November 22, 2004

University benevolence does not compensate for lasting inequality

For two years in a row I have spoken as a student panelist at the prospective student informational session. Both years, Ted O'Neill, dean of admissions in the College, prepared us panelists for what he called "the inevitable question": security on campus.

"Be honest," he would say, "but there's no reason to scare them. The truth is that we're an urban school, and so students need to keep a certain level of awareness as they would in any urban area." All us young panelists would nod, eager to please.

Indeed, the inevitable question was brought before the panel as prophesized. "Tell me, how safe is your campus?" queried the concerned white parent. And we students were armed with the appropriate responses. "I feel very safe" (the personal testimony). "There are University of Chicago police who work in association with the Chicago Police, and emergency phones dot the campus" (the nod to police surveillance). "There are some places nearby where you need to be careful because Chicago is a big city, but as long as you're smart, you'll be fine" (rosy pragmatism). "The biggest crime is probably bike theft" (the wry response said with a smile to get a chuckle from the audience).

I did my part in responding as expected, but the experience left me with a vague and lingering nausea. Why? Because of the terrible assumptions that questions of security serve to mask. The superficial claims of policing the campus and Hyde Park hides the reality that we live in a distrustful, colonial social order. Our colonial status is ensured by the distrust between temporary settlers (that's us, the students) as a precious set of imported individuals, and the native "other" (often called community members), the dark peoples, savage and unknown. Since militarism is necessary when resources are unevenly accessible we seek reassurance in the fact that our streets are heavily guarded by UCPD, rather than interrogating the ways that our social order is structured.

Ah, but the Office of Community Affairs would inform us that the University is changing. We've opened a charter school for the community! We do give back: We grant them free parking in the parking structure at 55th and Ellis between 4 p.m. and 7 a.m.! As if benevolence compensates for inequality.

Incidentally, the UCPD's grip on Hyde Park and Woodlawn is not unlike the U.S.'s shameless occupation of Iraq as described by Slavoj Zizek. In his essay, "The Iraqi MacGuffin," written one year ago, Zizek inverts the common conception of the U.S. as a contemporary Roman Empire. "The problem with today's U.S. is not that it is a new global empire, but that it is NOT, i.e., that, while pretending to be, it continues to act as a nation-state, ruthlessly pursuing its interests. It is as the guideline of the recent U.S. politics is a weird reversal of the well known motto of the ecologists: Act globally, think locally."

Just as Iraqis were expected to express profound gratitude for the U.S.-delivered liberation from Saddam Hussein, so are the families living in marginal conditions nearby supposed to be thankful for the University-sponsored charter school, the parking structure, and the UCPD patrolling their block. The operative doctrine is something like: Strike with one hand, reward with the other, and make sure to come home at the end of the day having made some money. Is it any wonder why the community distrusts us?

Let's return to the Office of Community Affairs once again, where Hank Webber boils the painful division of "us" and "them" down to the assertion that "the community just doesn't know all the good that the University does." How absurd to reduce the past century of power antagonisms in local history to a communication glitch.

In order to finally begin to amend the terrible racist legacies of the exclusion, criminalization, and marginalization of the black folks who live around the University, we must know that part of living in the warm folds of privilege entails the very ability to turn a blind eye to hypocrisy and segregation. Folks outside the privileged circles of the University have been forced to live with the grave University hypocrisies from the beginning. We, the lucky ones, learn about the effects of oppression always after the fact.

Don't be soothed by the presence of the UCPD throughout the South Side; it's not an assurance of safety, but rather an admission of colonial guilt. We are the beneficiaries of a machine that operates on the structures of a civilized "self" and a savage "other." The accessibility of our rich school will always be on our terms, and this is why we must police the area, not because of anything particularly dangerous "out there." It's not a pretty reality, but for goodness sake, we should have the honesty to own up to it.