23 September 2020

A letter to my wife, on Race, my childhood, and picking a neighborhood (Part 2 of a series on race based on emails to my family)

 … it is definitely a hard time, for the family, and for the world. It's a long freggin deployment, and it's single parenting at a very needy and energetic age, and it's Corona virus, and it's a world gone insane to the point of killing people in the name of not killing people. It's depressing and horrifying. How it looks to me is at least as bad, at least as depressing, I believe much more so, than how it looks to you. The difference isn't in the feeling, or the strength of that feeling.

There's so much I want to say to you, to try to explain to you, but every time I even think about starting, about where to start, it makes my head hurt and makes me feel like I might cry. I don't know how much of the feeling is from being tired, and how much being tired is because of the feeling.

I believed I had explained this before, but the things you are saying, the relation to raising our kids, calling my arguments "academic", makes me realize either I haven't, or I did a very bad job of it.

What you describe, in terms of not being able to sleep, that's why I spend all of my free time, sleep time if I have to, (occasionally missing work), reading and writing.

I have to.

The last time one of these world events with personal significance happened, I tried to ignore it, I tried to tell myself ‘nothing I say will change anything, I’ve already said everything, just let it go’, and I couldn't let it go.

For days I slept bad, worse and worse, it was all I thought about all day, while I worked, at night in bed, until at last I gave in, and I took the time to look up facts and figures and write down my thoughts. It's happened multiple times. I know better now. Either I put everything else in life aside and do my research and write my conclusions, or the feeling that keeps me up at night won't go away, I’ll be preoccupied with it all day every day forever.  So now for the past 3 days I’ve spent just about every free moment on reading and writing, including this.

Being a black male who grew up in a poor, high crime neighborhood, the topic is personal for me in a way you, your parents, my mother and Lois, not to mention black people who didn't grow up in Richmond or Oakland in the 80s and 90s can not and will not ever really understand.
While I don't expect you to be able to actually fully understand, I am having trouble understanding how you don't even remember or acknowledge that I have lived through the significance of the stuff I say, that it was a constant throughout my childhood, that it was things that happened to me, that I saw, that were traumatic. It is the rest of you for whom all this is theory, it is principle, it is an understanding gained from things you heard from other people. I don't fault you for that, but I do fault you for claiming, still, that my interest is "academic", or “debate”.

I'll try to explain myself better

Elementary school race wasn't really an issue. We had the usual black history month lessons, learned about slavery and the Civil War and the Civil rights movement and Dr. King of course. My parents taught us a little about American history, though not too too in depth yet, at that age.
I had black classmates and friends and neighbors and I was aware that it was a fact that different people look different, but that's really about as far as it went. In elementary school people really didn't form into clicks, the playground was integrated.

Then I went to junior high school.
It was a shock, one I wasn't prepared for. Not only did kids start grouping themselves, but there already started to be obvious differences in culture - those differences that some liberal white people like to pretend aren't there, and other whites focus on exclusively, (forming the two polar groups of thought on Black people…)
In elementary school on a very rare occasion a fight might break out on the playground. In middle school it was every week, often several a week. Almost always at least one of the kids was black, and at least half the time both were, and they all acted like this was normal, like it was expected, and like there wasn't anything wrong with it.
They were the ones who would make noise in class, then be disrespectful to teachers when the teachers called them out. (and inevitably call it racism when they get in trouble). They were the group that would make fun of you for not wearing the right brand of shoe, or for being too smart.
It wasn't everyone, there was my friend who was in chess club, there was C**** T****** who was ½ black, there was the D********'s (though I never actually met them then), there were enough exceptions to avoid generalizing. But they were - WE were just that; exceptions- so it was a challenge, a constant conscious challenge. After school it was the black kids you mostly had to worry about. Venturing into the iron triangle it was definitely the black kids you had to be on guard about. Almost all of the drug dealers  and users, gang members and car jackers and people who would jump you on the street, rob you, break into your house, not 100%, but disproportionately black, by a wide margin.  It was like living in The Wire, (except no police were investing so much time and effort and money into stopping it.)

This was my daily experience, for years, even as at school, at home, on tv, at demonstrations, I was told over and over that there was no difference between people, that only racists thought there was, that the police and justice system were filled with racists and this was the only reason for the disparities in arrest and incarceration.

I would be in these other places, around my mom's LGBT people, or just places away from Richmond, out in the world, and outside the ghetto everyone was so civilized, everyone was peaceful, you didn't have to prove yourself constantly, you didn't have to be afraid. And in those spaces good people didn't acknowledge black crime existed; all disparities were caused purely by racism.
And then I had to go to school the next day, and navigate the real world.
It was black men who would be disrespectful to women on the street, black people who played music excessively loud on public transit. 
Whenever I saw any of these things, fights, anti-social stuff, disrespecting teachers, even though I didn't identify as part of that group, I knew that in one way I was, that everyone else would, at least at first glance, associate me with that, and it made me ashamed. Probably the only way to get even close to understanding the significance and strength of that feeling of impersonal shame would be as a Jew watching the treatment of Palestinians - but not just hearing about it here in America, removed from it, but if you were actually there in Israel in person, watching it happen, and then having to interact with all your Palestinian friends and neighbors right after it happened.


The bus was the worst. It was so crowded, and all the black kids would sit in the very back, and they would yell and be crazy and sometimes get into fist fights on the actual bus, while it was moving.
I always stayed at the very front of the bus, as far forward as possible. I didn't want to be involved, to get caught up in anything, and I didn't want to be associated with them.
I'm not exactly sure why the bus was the worst, maybe because it was so concentrated, no school yard to spread out in, everyone together, with no teachers to control things, no lessons to distract, the only adult busy driving. All I know is the feelings it triggered were so bad I literally started wearing sunglasses on the bus everyday so no one could see when my eyes started to water.
Avoiding having to be in that environment is the whole reason I started riding my bike to school. On days it rained I opted to walk rather than go back to that bus.
Although I knew it was a select specific subculture, that they didn't really represent me, there was a limit to how much I could compartmentalize and it took a toll on my self esteem.

High school was a lot better. The selection process tended to filter out anyone with a culture hostile to education. It was high performers who got in, involved parents who got them in. We had Shannon Matthewson (who I went to kindergarten with), T*******, M*** D****, G*** B***, the D******'s (who I actually knew this time), all of us black without being ghetto, but the college still had it's share of urban black culture, it was still black people I was robbed and assaulted by, who assaulted my friends, who flashed a gun at me, who did a driveby killing in the crowded campus entryway a few dozen feet from where I and friends were hanging out (and so close to A*** he had to run and hide to avoid getting hit with stray bullets)

I would hear rap music - it was the 90s and the height of gangsta rap, glorifying crime and assault and murder; not just talking about them like it was a tragedy to deal with, but boasting about it, treating it like it was normal, like it was OK. It told me that what I was seeing and experiencing wasn't just a local thing, it wasn't just a fluke, it was a cultural trend that spanned the entire country. The shamelessness of evil was what made me most ashamed of all, and for years I couldn’t listen to any rap at all because of the association I first made.
My first taste of an alternative was the movie Do The Right Thing, by Spike Lee, (in which really no one does the right thing… it's all about race relations in a poor neighborhood, tensions mounting, until a black man gets killed by police, triggering a riot) where I first heard the political rap group Public Enemy, and then I started listening to Digital Underground, who were focused on pleasure and fun and silliness and the good things in life in a way reminiscent of Parliament, and it reassured me that we weren't so rare; young black men who explicitly rejected the culture of violence that had become so prevalent.

All this time, from the very beginning, I never mistook the culture I saw around me for a universal truth.
I always had friends, always had neighbors, obviously always had family, that weren't like that, so I never had any feeling that it was anything inherent or intrinsic to blackness, I never mistook it for genetic or inevitable. More than anything, I had my dad as a role model.

My dad had dark skin and an African name, he wore a kanga hat and he listened to motown and funk and jazz and crazy experimental black musicians like Sun Ra. He had African instruments and wore his hair long and natural and he and his siblings had all been part of the struggle, part of the movement, growing up in the 60s. There was no ambiguity, he wasn’t mixed, wasn’t trying to "act white". And at the same time, he never felt the need to try to act "black" either. He had nothing to prove. He grew up in San Francisco, his father was a cop in a time when most black people considered cops the enemy.

He joined a religion that was an offshoot of Hinduism and became a vegetarian. He was an enthusiast of martial arts, and we used to watch Bruce Lee movies and badly overdubbed Chinese martial arts movies. He played chess and read comic books.

Instead of avoiding everything too "white" on principle, he went to the maritime academy, one of the first ever blacks to do so - resisting the status quo by being the one to trailblaze, to integrate, to break into the all-white space and make it no longer all white, getting himself in a position where he was in charge of white people, a whole ship full of white sailors who had to follow his orders. I believe that took far more courage, and had a far bigger positive impact, then becoming one more in a crowd of angry people making demands.  His life was the change.

He didn't teach me to hate cops or that white people were the enemy. He didn't hide that racism existed or that he had experienced it, he told me his experiences, but he never made them extra dramatic, and he never used it as an excuse for anything. He pointed out racism in media, and in news reports, but he never claimed or implied it somehow made up for black violence or excused crime or rioting.

Two wrongs don't make a right, he would say.
He told me about how he had bought into that narrative as a youth, how he used to use it as an excuse, how he didn't see white people as real people, and he had done crimes and had hurt some random old white guy once and suddenly he realized it was wrong, and ever after that realization turned himself around.

By the time I knew him he had friends of all different races.
He taught me that you don’t have to be or do anything in particular to be black, or to be around certain people.

I knew him first, obviously, and I knew my family (his side was local), before I started to learn all that other stuff, long before junior high, so that was always my baseline, and it's why my later experiences didn't turn me racist. I always knew it was a specific subculture - a really rampant one, but still nothing genetic, and I learned enough about history, both in school and from my parents, to understand how it got to be this way, to understand that it was the ongoing legacy of slavery, and Jim Crow, and poverty. But understanding it didn't stop it from being traumatic and depressing in real time when I was seeing it in front of me.

What I've seen, consistently, in every context, is that black people who are integrated are people who are black. Even if they verbally "identify" as first and foremost "black", and consciously adopt certain cultural aspects, they act like normal civilized people.  They don’t claim police brutality or capitalism or government or white people as an excuse for their own immoral behavior.
Whether it's in a school, or mixed into a neighborhood or job, in the military (where military culture dominates everyone), wherever we are evenly distributed, we are regular happy healthy smart successful people.

But for some reason, once a certain threshold of concentration occurs - especially if there’s a certain level of poverty compared to surrounding regions - people start dropping to the lowest common denominator, and we become the people with a legacy of slavery again, we start acting out the worst stereotypes we have.

Not everyone, of course, but it starts to get disproportionate enough to be noticeable.  It has something to do with the narrative itself: it starts having a self-reinforcing affect proportionate to the concentration of people who believe the narrative applies to them, that they start acting in ways that makes true.  The Narrative is self-fulfilling

I completely understand – and share – your desire to raise our son in a neighborhood where we are surrounded by diversity, neighbors of multiple shades and hues within the same block, which is at least 20% black, and which is nicer than our current one: lower crime, more home ownership, higher standard of living; where everyone is respectful of each other and takes care of their property, and everything is affordable enough for us to actually live there.
Of course I’d want that as much as you!  Unfortunately, it doesn’t exist.
If you look at the list of best places for Black people my mother sent, notice that it almost exactly mirrors the “most segregated cities in America” list. From my experience, living in the most segregated city in America will not be a positive experience for a mixed person, or a mixed family.  Black people who live in 100% Black neighborhoods are just as racist as white people who don’t want to live near any blacks.
Note that the majority on the list have between higher to much higher violent crime rates than average.  You’ve lived in both Florida and the DC area, so you would perhaps know better than me how good race relations are in those cities that are at the top of the lists, but for the number two spot for black women, Baltimore, they concede that it has “extraordinarily high rates of maternal and infant mortalitycancerdomestic violencepolice violence, and poverty.” 

But they are only looking at the biggest cities, and looking specifically for a certain threshold of Black people to even consider it for the lists. 

In Marin county, there aren’t a lot of Black people, but those that are there have much higher average incomes than the ones in Atlanta, or Boston, or Columbus Ohio.  They live among less crime, less police brutality, higher standard of living.

We could live in the Iron Triangle, and be surrounded by lots of Black people – ½ of whom would be like the people the boy and I saw in the park that day when I made the mistake of trying to go down into that neighborhood for diversity – or we could move to Pt. Richmond, where there is a much smaller percentage of Black people, but those few include R***** and her husband. 

I think it matters way more to have positive role models, than just having high numbers of colored people around.
I don’t want him to grow up seeing Black people commit proportionately more crime, or doing non-criminal but anti-social things. 

I don’t want to start him off early teaching him the narrative that most cops are racist and they are all out to get him, that the deck is stacked against him and America wants him to fail, and have him internalize it, as so so so many black youth do,



1) its just not backed up by the data,

2) believing it often turns into self-fulfilling prophesy, and

3) regardless of outcome, hearing that message in the first place is emotionally traumatic. 


It affects self-esteem, it affects the ability to trust and to connect with people, it affects belief in what you can do.  

Nothing positive comes from telling people that message. 

It would be worth not telling kids that narrative even if it were true, but the statistics just don’t back it up, its not even factually accurate, so you end up hurting a person both psychologically and affecting their potential life outcomes for the worse, for no real reason.
I don’t want him to ever learn to fear black people, to learn to be extra cautious around them, or that he has to talk or act or dress a certain way to be accepted (or just not get beat-up after school).  This is the reality of being a young black male in a predominately black neighborhood, all around the country.  It isn’t just my experience, you can see it in every first hand account.  Fighting is just considered a normal, expected, inevitable part of the culture.
I don’t want him to have to have the long way around to understanding all this crap that I had.

If that means having to prioritize things about where we live other than just the raw numbers of demographics, I feel like that is a worthwhile trade off.

The percentage of Black people in the Bay Area, this liberal bastion, Mecca of diversity, is almost exactly the same as the percentage in Portland, formerly known as the “whitest city in America”.


If the goal is to be around large numbers of black people, most of them in the East Bay are concentrated in just two spots: south west Richmond, and East Oakland (outside the East Bay, also a lot in Vallejo). 

The same two places with the highest crime rates and the lowest incomes - and consequently, the most affordable housing. I know it feels racist to acknowledge this, but those facts are all related. The places with lots of Black people are the places we want to upgrade away from.  Moving to a “nicer neighborhood” means moving to a neighborhood with relatively fewer black people.  But it doesn’t mean no black people at all.  The ones there are will likely be much better role models.

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