Sunday, July 17, 2011

American Apartied


I visited Diehle's, the sketchy convenience store, for the first time tonight. My upstanding neighbors usually walk the extra four blocks to the cleaner, more legitimate Quick Stop Market, where they don't get propositioned out front and it looks like people actually buy the merchandise on the shelves. But craving a cigarette, and feeling a little tipsy and reckless, I walked the 2 blocks which I otherwise never stroll. The regular suspects were hanging out on the corner, in varying stages of fucked up-ness. The guy at the counter at first told me they didn't have my cigarettes, which was obviously untrue. Being drunk, I asked for them again, pointing only with my chin, "No, I see them, Marlboro Light 100s, right there." Price: $3.50. Matches: unavailable. He asked me for ID, and smiled a little when he examined it. Was he surprised by my address? My age? Just the fact that I'd come in and completed this mundane transaction? The place was dingy inside, the ceiling low, the candy dusty and overpriced. I was glad to leave, but not sorry I went in.

The Fugees reinterpretation of "No Woman, No Cry", my least favorite Bob Marley song, made me think tonight. How hypocritical am I, to deride the culture of the neighborhood in practice, when I celebrate it in songs, culture, and concept? Watching a Missy Elliott video on TV, I thought, you know, she is beautiful. Hip hop is beautiful. America, and intrinsically, the contributions of people of African descent, the contributions which are so often overlooked in the history books, is beautiful.

I wonder if the neighborhood is some kind of Zen test. When you accept your other, they will cease to be your other. I am reminded of the book "Black Ice"; the inner city black kids integrating St. Paul's Academy struggled with segregation from the opposite side, and eventually assimilated into the upper class, white mainstream. It worries me that we live in such a segregated culture, with so few situations that force us outside of our separate areas. Race seems to divide us so much. Here and there, I get a glimpse of a different world from the person who addresses me forthrightly, who talks to the "me" beyond the white girl surface. And again, in more troubling way, from the guy down the street who hisses at me in some hostile courtship ritual that all women in the neighborhood are subjected to. It is a small comfort there that race has been transcended. In his eyes, we are all lowly women: it doesn't matter if we are black, brown, white, or some combination thereof.

What is race, anyway, but an accident of pigmentation? What is ethnicity, but an accident of birth? A friend of mine was trying to explain the benefits of living on the Eastside last week to a mutual friend, and she fumbled a little upon articulation. Why is it inherently better to live next door to a black person than a white one? We are all people, aren't we, why must we be defined by the pattern of our DNA that makes one lighter or darker than another?

But if your goal is to break down the barriers of racial segregation, maybe it is important to live with people of different races. Certainly it is hypocritical to decry segregation, but seek housing in a neighborhood with few or no black people. I am reading a book about the history of residential racial segregation in the US, and the premise of the book is that residential racial segregation is at the root of all other problems of the ghetto - poor schools, environmental hazards, concentrated poverty and the resulting crime, substance abuse and family structure problems. Studies cited in the book demonstrate that African Americans overwhelmingly prefer to live in neighborhoods that are 20-50% African American. Whites, however, prefer a 10% or less African American presence, and when a neighborhood integrates past 20% black residents, whites actively try to leave. How will residential segregation ever be overcome, if white people avoid neighborhoods with more than 10% black people, but blacks fear living in neighborhoods that are 90% white?

Not that every integrated neighborhood should be like mine. Actually, there is a strong possibility that the current level of integration in my neighborhood is fleeting, and that the neighborhood revitalization and accompanying integration slowly creeping East is actually neighborhood replacement. It is hard for me to imagine a stable, racially and economically integrated neighborhood. I have never lived in one, for certain. Somewhere between Diehle's and St Paul's Academy, there has to be such a place.

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