Latent Warrior

I can’t predict my tragedies
I can’t defend proclivities
I may be able to say what is
That which I may never give
Over to those who wish to seize
The broken and battered memories
Of times remembered forgivingly
And dreams abandoned hastily
I don’t suppose it all is fate
But neither do I presume it ain’t
My whiteness lives outside of me
While I forever fail to see
Visions of those looking back at me
They fed my ego and took my most
Not for me said I and gazed
On such a life so filled and glazed
So much obscured the many signs
The world was tilted to me and mine
Now I wonder will I wage
The wars for justice I don’t engage

The Problem with the ‘Good Schools’

High School ClassroomWe live where we live for a lot of reasons. We feel its a good place to grow up for our kids. A big reason for this, the biggest reason we are here, is the schools. We moved here for the schools. It’s a common refrain.We’re starting to meet the other parents of kids who will be in Charlie’s kindergarten class and so many of them mention the schools as a part of why they are here. There was a state wide ranking that came out around the time we moved here declaring our school the top rated public school in the state.

We can’t afford private schools and neither my wife nor I are interested in them. We were public school kids and we wanted the same for our kids. We wanted them to have a real connection to the place they grew up. Besides public schools fit better with our politics as well. But I can’t help being a little uncomfortable with the idea of ‘moving here for the schools.’ I can’t help but think there’s some coded message in the phrase, some coded history that reflects how we’ve gotten here.

My town is 85% white, 10% Asian and just over 1% African American. These numbers are from the 2010 census. We have a train station that allows one to easily access commuter lines to NYC. Broadly speaking New Jersey is a diverse populace, particularly as you approach the city. So why this largely homogenous population? I have some ideas.

The great migration of African American’s from the south to cities of the northeast and Midwest made northerners confront the realities of a diversifying population. We white folks didn’t really handle it all that well. What many of my contemporaries now see as an organic, self segregating impulse that has left many communities largely homogenous was in fact anything but organic in how it came to be.

Many of you will surely recognize at least some of what I’m saying. Perhaps your history makes you aware of the great migration. Perhaps your history makes you aware that diversity can be more an economic issue than a racial one. Perhaps you can see that the community you live in, the one you moved to, perhaps for the ‘good schools’, is largely homogenous but feel that this being a free country that the whiteness of your town is coincidence more than design. If you think this last thing you might be right. Surely there are some communities that this is true of and those communities have other issues. Also, they are unicorns. Generally speaking the communities we live in are homogenous by intent if not design.

When African American families moved to the north they met opportunity to be sure. They met successes that would have been unthinkable in some areas of the rural south they left. They met new challenges and new problems as well. One of those being that despite the north being on the side of the angels in the war, it didn’t mean their was any less racial animus here. It didn’t mean that there was a smoother integration. In fact, it turned out, so much of the racial tolerance many expected was completely absent and there was new, sophisticated ways in which they were experiencing racism. Subtle ways that kept them struggling no matter how hard they tried. Wage deflation, employment discrimination, poor funding of schools, legal bias and housing discrimination.

Housing discrimination was rampant. If you were a young black professional with a family you were shown the ‘black’ parts of town. You were refused tenancy in ‘white’ areas, at least the desirable ones. The ones where you were barred from as your presence would ‘bring down property values’. Steering people to one place based on a perceived undesirability, having brown skin in this case, was how we ghettoized the African American’s who moved north for a better life. So the young, black child of that young black doctor couldn’t go to the schools where the young white kids of the young white doctor went, where they had other young professionals and tax bases were strong and schools well funded. The ceiling of achievement was thus lowered to meet their blackness. Furthermore those young, bright, possibly world changing young kids segregated into ‘black’ areas were losing the value of home ownership that was growing for their white counterparts since there was the burgeoning reality that the areas where African Americans lived were losing value as they could only sell to ‘blacks’, who were increasingly poorly educated by underfunded schools.

For a generation or two black businesses working with largely black clientele may have thrived, but the communities were crumbling under increasing financial pressures being put upon them to relocate as their neighboring ‘white’ neighborhoods, growing richer from generation to generation needed to co-opt more property to keep the growth going. Gentrification is a beautiful and euphonious word considering how destructive a force it has been in so many communities of color over the years.

White folks in white neighborhoods started to see themselves as more capable, more worthy and ultimately more valuable. Over time the system reinforced these views and before long what was simple racism could now be seen as inherent superiority. I’m a white guy, but I have to imagine that the grinding gears set in motion to devalue our brown skinned brothers and sisters was internalized by generations of young children seeing the world they lived in as one that punished them for being ‘black.’ You may not see self esteem and self worth as a socioeconomic issue, but that’s probably because you are afforded more opportunity to define your own worth. That’s what I’m afforded.

As historically African American areas were slowly or swiftly overrun by the ever more prosperous white community the neighborhood that was once there would have to move. While there was good money to be made selling ones property to the gentrifying crowd, it wasn’t enough to keep up with the skyrocketing costs of living in the area. So they moved just outside the area, to the ghetto down the street, where they could afford to relocate and stay employed. It wasn’t always a great idea to look to move away as there might not be a lot of options there for employment, but what there was they had and there was no doubt value, however little, in the undervalued work had vs. the undervalued work elsewhere that was likely already had.

Eventually the ‘white’ folks could move out of the city. They could find a nice place to live, a place where the kids can play outside in big back yards. Where there is purposely not a lot of business or opportunity. Where you’d make it expensive enough to keep out the riff-raff. Where you could be happy that your kids would get a good education due to the high tax base. Where you could charge whatever you want as young professionals, like everyone, wants to give their kids the best chance to succeed.

There’s nothing wrong in my decision to live here. Nothing wrong for wanting to move here for the schools. But there’s something terribly wrong in thinking that the world doesn’t favor me at the expense of others. There’s something wrong in thinking there was not a ton of external factors that have brought us to this place. Something awful in thinking others aren’t here simply because they don’t want to be.

I moved here because I could. For the schools.

How I Understand Privilege

‘I wish I was black.’ 

I was probably 12 years old or so when I said this and I was 100% sincere. In that moment, looking out the window as the rural landscape of western New York flew past, barely undulating and never ending I couldn’t have been more sincere. 

My life was basketball and I was a Piston’s fan, Isaiah Thomas was my all time favorite player. Michael Jackson’s ‘Off the Wall’ was my first record. And I mean vinyl. Might have been my last as well. Tapes were on their way. All the guys I watched on the playgrounds and at the college, whose games I emulated and whose styles I mimicked were all black guys. I was into early rap through my older brothers. We had cardboard taped to the floor in the basement and we spent hours a day working on all the moves we could remember from ‘Breakin’. I’m not sure I could ever windmill but I could do everything else. I was a badass little pop and locker. I remember someone getting a hold of a tape of Eddie Murphy’s ‘Delirious’ and hearing it and thinking I’d just heard the coolest and damn near funniest thing ever. ‘Gooney goo goo’ had me rolling, and for the life of me now I can’t remember what the joke was to that punchline. Whatever, his stories were so clearly real and it felt like a sneak peak into a life that I was fascinated by. A life I could only imagine. A life I couldn’t stop imagining. 

The appeal was made only stronger by the sense that they were fighting a battle I couldn’t really fight. My team, the one I was on not by choice, was the opposition. The ‘man’ and I didn’t want to be ‘the man.’ I wanted to be cool. Black people, to me at 12, were cool. I can’t remember which comedian I heard more recently who said, and I’m most certainly paraphrasing here, ‘God knew that black people would have to endure countless and endless suffering and to make up for it he gave us a lifetime supply of ‘cool.’ It’s kind of a joke and kind of a sad statement of the reality of what a lot of people have to face and how a certain number choose to counter the reality that won’t seem to change for the better without changing doubly for the worse at times. But at 12, for me, it wasn’t so nuanced. 

Beyond that I had a couple of role models in the house, older brothers who were the guys I looked up to most. I had two other brothers, actual brothers of mine, born of the same parents and all, and I looked up to them like crazy, but for some reason, perhaps my aforementioned affinities, I was drawn to my brothers who were ‘brothers.’ 

Eventually after processing what I’d said my father replied to my non sequitir calmly and wisely.

‘You probably shouldn’t tell anyone that. It’s okay for you to feel that, for now, but you should probably keep that to yourself.’ 

‘Why?’ I asked. 

To my mind it could only be taken as an honor, right? I mean I was saying I envied blackness. How could that be wrong? 

A thousand ways. Trust me, it didn’t take long for me to see that after enunciating my most sincere wish. 

‘Well…’ My dad thought. How do you tell your 12 year old that they are being so ignorant of life’s realities in a moment when they are trying, sincerely, to understand people different from them. 

‘I don’t think you are thinking about this, but it could come off to some people like you are not really appreciating all that you have been given. Might seem a little unaware of all that black people have had to go through.’ My dad said.

My dad’s not a ‘race’ guy. The issues confronting his own ‘kids’ would be dealt with when they would come up, but it was largely not a thing he thought about. He’s often surprised by how much I will think about race and the unfairness I’ve seen as I’ve grown up and watched. I’ll remind him, it would be hard for him to have my perspective, he didn’t really grow up in an environment like the one I did. He didn’t grow up in an integrated home within a largely homogenously white community. He didn’t see all the dads who’d go out of there way to drop the ‘n-word’ in front of me, just to, I don’t know, check if I was cool with it? Remind me that they thought my brothers less for it? Just to shock me? Maybe they were like that all the time, I don’t know, but from my house growing up it was the single most hateful sounding word ever. When I was a kid it was just barely starting to be reappropreated by black culture and these grown men weren’t aware of that. It was the ugliest of usages of the ugliest word. 

That day my dad stopped me cold. For him he was just responding to a sensitive issue, trying to steer me clear of saying something so wrong, but what he did was get me thinking. I knew instantly what he meant and it started me on a train of thought that has been a thread through my life. It didn’t change my heart in that moment, but it changed my head. Eventually my heart caught up and I came to understand how truly wrong my wish was. 

I’m still learning to understand my great good fortune. I’m so thankful I said that to my dad. So thankful that he answered the way he did. Through the years and phases of my life I’ve seen how it’s made me see things, things that are now so obvious to me that are so hidden from so many white men. About how much is taken for granted. 

When I was in high school and we were all sitting in suburban living rooms drinking forties of O.E. with our shoes off and watching Boys in the Hood and playing out fantasies that were others nightmares I knew the privilege. When we aped the style and patois of emerging disaffected young men who society rejected before they even arrived we were drowning in entitlement and dismissing and glorifying that which was exotic to us young men who would never have to face it. I recognized it, many of us did, for what it was not long after. 

When I was in college and heard truly vile hate speech being bandied about by the future executives of the world I was disgusted. The truth was there weren’t too many of them that did it, it was the tolerating of it all and the occasional sick deep indulgence of it all. I remember my mother, sitting at our kitchen table on a summer evening when I was home from school after my sophomore year telling me to love the people I loved for their good qualities and stick around to try to influence them positively when it came to the ugly parts. I don’t know. I didn’t really do that all that well there. Made some friends but I still have a lot of bitterness too. 

What I know is that ‘wishing I was black’ while sincere, was a privilege. It was a child’s understanding and I hope it came from a place of empathy and a desire to connect with and understand other people and their experiences. But it was definitely a privilege. The reality is that if a 12 or 15 or 28 or 45 year old black person were to ‘wish they were white’ it likely wouldn’t be from the same place of privilege as my wish came from. It likely woudn’t be naive. In fact I suspect it would come from a place of far deeper understanding than I may ever know. 

What It Means To Be White

My son’s are 2 and 3 at the moment. Neither of them are aware of Ferguson the Eric Garner case the horrible incidences of police violence against and apparent murder of African Americans the event that has taken the lives of 9 American’s in a church praying, and for now that’s fine. I’m in a position to never have to discuss race with my kids. Both I and them are white middle class male’s in America. If we ever hope to end the constant cycle of tragedies, both of the acute variety and of the overarching sort that allows entire lives with potential that could solve many of the worlds problems to play out in despair, white dads who hope to change this have to begin to speak to our white kids, especially sons, about the truth of our lives. At present it certainly feels like the world we inhabit will offer endless opportunities to us for discussing the unusual brutality and the common inequality that we choose to explain away rather than to resolve.

Life is hard. Even for white guys with jobs. And my kids will surely be angry at times about how much they don’t have. This may blind them to what they do have. When I see this I intend to address it directly and to discuss with them the following realities as far as I see them.

  • Be aware that you have lived life free of being assessed negatively on sight. This is a distinct and ever present advantage you have over your counterparts of other demographic distinctions. This is the result of constant systemic disadvantages that have nothing to do with them. But over time, to have the world look at you like this, in every situation and at all times can be crushing and formative at the same time. Greet anger with empathy whenever you can.
  • Be conscious of the fact that your successes are not solely yours. They are the result of a thousand factors, mostly beyond your control and benefiting you in ways that may have cost someone of a different background access to the opportunities that you may think you accomplished free of bias. You are white, male, American and as a bonus, you’re in all likelihood, tall. All of these factors have helped you. A lot. And unfairly.
  • If the world changes for the better it may be uncomfortable for you. Don’t whine about that. You’re still likely to have systemic advantages, just, hopefully, not as many.
  • Be intentional about inclusiveness. Some might suggest that a meritocracy is the only fair option. In my opinion they are invested in the status quo in which they, and you, are afforded distinct advantages not easily seen by you, but evident to the many people not similarly fortunate.
  • Our country’s original sin of slavery created a false economic reality based on dehumanizing people, crumbling their self-worth and codifying their inequality. To this day you have housing laws, drug laws, educational funding laws and even voting laws that SEEK to continue to segregate people from the opportunities that have been protected for us. We have a long way to go to truly level the playing field. Like I said above, if things are harder for you, they should be. You have a massive Karmic debt to pay, one not of your specific making, but you are the rightful inheritor. And not just to black men or men of other backgrounds, but also to ALL women. I’m paying a piece of it now, but mostly I’m still benefiting from a world that favors me. To wit..
  • The world tilts toward you. Be proud of what successes your life brings. Hard work is still hard work and what you have earned you should respect. Try to create opportunities that will empower. Distribute those opportunities to people that aren’t reflections of yourself. As you would find in any distribution, some people will disappoint and some will surprise, but either way, its just right to try to repay some of the favor the world shows you.
  • Don’t be afraid of people who appear ‘different’ from you. Try instead to be curious. You’re likely to find they are just like you in what they want from life. They want security and friendship and to laugh and to provide and to feel good about themselves. But sometimes life is so insistent that these are not attainable (a problem you won’t have to deal with in any real way) that we can see only people’s defenses and armor and forget that they are whole beings needing of what it is we all need. Life reinforces for them in a way you can’t fully understand, that they are suspect, feared and not to be trusted or loved. This can have tragic consequences. Much more often the outcome is remarkable and beautiful and truly inspiring evidence of the human spirits ability to endure and prosper. All too often the world ignores these outcomes to fit a narrative that reinforces fear of differences, no matter how small. Don’t buy it.
  • Be part of the solution. I don’t know what that means yet. I hope my life will be assessed in such a way that you will be proud of the person I am. I KNOW I’m still the beneficiary of discriminatory policy. But keep looking, keep trying and never forget to be thankful for all that life has afforded you.

The debate in the media aside, for whatever tragedy of the moment we are dissecting when i get to these conversations, I hope I’m able to keep my head unburied and hope they find themselves in a world changing to meet our highest ideals. I know I’ll discuss them forthrightly and encourage them not to be too self-pitying when life is hard or unfair. Truth is however unfair it is to me or them, and we all will face cruel misfortune from time to time, the odds make it likely that they will have it good.