Day 11 Goodnews: Yes, He’s Racist; Badnews: You Are Probably Racist Also

The polarizing topic of racism has surpassed race. It existed before and after the presidential race, but it also has permeated supporters on either side. That is, even people who are targets of racist policies are supporting these policies. And in the the ever more dividing America, the claim that someone is or isn’t racist, whether coming from an antagonist or defensive point of view, makes an the opposite inverse true: people who are fighting against racism are also, statistically speaking, racist. Conclusion: if both those who support accusatively racist political representatives and those opposing them are racist, you’re going to have racism.

Here are some examples. First, there’s the very cursory but entertaining episode of the Last Week Tonight about school segregation. If you haven’ watched it, enjoy it, because in an upcoming post I’m going to critique the air and attitude of the show in general, so get it while it lasts. The point of the episode is contrary to popular (Westcoast/New England) belief, the Southern U.S. schools are less segregated than the socially liberal New York City system. LWT claims that New York is actually the most segregated school system. If you consider the trends of private schools, charter school, good public schools and not as good, it’s actually very easy to palate.

Then there’s a more nuanced and expansive study by the Pew Foundation that focuses on where people live. When looking at these tables, it’s important to really think about what the segregation entails. What is segregation? How would you define it? For the Pew study, they define it as “share of low-income households residing in a majority low-income census tract,” or upper-income in upper-income tract, meaning people who make a similar amount of money as their neighbors. So not necessarily pertaining to race, but because of some statistically correlating truths, they are basically saying, “X race(s) makes X amount of money and lives near X race(s), while Y race(s) make Y amount of money and live near Y race(s).” As the title states, the trend of living near people who make the same amount of money as you is increasing. More interestingly,– and this relates back to race– there’s a correlation with immigration; cities with greater income-segregation have a greater immigrant population. I expect this corresponds over seas, as the Guardian writes their eye-grabbing headline:World’s Most Segregated Cities. In conjunction with this study that found poor whites tend to live in more expensive neighborhoods than middle-class blacks and Latinos, one wonders what the motivation to break from that trend might be. There are two sides of this last report: one, poor white are afraid of living in poorer, (black, Latino, immigrant) communities, which is motivated by racism and/or middle-class black prefer to live in poorer (black, Latino, immigrant) communities because of a non-classist preference, rational cost of living, absence of stigma in their social sphere. Just a note, in the Guardian’s article, Madrid won as the most segregated city for a very boring explanation: a shortage of affordable housing, which brings me to my third and personal point: The Bronx.

Prior to the election, my partner and I would regularly discuss the reaction to people when we answered one of the trilogy introduction questions of New York: Where do you live. (”What do you do?”, and “Where are you from?” are the other pins that attempt to triangulate you value, trajectory, interests, et al. in this city social web.) The reactions were nearly consistent. Disbelief and confusion. So many people–white, black, Latinx–can’t believe we live in the Bronx because of all the mythology about the place, or, actually let’s just call it what it is: prejudice. In both directions. Prejudice about the place and prejudice about people, prejudice about us. Many recent-arrivals to New York, many visitors, many first generation inhabitants have never visited the Bronx. And Bronxites are sort of used to this norm. The majority of those who have come to the one borough connected to North America, from our walks of life, disclaim their visit with a memorable Yankees game, the New York Botanical Garden, or an exhibition at the Bronx Museum of Art. That is, rarely is it to ‘visit a friend’ or ‘go to a club.’ In contrast, the neighbors that I’ve befriended, crossed paths or shared gym equipment, have lived in the Bronx for decades.  

I’ve lived in four of the five boroughs and honestly, in every other apartment in the other boroughs over the last decade, all those rooms, shares and sublets, all those contracts and leases, they have all felt like a legal formality before being jumped in an empty parking lot, beaten and waking up to find your driver’s license left in your otherwise empty wallet. The Bronx was, when I moved in three years ago, a breath of fresh air. It was affordable, quiet, clean, unpretentious, human and humane and loaded with amazing architectural spaces that have for the most part maintained their original floor plans by virtue of being overlooked. My point is that the rationale, the explanations, the excuses and attractions I’ve heard for living in other neighborhoods where many of my contemporaries of age and industry live are hodgepodge, ad hoc at best and most easily and elegantly explained as racist. And I don’t mean a blatant spoken racism, but an indirect, subtle, racism. It’s not the fancy Trump at podium racism. It’s concerned about saving face. It’s a defensive state of mind. It’s a preservation of the status quo, a status quo that is racist. It’s useful to go into specifics here, because there are functional elements to this indirect discrimination that are educational. Let’s start with Brooklyn.

If you’re an educated, mid-twenties to early-thirties coming to the city, you enjoy some activity, but also plan to spend a few hours inside your apartment before work and at the end of the day, it’s likely Brooklyn will be your borough of choice. I’m supposing that you’re coming with the idea of developing some hypothetical career and social life. But when the name of ‘Brooklyn’ is brought up in this demographic, we’re really talking about a handful of neighborhoods–Williamsburg, Greenpoint, Bushwick Bedstuy, Redhook, Crown Heights maybe maybe Cobble Hill if you are moving with a partner who also earns a decent salary and perhaps even Carrol Gardens if working from home is an option.

Here are all the neighborhoods you probably wouldn’t move into:

Ditmas Park
Bath Beach
Bay Ridge
Borough Park
Dyker Heights
New Utrecht
Barren Island
Bergen Beach
Coney Island
Gerritsen Beach
Marine Park
Mill Basin
Plumb Beach
East New York and its five mini-neighborhoods
Highland Park

The point isn’t that you wouldn’t move there because blacks or Latinxs might live there (there are other communities like Russians), the point is these places aren’t even on your map. They aren’t there because the places that make it to your map are put on your map by word of mouth, social media, hearsay in your circle, TV, movies, et al., until you meet someone like me who has deliberately chosen to not live there. What’s implicit here is that most of us talk on a regular basis with people of our own socioeconomic status. Ok, so you’re living in a shithole in Brooklyn, you’re paying $800/month for a room that fits a full-size mattress, two dressers, a desk and some shoes. Maybe it’s been renovated inside the apt., but the common area, like stairs are a mess. Maybe just the door doesn’t have a buzzer. Why are you living there?

The clues come in metrics. In the Bronx the same rent gets you a room twice the size, more windows, an elevator, maybe a doorman, roach free and good transportation. But the clear metrics of cost per square foot and domicile features quickly slides into another explanation as to why you love your apartment. Your neighborhood. “The Energy” (translation, young people I identify with who are go-getters, unpaid interns, get parental financial support and aren’t afraid of using the word “hashtag” in a sentence); “Services” (restaurants, bars, entertainment. True, the Bronx doesn’t compare with Brooklyn. But honestly, do you need five on a block? Isn’t two within walking drunk distance enough); “Hip” (translation, socially mobile young people of white or Asian descent); “Infrastructure” (subways, roads, hospitals, clinics, grocery stores. Actually, parts of the Bronx offer more infrastructure than most parts of Brooklyn). In short, choice of living is not only the apartment, but how you as a person interface with the public sphere and the people in that public sphere.

If you live in Brooklyn, you’re probably beginning to think this tirade is inaccurate, or slanted, or that your choosing to pay more for a worse apartment in your neighborhood of choice than you’d find in a poorer neighborhood doesn’t make you racist. And there’s likely very little proof I can provide to show that your actions, rational may not be directly discriminatory but in fact perpetuate city segregation. Trump supporters would similarly defend their identity as not being a racist or perpetuating racism. Similarly, it’s unlikely we can convince them that by their overlooking racist, misogynistic rhetoric vomiting from the mouth of their candidate but instead focusing on whatever preferred narrative of economic progress they choose they are indirectly perpetuating a racist country. 

But here’s the clencher to bring this back to actions and decisions that affirm the status quo. The reason why Madrid is found to be so segregated is actually the opposite in New York. That is, there isn’t an affordable housing shortage for most employed individuals in New York City, in spire of all the talk; there is an affordable housing shortage in areas of the city that those people want to live in. In 2016, you can still rent a studio apartment in four of the five boroughs for under $1,000. You’re just going to be spending time on the subway and/or walking to the station. But commuting to Manhattan isn’t the sole reason people choose to live in these areas; nor are simple calculation that are comparable to other cities; instead the flock of variables afford those who can choose to live where they want, appear as ad hoc explanations for arguably irrational decisions. The result is, in part to an income-based segregation plan that follows racial lines.

I began this treatise on the topic of the presidential race and here’s how it connects. I keep hearing people say, “The country you live in today isn’t so different from the one you lived in before Trump got elected.” There are two interpretations to this statement. The inspiring version is, “Your neighbors haven’t betrayed you, there is still solidarity, still good people.” But the other version is wrapped up in the dream that if Trump didn’t win, everything would continue to be hunky dory. Well, it wasn’t. We still live in the same country as before Trumpaggedon, a country where police murders of unarmed black people was addressed not be holding these police accountable but debating the expected value of body cams, a country where blatant Islamaphobia is perpetrated by Christian extremists while educated liberals fight to protect rights of Muslims, separation of church and state, but wouldn’t live in the Muslim immigrant neighborhood.

The dubious question for the American Left, and I’m assuming Clinton supporters are lefties, is how can we, those willing and persuaded by reason, become less racist, tear down racist our own racist norms and not falsely presume that just because we fight against overt, vocalized racism doesn’t mean that we live, work and depend on a racist configurations. The affront to politics in the Trump campaign was being vocal, impolite and politically incorrect. If the battle is about maintaining face with the assumption that if people don’t say things, they can’t think it or incite others to believe the same, we’re fighting a battle of imposed silence where persuasion is as symbolic as the mute arguments we’re suppressing. This isn’t a critique of political correctness or a drive to retake what’s acceptable to say in a political campaign. It’s an appeal to use this moment to learn from our opposition, to begin dialogue when anything can be said and to reconstruct deliberately.

On the bright side, it should be noted that, with the exception of the KKK, it seems that being called a racist is an offending insult to either political pole. We haven’t entered an era without racism, but we have entered an era where it’s not acceptable to be one (unless you’re a demagogue). That’s some sort of progress. But we have always known that we weren’t fighting words or labels, but the dark, unseen, unheard, elusive immaterial mechanisms that carry on in the undercurrents. By accepting we all perpetuate these injustices by proxy is the first step to disavowing their power. With this echoes of a leader who with whom we may not agree, I hope we can transform the sound waves of his amplified anger into waves of change.