A story about casual racism and the Trust for Public Land, with pictures. On Monday, I asked the nonprofit and local-government entities associated with The 606, a new 2.7-mile linear park on the Chicago’s Northwest Side, where the Black faces were in the park’s online and public-display marketing campaign given that the population in the community areas adjacent to the park is nearly 17% African-American. (In one community area, that proportion is more than 40%.)
I blogged about the problematic marketing campaign and the responses I got on Tuesday.
Among those responses, most helpful were the ones I received from the Chicago Park District (including General Superintendent & CEO Mike Kelly) and the 32nd Ward, which directed me to the Chicago office of Trust for Public Land (TPL) as the entity responsible for the campaign.
Least helpful–and most troubling–were the responses I received from TPL, itself. An initial, three-sentence response from Chicago Director Beth White informed me that my “premise was not correct” and that the marketing campaign does feature “the full diversity of our community, African American included.” I immediately asked her to point me to online or printed marketing materials for The 606 portraying Black Chicagoans.
She didn’t respond for two days. And wouldn’t have responded at all, if on Wednesday I hadn’t forwarded my unanswered request to every entity I originally emailed, as well as to the Twitter accounts for TPL and The 606.
Here is an online example of the images used on the sides of Chicago buses and on bus shelters that originally drew my curiosity:
In TPL’s eventual follow-up response based on that image, White told me my line of questioning “really troubled her,” and that she thought her previous response “covered your questions.”
That’s interesting, since I emailed White my follow-up question two minutes after receiving her initial response. Also, show of hands–anyone else troubled that the head of a public nonprofit would be “troubled” by a community member simply asking a question?
TPL’s follow-up response went on to note, “But since you want more detail, the actors portrayed in ALL [emphasis in original] executions of this campaign are as follows: African American cyclist, Latina grandmother and Latino boy depicting her grandson, an active teen who is a Caucasian boy, a Caucasian woman who is an adaptive athlete, an Asian American runner who is also depicted with a stroller.”
So my head started to explode a little bit there. I’ve never had a nonprofit email my in such a pointedly begrudging manner, as if explaining themselves was a chore and not a responsibility. But what really got me was that the entire campaign was based on a such a small and clinically selected set of images.
But before you ask any questions about that, TPL further asked that I not “get into details of whether these folks…conform exactly to the way you or I would imagine [emphasis in original] each ethnic group should appear. I don’t think it’s appropriate to attempt to assign racial identity to everyone depicted there based on perceived appearance, and I respectfully decline to participate in that exercise…I hope this settles the matter.”
See what TPL did there? It’s a tried-and-true political tactic. You accuse someone else of doing exactly what you did, yourself. Because getting into the details to imagine how each ethnic group should appear and clinically defining the racial identities on the people portrayed in the marketing campaign is exactly what TPL did in the first place.
In other words, according to White, it’s fine for TPL to put up a billboard engineered to represent an entire series of multi-ethnic, multi-racial communities. It’s just not ok for anyone else to talk about what those communities look like.
Reading White’s follow-up for the first time, this is the point at which I considered sending her a muffin basket. The casual racism in that one passage really raised the bar. Because if anyone, it is rank-and-file Chicagoans who have first claim to the right to define themselves, to talk about their communities, and ultimately to celebrate all the colors and sensibilities and cultures and flavors of the people with whom we share our city.
TPL can join the party. But no nonprofit has a right to telegraph that its interpretation of the skin color of a neighborhood is beyond question.
And as far as settling the matter, all I can say is the buried lede here is always to be wary of believing your own press. The 606 is a fabulous and innovative new park and TPL and its partners have won national accolades–and generated substantial funding assistance–due to their work. So has White, a City Hall insider with White House connections who has done amazing work on her own part. Sometimes we get so wrapped up in our puff pieces that we miss the point entirely.
SO HERE’S THE POINT…
Is there an African-American face in the marketing campaign for The 606? Yes. Now see if you can find him on the bus-shelter poster below. I started out looking for him 10 feet away from the other side of the shelter. To my eyes, the overly manipulated image didn’t clearly register as an African-American man until I was less than three feet away.
Try that progression again with this slide gallery:
(Can’t see the slideshow? Read this post on the web.)
It doesn’t get any better at the other end of the scale, either. How clearly can you pick out race and ethnicity on this giant billboard directly adjacent to the Western Avenue entrance to The 606?
For extra-credit, while you’re trying to find a Black Chicagoan on this enormous ad, also try and find TPL’s “Caucasian woman who is an adaptive athlete.”
Clearly she’s not there. Not clear in any way is the fact that the man on the bike is African-American. Why? Because when you dress a light-skinned Black man in pink hipster pants, shrink him down to the size of an action figure, and insert him as a minor element of an enormous image, at ten feet or 100 feet he tends to look somewhat less like himself.
In fact, in order to demonstrate clearly to me that the model in question was African-American, TPL’s San Francisco office (which may explain why the posters portray the flat Northwest Side of Chicago as sitting on a hill) had to send me a link to an ftp site hosted by national PR firm Edelman to download two PDF proofs from the campaign. Each proof was more than 300 megabytes in size and I still had to zoom in to 140% to determine the race of the model that Beth White obviously thinks goes without saying.
This should have been caught somewhere along the line between “We need a poster” and “I’m really troubled by this line of questioning.” It’s glaringly obvious. Unless you’re nose-to-nose with the poster at a bus stop or standing on a billboard catwalk, race almost completely disappears into generic whiteness in TPL’s marketing campaign for The 606.
Why did no one at TPL notice and correct the issue? And why would TPL in Chicago be so closed-minded about the organization’s own work to dismiss any criticism of it–as if it were perfect merely by dint of TPL having accomplished it? Your guess is as good as mine. But given that there’s not one African-American on TPL’s national leadership team or board of directors, perhaps race isn’t as heartfelt an issue for TPL as I’ve been so begrudgingly assured it is?
Disheartened by TPL’s misfired portrayal of Chicagoans, I decided to take a walk along The 606 myself, with my iPhone. I visited Wednesday afternoon from Noon to 2:30 p.m. I entered at Damen, walked to the park’s eastern end at Marshfield Avenue, and walked the 2.7 miles to the park’s western end at Ridgeway Avenue.
Even in the middle of a weekday, there were hundreds of people up on the trail, of all faces and persuasions. You can see all the photos I shot of them in the slideshow at the bottom of this post. But for the record, here are a few of the many who resembled some of the people closest to me. That is, who, like many of my friends and colleagues and some of my family members, are African-American.
Some would suggest calling out their skin color is unnecessary in the allegedly post-racial Chicago that we clearly don’t yet live in. But if we actually lived in that Chicago–or that America, for that matter–organizations like TPL would be a little less clinical about the issue and a little more honest.
Especially with themselves.
Here’s what Black Chicagoans really look like on The 606..
They’re helping to build it.
They’re helping to keep it safe.
They’re cycling from one end to the other.
Sometimes in families as non-traditional as my own.
They’re walking with their loved ones.
They’re jogging for their health.
They’re creating student video projects.
They’re being beautiful and awesome.
And none of them are wearing pink hipster pants and carrying a guitar. This is what real Chicagoans look like, TPL. What city are you living in?