Hope is a tricky thing when it comes to racism

After digesting statistics, anecdotes, history and journalism about anti-Blackness, many are left despondent by the arc of injustice.

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A mural dedicated to Caleb Reed at a March for Us rally in June 2021 by Voices for Youth in Chicago Education celebrating Juneteenth and celebrating the life of activist Caleb Reed at Daley Plaza in the Loop.

A mural dedicated to activist Caleb Reed is shown at a March for Us rally at Daley Plaza in the Loop in June 2021, held by Voices for Youth in Chicago Education to celebrate Juneteenth.

Anthony Vazquez/Sun-Times

I’m often asked about “hope.”

When I speak about the legacies of housing segregation and other forms of racism afflicting Black Chicago communities, the hope question often comes from white audience members. Now that it’s Black History Month, I expect to be asked even more.

Hope is a tricky concept. In public spaces, the hope query is akin to an ellipses followed by “and in conclusion.” After digesting statistics, anecdotes, history and journalism about anti-Blackness, many are left despondent by the arc of injustice.

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Hope is a crumb. People want to feel good after leaving an auditorium or lecture. They cling to hope like novice ice skaters cling to the wall of a rink.

I have Black writer friends who bludgeon the idea of hope. Hope is not their duty or a dessert served up to ease the racism. And frankly, they don’t subscribe to hope because white supremacy is too pervasive. Once a white woman — a senior citizen — came up to me after I gave a talk and marveled that I wasn’t angrier. Point taken. And she wasn’t condescending.

Studying how anti-Blackness unfolds in housing, policing, health care, education — any field — is sobering. Turn on the television and watch a video of a Black person killed by the police. Black women, even when they are wealthier, have higher rates of pregnancy-related deaths than white women. The racial wealth gap is still staggering.

On the other hand, celebrating Black achievement is necessary. Black History Month affords a chance to do that because I, too, want to cling to hope sometimes. As a journalist, I’m the clichéd writer of the first draft of history. For my own peace of mind, I need not sink into an abyss from bad news. Documenting only the bad can be exhausting. Balancing Black trauma with Black joy is a tight rope.

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Andrew Perry, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and race scholar, said optimism and pessimism are both traps.

“There’s an extreme optimism and pessimism that does not reflect the very mixed realities of Black people’s lives in various places,” Perry told me.

He’s the co-author of The Black Progress Index: Examining the social factors that influence Black well being. One of the measures is how long people live. In the U.S., the life expectancy for Black people is 74.5 years. But there are places where people live into their 80s. Gains in homeownership and wages are inching upward.

None of this is to erase clear problems of structural racism. But Perry said a fuller picture is necessary.

“This idea that America must function off of the depravity of Black people is not a wholesale truth, because if that were the case, we would see much less variation of life expectancy. We have to look at policies,” Perry said.

In Chicago, life expectancy can drastically differ within miles. A 30-year gap exists between the Black Englewood neighborhood and the wealthy white Streeterville neighborhood. But according to Perry’s research, Black people in Cook County have a higher life expectancy and are more likely to attain a bachelor’s degree when compared to Black Americans overall.

Surprising to me was that the No. 1 predictor of life expectancy was the percentage of Black immigrants in a county or metro area. That doesn’t mean exceptionalism in Black immigrants. “It points to American racism is bad for your health,” Perry said.

Some of this may still not seem hopeful. But I will create my own space. This February I plan to divert the hope question.

But I am thinking of how Chicago is the birthplace of what became Black History Month — first announced by Carter G. Woodson as Negro History Week in 1926, at Bronzeville’s Wabash YMCA — as I help my first grader with her project on the subject.

Natalie Moore is a reporter for WBEZ. She writes a monthly column for the Sun-Times.

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