Opinion: I escaped to Yale but found no justice

I couldn’t have told you the first thing about New Haven. To me, it was an old and excessively boring city, with nothing much to do besides go to class and slip away to New York whenever the opportunity arose. It was mid-April of 2020, and I had just committed to attending Yale, which meant I was to spend the majority of my next four years in New Haven. As someone who had come from a poor neighborhood on the west side of Chicago, I was excited about the prospect of living in a city where nothing much happened -- where things were quiet and simple. New Haven represented an escape from the social issues that plagued my city, from economic inequality to violence and police brutality to systemic racism.

The rose-tinted glasses through which I viewed New Haven were smashed to pieces at one of Yale’s student-led preorientation programs, called Cultural Connections. That program introduced me to the issues that New Haven faced and revealed to me just how much Yale played a role in them. Yale, a school I loved, became an irredeemable institution at the heart of New Haven’s housing, budget and race issues. The university I had become a member of was a powerful and often destructive force in New Haven, gentrifying neighborhoods and touting its chokehold on the city’s economy.

Arriving on campus and engaging in local news coverage with the Yale Daily News further opened my eyes to New Haven’s struggles. The headlines I read -- about COVID-related racial disparities, about calls to defund the police and about economic inequality -- were striking. They mirrored the headlines I routinely read in the Chicago Tribune and Sun-Times. And when I exited Yale’s ancient Gothic gates, I saw rundown houses, fast-food chains and litter-filled streets. It reminded me of my own neighborhood. I soon realized that the city I had viewed as foreign — as under the thumb of an enormous institution — faced the same problems my community did.

These eerie similarities gave me a sense of comfort and despair. On one hand, I felt more connected to the New Haven community than I did before; we shared a common struggle. On the other hand, residing in two progressive cities that nevertheless face severe racial and economic issues, I began to believe that it was impossible for America to achieve social justice.

But as I spent more time at Yale and started writing columns for the school newspaper, I began to question why progress had been so difficult in both Chicago and New Haven. Why do two cities committed to racial justice still let so many issues go unaddressed?

Communities, particularly communities of color, have clearly articulated their struggles and demanded the resources they need to be successful. Yet those in power -- Yale administrators and New Haven politicians, in this case -- have frequently failed to address those struggles and meet those demands. Black New Haveners express their desire to defund the police, and yet Mayor Justin Elicker hesitates to do so. New Haven Rising calls for Yale to pay its fair share, and yet Yale does not even step in to ameliorate the city’s current budget crisis.

And many white New Haveners, who are in a unique position to place pressure on both of these institutions, do not do so. Rhetoric about social justice abounds, with people nabbing copies of “How to Be an Antiracist” and posting about injustice on social media, but the actions necessary to bring about equality remain undone. Many white New Haveners express support for social justice, but don’t make an effort to throw their political weight behind transformative policy demands.

Is this a failure of will? Is New Haven just not as interested in justice as it says? I’m not sure, but I know that this inconsistency in sentiment and action is insidious. It allows the city to convince itself that it’s progressive, all while continuing to fail communities of color. It allows people to paint over problems with platitudes and avoid examining their complicity in perpetuating systemic racism and injustice. It normalizes the suffering of communities of color and allows people to become comfortable with inequality. The politics of social issues will always be complicated, but if New Haven is committed to justice, then its inaction is inexcusable.

New Haven is not my escape from Chicago. It’s a reminder that America is still a long way from justice.

Caleb Dunson is a writer and a rising sophomore at Yale University. Email him at caleb.dunson@yale.edu.