Friday, March 07, 2008

Mr. Obama's Neighborhood: An Inside Look at Hyde Park, Chicago

Now that we have ample time to consider exactly who Barack Obama is, I’ve been compelled to revisit my old stomping grounds: Hyde Park, Chicago. Known for being home to controversial figures like Louis Farrakhan and Jesse Jackson and institutions like the University of Chicago, Hyde Park is also the most dense center for theological education this side of Rome. The prestigious University dominates the neighborhood economically, culturally and politically, having essentially taken the neighborhood over since the 1960s and housing thousands of students, professors and staff. And Hyde Park can boast to being one of Chicago’s truly unique cul-de-sacs, a mixture of history, beauty and eclecticism, an attempted safe haven surrounded by the seedier parts of Chicago’s South Side. But at its heart, Hyde Park is a paradoxical neighborhood, promising intellectual rigor and diversity on the exterior, but still falling prey to a tired ideology born in the 1960s on the interior. I couldn’t define Obama’s politics any better.

I recently lived in Hyde Park for 3 years while attending seminary, and generally enjoyed my time there. I taught guitar lessons at the University’s private school, I tutored professor’s students, and I studied theology with students from a host of schools. I got to know the neighborhood, and through work, many of its residents as well. To say the least, it is a very liberal neighborhood, standing out even in a liberal city like Chicago. There was certainly no shortage of visible support for prominent Democrats like Barack Obama, as when he ran against a hapless Alan Keyes in 2004. It was not uncommon to see pictures of Hyde Park residents posing with him at University or neighborhood events. And as I mentioned before, several African-American activists and politicians grace the neighborhood within blocks of each other, notably Louis Farrakhan, Jesse Jackson, and Carol Moseley Braun, who ran for president in 2004.

To me, this can offer wonderful clues about the neighborhood. Though the University did its best to polish Hyde Park’s image, I found the neighborhood to be heavy and defensive, a place of constant and unspoken tension, especially among the races. My wife, a friend, and my roommate all experienced this tension separately as eggs were thrown, guns were drawn, and bottles were hurled. There were frequent urgings not to walk along 53rd Street alone as gangs were choosing random white males to beat, presumably as part of a gang initiation ritual.

Suffice to say, the neighborhood was not a safe one. And who should have expected it to be? While million-dollar homes and condos were the norm in Hyde Park, poverty of the worst sort surrounded it on every side, save for Lake Michigan. This irony was what many conservatives have come to expect: the liberalism so often championed by professors, politicians and theologians within the street boundaries of Hyde Park and practiced by Chicago’s politicians did nothing to alleviate the real suffering around it. Consequently, the violence and tension spilled out into Hyde Park’s tree-lined streets. Even Carol Moseley Braun was not immune; she was mugged at her home before a University students ran off her attacker in 2006.

The predominant theology in this heavily theological neighborhood was liberation theologies of various stripes. (If you’re not familiar with the term, liberation theology is a highly political and social view of Jesus Christ and his redemption. It is championed by the poor and by minorities who hold poverty and oppression as virtues, for which Jesus had special appreciation). In Hyde Park, it was black liberation theology that was the norm, although queer (this is the politically correct term), Hispanic, feminist, and womanist theologies demanded attention as well. But the black liberation theology gives us the most real insight into Hyde Park’s most famous resident, Barack Obama. It is this theology that defined the culture of Hyde Park in the 1960s, a decade Hyde Park has had trouble leaving. And it is this theology that dominates his own church, several miles south of Hyde Park on 95th street. (Obama’s pastor, Jeremiah Wright, received his Doctorate from my seminary.)

To put it simply, Hyde Park is a racially-driven neighborhood. It prides itself as a neighborhood that fights white authority and prestige. Whites are seen as a great impediment to black improvement and the cause to the problems to begin with. It is whites who have invaded the neighborhood and populated its university, usually with presumed snobs who have the money to afford the U of C to begin with. Ironically, the academics that do this (as a professor, Obama would have be considered a part of this) do so with the financing and intellectual protection of the largely white university system.

And I believe this defines Obama as well. While he has shrewdly and masterfully run a campaign that transcends his race and plays into white guilt, he is at heart as racially-driven as his neighborhood of choice. His wife’s thesis demonstrated this, Obama’s controversial church demonstrates this, and if he is anything like Hyde Park and the general culture of the University, there’s no denying that race is one of his most notable motivators. You would think a neighborhood that was home to Milton Friedman for 30 years would have learned to think more objectively; in fact, Obama and company in Hyde Park are predictably and ideologically leftist.

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