Christopher Mallette is at a loss to explain the tempest that surrounds him. Sitting behind his office desk in the St. Sabina Academy gymnasium, framed by sheaves of paper and religious icons, he folds his huge oaken arms and talks, always looping back to the same point, incredulous:
Many white folks won't bring their kids to his gym to play ball. They're too scared.
As athletic director of St. Sabina, a predominantly black Catholic middle school on Chicago's South Side, Mr. Mallette is at the center of an issue that has split the city in two. When his school applied to join an athletic conference of mostly white schools, it was rejected because of safety concerns. To many, though, the decision smelled of racism.
The debate resonates nationwide, as America seeks to be more vigilant against subtler forms of racism. But here along Lake Michigan, it is particularly poignant, touching on the most troubling topic of Chicago's past: segregation.
For decades, St. Sabina - a minority parish that was once overwhelmingly white - has been perhaps the foremost symbol of how white flight reshaped and wrenched this city along racial lines. Now, it is again a symbol - of how long old perceptions have lingered and how they are slowly changing.
"St. Sabina was one of the most powerful parishes in the South Side when it was white," says Dominic Pacyga, a historian at Columbia College here. "A lot of people have nostalgia for St. Sabina and fear of St. Sabina."
Today, some of the areas around St. Sabina present the stereotyped image of urban blight. Derelict red-brick buildings sit unattended, their empty window frames opening into shattered wooden maws of dust and darkness. Down on 79th Street, vacant lots are fenced-in gardens of weeds and gravel.
Even in the St. Sabina gym, which locals call the Ark, a diamond-shaped yellow placard patterned after a traffic sign reads: "No Guns, Children Playing."
Statistics show that this is an area with a higher crime rate than any represented in the Southside Catholic Conference. The district that contains St. Sabina recorded 30 murders and 1,877 assaults in 1999. Evergreen Park, the suburban location of several conference schools, tallied one murder and seven assaults during the same period.
That's enough to make many parents worried, says executive director Hank Lenzen, and those concerns led members late last month to vote 11-9 - with one school absent - against admitting St. Sabina. "It's just a very difficult subject.... It would be 21-0 if safety would be addressed," says Mr. Lenzen, a plumber. "A lot of people think it's unfair that the racial issue has been brought into it."
In Chicago, however, race seems to seep into everything.
As far back as 1919, there were summer riots touched off when a black swimmer drifted over into a white area and drowned as whites threw stones at him. Some 38 people died in the riots, and afterwards, local real-estate agents made a pact to sell blacks property only on a thin swath of the South Side.
History of segregation
When Martin Luther King Jr. came to town in 1966, he was hit by a rock and quoted as saying, "I have never seen such hate, not in Mississippi or Alabama."
According to 2000 census figures, Chicago remains the second-most segregated city in the United States for blacks and whites, after Detroit, and that has made it difficult to break down old stereotypes.
"Around St. Sabina certainly there has been an increase in crime because of the poverty," says Timuel Black, a Chicago historian and civil rights activist.
"But because of the isolation of the races, the fear goes deeper."
The police chief lives here
To people at St. Sabina, those fears seem unreasonable. They see a neighborhood beset more by poverty than by violence - a community with its share of freshly shorn lawns, lined by shrubs and flowers in precise rows that bespeak constant and loving attention.
The chance that whites commuting to St. Sabina might be hurt or robbed, they add, is minuscule.
The alderman's district office is directly across the street from the gym. Parking is ample and well-lit. The city police chief lives in the area, and has vowed he would ensure the commuters' safety.
Is there any risk? Perhaps. But they say they would also be taking a risk going into predominantly white neighborhoods. Four years ago, a black teen was beaten into a coma for wandering into a white part of town, they note.
With a second vote by the conference set for Thursday, sources suggest that St. Sabina may yet be accepted. St. Sabina's Mallette even suggests that the uproar may serve a valuable purpose if it gets parents and kids to sit down and talk over their concerns.
For the city, observers say, that's a broader sign of progress.
"St. Sabina sends a message that we have not completed our task," says Clarence Wood of the Chicago Commission on Human Relations. But he adds, a decade ago, "people weren't talking. They're talking now."
(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor