What riot? Springfield still won’t talk about race
September 20, 1990
Springfield’s signal historical event, apart from the residency of Abraham Lincoln, was a race riot. In spite of that—or maybe because of it—the city’s debate about racism has never been frank or sophisticated. In this, the capital city is hardly alone in Illinois.
I tried in this piece to be at least frank. Rereading this piece, I wondered whether it would even be printed today without triggering a hailstorm of social media abuse. I’ve reluctantly emended the text to protect today’s more delicate readers, although I must say that I have yet to hear from the word vigilantes how a society can have a debate on any topic without talking about it out loud.
I read Rebecca Senechal's fine new book about the 1908 Springfield race riots—Sociogenesis of a Race Riot—with both excitement and embarrassment. In 1973 I wrote a summary account of those grim events that was published by the Sangamon County Historical Society. The pamphlet had value as the only contemporary account of the riots available to an audience that was eager to know about them, but it turns out to have been uninformed in its estimations of the causes of the violence. "Racism" was the obvious explanation. But which kind? Derived from what grievances? Why was it expressed in this particular place, and in that particular way?
Senechal provides plausible answers to the kinds of questions Springfield has always had trouble even asking. For example, a local judge, in explaining his refusal that summer to grant a change of venue to riot defendants, delivered an opinion so at odds with reality as to suggest dementia had it not come from one of that guild from whom nonsense spouts like water from a fountain. "In no county of the state," the judge intoned, "does so little prejudice exist against the colored race as in the county of Sangamon."
No doubt that seemed true enough in the Springfield in which that judge resided. No doubt he and his neighbors tipped their cleaning women and yard men generously at Christmas; no doubt they chided their friends for using words like "n----r." Senechal explains that such affluent Springfieldians as a class at first legitimated the violence as a cure for a serious civic disease whose symptom they saw as black lawlessness. The lynchings that resulted were shocking proof that moral reform was not on the agenda of the town's working class thugs; the city's establishment deplored the crimes but remained blind to the motive.
By today's standards, the racism in 1908 Springfield was breathtakingly blatant. There were companies black people could not work at, stores they could not shop at, theaters they could not sit in, schools they could not go to, neighborhoods they dare not walk through. It would be nice to think that things have changed, but the Springfield Senechal describes sounds sadly familiar.
To be sure, the daily press is incomparably more restrained in its approach to racial issues (including hiring, unfortunately). The public schools are finally desegregated, giving Springfield's poorer African-American kids a chance to fail in better schools than before. The city government has been reformed too, although it is unclear whether being ignored by a council of ten members is twice as good as being ignored by a council of five members.
Unofficial Springfield, however, remains scandalized by black violence and drug use, even if the shift of the "levee" from East Washington Street to the Hay Homes and Evergreen Terrace has made them less visible. Fear of black crime among whites remains exaggerated; during the six and a half years I lived at Fourteenth and Monroe, the only crime problem I suffered was finding whites from the west side brave enough to house-sit for me.
Today as in 1908, affluent Springfieldians of all colors live far away from the disorder of the city's poorer neighborhoods. Declining housing values, driven substantially by fears of racial change, have caused real rents to drop in the central city. Marginal types have moved into once-privileged precincts while a whole new Springfield is being built by the middle class to the west.
This is a complex social change and, like the one that Springfield went through eighty years ago, it is widely misunderstood. One of Senechal's salient findings was how strongly race attitudes are shaped by class, or rather how race issues can be muddled by-class attitudes. The local opposition to scattered site public housing is widely understood (even by many of the opponents themselves) as racially motivated. A few opponents have tried to distinguish between people of a lower class—identifiable by a set of behaviors—and people off a lower caste such as African-Americans, who are identifiable by their skins. That distinction is widely made by black people about other blacks, but whites who make it are usually dismissed as rationalizers or closet racists.
In fact the U.S. housing system is even more strictly segregated by class than it is by race, and property values reflect that. We lack a public vocabulary with which to discuss class, however; worse, our thinking about race is muddled by class and our thinking about class is muddled by race. Such problems as drug use, violence, and teen pregnancy—common to the poor and uneducated of all colors—are inaccurately understood by most whites as "black problems."
What could be called the black man's burden takes the form of what Senechal calls the "widespread anxieties Americans share about their cities...having to do with the existence of poverty, crime, and disorder." That so many of the affluent families that are fleeing west of MacArthur are black suggests that "racial change" is a misnomer, and that it is class change that people really fear, but neither our press nor our politicians are capable of such careful distinctions.
It is usually the educated who make speeches in favor of diversity, but it is usually the poor who must figure out how to make it work. Among people crowded together on the margins of society, color still matters, if only because it is often the only claim to status lower class whites can make. Last week a teenager riding a bicycle on the near north side of Springfield reportedly shouted what was described only as a racial remark at a group of six men. Apparently he was viciously beaten and stabbed by them and abandoned in a garbage dumpster on North Seventh Street. At last report the victim was in a coma from which he was given only a one in a thousand chance of recovering.
Incidents less brutal have touched off anti-black riots in other cities in the past. Why not this one? Part of the reason may be the circumspect, almost timid way the local daily handled the story. The State journal-Register ran it on page seven, and while it identified the victim as white, the race of his alleged attackers was not even hinted at.
Perhaps more to the point, the incident lacked several of the ingredients now recognized to be as essential to white rage as kindling is to a fire. The victim was not a native to the city, he was male, and (assuming sketchy accounts are correct) he probably provoked his attackers. Nor did the beating happen in a "nice" part of town where it might have alarmed whites anxious about violations of a racial status quo which is indifferent to violence as long as it occurs in "their" neighborhoods.
Contemplating why a riot didn't happen this time makes one realize how easy it would be, even today, for one to happen next time. Senechal's book is being marketed as history, but it ought to be read as journalism. □