Confronting Backlash, White Flight, and Urban Decline: The Catholic Neighborhood Movement and Community Organizing in White Ethnic Chicago, 1966-1990
University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign
This project first examines the reaction to racial integration on the part of the white ethnic, working-class Catholic, residents of Marquette Park, a community on Chicago’s Southwest side. I move away from earlier works on northern urban Catholic communities that tend to see them as monolithically racist and suggest that many people consciously struggled to reconcile the teachings of the Catholic Church against segregation and racism and their own moral values with what they saw as the social and physical “realities” of neighborhood change and urban decline.
I then turn my attention to the national stage and examine the ways in which Catholic intellectuals and activists associated with the National Center for Urban Ethnic Affairs understood and tried to deal with the problem of neighborhoods like Marquette Park. The NCUEA called for a decentralization of American economic, political and cultural life and supported community organizations and federal legislation aimed at revitalizing America’s urban neighborhoods and restoring the bonds of community life that they believed were essential for solving America’s urban and racial problems. I argue that these intellectuals and activists often underestimated the white ethnic Catholic complicity in and benefit from a system of white racial privilege. However, I also suggest that their attention to the economic and cultural anxieties of the white ethnic working-class, their insistence on the necessity of maintaining biracial working and middle-class coalitions, and their concerns about the destruction of urban neighborhoods and communities were often accurate assessments of the urban crisis.
I also address the ways in which Catholic neoconservatives like Michael Novak used their understandings of Catholic social thought and the history of white ethnic Catholics in order to craft a defense of a pure free-market capitalism, which I argue has only worked to undermine the very neighborhoods and communities that they seek to preserve. I also suggest that these Catholic neoconservative philosophies continue to provide an intellectual justification for the “compassionate conservatism” of George W. Bush.
Finally, I return to Chicago and examine the history of Southwest Parish and Neighborhood Federation (SPNF), a parish-based community organization, which sought to prevent white flight and urban decline on Chicago’s Southwest Side. Although the neighborhood remains a thriving working-class community, yet it is almost completely resegregated. I argue that the history of the SPNF suggests both the possibilities and limitations of community-based organizing for solving the problems of racial and economic segregation in the United States.
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