The first act of Clybourne Park is written as a complement and response to Lorraine Hansberry’s 1959 play, A Raisin in the Sun. Raisin chronicles a black family’s experience of buying a house in a white neighborhood, and examines the discrimination the family faces from their new neighbors. In 1959, the Civil Rights Movement had yet to make many of its most significant advancements, although it had already overturned Brown v. Board of Education in 1954, putting an end to legal segregation. While it was no longer written in the law, segregation was nonetheless deeply entrenched in communities across the country, as well as in people’s hearts and minds. Clybourne Park centers around the same events as A Raisin in the Sun, but it does so from the perspective of the white homeowners and neighbors at the time—and then follows up in the second act to see how race relations in the neighborhood have changed fifty years later. While in the original play the question of race is central and explicitly spoken, in Clybourne Park the characters are often afraid to express their opinions on race directly, although the issue of race constantly simmers beneath the surface. The racism of the first act is overt and destructive, but the lack of direct dialogue about race in the second act is perhaps just as troublesome.
Racism is overt and dangerous in the first act of Clybourne Park. Because of the characters’ racist attitudes, the Younger family nearly loses their new home, and Francine and Albert are continually condescended to and disrespected. Karl’s objections to the new family moving into Russ and Bev’s house are entirely motivated by his racist fear of having black neighbors. While he claims he is worried about differences of culture, economics, and behavior, the core of his concern is that black people won’t fit into a white neighborhood. Even though his reasoning is racist, he resists being called a racist, arguing that “race prejudice simply doesn’t enter into it,” and that he views it as “a matter of the people of Clybourne Park believing […] that our Negro families are happier when they live in their own communities.” Although Bev’s treatment of Francine and Albert is a matter of race as well as class, it is nonetheless painfully patronizing. She does her best to be kind to them, but is consistently condescending in her behavior. Bev repeatedly claims that she and Francine are close friends, and yet she doesn’t even know how many children Francine has. Despite her assertion that they are friends, Bev is unable to handle any criticism or dissent from Francine. For example, Bev repeatedly tries to get Francine to take home her chafing dish, which Bev doesn’t want to pack up and move. After politely declining multiple times, Albert snaps and tells Bev “Ma’am, we don’t want your things. Please. We got our own things.” Bev is offended, and seems not to have considered that Albert and Francine are not destitute, reliant on her for handouts and hand-me downs. For her, poverty, blackness, and need are so deeply entwined it is offensive to her that Albert and Francine would not want one of her objects. In this case, however small, racism is hurtful to both characters. While Albert and Francine is clearly more put upon by Bev’s condescension and subtle degradation, Bev, by refusing to treat Albert and Francine as her equals, also misses out on a mutually beneficial working relationship, and even a potential friendship.
In the second act, which takes place fifty years after the first, more overt racism has dissipated, but race still remains at the center of the conflict. Although everyone is careful not to offend one another, the act’s dissolution into the exchange of racist jokes makes it clear that racial divides still exist, even if the characters are successful in ignoring them for the first half of an afternoon. Even the way the characters view the neighborhood is shaped by race. At the time the second act takes place, the residents of Clybourne Park are primarily black, and Kevin and Lena, a black couple, are nervous about white families moving into the neighborhood and displacing the current residents. They fear the effects that gentrification will have on this historically and personally significant neighborhood, whereas Lindsey and Steve, the white couple moving in, are dismissive of the idea that a single house will make a difference. Kevin and Lena see Lindsey and Steve’s proposed renovations as being akin to bulldozing and disregarding history, while Lindsey and Steve see themselves as blameless homebuyers just trying to make the best possible life for their family. Moreover, in seeming to assume that race is no longer an issue, Lena and Steve fail to consider their own racial privilege as they interact with the Clybourne Park neighborhood.
Clybourne Park carefully explores the lives of white and black characters across a fifty-year period. It examines how race relations have changed—and how, in many ways, they have not. Although racism was more overt in the 1950s, and was a much greater threat in the sense that it was supported by federal and state laws, Clybourne Park shows that racism exists in changed but equally as alarming forms in the 21st century. In the second act, the characters are hesitant to even bring up race when discussing their neighborhood, although it is a key factor in why Lena and Kevin feel uncomfortable with Lindsey and Steve’s proposed renovations. Even well-meaning, intelligent people can struggle to discuss racial differences for fear of offending one another, and as a result they are unable to say anything at all. That isn’t to say that Clybourne Park is nostalgic for a time of outright, state-sanctioned racism. Rather, the play demonstrates how, although the language around race and racism has changed, little progress has been made towards being able to discuss race productively in America.
Race and Racism ThemeTracker
Race and Racism Quotes in Clybourne Park
But that’s nice, isn’t it, in a way? To know we all have our place.
I tell you, I don’t know what I would do without a friend like Francine here, and on a Saturday, I mean she is just a treasure. What on earth are we going to do up there without her?
Now, Russ, you know as well as I do that this is a progressive community.
Karl: It’s a colored family.
Jim: Sorry, don’t we say Negro, now?
Karl: I say Negro —
Jim: Well, it’s only common courtesy, and I’m —
Karl: — I say them interchangeably —
Jim: — not trying to tell you how to conduct your business.
Karl: — and of course I said Negro to them — No I think we both know what you’re doing.
Karl: Bev, they are one hundred percent. And if I don’t know how much time any of you have spent in Hamilton Park, but Betsy was waiting in the car and I can tell you, there are some unsavory characters.
Karl: But in the case of Gelman’s: I think there was some mistrust at first, having been Kopeckne’s Market for such a long time, but in the end of all Murray Gelman found a way to fit in.
Bev: And they hired the Wheeler boy.
And fitting into a community is really what it all comes down to…Now, some would say change is inevitable. And I can support that, if it’s change for the better. But I’ll tell you what I can’t support, and that’s disregarding the needs of the people who live in a community.
Karl: And what happened to love thy neighbor? If we’re being so principled.
Bev: They would become our neighbors.
Karl: And what about the neighbors you already have Bev?
Bev: I care about them, too!
Karl: Well, I’m afraid you can’t have it both ways.
Bev: Francine and I have, over the years, the two of us have shared so many wonderful—remember that time the squirrel came through the window?
Francine: Yes, I do.
Bev: That was just the silliest—the two of us were just hysterical weren’t we?
Karl: I think that you’d agree, I’m assuming, that in the world, there exist certain differences. Agreed?
Francine: What sort of difference?
Karl: That people live differently.
Karl: From one another.
Francine: I agree with that.
Karl: Different customs, different…well, different foods, even. And those diff—here’s a funny—my wife, Betsy, now, Betsy’s family happens to be Scandinavian, and on holidays they eat a thing known as lutefisk. And this is a dish, which I can tell you...is not to my liking at all. It’s...oh my goodness, let’s just say it’s gelatinous.
Jim: —You do find differences in modes of worship. If you take First Presbyterian. Now, that’s a church down in Hamilton Park and I’ve taken fellowship there and I can tell you, the differences are notable.
Jim: Not a value judgment. Apples and oranges. Just as how we have our organ here at Saint Thomas, for accompaniment, whereas at First Presbyterian, they prefer a piano and, occasionally…well, tambourines.
Bev: What’s wrong with tambourines?
Bev: And for all we know this family could be perfectly lovely.
Karl: Well, that’s hardly the point, is it?
Bev: Maybe it’s a point to consider.
Karl: Bev, I’m not here to solve society’s problems. I’m simply telling you what will happen, and it will happen as follows: First one family will leave, then another, and another, and each time they do, the values of these properties will decline, and once that process begins, once you break that egg, Bev, all the kings horses, etcetera—
And Francine walking in at nine in the morning to find him there. You be my guest, Karl. You go ahead and tell those people what kind of house they’re moving into and see if that stops ‘em, because I’ll tell you what, I don’t care if a hundred Ubangi tribesman with a bone through the nose overrun this goddamn place, ‘cause I’m through with all of you, ya motherfucking sons of bitches. Every one of you.
I think they’re all a buncha idiots. And who’s the biggest idiot of all to let yourself get dragged into the middle of it? Whatcha gonna be now, the big peacemaker come to save the day?...Let ‘em knock each other’s brains out, for all I care. I’m done working for these people two days from now, and you never worked for ‘em at all, so what the hell do you care what they do? And now I am going to the goddamn car.
Bev: What about this chafing dish? Did you see this dish?
Albert: Well, we got plenty of dish—
Bev: Not one of these. Francine told me.
Albert: Well, that’s very kind of you, but—
Bev: She said you didn’t have one and somebody should take it and—
Albert: But we don’t need it, ma’am.
Bev: —make use of it, so if you let me just wrap it for you.
Albert: Ma’am, we don’t want your things. Please. We got our own things.
Albert: Trying to explain to you.
Bev: Well, if that’s the attitude, then I just don’t know what to say anymore. I really don’t. If that’s what we’re coming to.
Lindsey: Can I say? We talked about renovation. We discussed it. Because these houses are so charming and I know it’s a shame — but when you figure in the crack in the sub-floor and the cost of the lead abatement — and in a market like this one? It just made more sense to start from scratch.
Tom: Right. But: the Owners Association has a vested interest — Kevin and Lena call me up last month, they say Tom, we’ve got this problem, these people are planning to build a house that’s a full fifteen feet taller than all the adjacent structures…and I think we’d all agree that there’s a mutual benefit to maintaining the integrity — the architectural integrity…of a historically significant…neighborhood.
Lindsey: And you know, the thing is? Communities change.
Steve: They do.
Lindsey: That’s just the reality.
Steve: It is.
Lena: And some change is inevitable, and we all support that, but it might be worth asking yourself who exactly is responsible that change?
Lindsey: I’m not sure what you—?
Kevin: Wait, what are you trying to—?
Lena: I’m asking you to think about the motivation behind the long-range political initiative to change the faith of this neighborhood….I mean that this is a highly desirable area…And I’m saying that there are certain economic interests that are being served by those changes and others that are not. That’s all.
Steve: The history of America is the history of private property.
Lena: That may be —
Steve: Read De Tocqueville.
Lena: —though I rather doubt your grandparents were sold as private property.
Steve: Ohhhhh my god. Look. Look. Humans are territorial, okay?
Lindsey: Who are you?
Steve: This is why we have wars. One group, one tribe, tries to usurp some territory — and now you guys have this territory, right? And you don’t like having it stolen away from you, the way white people stole everything else from black America. We get it, okay? And we apologize. But what good does it do, if we perpetually fall into the same, predictable little euphemistic tap dance around the topic?
Kevin: You know how to tap dance?
Steve: See? See what he’s doing?!!
Lindsey: Maybe quit while you’re ahead.
Steve: No. I’m sick of — No. Every single word we say is — is — is scrutinized for some kind of latent — Meanwhile you guys run around saying n-word this and n-word that and whatever. We all know why there’s a double standard but I can’t even so much as repeat a fucking joke that the one black guy I know told me —
Steve:… Are you “offended”?
Steve: Neither am I.
Lindsey: You can’t be offended, you moron —
Lindsey: — because you’ve never been politically marginalized, unlike the majority of people in the world —
Steve: How can a majority be marginal?
Lindsey: — and, by the way, all women, everywhere, and it’s your classic white male myopia that you’re blind to that basic fact.
Lena: Why is a white woman like a tampon?
Lindsey: Why is what?
Lena: It’s a joke.
Well you’re being an idiot. And in case you hadn’t noticed, the rest of the world has begun a more sophisticated conversation about this topic than you apparently are qualified to participate in at this incredible moment in history. I mean, I used to date a black guy. So what? I mean, seriously. Steve. Wake up.
Lindsey: Well, I want to say this: I want to say I feel angry. And I’m basically kind of hurt by the implication that’s been made that, just because we want to live as your neighbors and raise a child alongside yours, that somehow, in the process of doing that, we’ve had our ethics called into question. Because that is hurtful.
But you know, I think things are about to change. I really do. I know it’s been a hard couple of years for all of us, I know they have been, but I really believe things are about to change for the better. I firmly believe that.