Photo by Sarah Jane Rhee
Photo by Sarah Jane Rhee

Last month, city officials announced—without any community input—that Woodlawn’s Wadsworth Elementary School would be converted into a shelter for asylum seekers. As an African-American Woodlawn resident, and educator whose work centers around building multiracial movements for social justice, I have felt the justified rage of my neighbors in response to this announcement, but have also been heartbroken at how quickly that rage has been directed at immigrant communities. Woodlawn residents should be angry when we are left out of decisions about our own neighborhood, but we need to get clear on who is actually excluding us, and who is being excluded alongside us.

Wadsworth Elementary was closed in 2013 by then-Mayor Rahm Emanuel as part of a targeted attack on public education and Black Chicagoans. The building has remained empty for ten years, even as Woodlawn residents have continuously demanded its transformation into a resource for the neighborhood, which struggles with gun violence, access to housing, and over-policing. My neighbors were understandably upset when, after promising our Alderwoman Jeanette Taylor it wouldn’t happen, Mayor Lightfoot decided to move forward with the plan to provide shelter for asylum seekers at the vacant school building. The opening of the space was scheduled for this week, but has since been postponed by city officials, who have promised to hold a community meeting about the issue, though no further details were provided.

There has been a recent influx of migrants to Chicago, arriving from the southern border in buses sent by Texas Governor Greg Abbott in an attempt to punish sanctuary cities, which he accuses of driving migration. But contrary to Abbott’s anti-immigrant vitriol, many migrants—of whom a significant number are Black and indigenous—are fleeing the carnage U.S. policy has wrought in their homelands. From sanctions to U.S.-backed dictatorships to climate change, migrants have been displaced through manufactured instability, enduring unimaginably violent journeys through hostile territory, only to be framed as criminals by the very governments responsible for many of the conditions that forced them to leave home in the first place.

As Black residents of the U.S. we know all too well what it feels like to be blamed for our own suffering by those who caused it. During the Great Migration, we too came to Chicago fleeing the racial violence of the Jim Crow south, seeking work that would pay a living wage, and housing that wasn’t controlled by our former enslavers. We were also accused of being a burden on the city’s resources, of stealing jobs, and of driving crime. This same rhetoric dogs us into the present, as more and more of us are pushed from our historic neighborhoods by gentrification, eviction, and the rising cost of living. This is what makes it painful to hear my Black neighbors express the same bigotry toward recent immigrants—concerns about gangs, drugs, and falling property values—that we hear so often said about ourselves. What would it look like if we recognized the parallels across our shared battles, and offered compassion and support to our displaced comrades instead of hostility?

I grappled with this question alongside other Woodlawn residents at a meeting convened by Southside Together Organizing for Power (STOP) in early January. A grassroots organization operating in Woodlawn since 2004, STOP hoped to draft a letter in support of migrants arriving to our neighborhood in an attempt to combat the toxic anti-immigrant rhetoric overtaking much of the mainstream discussion. Even so, we had to collectively confront the injustice of the moment without slipping into old, racist tropes.

Some community members present insisted that asylum seekers should be vetted before being allowed access to the shelter, pointing out that if they themselves wanted to apply for public housing they would have to go through a background check. If local Black residents must demonstrate our fitness to receive government-sponsored housing, why shouldn’t migrants have to go through the same process? 

A formerly-incarcerated community member pointed out that high rates of recidivism in prisons and jails are often the direct result of these vetting processes, barring those with criminal records from receiving the exact resources required to keep them out of lockup. How could we call for these measures to be used against migrants—who are already hypersurveiled—knowing the needless damage they cause in our own communities? In justifying and even participating in the policing of other groups, how do we imagine that we ourselves will ultimately be impacted?

The conclusion we reached in that meeting is the same one I hope all of my neighbors—and all Black Chicagoans, immigrant and non-immigrant alike—will come to: Anti-Black and anti-immigrant racism always reinforce one another, and always work to uphold white supremacy. Bigotry veiled as concern for safety should be denounced by us all, and renewed investments in surveillance and policing should be understood inherently as divestment from the resources that create true security. When we imagine our communities as separate, and allow them to be pitted against one another as the city is currently doing with Wadsworth Elementary, we echo the same rhetoric that we ourselves have spent generations fighting, strengthening the same harmful policies that, even if they are targeting our comrades today, will inevitably be used against us tomorrow.

Woodlawn residents have much to be furious with the city of Chicago about. The lack of transparency around this project piles on to the long history of the South and West sides being treated as an afterthought, and offering up Wadsworth without community consent is pouring salt onto a gaping wound that has never been given the chance to heal. But asylum seekers have had as little input in these decisions as local residents. Migrants should not be cast as the beneficiaries of government investment after being forced from their homes by U.S. political interests, having their desperation weaponized by a racist governor, then being tossed scraps by the city of Chicago.

Migrants didn’t close our schools and shutter our mental health clinics. Migrants didn’t rob millions of dollars from our neighborhoods to offer up as tax breaks to the ultrawealthy. Migrants aren’t building luxury condos and driving up the rent. The righteous anger Woodlawn neighbors feel should be leveled at Mayor Lightfoot, real estate developers, the federal government, and U.S. policies that have made life unliveable for Black and brown people across the globe, including right here in Chicago. These are the exact institutions that benefit when we misdirect our anger at other poor and marginalized people being targeted by the same systems which we ourselves are resisting.

What does it look like when Chicagoans come together from across the city and channel our fury toward the proper targets? We have countless examples in recent memory to draw from. In 2018, Black, brown, immigrant, and undocumented organizers came together to demand the Chicago Police Department erase its gang database, recognizing that surveilling and profiling poor and working communities is just as dangerous for recent immigrants as it is for long-term Black and brown residents. Between 2017 and 2019, a multiracial, youth-led coalition of over 100 organizations called #NoCopAcademy demanded the city halt a new $95 million investment in CPD, and reinvest those funds into the sorely lacking resources that actually protect and support young people. While all of these battles continue, these were moments where communities that are often segregated joined together with the understanding that as long as we are fighting each other, we are distracted from making meaningful demands of the larger structures that are exploiting all of us.

The original letter in support of asylum seekers issued by STOP on January 11th has since been expanded into a Black and Brown Unity statement and petition, with organizations like United Working Families, the Chicago Teachers Union, and Organized Communities Against Deportations signing on in solidarity. The document declares #SanctuaryForAll, including for long-term Black residents. It demands Mayor Lightfoot follow through on her campaign promise to reopen the closed mental health clinics, and insists the city fulfill its commitment to build new units of affordable housing on fifty-two vacant lots in Woodlawn. It calls for investments in multilingual education, community schools, youth jobs, and support for the houseless, not the failed strategies of policing and incarceration. These are the demands all our communities must uplift in unison.

The statement puts it simply: “…Safety doesn’t come from keeping people out, but from bringing resources in.” And that is the heart of the matter. The city, the federal government, and white supremacy itself, thrive on Black and brown, immigrant and non-immigrant communities competing with one another under the illusion of scarcity. But when we band together to collectively demand the investments from which we can all benefit, no one has to be left out.

Update 1/27: The City released the following information about the community meeting: Please join us on Saturday, January 28, at 2:30pm in Hyde Park High School 6220 S Stony Island Ave, Chicago, IL 60637. City officials will provide updates and answer questions about sheltering asylum seekers. Residents may join virtually or in person. To attend in person, please register here.  To join via zoom, register here.

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Benji Hart is a Chicago-based author, artist, and educator whose work centers Black radicalism, queer liberation, and prison abolition. Their words have appeared in numerous anthologies and been published at Time, Teen Vogue, The Advocate, and elsewhere. They have led popular education and arts-based workshops for organizations internationally, including the American Repertory Theater, Young Chicago Authors, and Project NIA. They have held fellowships with Yaddo, Trillium Arts, MacDowell, and are a 2023 Lab Artist with Chicago Dancemakers Forum.

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  1. This is the same old story which will have the same old ending: black people jump to defend white women in the women’s movement, Hispanic illegal immigrants, Muslims, LGBTQ, and they ALL turned their backs on us once they rode our coattails to their own success. I have nothing against those groups except that. And for that reason, I say we look out for what’s in OUR best interests. There is no black/brown alliance. There’s a black/wanting-brown alliance.

    1. I one hundred percent agree with you Mcleod-it is time for Black Americans to stop fighting and giving away our votes for everyone else to benefit-we need people that are going to right this country’s biggest atrocity by paying reparations for the American descendant of Chattel Slavery FREEDMEN that built this country. I am tired of seeing Black homeless people on street corners, whilst ILLEGAL Anti-Black immigrants sleep in cozy plush air b and b and in schools that were racially based taken away from the community that needs them most. We just had an incident today of one an immigrant family threatening to kill a family and burn the school down and walked up on the child in efforts to put muscle behind his threat-he was taken away in handcuffs but this Anti-black hate is nothing new.

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