Continuing a conversation we’re privileged to host, The News-Gazette asked African American community members to share their stories and solutions in the wake of George Floyd’s killing.
Featured today: DAVID NORTHERN, CEO of the Housing Authority of Champaign County.
'To be black in America is to reckon with the fact that you can make one mistake and your life can be gone'
By DAVID NORTHERN
Whether at the hands of police who too often have brutalized and killed with impunity, or by a criminal justice system that disproportionately penalizes and leaves us with criminal records that follow us for the rest of our lives, or mass incarceration, or the real economic goal, which is free labor, to be black in America is to reckon with the fact that you can make one mistake and your life can be gone.
On one hand, I remain proud of overcoming the obstacles I faced growing up in Gary, Indiana. It led me to work as a black leader and professional in environments where others in high positions do not often look like me, which has been an obstacle in itself.
Yet, on the other hand, recent events serve as a visceral reminder that our nation has yet to overcome so much of the racism of our history that continues to persist throughout its structures. A reminder that so many people of color are kept down by systemic racism. A reminder that despite my professional success, jaywalking or getting pulled over could mean risking my life.
The mission of the Housing Authority of Champaign County, where I am chief executive officer, is to create quality living environments as a foundation and to provide the wraparound services for individuals to achieve their full potential. The ongoing discrimination and oppression faced by black people in America is a direct obstacle to that mission.
I believe it’s an obstacle we can overcome, but it means confronting how racism and oppression is embedded in our country’s institutions and persists today.
Throughout the 20th century, segregationist redlining practices by banks, local governments and federal policy that shaped our nation, divided towns and cities, often crowding black households into unsafe living conditions — hence, the dismal rates on blacks with COIVD-19. The remnants of de facto segregationist zoning policies remain and restrict the living options for many people of color.
Before I came to Champaign-Urbana, I served as both the first African American CEO of the Lake County Housing Authority and elected school board member in my district. In Lake County, I oversaw the construction of a 70-unit senior housing development in a predominately white village.
When it was announced that we were bringing affordable housing to this village — safe, decent, affordable housing for, yes, low-income and often but not the majority black tenants — many white residents responded with fear, anger and outrage, displaying their preconceptions about affordable housing informed by our nation’s history of prejudice.
Even in 2015, I was not able to attend community meetings about that development but work in the background as a result of the response to prejudice, worried that a black spokesperson for project might undermine its completion.
Imagine the scar.
We can’t let fear determine how we treat each other in this country, and we have to make sure our laws and institutions do not cater to fear. I will remain dedicated to using my platform to fight and provide for the voiceless.
If you’d like to share your story, email Editor Jeff D’Alessio at email@example.com.
David Northern is CEO of the Housing Authority of Champaign County.