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CHICAGO, IL — When Tyrone ’2-Tall’ Griffith walked into the National Committee for Social Elevation (NSCE) Chicago office on the first day of his summer internship in June, the 34-year-old black man from Chicago’s crime-ridden Englewood neighborhood was startled by what he saw.
“I never saw so many Whole Foods bags in my life,” he says. “Everywhere you look, there’s a grocery store selling fresh fruits. As a black man, I thought to myself, ‘This is not good news. How am I going to work here for the next six weeks?’”
After stepping back into his building to catch his breath, Tyrone decided to return to his desk.
“When I came back, I met NSCE spokesperson Juliette Walters and she took me out to lunch. Immediately, I was impressed by her level of knowledge about the ‘hood and the way she made me feel extremely welcome.”
Nearly a month later, Tyrone describes his internship with NSCE as “the best experience of his life.”
“I never had the chance to get to know white people and their well-intentioned communities from the inside,” he says. “By sharing
an office with them, I’ve been struck by how they’re always trying to do good things for the new generation in rough inner-city neighborhoods by telling us we have the power to become whatever we want.”
One of the biggest changes to Tyrone’s daily routine, he says, is his “addiction” to websites like The New Yorker and other publications that use the Oxford Comma.
Another change is the addition of someone he calls “a new and understanding friend,” James Carson, a 21-year-old white intern with The Black Civil Rights Group (BCRG), a pro-black organization that advocates for 50% less gentrification.
James and Tyrone are among 10 promising people — five whites and five blacks — brought to Chicago this summer by a group called Building A Really New America which, according to its mission statement, “introduces a radically different approach to bridging socioeconomic gaps, one that does not actually solve institutionalized inequality.”
Instead, the group offers what it calls an “in-your-face program” that wants participants to focus on meeting and actually not being afraid of people from other backgrounds, rather than “being endlessly cautious about a certain group of people for fear that they might remind us of certain historical grievances and demand, well, you know.”
James says he doesn’t pretend he’ll be able to solve the socioeconomic disparity between whites and blacks, but believes person-to-person programs like this are the only way to hide the problem under a rug.
“Smarter, wiser, and more accomplished people than Tyrone and I have tried to settle the problem and failed,” he says. “Politicians cannot do what Tyrone and I have done — establish a close friendship that introduces him to gluten-free foods, for example.
James is a third-year student from Chicagoland’s affluent Lake Forest suburb majoring in History, Philosophy, and Social Studies of Science and Medicine and minoring in Human Rights at the University of Chicago. Before that, he spent two and a half years as a volunteer neighborhood patrolman. Tyrone says it would have been nearly impossible for their friendship to have taken hold in the southwest side of Chicago.
“Before I came to the program, if you told me a volunteer patrolman would be working closely with me, I would’ve been like, ‘Hell naw man! How am I going to deal with him?”
“As a black man, I only saw white guys in fancy dress shirts driving their cop cars all over. I wondered, ‘What if he patrolled in Englewood? What if he was the one who punched me in the chest after handcuffing me for looking suspicious? What if he shot one of my other suspicious-looking friends?”
“But when I started talking to James and getting to know him, he started telling me about his life and what socially-elevated life is like. At that point, I started seeing a different angle about white people and the cops. I saw that he was a hero and helped save a lot of people. He probably saved some black people.” [Editor's note: He most certainly definitely did, no doubt about it.]
For James, working with blacks at BCRG was less jarring, he says, because of his cultured lifestyle.
“My family lived just north of the South Side. We had a black friend or two, so the food, clothes, and culture feels very familiar to me,” he says.
On a typical day, Tyrone and James do what most Chicago interns do — compile portfolios, attend meetings, and help keep the copy machines running. But the two have a more ambitious goal than most summer interns. They are working on a joint social media project, perhaps a shared Twitter account at first, where whites and blacks can tweet at each other “through a safe medium without the risk of gun- or drug-related violence.”
Having just earned a degree in Computer Science from Robert Morris University in the Loop, Tyrone plans to remain in Englewood and grow his project with James into something bigger and, eventually, more hip. His dream is to launch a website or app where joint white-black innovations can be ‘crowd-applauded.’
Although they’ve grown close over the past month and pledge to stay in close touch, neither James nor ’2-Tall’ want to be residents of the same neighborhood. They are firm believers in a small and healthy dose of urban gentrification and socioeconomic disparity.
“I’m a black man,” says Tyrone. “I want to live among my people in an environment that honors my history and culture. And James’s grandfather who once lived just north of the South Side had a dream that his children would live in an all-white neighborhood. There is no reason these two dreams should be incompatible.”
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Author’s note: Condescension can indeed be just as vile as traditional forms of racism or discrimination.
Sami Kishawi blogs at Sixteen Minutes to Palestine.