Safety First: The Racialization of Danger on Chicago’s South Side

October 16th, 2011 § 0 comments


Here’s a story for you…

It’s approximately 8:30pm and I’m a half a block away from my on-campus apartment waiting for the University Shuttle and talking to my friend on the phone. A Chicago Police car (NOT University police) pulls up and rolls the window down…

Cop: Is everything OK?
Me: Yep, I’m fine.
Cop: What are you doing here?
Me: I’m just waiting on the shuttle.
Cop: OK, well don’t be out here too long by yourself.
Me: OK.
Cop: And you shouldn’t be on your cell phone because you can’t hear if someone is coming up behind you. You should get an ear piece.
Me: OK.
Cop: And make sure you’re always aware of your surroundings and looking around ‘cause you know…we’re still in the ‘hood (smiles at me like I’m in on an inside joke).
Me: * blank stare * OK.
Cop: Alright now, be safe.
Me: OK. Thanks.

*He drives off*

Me: * raised eyebrow *

For a moment after he left, I stood there thinking about the interaction. This had never happened to me before. I’ve had a few run ins with cops over the course of my life but I’ve never had one express direct concern about my safety. Why did this cop feel the need to pull over and talk to me?  Was he just really concerned about my safety? What was it about me that made him feel the need to check in? If he hadn’t assumed that I was a student would he have still pulled over? If so, would he have given me the same message? What if I was a man of color–would we have had the same interaction?

I’ve been in Chicago a little over a month now and there have been several things I’ve noticed about this city that have really gotten me thinking and have kept my eyebrows raised. The most obvious is just how segregated the city really is. I had heard that Chicago was one of the most segregated cities in the country, but after living, working, and going to school here for more than a month, I no longer doubt that. I live on the southern part of U of C’s campus and if I walk 3 blocks South the white faces that are very present on campus disappear and suddenly, for miles, I am surrounded by people who look like me–and in some parts of town, only people who look like me.

I definitely understand your frustration in dealing with white students and individuals who come to Chicago from out of town and immediately assume that the South Side is dangerous. I have been frustrated with the same on some level as well. In Chicago especially, because this city is so segregated along racial and class lines, the “threat” of danger is very often racialized. People who have little experience working with or living in lower income communities (or just interacting with people of color in general, let’s be real) are often quick to stereotype these communities as “ghetto” read: Black, violent, poor people who want to hurt and/or steal from me. It is frustrating that people move into the “sanctuary” of Hyde Park or the University of Chicago and don’t think to question their own assumptions of what poverty and danger look like nor when worrying about their own safety stop to think about the safety of those who live and work in these surrounding “dangerous” communities everyday.

But, these images and ideals aren’t just perpetuated by the media. As you mentioned University officials and even Chicago police go out of their way to make sure that students don’t wander into “dangerous” areas. In my own orientation they were very clear to emphasize “dangerous” public transit lines (green and red) and let us know that we may as well not travel south of campus if we can help it and that traveling on campus after twilight is just a huge no no–call “Safe Ride” (an on-campus door to door shuttle).

Some of the stories and perceptions of certain neighborhoods (and the individuals who live in those neighborhoods) that I’ve heard from some of my new friends and colleagues have often made me feel uncomfortable, but I must admit that as a Chi-town newbie, even my own perceptions of Chicago have been influenced by what I’ve heard from others. It has really gotten me thinking about the privilege of safety and the racialization of danger.

For some reason, the cops I mentioned above (a black man and his white partner) felt the need to warn me, a black female student, of the dangers of waiting for the on-campus bus after dark. It led me to wonder, however, if I had been dressed differently or if they didn’t assume I was a student if they would have had the same reaction to me. If I had been a few blocks farther south of campus would they have thought to pull over–would they have even noticed me? If I had been a man of color on the same block, would they have expressed the same amount of concern? Would they even have assumed that I was a student before thinking that I didn’t belong?

Why is my safety privileged over the safety of others in this same community? And furthermore, how are interactions like the one between me and this cop that are seemingly intended to promote safety and awareness also perpetuating fear, misinformation, and further marginalization of others living, working, breathing, and eating in this same space. Can we really even call it “community” if the cops and university administration are working so hard to keep “us” in and keep “them” out?

I wholeheartedly agree with you that we need to question our own fears and the socializations that we are all a part of that inform those fears. But, we also need to question how these fears are affirmed, encouraged, and perpetuated everyday by our own actions or lack thereof. The Chicago Police force and the University of Chicago Police force are doing all they can to keep the streets of the University and Hyde Park safe, but what does safety look like in South Shore, Woodlawn, or Inglewood? Why don’t they show the same commitment to maintaining safety in these communities? And why are we, as residents of Chicago, so apathetic about the safety of others? We assume that safety is a right, but it is situations like the one I described above that remind me that safety is, in fact, a privilege and one that too many of us take for granted. Asking these questions is the first step toward recognizing the many ways that privilege affords one access to basic rights and denies a countless number of others the same. It is also the first step toward challenging these assumptions and the perpetuation of marginalization that happens on this campus and all over this city everyday.

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