Sociologist Michael Maly, a Roosevelt University professor and director of its Policy Research Collaborative, has spent 20 years dissecting social issues. His latest research — published in the book “Vanishing Eden: White Construction of Memory, Meaning, and Identity in a Racially Changing City” — is jarring. Maly and his co-author, Roosevelt sociologist Heather Dalmage, interviewed whites who grew up in racially changing Chicago neighborhoods from the 1950s through the 1980s. They looked at what shaped whites’ racial identity and perspectives on community and race. Maly spoke with reporter Maudlyne Ihejirika. A condensed transcript follows.
“Race matters, whether you want to acknowledge it or not. We can’t just say, ‘Let’s get past it. Let’s not talk about it.’
” ‘Vanishing Eden’ came out of the 40th anniversary of Dr. Martin Luther King’s freedom marches in Chicago. We saw stories on that whole episode when King marched on Gage Park/Marquette Park and was hit by a brick and the photos of all those angry white faces. We wondered: What was the experience for whites in this process?
“We interviewed people who grew up in the ’60s in Southwest Side Beverly, Marquette Park, Gage Park, West Lawn, Auburn-Gresham, West Englewood and West Humboldt Park on the West Side. We asked people to talk about their childhoods, share memories of their neighborhoods, because it’s hard for whites to talk about race.
“Heather and I are both white, raised in Catholic schools and parishes — fairly similar to the populations we interviewed. That was another piece of the curiosity, coming from similar experience. And Heather and I have family members that are not white. So that matters as well.
“The book is really about how we come to know who is an ‘us’ and who is a ‘them’ in a system of inequality. A lot of what we use race for is to position ourselves to be a part of the ‘us’ that gets the benefits.
“Most whites don’t see themselves as having race. It’s ‘those other people’ that have race. But what’s clear is we’re all involved in what we call ‘doing the race’ — racial construction of one sort or another. And the way we talk about race is a key part of that process.
“We found a lot of whites tend to valorize their own actions and neighborhoods: to claim white actions are better, white neighborhoods are better. And the converse is to denigrate black actions and black neighborhoods. Whites put a lot of effort into creating and maintaining naturalized racial boundaries.
“What is perceived as natural is the result of several things. One is socialization — the messages whites received in their homes, schools, church and communities. Another is in how whites make memories. This is what I was really fascinated by. People would talk glowingly about their neighborhoods having very few problems and being great places to grow up; then, the story changed once blacks started to move in.
“That’s where nostalgia comes in. You pick out the best things and leave out the bad. Even what you choose to remember has implications for racial identity. A lot of whites leave out parts of history in order to make whites look better.
“Then, there is racial ignorance— not wanting to understand the experiences of another, ‘racially bounded empathy.’ You’ll tend to empathize with your own group and not try to see others’ perspective.
“You can draw parallels between Michael Brown/Ferguson, Eric Garner/New York City and various other police brutality cases where whites don’t seem to see things the same way as blacks or Latinos or any other group. We saw this with Ferguson, where a lot of whites took to Facebook and Twitter to sympathize with the cop.
“In the Laquan McDonald case, you have a lot of blacks and whites protesting, trying to get people to understand why this is meaningful — and a lot of whites are having a hard time with that because they don’t live in neighborhoods where they have that kind of policing.
“Heather and I started this project not wanting to call whites ‘racist.’ There’s no point in that. Nor do we want whites to apologize for how they grew up, or to feel guilty.
“But we have to understand ourselves part of a system of racial inequality that privileges some people, then harms others. That’s really the point to the book.”