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Sunday, December 30, 2007

Idyllic Towns and Absurd Stigmas

I came across a rerun of the Andy Griffith show the other day, set in idyllic Mayberry, NC where nary a word about race relations was ever spoken, despite its deep south setting. Meanwhile over on another channel was a rerun of Good Times, set in the stigma-laden housing projects of Chicago where black people hustled to survive, but few whites were seen in the heart of this black community. Are communities better or worse off in terms of race relations than these two divergent examples suggest?

There have been a lot of racial tensions in my community which has a long history of being racially divided, but the polite culture here tries to overlook any overt racism. Unfortunately, the divisions have accelerated this year and the hounds of bigotry have been unleashed. I have been shocked at the level of vitriol expressed in local blogs and comments on news articles. Politeness has gone out the window and many whites feel compelled to "call a spade a spade" in no uncertain terms. It has become quite uncomfortable and I wonder if this is just occurring in my town or part of a general elevation in urban racial rancor.

I decided to look at news accounts around the country on race relations. I found that my community is not alone in the division over race and that some cities are experiencing extremely hostile incidents of race divisions. School desegregation became especially contentious in St. Petersburg, FL where neighborhood schools would now mirror segregated communities. A small town in PA experienced some nasty racial conflicts at a local school that spilled over to the city's general population. Milwaukee, San Diego, Fort Worth, Richmond, VA, Kansas City, MO, Portland, Seattle, Memphis, and Philadelphia all had multiple articles on school and/or employment conflicts that stemmed from racial divides. Racism seems to be alive and well in the USA.

Why is it that tensions escalate so rapidly when race is involved? It becomes a matter of life and death the way white people approach it. A columnist in Kansas City wrote about racial tensions in that city and the level of scathing criticism of this black columnist from white readers was astonishing. It amounted to a written lynching. Letters to the editor in St. Pete were edgy over the needs of kids to go to schools in their neighborhood and the liberal, social agenda of integrating schools. Writers made the point that if people don't want to live together, the "state" should not force kids to go to school together. The secondary point was the need for kids to be able to go to school in their neighborhood. Apparently the integrated schools look like "Good Times" while white communities are "Mayberry." Sorry folks, you can't have it both ways.

This is a common fallacy that white folks make as they try to deal with racial issues. Their white neighborhood is always portrayed as a safe haven where Sheriff Griffith and Deputy Fife stroll by with a kind word. The city council, school board, schools, and inner-city neighborhoods are portrayed as the squalid projects of "Good Times" where everyone is a hustler or uneducated and no one is up to snuff. This is the default view of a white community that sees itself as the quintessential representative of the way people want to live. Wouldn't everyone want to live in Mayberry? And if you are not just like us, then you should be vilified for not living up to our standards. We deride your "Good Times."

What we white folks don't see is that Deputy Fife is out on the back roads intimidating the blacks to keep on their side of town so that the streets are safe for Aunt Bee. The other things we don't see are the good families, hard working, and ethical people who live in the 'hood. While we prefer to see only crime and gangs and unemployed men with women on welfare, the reality is much different. We choose to see what we want to see. Our neighborhoods are idyllic while black neighborhoods are stigmatized. It's about as silly as saying that middle east terrorists are jealous of us so that's why they flew into the World Trade buildings.

City councils, school boards, chambers of commerce, and other bastions of white control need to wake up to their contribution to the fear and loathing that defines race relations in our cities today. Ease up on the idyllic and lighten up on the stigmas. Maybe that's how we can start to get along.

Sunday, December 23, 2007


A friend relayed a neighborhood incident to me and it made me think about the role "respect" plays in race relations.

A white neighbor was rehabbing his house and made an agreement with his black neighbor to park an extra vehicle on that neighbor's property, so as not to damage the car by parking it in his own driveway. After the rehab was mostly done, the white neighbor did not remove the vehicle and in fact added a tool trailer. He had permission from the black neighbor. One day, the grandson of the black neighbor had enough and argued with the white neighbor to remove his vehicles, that it was time to end the agreement, and that the issue was respect. Well, the white guy had no clue. "Respect?," he said, "why you should respect me because I have an agreement with your grandmother to park my vehicles here." The grandson went ballistic and angrily expounded on his position. "You don't respect me because you are taking advantage of my grandma by parking here. You can use your own driveway now because your construction work is done. You are just using us." The white guy protested and said, "I'm not taking advantage. I have standing. I have an agreement. I'm not hurting you."

What the white guy did not get is that the black grandson saw this as an issue of disrespect. The white guy was using the neighbor after the obvious need to do so was over. Therefore, he was poaching on the neighbor and using his whiteness to do so. The black grandson was rankled by the lack of power he had in the situation and that every day the white neighbor continued this visual sign of power over the grandmother.

At one point the grandson tried to explain the logic to the white neighbor. He said to him, "You have your own property, why do you have to use ours? You are not respecting me and I have lived here all my life. This is my neighborhood." Part of what he meant by this was that he, as the black resident in a black neighborhood, should be allowed to set the terms of relationship.

The white neighbor felt that the grandson was playing the race card by complaining. After all, as a good white neighbor, he had gotten a legitimate agreement with the grandmother. But the white neighbor had introduced a new "agreement" that did not match the expectations of the grandson. The grandson saw this clearly as a race issue of the white guy using his race power.

This example demonstrates the subtleties of white privilege. We have the privilege of making agreements and never have to worry about someone taking advantage of us because of our race (except when we are blind to this and call it playing the race card). People of color are in the position that they assume race will be a factor in any interracial agreement. It doesn't matter what our white intent is. It only matters what the perception is.

The white neighbor is known to call the police when he feels that the neighborhood guys are smoking weed or possibly selling weed on the street. The grandson sees that as interference in his activities. Does the white neighbor have the right to call the police? Sure he does. It is effective? Not if you want to be in relationship with your neighbor. Try a conversation. Try to comprehend the point of view of those young men. You don't agree with them. I get that. Have a conversation anyway in order to hear their point of view. Show some respect. Because I can guarantee that without that relationship, the perception will be that you, as a white person, will always use your race to your own advantage and disrespect your black neighbor.

Saturday, December 15, 2007

Are we ready for a black _________?

A friend recently remarked on the chatter around Barak Obama, African-American Senator running for President of these United States. The question raised, as is often the question, "is this country ready for a black president?" My friend quipped - does that mean people think that the menu at the white house has to be changed or make sure BET is on the cable?

What does this mean - are we ready for a black anything? It basically means - can whites handle someone who doesn't look like them in a position of authority? We have black Senators (see Barak Obama), black Mayors, black Governors, black queen of daytime TV (see Barak's sidekick Oprah), black popular entertainers and sports figures, black writers and columnists, black newscasters, and on and on. So why are we still asking about our readiness to accept a black president?

Another friend said that white America may be ready for a half-black president and that Obama is not as threatening as an inner-city African-American male would be. Then I have to ask - are we ready for Michelle, Barak's wife, who is more "black" as first lady?

I just checked the calendar and it is 2007, not 1867. There is a dust-up in Kansas City, Missouri where the mayor's wife called one of the black staffers in the office, "mammy" and it has resulted in an EEOC complaint. Apparently the city populace is quite divided on whether this incident is worthy of rebuke or whether the black woman is just a whiner. Will Ms. Obama have to suffer from such criticism as first lady? Will she call the house staff "crackers?"

So where does white America get off saying are we ready for a black prez? Who is "we," since I am sure most African-Americans are quite ready for a black prez. Blacks are governed by white authority figures every day in every way - and I don't recall that anyone asked them if they were ready for that. The fact that white America still believes that asking the question is ok and asks it without any consideration of the implications, certainly says something about race sensitivity in this country.

The political climate suggests to me that white Americans are tone-deaf when it comes to race. We believe that color-blind means everyone thinks like us - a white person.

Wednesday, December 5, 2007

Snakes and Snitches

Do you expect to get anything back when you house or car is burglarized? Me neither. My house has been burglarized at least 4 times in the last 6 months. Only this is not the neighborhood cat burglar. This is kids or young men in the neighborhood, at least one of whom has a beef with our kid. The best way to get even with another kid is to beat him up and if that doesn't work, do something else to let him know you are in charge of him. This kid in the neighborhood has decided that stealing from our house or telling other people in the neighborhood that they should steal from our house, is a fine way to keep my kid in a constant state of anxiety. My kid is pretty tough and fast. So fast, that this bully can't catch him to lay a fist on him.

So today I had enough. Time to go confront whatever guardian there is at this kid's house and see what they want to do. This ain't leave it to beaver where Eddie Haskell is about to get in trouble when Beaver's dad gives him the biz. These adults yelled at the kid and took my phone number. If they see my missing tools they will give me a call. They yelled again as to why their kid was fighting with mine. Young bravado is about 'tude, not talking to the adults. Neither one of these kids knows what the beef is about, but they know the beef is real and they each are staking out a position. The other kid does it through trying to fight my kid and in lieu of that, lifting items from my house. This s not a sneak in the house in the night prowl. This is a run in your house when I get off the bus and take whatever I see type of attack. The adults there had been through this before and one of them threatened to throw the kid out. The other yelled some more then told him to get inside because it was too cold to yell on the porch. Not much is going to come out of that, I'm afraid.

I had to file a police report because a laptop got stolen that is issued by my employer. I named names. I snitched. I'm a snake. I may regret that at some point because you just don't do that. One, the police can't be trusted. They could blow this all out of proportion and end up with a swat team at this kid's house. Two, is that for every kid you try to hold accountable, there are several other kids who have his back and consequently, have it in for you. But from my perspective, you have to have accountability. The adults involved don't seem to have any desire to affect these kids. Or maybe they are just like me - I have trouble with my kid too because he thinks it is all a game, no big deal, and only solved with violence. That's a scary proposition for me to understand. The police will be perfunctory and either charge the kid or not, or investigate or not. We have a restorative justice program for minor offenders in our neighborhood. Maybe this kid can get into that if the police, do in fact, do something. My larger concern is that the police make inquiries, don't actually intervene, and I am left exposed. What will they come for next when they seek retribution.

This is reality in the hood. This is street justice. I don't play by those rules. That makes me a target. I know most of the other people on my block and nearby. I know some people may watch my back if they feel like it. That's the best I can do. I tried to make a resolution that would end the feud, but got no help from the adults in the other camp. Their kid has little retribution to fear and would not fear it anyway. The beef between these 2 young men must be resolved before the bullying and crime wave will stop. Not an easy charge for a 14 year old to take on. If this is not resolved, the damage will escalate. So I sit here and wonder how it all will play out. Not well, I fear. But you can't live in fear; not in this neighborhood. You have to live in what you want - a better neighborhood, relationship with people, living to your word. It is a struggle that the suburbs don't require. Instead the people in the suburbs have alarm companies, motion detectors, and security lights. I would rather take my chances and live my life the way I do.

Monday, December 3, 2007

Blame Game

“We are the people we have been waiting for.” (The tag line of an MIT student group working on alternative energy cars -

Imagine that you can end racism today, now, forever. Discrimination ceases to exist, racial epithets are never heard, angry retributions are never made, jokes at the expense of others are not funny, and kids don't have to make choices based on their race or the race of others. Utopia or our future? Here is why white people must become the people we have been waiting for.

I was talking with a teen the other day. He was upset and was lashing out with all kinds of distorted logic and crazy statements as teenagers do. But the most poignant moment was when he detailed to me how he was going to make the claim to people that I take better care of him than his black guardian. The strategy took me aback. This kid, who is black, felt that if he played the race card in reverse, that if he portrayed a black man as mean and a white woman as generous, that he could convince people that they should feel sorry for him. Some of his logic is the classic strategy of playing one adult against the other. But the racial dimension, played so overtly by a child of color, really disturbed me.

The incident made me acutely aware of the devastating influence of racism on the next generation. What this kid did not care about or even realize was that he was maligning himself as he attempted to malign his guardian. I realized at that moment how culpable I am for the problem of racism. Let me walk you through this looking glass, dear readers, and when you come out the other side, I hope you see what I see.

I go through my daily life with an internal appreciation for the racist situations faced by my neighbors, friends, and colleagues who are people of color. However, I can move through the day with my armor of white privilege. By white privilege I mean that I have certain advantages that I can take for granted that are not afforded to people of color. Check out this illuminating read on the subject:

For instance, I know I can drive down the street too fast and the police will not pull me over in a black neighborhood, whereas many black drivers are meticulous about not speeding for fear of what might happen if they are pulled over. I can walk into any store without fear of being harassed or skepticism from the security guard about my motives for being there. If the store manager comes up to me, I have no reason to fear that he will accuse me of shoplifting. I assume he is coming over to be helpful to me. Black people are not treated this way in stores, especially stores in white neighborhoods. When I deal with a black service person, postal person, clerk, or other provider, I know there is a better than even chance that I will get deferential and preferential treatment that may be different than the way customers who are not white are treated. This is the reality of white privilege. I don't ask for special treatment. I don't do anything to express assumptions to get that care. I don't make demands. But I know it exists. I accept the benefits of that privilege in a way that suggests I am not surprised, that the treatment is not unexpected, and that I like it.

I have an awareness of white privilege that many white people do not have, simply because they have never heard of it. I understand where this response to me comes from and that it exists. It's all very abstract isn't it? When it is abstract, I can be aware, but not be culpable. But to be aware and not disengage from the racism is really disingenuous. So far, I have no better response than to be polite and pretend the better treatment afforded me through my white privilege does not exist or that because I do not want it, I am not responsible for it being there. Hah!

So what is a privileged white woman supposed to do to end racism? I can be sure I don't discriminate. I can treat people of color the same way I treat white people (and if that is before my first cup of coffee, I apologize.) I can eschew my armor of privilege and expect to be treated just like people of color. Somehow, though, I don't think these strategies are going to make any difference in ending racism. It might make me feel better - thus extending the beneficence of white privilege... I could tell the clerk to be nasty to me or for the security guard to be suspicious of me and that the store manager should not be helpful. Would that really address the problem of racism? No. But to do nothing but be aware of the situation is not really much of a response either.

There is a line in the movie Rent that says, the opposite of war is not peace, the opposite of war is reproduction. To me that means that retraction of the bad is not enough. You have to replace it with something pro-active. So the opposite of discrimination may not be nondiscrimination, but the opposite of discrimination is empowerment.

There it is folks. Chew on that for a moment. You must give up not only your position of white privilege, but you must be proactive to empower people of color. This is the moment where white people have to take a stand, but typically cannot. This is the place at which we fail to be the people we have been waiting for. This is the position of vulnerability we cannot afford to take on, because it conflicts with our internal logic of preservation. It gives even me, a died in the wool believer, a pause. What would this look like if my white privilege ended, if I actively disengaged from discrimination, and did so by stepping aside so as to empower people of color?

In this empowering world that is the opposite of discrimination, the kid would have to deal with his black guardian as a person, as a man, not a color. That means that the kid would deal with himself as a person, as a man, and not a color. This would mean that other people in the world would approach this kid as a person, as a man, and not as a color. That would radically change his life.

I would go into a store and be one of the customers, not a special customer. This would mean I would deal with each customer I run into as a person of equal status to mine. My external attitude would change - imperceptibly to me, but probably obvious to others. Releasing my consciousness about my own race would change my demeanor towards others. If every white person did this, it would change the dynamics. Change your energy and the substance of who we are and how we treat and are treated will change.

I would relate to people with a different attitude, not one of solidarity, but as a person. Even though I empathize with people of color, being in solidarity is a false-positive. My empathy does not give them power - even though most white people think it does - by osmosis I suppose. My empathy must be one of consciously turning power away, and thus making it available to people of color. This does not mean I am giving them the power I have. My power is tainted because it comes to me through a racist privilege. I must give up that tainted power. I must make room for others to take their place.

We can be the people we have been waiting for. But it does not mean being celebrated for being liberators. It does not mean taking credit for anything. It means doing the right thing and giving up a long standing advantage that we have no right to have. Can you do this?