Clouds of Racism Threaten Valparaiso | WBEZ
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Eight Forty-Eight

Clouds of Racism Threaten Valparaiso

The city of Valparaiso, Indiana, likes to pride itself on being a progressive place. But the notion of the city being progressive is being challenged by several recent episodes of racism. The incidents have residents and community leaders in this city about an hour east of Chicago in Porter County searching for answers both outward and inward.

Robert Cotton has lived in Valparaiso since he was about 12 years old.

COTTON: I'm at home. Yea, I love Valpo.

Cotton remembers playing baseball and hanging out with friends in Valpo while growing up. And he graduated from nearby Valparaiso University.

Cotton is one of 500 or so African-Americans living in this mostly white, affluent city of about 30,000.

There were even fewer blacks here when he was a kid but says he tried not to let that get in the way.

COTTON: I never thought about black-white issues, never thought about them. I didn't have any big issues with race at all.

But recent events in Valparaiso over the past three months have given him and others cause for concern. Since late February, there have been six race-related incidents in and around Valparaiso. They've ranged from defacing the locker of an African-American student at the local high school, to a swastika on the door of another family and then late last month, a fire in the former Martin Luther King Jr. Cultural Center on the campus of the university.

All this has got the city's human relations' council in a stew.

ambi: But I don??t want to be ashamed for something I haven't done.

Alan Bloom, a member of the council, is a history professor at Valparaiso University.

The city's mayor set up the Human Relations Council last year to suggest ways to deal and respond to incidents of racism and to sponsor events to promote dialogue. It has more than a dozen members and meets at least once a month.

At its last meeting a week ago, Bloom said the entire city should be offended by what's occurred but doesn't feel that's happening.

BLOOM: If you go back historically we used to have this stronger sense of shame than we do and we've given that up. I just think that it's something that should be part of the conversation as opposed to that kind of line by the chamber which is we live in a very strong, good community and this is just exceptional. I don't think it is.

The council asked Michael Prendergast, an agent with the FBI to provide an update on the investigation. He's been monitoring what's been happening in Valparaiso. Right now he doesn't know if any of the incidents are related.

PRENDERGAST: You have the kid at the high school. He writes something on some girl's locker. Well, realistically, he's not doing all these other things. And, that's been addressed. A lot of this stuff is vandalism; you've got some punk, nitwit kids.

The city's Mayor Jon Costas is taking all these incidents very seriously.

COSTAS: It's concerning not only me but people in the city, the business community. I've had a lot of responses.

Valparaiso has slowly attracted African American families over the years. One of the first to move here was Robert Cotton's family forty years ago. They moved next door to Lois Reiner.

REINER: I mean there was no color, no color. No citizens of color.

In the late '60s, Reiner and her husband Walk were doing outreach for the Lutheran Church in Chicago's Cabrini Green housing project when they met the Cottons. They became friends and the couple convinced the family to move to Valpo. The Reiners' invitation to the Cottons didn't sit well in Valparaiso. Lois Reiner recalls some Valparaiso University students, faculty and others set up night watch groups in front of their homes to ward off trouble.

REINER: We were all getting harassed. We had to have a night watch. And they would patrol between our two houses and we had the coffee pot going in the back shed. Scary.

Reiner says the city and university has come a long way since then.

REINER: I feel sad because there's some poor, crazy uneducated. He or she has not had the experiences we've had. I feel sorry for the person and I feel sorry for the victims. So, what can I say? I can't say that the town is all bad because we've had a few of these isolated incidents.

Isolated incidents, however, can add up to a lot.

Valarie Jensen, who's African American, moved to Valparaiso from Minnesota in 2004 to work at the university's law school.

JENSEN: If you're not from Valpo it's very really hard to integrate into that community. And, I think when you're a person of color, it is doubly hard.

For three years, Jensen said she saw many signs of an unwelcoming community for people of color.

JENSEN: My neighbor behind me who moved in had a Confederate flag on his truck, in his window and all of his friends wore Confederate flag T-shirts when they were painting his house. I lived next to him and he never said two words to me.

Jensen, who moved back to Minneapolis after she says her son was called the N-word in school, says too many in Valparaiso ignore the reality.

JENSEN: They need to deal with it. In saying nothing you're saying a lot.

But one woman on the Northwest Indiana Race Relations Council says Valpo has been taking steps in the right direction in embracing diversity.

FREEMAN-WILSON: And that's not always been the case in Valparaiso. That was one of the last urban areas to really integrate.

Karen Freeman-Wilson is a former attorney general in Indiana and one of two black woman to hold the post. She speculates that some people's racist attitude toward the nation's first black president Barack Obama and Valparaiso's own efforts could be why such incidents have picked up recently.

FREEMAN-WILSON: Sometimes you think that maybe the pro-activity might have resulted in some backlash in terms of folks who are less forward thinking being threatened by some of the progressive things that the administration in Valparaiso has engaged in.

Valpo resident Robert Cotton says he feels he's successfully assimilated into this community. But he knows assimilation alone isn't enough to keep racial taunting from happening.

COTTON: Nothing would stop that.

But Cotton adds that for him as a black man a sense of belonging has developed here. He believes Valparaiso will continue its efforts to be more inclusive.

If not...

COTTON: We will perhaps fall under the same weight of what has plagued so many other cities and that's diversity lasting from the time the first black person gets here to the time the last white person leaves.

The incident at the high school was solved. But so far, police say they have no leads in solving the other race-related crimes. The Human Relations Council hopes to sponsor a public forum to keep the dialogue going.

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