Wednesday, May 6, 2015

Taking the fingers out of my ears

Photo courtesy of John Brucato/Flickr

A year or two ago my mom and I took the girls to the National Aquarium in Baltimore for the day. As I'm apt to do when driving in cities, I got turned around when leaving the parking garage and ended up missing my exit for the interstate and driving through an unfamiliar neighborhood.

"This doesn't look like an area I'd want to spend too much time in," Mom said from the passenger seat, her democratic way of suggesting we'd ended up in a bad part of town and maybe we should turn around. 

Like, immediately.

To my eyes (raised in the lush green fairytale of the Washington, D.C. suburbs) the area looked bleak. Asphalt, meets concrete, meets stark public housing. And all in the oppressive stone shadow of the monolithic Baltimore Detention Center. 

No, it wasn't a place I'd want to spend a whole lot of time in either. And I didn't have to. A few minutes later I found the freeway entrance and we raced back home to York. 

When you are born looking like I do – like my children do – and raised where we have been with all it's comfort, conveniences and opportunities, that time you went to the projects ends up being a minor footnote to a pleasant day spent looking at fish rather than the defining backdrop of your entire life.

I write this and immediately feel ugly, elitist and judgmental. 

I'd roll my eyes at me, too, as I rolled up my car windows.

I mean, of course the projects aren't synonymous with Disney Land. Everyone knows that, right? But to the people who live there, that's home. 

Even I get defensive when people ask me why I'd want to live in York. This rusty old industrial city in the armpit of Pennsylvania. But it's home. And it grows on you. And you take pride in your home. No matter how much it smells like rotten sauerkraut on the dank days the winds blow in from the paper mill in Spring Grove. No matter how strange it is that people like to spend a week in June sitting along  the highway on lawn chairs watching cars drive by. 

It might not be pretty or perfect. It has plenty of problems. But it's my home. My community. I can complain about it all I want, but as soon as an outsider starts commenting on its warts they'll get an earful.

I imagine it's like that for the residents of Baltimore – even for the residents of the most neglected areas of Baltimore. Tired of those Inner Harbor-goers judging their city.


I've started (and stopped) writing about race in America a dozen times in the past year. I didn't want to write anything because I didn't want to write anything controversial. Didn't want to write anything trite. Didn't want to write anything that was ignorant. Didn't want to write anything offensive. Didn't want to oversimplify or underestimate. I didn't want to be yet another well-meaning white person patting myself on the back for trying to understand centuries of subtle and not-so-subtle segregation and racism. 

This isn't my fight. But it keeps tapping me on the shoulder. 

This quote from Desmond Tutu showed up on my Facebook feed the other day:

"If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor. If an elephant has its foot on the tail of a mouse and you say that you are neutral, the mouse will not appreciate your neutrality."

I am not neutral.  

"I want to read what a white, middle class, suburban housewife has to say about racial discord in American cities," said no one ever. I will spare you of any long-winded and potentially misguided musings of my own. 

Instead, I'll point you to compelling stories, books and articles I've come across in the past year that have given me some clarity and a deeper understanding of why black Americans feel the need to remind the rest of us that black lives matter.  

And why they are so frustrated and furious.

They've of forced me out of indifference. Made me take take out the fingers I'd put in my ears to mute other people's problems. 

Here's the roundup:

"The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness" by Michelle Alexander: Alexander is a legal scholar who argues that the racial caste system we thought was dissolved by the Civil Rights Act of the 1960s, has been replaced by the systemic mass incarceration of African American men via the War on Drugs. The book is well-researched, well-argued, sobering and a must-read for anyone who wants to straddle the line. It's not a question of if our criminal justice system is broken. The question is how can we fix it. And I won't lie, it's a depressing read. When I finished it, my faith in the goodness of people and government was rather low; not to mention my optimism that things could change. But I suppose the first step to change is acknowledging that change needs to be made. York Attorney Dawn Cutaia, who frequently writes about issues of race, offered a good overview of the book here. While you're at it, check out Dawn's latest column about Baltimore here.

This American Life regularly offers fresh perspectives on all walks of life in our country. The two-part show they did about Chicago's Harper High School, which has been plagued by gun violence, left me crying in the gym. House Rules shares stories behind the fair housing laws and Is This Working? looks at how schools deal with discipling students. Maybe these topics seem disconnected, but listen to them and you'll find a common thread.

The Nov. 12, 2014 issue of Sports Illustrated featured of photo spread of the annual Angola Prison Rodeo, in which (mostly) black inmates ride the bulls for the entertainment of a (mostly) white audience. I was reading "The New Jim Crow" at the time, which made it all the more upsetting.

This article from Salon on charter schools which highlights fraud, financial mismanagement and failure in the charter schools that are replacing struggling public schools in U.S. cities. 

"The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks" by Rebecca Skloot tells the story about how the  a poor, black tobacco farmer's cells (taken without her knowledge) came to be one of the most important tools of modern medicine used for developing the polio vaccine, cloning and gene mapping. Despite her contributions to medicine, neither Henrietta nor her family (who can't afford health care themselves) were ever compensated – even though her cells have been bought and sold by the billions. Henrietta lived in Baltimore and was treated at Hopkins. It's a good peek at the city then and now.  (You can listen to a short version of this story on RadioLab)

"The Known World" by Edward P. Jones is a novel about a black farmer living in antebellum Virginia, whose mentor – a wealthy, white plantation owner – eventually inspires him to own slaves of his own. The story is complex and haunting and the writing is gorgeous. 

And these essays:

From Jezebel: I don't know what to do with good white people

From SalonDear white Facebook friends: I need you to respect what Black America is feeling right now

From the York Daily Record: Baltimore Rioting – The Language of the Unheard:  "The lesson here is that the unheard resort to violence because it is the language that the powers-that-be seem to understand. Look at it from their perspective: They are ignored. The plight of their neighborhoods, their schools, their institutions are ignored. Until they take to the streets and destroy their neighborhood. Then, people who can make a difference at least pretend to listen. The riots in Baltimore had little, if anything to do with the death of Freddie Gray in police custody. They had more to do with hopelessness."

York attorney Dawn Cutaia has written several interesting oped pieces for the York Daily Record in the past year or so. Check some of them out here.

Note, I'm not suggesting that any one of these pieces tells the entire story of this issue. Obviously, there are many, many voices and many, many perspectives and plenty of other pieces that examine race in America – such an enormous and immensely complicated topic. Like I said, these are just a few of the things I've come across recently that have stuck with me.


P.S. Here are some additional things to check out courtesy of friends on Facebook: 

From Nickie: I agree with many of the reading recommendations, especially the Harper High series. I will add two reading suggestions on this topic. Sarah Smarsh's article on dental care: And this is a MUST-READ book on education and upward mobility:

From Mrs. Gray was thinking today, that as a society we do a great job of the hear no bad news, see no bad news, speak no bad news. We roll along on our conveyor belt of seeming prosperity with our blindfolds on. And when our underfunded public institutions, like schools and police forces don't work magic, we focus our concern there, rather than on the underlying chasm of inequality. ... And may I add to the List the TAL Episode Three Miles

From ChrisI wish more outlets could take NPR's lead and do the kind of sustained reporting they have been putting together on these topics in recent years. ... Curious if you've read/considered last summer's piece by Ta-Nehisi Coates and how it might fit into this conversation/education ...

More from NickieI second Christopher! Ta-Nehisi Coates is required reading. Last year's Propublica series on school segregation is terrific, too.

From PatI'm assuming I missed a mention of THe Corner. If not, it's a brilliant read.
Also, MLK's "Why We Can't Wait"
And Buzz Bissinger's "A Prayer For The City" are worthwhile reads on several levels.

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