A headline in The Northwest Indiana Times on Sunday declared, “Racial Divide Blurring Slowly. Northwest Indiana becomes more diverse, yet segregation remains.” There’s no doubt that Lake and Porter counties, when viewed as an entire region (as they usually are) have a population diversity that rivals the biodiversity of the Dunes. Within this “diverse” region, however, is a checkerboard of racially insulated communities. It is a region of invisible lines. Even without street signs, you can tell when you’ve crossed from Gary into Hobart, or Whiting into East Chicago. Though separated by mere miles–or blocks–it’s clear who’s the resident and who’s the visitor. Northern Lake County, in particular, is notoriously divided.
What’s odd is that despite the mistrust among towns, we actually like each other better when we’re away from home. Then we’re kin–Gary and Crown Point, Valpo and Hammond, Kouts and Lake Station. We get The Region. We don’t have to explain it. As a college freshman at Butler University, I (from blue-collar-white Hobart) roomed down the hall from Teresa, a girl from Gary. A fellow floor-mate, with geographical knowledge of the region rarely seen among downstaters, realized that Teresa and I were practically neighbors. We did, in fact, live less than ten miles from each other. Surely, our mutual friend said, we knew a lot of the same people, had hung out in the same places, had bumped into each other before at some point in our lives. We fidgeted uncomfortably, avoiding each other’s eyes, and changed the subject. We knew–and knew the other did as well–that we almost certainly knew none of the same people, that we had passed through each other’s home turf as quickly as possible (if at all), and that if we had happened to cross paths, we wouldn’t have had enough contact for it to have impressed a memory. I, in fact, had never had a conversation with an African American until I left this so-called diverse region. Away from region race-rules, Teresa and I became friends, often hanging out and bonding over our shared college-newbie foibles. At the end of the school year as we packed to go home, we mumbled some things about calling each other over the summer, maybe getting together. We both knew it wouldn’t happen, and we didn’t see each other until the next move-in day in August.
That was 20 years ago, but I’m really not sure how much has changed. Thankfully my own worldview was broadened immensely by my college and work experiences, but I would imagine there are many young (and, sadly, old) Regionites who still never have had a meaningful encounter with someone outside their own race. And as long as people are deprived of those day-to-day interactions that change groups into individuals, prejudice, fear, and anger will continue to hobble the region as they have for decades.