“Help me understand why in 2012 we are still facing issues with race in Rockford.” Mike Brown asks for clarity in his recent blog; I applaud his candor and desire to better understand his new community. I think this is a question that is not simple to answer, however, and has as more to do with opportunity, classism and education than it does race.
There are predominately more people of color living on the westside and visibly more whites living east. That in and of itself isn’t necessarily bad if that’s where people choose to live. What’s bad is that there are very few opportunities west of the river once you leave the downtown area. There are no grocery stores, no pharmacies, no banks, one gas station and a couple of little convenience stores. There are no jobs, limited public transportation, few sidewalks and run-down schools.
What’s bad is that low income families often can’t afford to live anywhere else and must settle for absentee landlords who take advantage of the Section 8 vouchers many of the residents use. Businesses west of the river are poised to take advantage of low income, low opportunity residents who have few choices in how they spend their money. How many check cashing stores or payday loan companies does one section of town need? Corner convenience stores can easily charge $5.00 a gallon for milk when I can buy the same thing at Woodman’s for $3.00. That they can command $5.00 and get it only reinforces the theory that there is a market for a west side grocery store.
Accountability is always an issue when a discussion takes place about people who receive public benefits. The bar must be raised for parents and children if we expect them to better their opportunities in life. It doesn’t matter what the skin color, if we’re going to help break the cycle of poverty and offer new experiences to low income families, we have to set goals and expectations. There must be consequences if those goals or expectations aren’t met. Human service providers have the perfect opportunity to help set those goals when they are doing case management with their clients – they should also be working with the client in setting consequences in case of no follow through. I’ve actually been criticized by some of my human service provider peers for having that opinion.
I’d like to point out here that low income parents aren’t the only ones who don’t always hold themselves and their children accountable. I see it on a daily basis with friends and children my kids go to school with. Heck, I’ve been guilty of it myself and so, probably, have you. This is a universal problem and not one experienced by just one ethnic or socioeconomic group.
Sometimes as a working parent it’s just easier to cave than to keep fighting about something that seems minor at the time but actually reinforces a pattern of accountability and responsibility. “No, you can’t play basketball until your homework is done.” 20 minutes of nagging and not doing homework later and you say, “Fine! Go play and do your homework after dinner.” The child isn’t learning that responsibility requires that you work before you play; they’re learning that if they continue to nag and refuse to do their work, the authority figure will give in and let them play first. Granted this is a minor example of accountability, but it’s often one of the first ones we give in to and not model responsibility and accountability. How does that continue to play out for a child who is never held accountable – what sort of an adult will he/she become?
Yes, there is a geographical racial divide; I’d challenge that there is a greater class divide. Why are we worrying and fighting the downtown Dollar Tree project and why aren’t we fighting for a grocery store to adjoin the development? Because many of us are thinking we wouldn’t use a Dollar Tree and can jump in our cars and drive to an east side Logli’s or Woodman’s.
If we’re looking at community and economic development and really taking into account the needs of all residents, then the City and Rockford Area Economic Development Council should place priority on this project to ensure that we don’t have tobacco or payday loan stores joining the Dollar Tree plan – they should be working to secure a grocer or pharmacy to join the development and build the capacity to support quality of life needs for downtown and west side residents.
I love the Rockford and northern Illinois community and I enjoy most of the people who live here. It’s easy to become insulated and not see the reality of many of our community’s residents and what they have to do to survive and provide for their families. Only by providing a better education for children and greater opportunities for parents, including employment, will we be able to begin bridging the perception of a divide, racial or otherwise.