Segregation Now. Segregation Forever?
(A poem with footnotes, or a template for a letter, or a script for an ill-advised conversation with someone I love, dearly.)
Dear (insert the name of dear white friend, family member, and/or lover):
According to a recent report(1), 85% of black students in New York City attend schools where less than 10% of their classmates are white. It’s not just the schools, our neighborhoods are also segregated, as are our economic outcomes(2). We — and by “we” I mean people of color and white people — live in separate worlds. I’ve been reading this report, and then I read this article(3) , and it’s got me wondering whose side you’re really on?
Besides commiserating, what are you actually doing about the situation? And by “the situation” I mean segregation(4), racism(5), economic injustice(6), the school to prison pipeline(7), police shootings(8), racial profiling(9), and environmental racism(10).
Living here with me, as you do, it’s kind of obvious that we live in a segregated city(11). We live separate lives. Except for us. We live our lives in this city, together. I meet you on the train. You meet me on the street. We live in this city, together. But, lately, I’ve begun to notice that little things matter, like the fact that you never seem to mention the situation (segregation, racism, economic injustice, the school to prison pipeline, police shootings, racial profiling, environmental racism), unless I bring it up first. Then, you’ll nod your head and sigh, or shake your head and sigh, or maybe nod your head and shake your head and sigh, deeply, before saying something innocuous, like ”Yeah. It’s just wrong. I dunno. I dunno.” I feel kinship with you then; soothed by your (nodding, shaking, sighing, innocuous) affirmation of my reality.
Sometimes, in response, you’ll blow a puff of air through your lips and shake your head and say something a bit more emphatic, like “Yeah, that’s messed up!” At those times, when you put some muscle into your voice, I think, yes, you really mean it. Yes, It feels like you really do mean it. I feel solidarity with you then; my riled up feelings confirmed by your similar expression of riled up feelings. We are allies in the struggle. You love me. I love you too.
You say: “Yeah. It’s messed up.” Then, I know you care. It feels like you care. It sounds like you care. But how much do you care, really?
Does it hurt?
Does it hurt you that 42% New York City’s renter households are “rent burdened”(12), and that gentrification(13) is coming to erase us anyway? Do you fret that a recent report finds that these inequities negatively impact the health of people of color in New York State(14)? Do tears of frustration threaten to fall when you think about the fact that, “despite improvements”, students of color still graduate at a lower rate(15), and only 38% of NYC students scored proficient in English Language Arts across grades 3–8 (16)? And what about the fact that people of color do more than their fair share of menial labor and still make less money(17) and this has been going on for about 400 years with no reparations, no justice, and no end in sight(18)? Are you stunned by the realization that most people of color on this planet live in poverty(19)? Does it affect you in the same way that it does me? Does it keep you up at night?
Because, I have to tell you, I get highly emotional (understated) when I consider the fact that, after decades of civil rights work, despite fierce opposition from former presidents who still draw breath(20), which ostensibly made Black people equal in the eyes of the law, segregation is still a fundamental reality in New York City public schools(21) and, frankly, in every aspect of our lives from where we live, to how we live, to how much money we make.
I think about it when I go to Whole Foods and notice that most of the cashiers are black and brown people. Do you ever notice that? Does it ever cross your mind? Do you ever wonder, “Gee, why are all the cashiers at Whole Foods Black?” Does the sight of a Jamaican nanny buying two blond children ice cream in Union Square on a sunny day make you smile, or do you wince, as I do, and turn away with thoughts of Aunt Jemima and the sound of Dixie running through your head? Does it send you running home to write a poem/letter/script like this? Does it leave a metallic aftertaste in your mouth? Can you swallow anymore of this? I can’t.
Sometimes, the thought of just how much mundane and dreary work is actually done by people of color in this city everyday stops me cold. From my observations, it seems clear that we are disproportionately represented as home care nurses, nannies, security guards, cashiers, waiters, dishwashers, janitors. Honestly, when you see a Jamaican nanny in the park buying ice cream for her employer’s children, do you wonder who is taking care of her kids? Is your first thought, if she’s here, then who is buying her kids ice cream, today?
CNN is on. I can’t think anymore. Sorry.
Sometimes, the thought of it all (segregation, racism, economic injustice, the school to prison pipeline, police shootings, racial profiling, environmental racism) is infuriating. I can’t type right anymore. Sorry. I’m upset.
CNN is on.
Does it upset you like that? When CNN comes on, do you sometimes lose the ability to think, or speak, or type straight? Does your mind go blank with rage when the vapid, well-coifed CNN anchor entertains incendiary comments from an equally well-coifed and well-paid political mercenary(22), before they go to a singing commercial? Do you suddenly feel like laying your burden down and just moving to another island where you don’t have to deal with this(23) anymore? Are you actively working for a real revolution in the way we live? Are you actually fighting for justice? Or is it just a job? Or, is the situation (segregation, racism, economic injustice, the school to prison pipeline, police shootings, racial profiling, environmental racism) just a terrible, awful, horrible thing that you care about, but can’t actually do much of anything about because, you know, history(24) and you’re only one person?
Martin Luther King Jr., a (possibly misguided?) martyr, whom we talk about mostly in February, said:
“Human progress is neither automatic nor inevitable… Every step toward the goal of justice requires sacrifice, suffering, and struggle; the tireless exertions and passionate concern of dedicated individuals.”
Change requires sacrifice.
Nothing will change unless we — and by “we” I mean you, and me, and all of us — are willing to sacrifice something for the goal of justice.
What are you prepared to sacrifice? What are you ready to give up in the struggle for justice?
I have been pondering that very question:
“What am I prepared to give up in the struggle for justice?”
Depending upon your answer, I might have to start with you.
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Links in this post:
(1) Kucsera, John, and Gary Orfield. “New York state’s extreme school segregation: Inequality, inaction and a damaged future.” (2014).
(2) http://inequality.org/racial-inequality/ Web. August 5, 2016
(3) Navarro, Mireya “Issue Complicates de Blasio’s Housing Push” April 14, 2016 New York Times Web. August 5, 2016
(4) Hightower, Clarence “Subsidized artists’ housing aggravates metro segregation” August 4, 2016 Minnesota Spokesman Recorder Web. August 5, 2016
(5) Holloway, Kali “10 ways white people are more racist than they realize” Wednesday, Mar 4, 2015 Salon Web. August 6, 2016
(6) DeSilver, Drew “5 facts about economic inequality” January 7, 2014 Pew Research Center Fact Tank News in the Numbers Web. August 6, 2016
(7) Alexander, Michelle. “New Jim Crow, The.” Ohio St. J. Crim. L. 9 (2011)
(8) Swaine, Laughland, Lartey, and McCarthy “The Counted: people killed by police in US” The Guardian Online Web. August 6, 2016
(9) LaFraniere,Sharon and Lehren, Andrew W. ”The Disproportionate Risks of Driving While Black” New York times October 24, 2015 Web. August 6, 2016
(10) Walshe, Sadhbh “Environmental racism: Bronx activists decry Fresh Direct’s impact on air quality” The Guardian March 9, 2015 Web. August 6, 2016
(11) Kay Hertz, Daniel “How segregated is New York City?” City Notes April 14, 2014 Web. August 6, 2016
(12) Jain, Rahul “Whose Burden Is It Anyway? Housing Affordability In New York City By Household Characteristics” Citizens Budget Commission Policy Brief December 2015 Web. August 6, 2016
(13) Calmes, Maggie “Wary of Gentrification, East Harlem Braces for Rapid Change” Gotham Gazette April 01, 2016 Web. August 6, 2016
(14) http://www.rpa.org/article/study-finds-gaps-in-health-outcomes-in-new-york-metropolitan-region Web August 5, 2016
(15) DePaoli, Hornig Fox, Ingram, Maushard, Bridgeland, and Balfanz “Building a Grad Nation Progress and Challenge in Ending the High School Dropout Epidemic” A Report By: Civic Enterprises Everyone Graduates Center at the School of Education at Johns Hopkins University May 2015 Web. August 6, 2016
(16) “State Education Department Releases Spring 2016 Grades 3–8 ELA and Math Assessment Results.” http://www.nysed.gov/news/2016/state-education-department-releases-spring-2016-grades-3-8-ela-and-math-assessment-results New York State Department of Education, July 29, 2016. Web. Web. August 5, 2016
(17) https://www.dol.gov/_sec/media/reports/blacklaborforce/ Web. August 5, 2016
(18) http://www.colorlines.com/articles/10-things-you-should-know-about-slavery-and-wont-learn-django Web. August 5, 2016
(19) Poverty & Equity Data The World Bank Web. August 6, 2016
(20) Holmes, Steven A.“The Nation; When the Subject Is Civil Rights, There Are Two George Bushes” New York Times Week in Review June 9, 1991 Web. August 6, 2016
(21) Hannah-Jones, Nikole “Choosing a School for My Daughter in a Segregated City” New York Times June 9, 2016 Web. August 6, 2016
(22) Stevenson, Peter “Corey Lewandowski’s horrible, no good, very bad week on CNN” The Washington Post July 1, 2016 Web. August 6, 2016
(23) McAdams, Dan P. “The Mind of Donald Trump” The Atlantic June 2016 Web. August 6, 2016
(24) “Race the Power of an Illusion” PBS Web Series 2003 Web. August 6, 2016