The Walls in our Neighborhoods

Source: Wikimedia Commons

As I was driving my 5-year-old to school this morning, NPR updated us both about our current president’s maniacal desire for a wall. “Do you understand what they’re talking about, sweetie?” I asked her.

“No, can you explain?”

“Well, you know how we are excited about cutting a little hole in the fence in the backyard between our house and Max’s house?”

“Yeah.”

“That’s because we want you and Max to be able to travel freely between our house and his house. Our president wants to put a wall, kind of like a fence, but bigger and harder to get around, in between the United States and Mexico.”

“But why?”

Like many “adult” things I try to explain to her these days, this one made little intuitive sense. “Because he doesn’t want our neighbors to be able to get in,” I said.

Our president’s desire for a wall has all but brought our country to a standstill. And while his unforgivable dehumanization of immigrants is deeply rooted in white supremacy, the morning chat with my daughter reminds me that it’s also deeply rooted in America’s obsession with private ownership.

I might not be a white supremacist, but I live in a neighborhood — as you likely do — where we live among fences and organize our lives around the maintenance of our own homes and cars and possessions. When those in the upper middle class need help, as we inevitably do, we hire someone — a house cleaner, a childcare provider, an in-home nurse. We underpay these people and keep them off of our social media feeds. In that way, it’s not just our physical surroundings and stuff that we maintain with a lot of attention and energy; it’s our performance of self-sufficiency.

Each day, in a hundred little ways, elite American families build a mental wall between ourselves — capable, efficient, and deserving — and the others — the weak, sick, addicted, uneducated, undeserving. We may even pity the latter, but we don’t — as a rule — believe that our thriving has anything to do with their struggle. Not really. We have our house, our car, our country. They have theirs.

My little family’s collusion in this physical and mental separation came home to roost recently in another way. We live in urban Oakland, where the haves and have nots are always within walking distance. Case in point: Church’s chicken and a brewery favored by hipster parents are right next door to one another at our closest intersection. One early Sunday morning, my husband snuck out for a run in the nearby hills, but when he opened the car door, he realized there was an elderly man sleeping in the passenger seat. He’d accidentally left the car unlocked overnight. The man woke up and startled. As did my husband. “Hey man, this is my car,” he said sadly.

“Oh, yeah, sorry man, sorry,” the old man said as he got himself together and stood up to leave.

“Just don’t let it happen again, okay man,” my husband said.

That was another hard one to explain to our kids. Why should we have three warm beds and this guy was wrong for sleeping in our car? I stumbled around to explain. We own the car. We paid for it. We don’t know the man. And no, we don’t know anything of his story, which is probably complex, and riddled with structural violence that we’ve never had to contend with. But we have the lease on the Prius. We picked its “black cherry” hue. We take it in for maintenance.

Somehow we were sounding less and less deserving the more and more I tried to justify why the world is built so firmly on the foundation of private ownership. My girls starred up at me with big eyes and then went back to eating their waffles. Adults are so confused.

We are. Our president, first and foremost, but not just him. How much mental tap dancing do we, even the most progressive among us, do to justify the various walls we build in our neighborhoods, our schools, our hearts? In some ways, I appreciate the president’s juvenile way of going after his dream of separation. Not much obfuscation there. You get what you get with him, as deranged as it might be.

With us — the accumulating, anxious, self-proclaimed resistance — there’s so much self-delusion. There’s a false moral comfort in seeing his instincts as anathema to our own. We may have more empathy for immigrants than President Trump, but our daily actions don’t teach our children that each human being on this planet deserves dignity. We tell our kids to share but do little of it ourselves. Maybe, in addition to fighting his walls and his white supremacy, we should be doing more to welcome our own suffering neighbors. What might it have taught our daughters if, instead of scaring the guy off, we had asked him if he needed a bite before he went on his way? Or any other resource that we likely have an excess of?

In other words, where are the places where neglect and a lack of moral imagination exist in my life and in the life of my family? I’m trying not to just tell the story over and over again about how much I abhor this president’s politics, but also tell a new story about us.