Like many people who attended Oak Park-River Forest High School, I grew up thinking I lived in a post-racial utopia: Racism might exist elsewhere in the country, but not here. Not in our community. We’re far too diverse for that. OPRF loved to congratulate itself on its diversity, and proffer it up as proof of the community’s racial harmony.
But not anymore. Our nation’s contentious political climate has descended upon my hometown in recent weeks and served as a reminder that no community, no matter how seemingly progressive, is immune to the fraught racial politics that have afflicted our country for the past several years.
Three weeks ago, several members of the OPRF football team knelt during the national anthem to protest racial inequality. They were joined by members of the marching band and several coaches, including head coach John Hoerster (who’s white). At first, the demonstration was well-received, and this was taken as proof of the community’s progressive superiority. Aside from a Chicago Tribune report about one Oak Park fan leaving the stadium in a fit of rage, the only blowback came from members of the opposing sideline, who accused the OPRF players of not knowing why they were kneeling.
But the demonstration kicked off a series of events that have exposed some latent racism in the community, and forced residents to grapple with a racial unrest it had long considered a non-issue.
Two weeks after the anthem protest, a white student took a Snapchat photo of himself in blackface, mocking OPRF’s Black Leaders Union student group. The photo was leaked and subsequently circulated through a variety of social media channels, setting off a firestorm of controversy and discussion online.
Ironically, the only person suspended amid the controversy was Anthony Clark, a particularly well-liked black male teacher at the school, who frequently speaks out about racial issues and is mounting a run for Congress. Clark posted the photo to his Facebook account, putting him in violation of a school district policy that forbids teachers from posting photos of students on social media. He’s since been reinstated.
Shortly thereafter, the high school received an anonymous letter threatening violence at the homecoming dance. Fortunately, no violence occurred.
It’s unclear if these events are connected, though the prevailing perception is they are. “I don’t know if there’s any connection at all,” says Hoerster. “It would be easy to make that assumption, but no one has been able to find anything that definitely connects one to the other.”
Oak Park sits at the nexus of some of the poorest and most affluents pockets of the greater Chicagoland area, and is largely emblematic of the segregation, stratification and systemic racism Chicago has long experienced. Bordering Oak Park to the east is Austin, a West Side Chicago neighborhood with the highest concentration of homicides committed this year, according to the Chicago Tribune homicide map. To the west is River Forest (my hometown), a whitebread, upper-middle-class neighborhood where the median household income is $80,000, more than $20,000 higher than the national average. (And just west of River Forest is Maywood, a multicultural working-class neighborhood that was home to Fred Hampton and other Black Panther luminaries, but experienced significant white flight starting in the 1970s.)
This unique confluence of social and geographic factors has long meant a diverse student body at OPRF, and a corresponding image that the community is a beacon of liberal progressivism. Currently, nearly half (46 percent) of the OPRF student body is non-white, which is far more diverse than any of the neighboring school districts. So much so that OPRF has long worn its demographic diversity as a self-appointed badge of honor:
OPRF is diverse.
OPRF is progressive.
OPRF “gets it.”
All of which were reasons why Hoerster moved to Oak Park before he was even offered a position at the local high school. “We were attracted to the uniqueness of the community, and that’s what we were looking for for our family,” says Hoerster, 41. “I didn’t experience it growing up [in nearby Elmhurst, a predominantly white suburb]. It’s easy to have an open mind in theory, reading books and watching movies. But until you’re in a diverse community, it’s hard to see and understand another person’s perspective.”
That community mindset also inspired the football team’s anthem protest in the first place. “This started with conversations [the players] were having in their homes [with their parents],” says Hoerster. “They didn’t take a knee because of one thing they read, one quote from the president or one event that happened somewhere across the country. This was a buildup of lived experience, where inequity and lack of privilege and access is felt.
“The insinuation that they’re just copycatting NFL players isn’t only insulting to the players themselves, but also to the great education they receive at Oak Park.”
In that vein, Hoerster emphasized to his players that they were free to conduct themselves during the anthem in any manner they wished. Some chose to kneel. Some locked arms. And others assumed the standard national anthem posture and placed their hands over their hearts. “You saw all different kinds of views expressed peacefully on the same stage. That’s what it means to be part of a pluralistic community, where different points of view are respected,” he says. “It wasn’t, ‘Everyone has to agree.’ It was, ‘You should do what you think you should do.’”
That said, OPRF’s conference opponents have responded to the protest with “anger and venom,” Hoerster says. Opposing fans have booed ORPF players, called them a disgrace, yelled at them to “stand up” and “be appreciative” and chanted “U-S-A” while they kneel.
None of which is surprising given that those schools are overwhelmingly white, upper-middle class and conservative relative to Oak Park.
What has been surprising (to some), however, is the racial tension those protests have illuminated within Oak Park. “There are many instances when I have a conversation with an OPRF graduate or someone who grew up in Oak Park, and their tone is ‘I grew up in Oak Park, so I’m post-racial. I’m woke. I’m liberal.’ But just because you grew up in a community that happens to be diverse, doesn’t give you a get-out-of-jail-free card in terms of understanding privilege and inequities. And what we’re seeing now, and why a lot of the players that chose to take a knee, is that even in a community as diverse as Oak Park, you still have inequities.”
If there’s any good to come of the recent pain and discomfort in the community, it’s that it’s forced certain Oak Park residents to consider issues of race they were either oblivious to (or all too willing to ignore).
“These things we’re seeing have always kind of been there,” Hoerster says. “Maybe they’ve just been rearing their ugly head a little more now.”