The city of Chicago, and the surrounding suburbs have a problem that nobody likes to talk about. It is a problem of the region's own creation, spawning from decisions both large and small that shaped the way communities were created, organized and policed.
Mid-way through the 3rd period in Saturday’s game against the Capitals, Devante Smith-Pelly entered the visiting penalty box after a scrap with Connor Murphy. A small group of fans sitting on the glass directly next to the penalty box started chanting a single word at Smith Pelly. They were chanting “basketball.”
“But they just said basketball, it’s not like they said the N-word!” has been a comment I’ve seen far too often since Saturday. In a league where more than 90% of the players are white, in a league which didn’t break the color barrier until 12 years after Jackie Robinson first appeared, black faces are still exceedingly rare. Those fans didn’t have to add a “Shouldn’t you be playing...” behind their jeers. Smith-Pelly, and anyone with common sense knew what it meant.
“It’s disgusting,” Smith-Pelly said. “You’d think there would be some sort of change or progression, but we’re still working toward it, I guess, and we’re going to keep working toward it.”
This is classic Chicago racism. You might be asking yourself why one of the most diverse cities in America is still stumbling over racial issues of all different sorts in 2018? Because it also happens to be one of the most segregated cities in America.
Although Chicago’s first non-native settler was himself a black man, segregation has played a massive role in how this city became what it is today. Thousands of black families moved to the city during the Great Migration. They were met by scared working-class whites afraid of losing out on jobs and upper-class whites worried about their neighborhood’s wealth being harmed by these newcomers. Using tools like block busting and racially motivated property evaluations, black people were corralled into specific parts of the city.
This isn’t just isolated to the city. The people who lived in the neighborhoods being populated by black families were frightened of becoming a minority on their own block. White flight played a key role in the suburban boom of the 50’s 60’s and 70’s. Again, property values and a general discomfort with “the other” led to one of the largest ethnic migrations in American History.
The sports we love don’t take place in a vacuum. Our leagues are comprised of players and organizers who don’t check their life experiences at the door. Neither do the tens of thousands of fans who fill our arenas on a nightly basis. For all these decades, there was no genuine effort to repair the damage. It may not have included “whites only” diners and water fountains, but Chicago and the towns caught in its sphere of influence operated under a very real “Separate but Equal” construct. Fast forward to 2018 and you get people causally spewing derogatory language towards a black man while surrounded by 22,000 (mostly white) people because that behavior felt normal and acceptable. It’s awful and unacceptable. It’s also an invaluable teaching moment.
If you have children, talk to them about what happened in the United Center. Let them know that it is never okay to devalue someone’s existence, especially for a superficial reason. Do you have a friend or family member who spouts racist, sexist or homophobic nonsense? Call them on it. Let them know you find it disgusting and a clear majority of the world does as well. Will it ruin Thanksgiving when you call out Uncle Bill about being a human dog whistle? No, because just like sport, life doesn’t happen in a vacuum. Your stands against clear wrongs, whether large or small, make a bigger difference than you’ll ever know.
There are also plenty of people in the NHL working to bring the game to everyone. PK Subban's Blueline Buddies program brings police and black children together to help build bridges in his community. The Chicago Blackhawks run a massive outreach program for kids which donates hundreds of pieces of equipment and brings in police, not in tactical gear, but in CPD hockey uniforms to teach the basics of the game.
Yes, Chicago, and Hockey have a race problem, but both are filled with people whose hearts and minds are open. This is an embarrassing chapter for both the city and the league. It’s not the end of the book though. Far from it.