The wall that separates black from white.
We live in the sixth sixth richest county in America—Arlington County, Virginia. And within that county, in one of the most affluent neighborhoods. Our neighborhood appears modest, but don’t let the 1940s brick colonials fool you. The fact that some streets are narrow and lack sidewalks, that the light posts are old and lean toward each other, and that the massive oak trees obscure some of our street signs belies the fact that our “quaint” little residential neighborhood requires upwards of $800,000 to buy a slice of the American Dream.
That little slice nestles up against Interstate 66, a mere 6.4 miles away from the White House. Many of my neighbors work for the agencies that require employees to pretend they work elsewhere. Others are doctors, lawyers, and white-collar federal government workers.
When we moved in 15 years ago, every family on our street had a stay-at-home mom.
We live two blocks away from a neighborhood park, one in which the sand in the sandbox gets replaced every few months, and where neighbors casually leave kids’ shoes and toys until the next day, confident the items will remain untouched. A paved trail weaves through nearby woods to a picnic pavilion. There is a bike trail that leads to DC and to the Blue Ridge mountains 50 miles away.
In my neighborhood, I don’t worry if I leave the door unlocked. Rather, I worry about actually finding the house keys because we so rarely lock the house.
Our son’s elementary school is one of the top-ranked schools in the country. Each second-grader gets an iPad. 88% of the kids are proficient in math; 91% in reading. A scant 5.43% of the kids qualify for reduced meals. That’s code for being black or brown and poor, as you know.
That’s just how things are.
A few weeks ago, I was browsing our neighborhood listserv. I scrolled past kid concert listings, civic association recaps, questions about rose bushes, bikes for sale, and nanny recommendations. Until I wasn’t.
Because I saw this:
The quiet request for help stood out in stark contrast to the casual, implicit affluence embedded in the surrounding posts.
And on that sunny day, as my neighbors mowed their lawns, and my son played in his treehouse, and my wife pored through our grocery shopping list, I wondered, who needs help in this neighborhood? I sent a private reply directly to the mother who posted, and simply told her that I was on my way to Costco and could pick up a few things for her.
I lied. I never go to Costco.
With our small family of three, it would take us months to go through the bulk bags of rice or 12-packs of pasta. We go to Whole Foods. We hand-pick organic Honey Crisp apples. We buy fresh-squeezed orange juice. Our Costco membership is to buy bulk wine and beer for parties.
The mom responded with a simple request.
“…bread cereal juice anything for dinner milk snacks…”
If you’re a parent, you know that the words “juice” and “snacks” go hand-in-hand with little kids. With a sinking feeling, I prodded a bit further and found out that there were two little boys, ages 2 and 5. So I prepared to go to Costco with a different list in mind.
I told my son about the family, and asked him if he wanted to use his allowance savings to help pay for the Costco groceries. He said yes. Off I went to load up an oversized grocery cart with bags and boxes and jars of food.
Don’t get me wrong. I know that food won’t go far. And even though I later promised the mom that I’d call her once a month for a Costco run, I know that those groceries won’t get at the real problem that she faces. Because it’s not just the mom’s problem. It’s mine, and it’s yours. And that’s what this story is really about.
So here’s what happened.
When I got home, I asked my wife to Google the mom’s address.
The first thing you should know about Arlington is that it is divided into North and South.
The dividing line is Route 50, a tree-lined 4-lane street that separates our “affluent” county. On the south side of the street, the houses are old, and look a bit rundown. But while on the other side the houses are just as old, they look every bit as manicured and well-kept as the myriad lawn service companies can manage. I bet you know why.
By way of example, Carlin Springs Elementary School is in South Arlington. The percentage of kids that qualify for reduced lunch is 81.8%. Remember that my son’s elementary school, on the north side of the county, has 5.43% kids eligible for this benefit. This, despite the fact that we live in a county that prides itself on so-called “affordable” housing. That features a county board comprised exclusively of progressive liberals. That voted overwhelmingly for Obama in the last election. Remember this fact for later.
So, given the nature of the request, and the way geography and demographics play out in our county, I figured that we were heading to South Arlington. I was really surprised when my wife said that we were headed less than a mile away. Here? I thought.
Off we went, the back of the Jeep overflowing with diapers, boxes of pasta, juice boxes, and frozen chicken nuggets.
We were headed to a nearby neighborhood called High View Park. On the way, we drove past our son’s best friend’s house. The parents are both neurologists, one of whom runs a lab at an Ivy League university. The au-pair is from Brazil.
The mom’s address is seven blocks away. We drive past the neighborhood hospital, turn a corner, and find the street we are looking for. It is long and hilly, and we are at the top of that hill.
As we look down the hill, we see rows of chain link fences punctuated by dilapidated, ramshackle single family homes.
The kind of houses that have the original clapboard siding from 60 years ago, splitting and sporting peeling paint. We see work vans and trucks lining the street. The sidewalks are cracked and lean to one side. The driveways have multiple cars parked in them, older models. The trees are scrawny and sparse. It is cloudy and rain threatens.
Black and brown faces gather in clusters, men in blue work pants and white tank tops lean in groups against the sagging chain link fences and crumbling brick walls.
I won’t tell you that we don’t have black families in our neighborhood, but it takes effort for me to remember which block the one black family I see lives in. My son doesn’t have any black kids in his class this year (though he has classmates from India, Hawaii, and China). We call that diversity to make ourselves feel good. I myself am from South America, but you wouldn’t know it from my accent or the hue of my skin.
“Mama, why does everything look so different?” my son asks as we survey the street from the hill. “I don’t know, honey. Let’s talk about it later, okay?” I respond.
We find the address. It is a small, three-story apartment building. The mom lives on the second floor. There is no elevator. We say hello, and begin the long process of carrying boxes and bags up the two flights of linoleum stairs. I glimpse a dark living room, a TV, and a couch as I deposit the food on the threshold. The five-year-old gamely offers to carry boxes. He and my son have a competition to see who can carry the heaviest item from the back of the Jeep. I am so busy unloading boxes that I lose track of my son.
Quickly, we form an assembly line from the street to the apartment, and soon our Jeep is empty of groceries. We say good-bye, the boys high-five, and we promise to stay in touch.
“Mama, why was there a refrigerator in the living room of that family’s house?” my son asks.
We are driving back up the hill that sits .9 miles away from our street. “And why did they only have that one room instead of like at our house?” he presses on.
From his question, I now realize that the dark room that I had glimpsed was the extent of the apartment. My son goes on to describe how there was, indeed, a refrigerator, and a big toy box, and a couch and a TV. For a moment I panic because he didn’t mention a stove and I worry that the family wouldn’t be able to cook some of the food.
“Did you see a stove, sweetie?” I ask. “Yes,” he cheerfully replies. “It looked just like ours!”
“But why do they only live in that room?” he asks again.
“Because it doesn’t cost as much money to rent one room as it does lots of rooms,” I say. “And that way you can use the extra money to buy more food.”
“And why was it so different?” he persists, as only a six-year-old can.
“Well, what else did you notice about the neighborhood?” I ask him. “What other things were different?”
“The houses weren’t as nice.”
“There were more cars.”
“The people had darker skin.”
“Okay,” I tell him. “I’m not sure why it was so different. I need to think about that,” I tell him.
And I do. Which is why I’m writing this story.
When we get home, another neighbor texts me. She, too, had seen the listserv post. And she, too, was heading out to get groceries for the family. I tell her what we got, and mention things that she could get so that we don’t overlap.
Milk. Cheese. Eggs. Butter. Fresh fruit. Vegetables.
She calls me when she’s on her way to meet the family. She tells me that she knows exactly where the street is, because she grew up in Arlington.
“Did you know that there used to be a wall there?” she says. “That’s where the black families lived. There was only one way to get in and out,” she adds.
I feel inexplicable anger welling up in my stomach as we make small talk. We hang up, and I go online to research the wall.
In the 30s and 40s, there was a seven foot-high wall separating adjoining black and white neighborhoods in North Arlington. The black neighborhood was called Hall’s Hill, where we had just been. News accounts refer to it as the “segregation wall.” Upon reading those accounts, I realized that the neighborhood is what white people like to call “in transition.” I find a blog where the author’s tongue-in-cheek account of the segregation wall is worth quoting here verbatim:
“I don’t remember seeing any helpful signs on the drinking fountains to let you know what color water you were dealing with. Mostly we did without that sort of thing, because we had all the colored people bunched up in Hall’s Hill all neat and tidy, and all we had to do then was zone things around it. So there was a colored school, and there were the Regular schools, and that was that. You were assigned based on your address alone, and it worked out just fine without anybody having to spell anything out. Sometimes there were slip-ups.”
The next day, I find my son. “Sweetie, remember how yesterday you asked me about that neighborhood?” I ask. “Well I looked it up, and I want to tell you about it.”
So I do.
In our house, I didn’t tell my son about race until he was five. In the same way that I don’t use political labels like Republican or Democrat, I refused to use the words, “black,” “white,” or even “Hispanic.” Even though I am from Bolivia. I am one of those so-called “European Hispanics” because I’m what people like to think of as white. And I went to college. And my dad went to an Ivy League school, etc., etc. I’m the excuse that people point to when they talk about this being the land of opportunity.
Except for me, that’s bullshit because we were rich before we came to this country. I didn’t need opportunity.
My son and I did talk about Martin Luther King, Cesar Chavez, Dolores Huerta. But I refused to talk about race, instead stubbornly talking about people treated poorly because their skin was a different color. I wouldn’t even say that it was darker. I did what I thought was the right thing. By not bringing racism to our home, I thought, my son won’t know it exists. And when he finds out about it later, he’ll find the idea so ludicrous, so foreign, that he’ll forever refuse to accept it as normal.
But as I find myself telling my son about the wall, and why blacks had to live there, I realize, as many of you already have, that my approach to educating my son about racism is flat out wrong. It is not what my son needs if he is to grow up and fight against injustice.
There is racism. There are black people. There are brown people. And today, as it was 80 years ago, they are oppressed because of the color of their skin. Except today, we have gotten more sophisticated about building our walls. They are not as obvious as the seven-foot-high variety. Today’s walls consist of phrases like “marginalized” and “working poor” and “socio-economic status” and “economic mobility.” And if you are brown or black, you will be held back by a system of oppression so large and so vast that those of us who live in it, benefit from it, and yet oppose it—manage nonetheless to feed it and make it stronger.
My son said it best when I told him about the wall, and about segregation.
“So now it’s an invisible wall,” my son says.
I nod when he says that. And we talk about all of the other invisible walls that exist. And I know that this is just the beginning of the conversation. But at least it’s real. At least it reflects the reality of the woman for whom we bought a carload of groceries. So when, a week later, I read a Facebook post titled, “To the White Parents of my Black Son’s Friends” on how white parents need to acknowledge that racism exists with their kids, instead of claiming that because it doesn’t exist in their family there’s nothing to discuss, I finally understand.
And I’m sorry that it took an invisible wall to make me realize it.
But don’t take my word for it. For example, Arlington’s schools are still segregated.
“Nearly half a century later, some would argue that Arlington’s public schools are still racially and socioeconomically unbalanced.”
Arlington County is lauded by progressives for the quality of its schools, urban planning, bikeable communities, and its commitment to affordable housing. That’s all well and good if you’re rich. And it’s tantalizing if you’re sort of middle income. If you are poor—including the working poor—it’s downright insulting. So let’s not kid ourselves. Racism is alive and well.
And if you don’t like how that sounds, I’m sure you, like me, can trot out complicated theories about the inevitability of the real estate market and even, as my friend and former colleague Alan recently wrote, the role of the federal government, ad nauseam. And it’s okay to do that. That’s the world of public policy.
But in my neighborhood, there still remains a wall that divides a black and a white neighborhood. And a woman that can’t always feed her kids.