When I step out of my church on Chicago’s South Side onto King Drive, I can see the infamous and massive Parkway Gardens—Michelle Obama’s first home before it became a dilapidated housing project. Behind the projects is an elementary school where only 4% of the kids are proficient in math and 6% in English. The nearby Walgreens and McDonald’s fled not too long ago, leaving us with no pharmacy, fewer jobs, and two boarded-up, graffitied buildings. Few people own their homes. Gangs control the streets. And nearly everybody I see on the street has had a family member shot.
My community is so far behind that I no longer look at the data showing how we’re on the bottom of every education and socioeconomic chart. I see the evidence every day. That’s why it sickens me whenever I read news of our culture war over DEI (diversity, equity, and inclusion), most recently during the public trial of Claudine Gay. What struck me was that several DEI advocates, in their defense of Gay, claimed to be fighting for communities like mine. They talked of how not everybody is born equal, how systemic racism is in the DNA of America, how white supremacy keeps us down at every turn, and the absurd oppressor-oppressed binary that leaves no gray area for nuance.
This experience was disembodying. It was like listening to people who don’t know you talk about you as if they knew you from way back when. Sometimes this disconnect between this DEI ideology and the realities of my community was so deep that it was laughable.
For instance, while DEI ideologues and beneficiaries like Gay may share the same skin color with us, there is very little, if anything, that my community had in common with a woman born to a wealthy Haitian family and schooled at the best of America’s schools. These DEI advocates were exploiting the pain of my community to gaslight their opponents and this troubled me the most because it hurts and hinders our efforts to truly make lasting progress.
The reality is that DEI is an ideology for the privileged. It helps people like Claudine Gay who exploit race for power and prestige and it hurts communities like mine by exploiting them for poverty-porn.
Let me give you an example of what my life as a pastor to my struggling community is actually like. One late night several years ago, I remember looking out my office window across the street at the empty lot where I had dreams of building a community center when I heard footsteps in the hallway. One never knows what to expect in this neighborhood and the last person I expected to see was Jonathan Watkins. I knew him around as a gang member and had tried to talk to him several times.
He stepped into my office, looked at me, and said, “Pastor, I just had my first kid and I lost her today.”
That morning he had strapped his 6-month-old baby girl, Jonylah, into the car seat. He was about to drive her to day care when a bullet entered through the car window and killed her instantly. Jonathan was shot badly, too. He belonged to a gang, and the shooting was gang related.
The pain on Jonathan’s face was terrible. I knew retaliation was on his mind since so few murders around here are ever solved. I feared losing him back to the streets.
Over the next several months, I counseled him in the ways of Christ and how to live on the legal side of the world. He went through job trainings, learned how to build credit and opened his first bank account. I got him a job working for Pat Milligan at Metro Ford.
Then one day he quit and disappeared. He told Pat that he could make more money in the streets than washing and buffing these cars. I also knew that he had bought a gun in the days after his baby’s death and that he knew the identity of the killer. I feared losing him to prison or worse.
I feared that I had failed to help Jonathan. I knew the struggles he faced, inside and outside. God can be a powerful help in a troubled man’s life. So can regular work. So can having a mentor who knows your situation and can help you understand your responsibilities to yourself and to your community. But in that moment, I feared that the forces arrayed against Jonathan, and within Jonathan, were simply too great for him to overcome. As someone who lives and works on the South Side of Chicago, I understood what he was up against.
DEI ideology didn’t offer Jonathan a better life; it has no ability to help him. It doesn’t offer faith, and it doesn’t offer meaningful work. It doesn’t live with us on the South Side of Chicago. It’s manipulative rhetoric, a way of exploiting Jonathan’s tragedy, and the tragedy of thousands of young men like him, on behalf of professional-class ideologues who seek to use our pain to fuel their rise through American institutions. Their stock-in-trade is a soul-destroying poison whose moral and real-world effects are as negative for our communities as those of any other drug that is sold here.
When I was younger, I used to believe in the power of race. I thought there was meaning in it. When I first arrived in Chicago from the Indiana countryside where I’m originally from, I was amazed by how many diversity type of programs there were in Chicago to help my new congregation. In my youthful earnestness, I attended these workshops where I heard a variation of the same message: We will help uplift you so you can diversify the world. But whatever hopeful energy that was stirred up within these workshops was often deflated not too long after we walked out the door.
It took me a while to understand that these trainings failed because they were grounded in race and the only way to get ahead was to play the race game. Another thing I noticed about these diversity meetings was that, as time went on, there was an increasingly totalitarian focus on race that made me uncomfortable, as a pastor and as a human being. It eventually reached the point where race and racism became the only acceptable explanations within the context of diversity language for whatever happened out in the world.
But what truly bothered me was that these diversity initiatives, especially the latest DEI version, blamed the failures of my neighborhood on white supremacy. Red-lining and block-busting certainly played a role in defining our neighborhood—a negative role. But the reality is that my community has been bombarded with one liberal policy after another since the 1960s.
We were encouraged to move out of our homes—many admittedly not in good condition, but which we owned—and into housing projects where we had zero equity. Man-in-the-house rules broke apart too many families. Our schools produced far too many illiterates. For decades, our culture celebrated and rewarded Black deviancy, as shown on countless rap videos. The only way too many of our children know how to buy food is with Uncle Sam’s dollar. All the while, government officials and nonprofit overseers whispered sweet nothings into our ears while getting paid.
I saw this coming as far back as 2011. One night that year, I remember staring out my church office’s window at the garishly ugly motel across the street. For too long, I watched kids pass by the ungodly scenes of drugs, prostitution, and murder at the motel on their way to school. I pleaded for help from everyone and received nothing. I realized there was no true interest in ending the decline, and that my community was on its own.
The very government that ran our community down to the ground and seduced those coming out of four centuries of oppression with policies of dependency, would not help us.
It was at that moment that I became free. The act of looking beyond race freed me up to see real solutions to my community’s problems.
Not too long after that 2011 night, I walked across the street from my church, placed a ladder against the motel, and climbed to the roof where I stayed for 94 days until I raised enough money to buy and tear down the building that had become a blight on our community.
In doing so, I behaved not as a Black man but as an American citizen. It was when I used America’s own principles as my guiding light that I made progress. My community could see it, and they could feel it. The motel was gone. Prostitution, drugs, and murders all went down.
That is why when I hear DEI advocates describe the American principles of merit, freedom, and agency as white supremacist values, I know that this language is toxic for my community and for the lives we are trying to save. The rhetoric of victimization isn’t truthful. It only weakens our ability to solve our own problems and deepens the damage done to our communities by post-1960s liberalism.
That is why the recent decision of Chicago Mayor Brandon Johnson to eliminate some of Chicago’s top schools in the name of equity was so devastating to our communities. What equity means for these DEI folks is achieving parity with Blacks on the bottom, instead of strengthening our ability to lift ourselves up. The framework of negative achievement that DEI offers is truly insulting. After 60 years of failing to end intergenerational poverty, intergenerational violence, and intergenerational illiteracy in my community, the DEI folks have decided to lower America down to our level—right at the moment when we’re trying to get out of it.
Ever since I came down from that motel rooftop, I have preached American principles to the kids in the streets of Chicago’s South Side. I never focus on race, the violence, or the poverty around them—they know all about that already. Instead, I tell them what they never hear in the streets: that they are worthy, that they are somebody, that they have a purpose in life, and that they have the tools and the ability to create positive change for themselves and for their community.
The tools I give them are timeless and universal: Respect your parents, be on time, study hard, work hard, pray, be responsible, be accountable, don’t blame the white man, save money, build credit, plan for the future, get married, be a parent. You fall—get back up. Just do it.
I drilled those words into Jonathan in the months before he lost his daughter, which was why I was particularly despondent when he disappeared. Then, one day, he came up to me. We hugged, and he told me he had, as I feared, found out the name of the shooter, and had been debating taking vengeance for his daughter’s death for some time. “I wanted to,” he told me. “But you showed me my better self, and that’s what kept pulling me away from doing it.”
What I tried to explain to him was that hope lies in American principles. Despair and further generations of poverty, disease, and hopelessness lie in the DEI principles. We may be on the bottom of America, but the power of American principles and America’s promise are equally ours. The tragedy is that false promises of uplift from outsiders have blinded us to our greatest power for so long: ourselves.
Recently, I found myself standing next to Jonathan in front of the office window. He now works for my community center, Project H.O.O.D. (Helping Others Obtain Destiny), as a core member of our violence-impact team. He is also a father to three beautiful children. Across the street, we watched workers, cranes, and lifts working together to build the community center of our dreams. It was not the tomfoolery of DEI, which is a modern form of blackface, but our belief in ourselves and our own dignity, belief in the power of our community, and belief in America that is making the reversal of decades of decay possible.