeBron?). It is, instead, a simple family decision. Chicago is a “special place with incredible people, who embraced me from the day I arrived. But my kids are grown now and I don’t need a large house there anymore.” I don’t need a large house? Must have been nice for those children to be able to choose a different bathroom for every day of the week.

While concentrated poverty has a crippling effect on the poor, and ought to be our primary concern, its moral corruption for the affluent is of deep concern as well.   Blindness to privilege – extravagant or otherwise – is profoundly corrosive when a predominantly affluent ruling class determines the social and economic policies of the nation. Ethicist and leadership guru Walter Fluker points out that

“Empathy, trust, and a sense of responsibility for the other are essential to the development of a code of civil conduct. By providing leaders with opportunities to use their imaginations to enter the stories of the other, the public construct of an ethical center – civility – is funded. . . . The public is the space where citizens meet and engage in meaningful discussion and action about values and where they hold one another accountable for what they know and value,” (Ethical Leadership: The Quest for Character, Civility, and Community).

As the tracks widen between the affluent and the poor, each concentrated in ever more isolated neighborhoods, the space where citizens meet is diminished and empathy is lost. It’s what allows Rauner and Jordan to make their incredibly disingenuous and insensitive remarks without the slightest sense that anything is amiss.

The affluent (and more of us are included here than we like to admit) may venture across the tracks on Thanksgiving to dole out turkeys and serve at soup kitchens. But these forays are increasingly to an alien, unknown world whose citizens are barred from crossing the tracks in the other direction. Restoring some semblance of meaningful interaction and mobility across the tracks is crucial for what Fluker calls the maintenance of “an ethic of balance and justice in public life” which is the basis of democracy. Absent this, civility itself is threatened, and not just a bland code of public etiquette, but a deep sense of what Stephen Carter calls the “sum of the many sacrifices we are called to make for the sake of living together. . . , a signal of respect for our fellow citizens, marking them as full equals, both before the law and before God.”

Poor families will be happy to receive a free frozen turkey today and the homeless will be grateful for a turkey dinner in a warm church basement. But these are poor substitutes for the ability to participate meaningfully in our democracy as full equals. Perhaps this is what those of us living on the “right” side of the tracks ought to be thinking about today.

John H. Thomas
Thanksgiving, 2013

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