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Sociology in Cicero: a high school teacher tackles racial prejudice

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Harvey Clark had this great idea. He would move his wife and baby daughter to new digs in the suburb of Cicero, just across the street from Chicago's west side.

It seemed like a safe bet -- low rent, a clean neighborhood, a nice apartment -- except for one catch: Clark was black. And Cicero was just not ready for that.

By nightfall of his first day in town, a mob at least a thousand strong gathered outside Clark's apartment. They ransacked his unit and then set it ablaze, Local police were helpless. The rioting lasted two days, and was finally quelled only by National Guardsmen bearing guns, rifles, and bayonets.

That was in 1951. A lot has changed since then. But not Cicero, at least not in the public's eye. The riot revealed that town's ugly side to the outside world. Cicero became known as the Alabama of the north, a citadel of segregation and white working-class hatred of blacks.

"That reputation is not fair, and it's not even accurate," says Lee Pollina, a sociology teacher at Morton East High School, the lone public high school in Cicero. "There's probably no more prejudice in Cicero than in any other suburb. It's no worse here than, say, Hinsdale or Oak Brook. People here are a little less sophisticated about expressing themselves, that's all."

To prove it, he has invited two guests from Chicago, filmmaker Jeff Spitz and a reporter, to watch and listen as several of his classes of juniors and seniors -- perhaps the sons and daughters of some of those rioters -- grapple with problems of race.

"We're going to do something a little different today," Pollina tells the morning class. "We're going to see a film by today's guest, Jeff Spitz, called 'The Roosevelt Experiment, An Integrated College in a Segregated City.'"

He signals to a student, who kills the lights, and the class settles back to watch the story of Roosevelt University, a school that shocked the nation in the late 1940s by doing away with admission quotas and opening its doors to blacks and Jews.

When the film ends, the lights go on and the students draw their desks into a semicircle for discussion.

"I thought Roosevelt was a good idea," says a girl in glasses. "People of all races came together. And they didn't care what other people thought."

As she talks, a skinny kid whose long, straight hair is combed straight back shifts and squirms in his chair.

"I discovered that you can't prejudge people," says Chris, adding that he learned a lot about the hardships of prejudice first-hand when his family moved here from Korea nine years ago.

"This is a nation of immigrants," he says. "We were all once foreigners."

"So you think we would be better off in an integrated school?" Pollina asks. "Tony, what do you think? We haven't heard from you."

It's the fellow with the combed-back hair. Without warning, Pollina has called on him, He looks down, then up. He seems to be struggling, as though he knows what he wants to say but not how to say it.

"Well, you got to look how it is now," he says, his voice a low murmur. "All the trash on the west side. It's a dump, and everything. They come here, and they'll start doing that. Here. Right here. You gotta understand that people are worried about that."

There, he said it. His head goes back down. But a small dam has burst.

"I think it's better if it is an all-white school," says Doug, a big bear of a boy.

"Gee thanks, Doug," murmurs Chris, the Korean fellow. "Thanks a lot."

"Well, what I mean is, white people aren't gonna fight," says Doug.

"You mean, you've never seen white people fighting?" asks Pollina.

Doug shakes his head.

"Oh, give me a break," a girl exclaims softly, rolling her eyes.

"Is that so?" Pollina asks. "How many feel that way? How many feel that there would be no fights if the school were all white? If there were no Latinos or Asians, only whites?"

The students eye each other with some uncertainty. Doug raises his hand, so does Tony. Cautiously, one or two others do the same. But that's all.

"I think that no matter what, kids will be looking for a fight. That's always," says Robert, a sprinter on the school's track team. "They'll pick on people. If it's not the blacks, it'll be someone else."

"Ah," says Pollina, "what's that called?"

"What?"

"What's it called when you pick on someone because he's different?"

"A scapegoat?"

"Right. A scapegoat."

Pollina checks the clock. The class buzzer sounds.

"Scapegoats, " he repeats. "Let's think about that." And he ushers the students -- Tony still shaking his head -- out of the class.

"They're torn," Pollina says with a faint smile, "between what they know and what they feel."

Between the ideal and the reality? someone asks.

"Yes, that's it," says Pollina.

He explains that the students understand the ideal of race relations. In their hearts, they realize that prejudice is wrong. But the reality is something else. The reality is what they hear at home from their parents. What they see on the TV news. Or what they see and fear exists in the black communities of Chicago, on the other side of the tracks.

"Part of what I do is teach critical thinking," says Pollina. "I tell them that prejudice is a thought process. It involves emotions, and it is learned. You learn to draw conclusions before you have the facts. Whereas the critical thinker will draw conclusions based on reliable facts."

He pauses for a moment to wipe his glasses. How did you wind up teaching here? he's asked.

"I wanted to teach in a working-class community," Pollina replies.

"These kids are not that much different than the ones I met when I first started teaching here. They are the descendants of European immigrants. Now we have more Latino students. Most of the students are from working-class families. I did my student teaching at an affluent high school. It wasn't enough of a challenge. Those kids didn't need me as much as the kids do up here."

He smiles. That was 23 years ago. And Lee Pollina, born and raised in a changing neighborhood on the city's west side, was an idealist, fresh out of Northwestern University.

He's learned a few things since then. Just two years after he started teaching at Morton East, Martin Luther King Jr. threatened to march for open housing in Cicero. King never marched, but other black activists did.

"They had to bring the National Guard into Cicero to protect the marchers," Pollina recalls. "And, in a strange way, I was glad. Cicero has this reputation as a gangster town. And there was this attitude that things could be, you know, just taken care of. Well, once the authorities sent in the troops, that attitude changed. People saw those guns and soldiers, and they realized that there was a bigger authority than the mob. That you couldn't just take care of things. That you had to answer to a greater law. It was quite an education."

That was in 1966, he notes. Before any of his current students were born.

By now, his second sociology class of the day is seated. Pollina runs the film and, once more, has the class move into a semicircle.

"How many of you have heard of Harvey Clark?"

No hands are raised.

"Did you know that there were riots here in the 50s because a black family moved here?"

No one says anything, they just stare at the teacher.

He tells them about the later riots in the 60s.

"Do you know what happened?"

"Were we sued?" one girl asks, after several seconds of silence.

"No," Pollina replies, "they had to call out the National Guard. There were tanks on Cicero Avenue."

A few kids snicker.

"Oh yes, that's true. And some time afterwards, I invited a speaker here from the Urban League, a moderate civil-rights organization. He was John Harwell, a black man. And he said that Cicero was the Selma, Alabama, of the north. Now, what do you think he meant by that?"

"That they think Alabama is prejudiced," a boy in a rock 'n' roll T-shirt replies. "And that Cicero is prejudiced too."

"Well," says Pollina, "is it?"

"I think so," says Katrina, an olive-skinned girl wearing ruby red lipstick. "Well, I mean, I don't want to say nothing bad about anyone. But we got these Lithuanians on our block, and they always look down on us because we're Latino."

"A lot of people I know are really prejudiced," says Cathy, perhaps emboldened by her classmate's confession. "If a black kid came into this school, there'd be a fight. I'm not saying that's right. See, I got black friends. We go out, and they're really cool, you know."

"Is that so?" says Pollina. "How many of you have black friends?"

Almost every hand goes up. And one by one several students explain how they met their black friends -- through jobs or social groups, usually in Chicago, or at least, never in Cicero.

"All right," says Pollina, "how many of you would bring your black friends to school?"

No hands go up. Instead, several students giggle self-consciously.

"Really?" asks Pollina.

"Well, I would," offers Cathy. "I'd bring her to school."

Several kids laugh. Others shake their heads in disbelief.

"No you wouldn't," Katrina challenges.

"I would too."

"You'd stand up for her, right in front of your gang?" demands Katrina. "Sure."

And now Cathy falls silent.

"See, see, that's what I mean," says Katrina. "Everybody's got their group. If you brought a black kid in, that would only break up the group."

"What kind of groups are you talking about?" asks Pollina.

"You got gangs. You know, hippies, the fags," she laughs nervously. "The Parkboys, well, they're mostly Italian. The Twenty-Twos; they're Mexicans. The blacks would have to hang out with their own."

"Why?" asks Pollina,

"Because."

"Because why?"

"Because that's just the way it is, Mr. Pollina."

"You label them blacks," another girl says. "When I was little my parents sat around the table and said, 'Nigger this and nigger that.'"

"But you don't know until you meet them," cuts in Cathy. "You hang around with them and you say, 'Hey, he's really nice, or she's really cool.' And you see that it's not like that, you know, not like what your parents said. I mean, you can't make judgments. Nobody is black or white. We're all different. You can't say all blacks are good, or all whites are bad. Or whatever. You got to judge people by what they are."

"But would you stand by them?" Pollina repeats. "If your black friends came to school, would you stand by them? Even if your white friends didn't like it?"

There are a few seconds left in class. All eyes turn to Cathy. She pauses to think.

"Yeah," she says at long last. "Yeah, I would."

And no one snickers, and no one laughs.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Jon Randolph.

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