Amid our ongoing national conversation over race (snippets here, and here and here and here), the denizens of my liberal Los Angeles neighborhood—who like to think of themselves as being Caucasian by accident while being upper-class by dessert—bubbled over with defensiveness when someone politely suggested our listserv was sometimes racist.
It started innocuously enough. Last month, one neighbor sent a typically banal email to the neighborhood forum, including a picture of some white children near an African-American homeless man and this message:
June 23, 2015 11:03 a.m.: These children had to pass by this homeless man camped out next to [identifying information deleted] tunnel today. He was rolling a joint in front of the kids and it is not right for the children to see this behavior. Bike patrol is needed since this area has become the new Venice Beach!!!
Someone else cordially responded a short time later with the accusation:
June 23, 2015 11:27 a.m.: “Homelessness doesn’t equal dangerous. There has [sic] been a lot of racist comments on this group. If I can please recommend everyone double and triple check what they want to send out before they press send. Many Thanks.”
This particular comment ignited a flurry of responses briskly chiming in to explain why everyone’s prior comments weren’t racist:
June 23, 2015 11:38 a.m.: ... I don’t consider it racist to be concerned about things like this. And, I do consider there has to be help for the homeless as well.
June 23, 2015 12:27 a.m.: Racist? I did not see ANY racist comments.... Homelessness issues can be best helped if everyone participates in the community meeting!
June 23, 2015 12:55 p.m.: Nonsense! As both the parent and aunt of black children (now adults), I’m very attuned to racist comments. I haven’t seen any racist comments at all on this list.
June 23, 2015 3:25 p.m.: I may have missed the racially charged comments, but this isn't a race issue, it's a safely issue, not to mention that it's illegal. The smell of pot is a given, and it's only a matter of time until someone steps on a syringe, or worse. There is no way this isn't a dangerous situation....
June 23, 2015 3:50 p.m.: I hope all of us are aware regarding racist issues. God knows we all need to be, but I don't see that here.
June 23, 2015 6:46 p.m.: Racism has NEVER BEEN AN ISSUE ... human decency IS!
In the photo attached to the original message, a heavy-set dark man is lying on the sandy walkway with his shirt rolled up, allowing his belly to spill out next to the contents of his backpack—a paperback, some CDs and a Discman, shoes, and travel-size shampoos. Absent from the photo was any trace of drugs, weapons, or anything else untoward. The man reclines comfortably but his gaze staring back at the woman taking his picture looks slightly befuddled. The blonde children are taking their shoes off about to run on the sand. Race is never directly mentioned. But everyone agreed: This black man’s presence in our neighborhood was a dangerous threat to our innocent children.
But were we racist?
Everyone who responded was white. I can’t be sure, but I don’t think there are any African Americans living in my neighborhood, although the area that is serviced by this listserv is very small (about a hundred houses). So in a white neighborhood, a bunch of white people went about assuring one another that they were most certainly not doing anything racist. There was not a single email in support of the white woman who had gently (“Many Thanks”!) reminded her neighbors to watch what they sent to the group. And that was that. We moved on to talking about how high our new speed-bumps should be. After all, how could we be racist? We love Obama! We know Dylann Roof is the Devil incarnate! We watched the Wire!
Racism won’t really get addressed in this country 'til people stop looking for racists under white sheets and start looking in their own mirrors.
In the context of all the emails my neighbors send to one another, this email was just another tiny example of how racism operates on a semi-latent level across the country. Xenophobia toward the “other” is always racist, it’s just not the kind of racism that my educated liberal neighbors would recognize as racism. To be fair, our neighborhood, like many others in L.A. in the last two years, has seen exponentially growing rates of homelessness and, fine, it’s maybe not pleasant to walk by a homeless encampment on your own block. That said, it’s possible to address a legitimate social ill without casual, creeping, or so-called accidental racism polluting the discussion. It is possible to vote for Obama and also be racist—which we are.
Although no neighbor individually intends to be racist, in the words of Ta-Nehisi Coates, in Between the World and Me: “The point of this language of ‘intention’ and ‘personal responsibility’ is broad exoneration.” That’s why, when they were circling their wagons and defending themselves against an accusation of racism, these neighbors were so quick to mention safety. It’s not his race—it’s that he could have a “syringe”! This isn’t about black people, it’s about our children! By turning the conversation into one about safety, my neighbors can contend that it’s not racist to beware the danger lurking on the other side of our front doors.
This is not the obvious racism of Jim Crow; it’s something much more subtle, harder to define, and therefore harder to root out. It’s the tacit racism of exoticizing black people, alleging that they are strange and different from us. This is the genteel way a white person gets to say both that African Americans only come to the neighborhood to do unlawful things and that “racism has NEVER BEEN AN ISSUE” here.
And yet, of course, if an African-American family moved into our neighborhood, the same neighbors would be exceedingly welcoming and delighted to have some diversity—but, any African-American family that can afford my neighborhood would by definition be rich and well-educated—in other words, familiar and safe. But you can adore the black neighbor who you wave to every morning as he gets in his Tesla and still be a racist if you get scared every time any other black man knocks on your door. If you’re only racist toward poor black people, you’re still racist.
On January 16th, another neighbor escalated the rhetoric:
January 16, 2015 9:15 a.m.: When you all see these people and they tell you what they are doing, why not tell them to get out of our neighborhood. I tell them that I am going to call the police and that it doesn't matter what they are selling or asking for donations for, they are not allowed to be in our neighborhood. Chased out a young woman the other day who said she was working for some church but could not produce anything to prove that. I really think we have to let them know that we are aware of them and that they are not allowed here! 99% of them will be scared and will leave because they know they should not be here.
“Not allowed to be in our neighborhood?” Nobody enjoys door-to-door solicitors, but sidewalks are free to be walked on by anyone. This is racist NIMBY-ism in an immutably Democratic neighborhood—a neighborhood composed of liberals who vote to help black people from afar while basically agreeing over email: Their kind is not allowed here.
For me, the most disturbing line was “they know they should not be here.” Not only do we know these African Americans shouldn’t be here, but if we tell them they shouldn’t be here, they won’t argue with us. Because inside, these black people know they don’t belong here. When I read that line all I could think about was the recent This American Life story that chronicles the fate of lower-income kids who finally make it to college. Once they get there, they’ve internalized so completely the idea that they don’t belong, they can’t fight it anymore and they give up and drop out. No wonder they feel like they don’t belong. We keep telling them they don’t. That cycle of racism is so neat it’s almost elegant.
On February 16th, one of the houses on my block was burgled, and the homeowner sent out an email to let us know what happened. She wrote, “It appears to be a white male” and promised to send out a picture from her security cameras soon. Two hours later she sent a single photograph of the suspect to the neighborhood. Fifteen minutes later, someone responded with “Is that a grainy image, or a short 'fro?”
African Americans have spent a long time patiently suggesting that racism is more complex and much less explicit than thinking to yourself, “I have no problem with black people.” To paraphrase President Obama’s recent remarks on Mark Maron’s WTF podcast, my neighbors would find the use of the N-word abhorrent, and you would never read anything in these emails even close to a racial epithet. But racism won’t really get addressed in this country 'til people stop looking for racists under white sheets and start looking in their own mirrors.
Even though I can see the racism in my neighborhood’s actions so clearly, even though I have tried to excise all racism from my own thoughts, I am doomed to fail.
We’re in a pivotal moment in this country, where we are starting to see the cost of concealed racist attitudes. We are finally understanding that the tangible cost of fearing black people means reading about another black corpse. When we read about Walter Scott, Michael Brown, and Tamir Rice, we need to see the direct link to our own attitudes and neighborhoods. Did Trayvon Martin’s neighborhood have a listserv? I wonder what those emails look like.
All of my white neighbors are likely horrified whenever they read about another police killing of a black man. Most of them would probably agree that we desperately need police reform. But stopping there isn’t good enough. Coates refers to this type of talk as “fine, and applicable, but [it] understates the task and allow[s] the citizens of this country to pretend that there is real distance between their own attitudes and those of the ones appointed to protect them. The truth is that the police reflect America in all of its will and fear.”
Coates avers that “the people who believe themselves to be white are obsessed with the politics of personal exoneration.” When a bunch of white people send emails explaining why they’re not racist, it means that every individual white neighbor can exculpate herself from living in an inherently racist system—or neighborhood. “There are no racists in America, or at least none that the people who need to be white know personally” Coates writes. Telling ourselves and our neighbors we’re not racist puts distance between our own private thoughts and the actions of the police, instead of forcing us to recognize that one is the logical conclusion of the other.
I wish an African-American voice could have pointed out the detrimental effects of saying on the listserv that certain black people look like gang members (as one neighbor wrote regarding an image from a security camera). But there aren’t any African-American people in my neighborhood to push back like that. Combatting racism in communities like mine, then, will require white people to recognize their own portion of bias. Whether you mean to send a racist email doesn’t matter because you’re still part of the larger racist message. We can’t keep letting everyone off the hook because of perceived good intentions.
As a white person, I can’t presume to know the burn of being African American in a country whose success was built on the systematic suppression and enslavement of one’s ancestors. I can know that Coates is right. I can accept that simply by being a beneficiary of white privilege, I am perpetuating a racist system. I can accept that I’m racist simply because we are all racist. I can know, when a bunch of white people email each other to re-assure themselves that they’re not racist even though they’re all scared when a black man walks down their street, that they are racist. Even if they all vote for affirmative action. Because for our society to work the way it does, we all have to be a little bit racist. Which means as much as I support reparations, I too am probably a little bit racist. It means that even though I can see the racism in my neighborhood’s actions so clearly, even though I have tried to excise all racism from my own thoughts, I am doomed to fail.
When an African-American girl knocked on my own door recently, I don’t think I answered the door in the same way as I did when a white teenage girl knocked. It doesn’t matter that I invited the African-American schoolgirl in for tea and bought $100 worth of the books she was selling. It doesn’t matter that I desperately didn’t want to be racist. When she knocked on the door, my assumptions were to wonder what she was doing here instead of assuming that she was sent over by her parents to borrow some organic cruelty-free butter the way I did when a white girl knocked. Is my neighborhood racist? Of course it is. But so is yours. And so are you.