Opening the front page of the paper or scrolling through Twitter right now is so panic inducing. Looting, police station in flames, mobs. Protests amidst a pandemic; risking death to protest death. No trust in the police, no trust in the government. It truly feels like our institutions are breaking down.
I’m reading James Baldwin’s “Notes of a Native Son” this week, finally. Something is happening — the combination of the Amy Cooper mess and the brutality of George Floyd’s death is really making it sink in that there is no safe way to be a black person in America, that the path is so narrow that it doesn’t exist. So I’m trying to understand.
I’m also thinking a lot about my oral history project.
As I collected the stories last year, a major theme that emerged was the tension of living in an integrated neighborhood. The experiences were on a spectrum: some people were essentially living a segregated life within an integrated neighborhood, and some people had intimate friends of all races. Most people had grown up in homogenous neighborhoods, either black or white, and this was their first time living next to people of different races; how they dealt with that differed widely.
Right now, we do have integrated spaces and institutions. Storytime at the Shaw library, attended by white, black, latinx and asian families. Florida Avenue park, where white gentrifers bring their kids to play, older black men sit at the tables listening to music and playing dice, and young men of all races play pick-up basketball. Shaw Main Streets, whose Executive Board is full of people of color and who created “Art All Night,” an event that attracts white people in droves. The ANC (Advisory Neighborhood Commission), where people of all races debate new developments.
There is also an incredible amount of tension. Black people felt pushed out, they felt disrespected. Dog walkers let their dogs relieve themselves on public spaces, or even on lawns: the ultimate insult. White people called the police on black people who are smoking pot outdoors — would they do that if it was another white person? A wealthy newcomer asked the homeless-serving non-profit when they were going to move away from the neighborhood. Distrust, tension, suspicion on all sides.
Trust was such a huge topic: could black people trust white people to respect their humanity in this neighborhood, and to hold space for them? Could white people overcome their racism to trust black people?
And, the schools.
D.C.’s school system is very segregated. This neighborhood and other gentrifying neighborhoods have some of the only integrated schools in the city.
My own kid attends at an elementary school that is 90% POC. His class has white, Asian, Latino and black students; the kids have friendships across races, they play together, and they are innocent. The teachers challenge each kid at their level, the environment is peaceful and loving. All year long, he and an African American friend have competed to be the best in the class at math and reading — they take turns at the top and they push each other. In short, it is everything a parent could dream of for their child.
But, a lot of ugliness exists in regards to the schools in the neighborhood. Words like colonization get thrown around in relation to mostly-white PTOs. Gentrifiers say things like “the schools will improve when “people” start to send their kids there” — “people” are rich white people, and it is as though the whiteness is more important than the teachers, the principal and the curriculum. I struggled to host events at the school that felt welcoming to all the parents, regardless of their race, native language and class. Socializing across class and race and language *is* a challenge, and many of us had no prior experience with it.
It is harder for the parents than for the children.
Being in a mixed-race, mixed-class environment is so new to so many people. Some white parents whispered to me about their concerns for their kids, they are very worried about the lack of other white people, even as their kids were happy, learning and thriving.
(I’ve also seen white parents at ease in integrated schools, anti-racism in action: they are parents who trust their children, trust their neighbors, and trust their schools.)
But many white people decamp to the neighborhoods in D.C. that have homogenously white schools, and I can’t help but see how all these individual decisions keep contributing to segregation. And I wonder what the kids think — do they wonder why they are now mostly amongst white people? How does that affect them? What are they missing out on by not being in a more diverse community?
It is a tricky decision. Lots of good people have taken their kids out of our school to move to these better resourced schools, where parents donate money that can be used to hire aides and hold fancy after-school classes, and where the elementary schools feed into high schools with AP classes and science labs.
But what would happen if all the schools were integrated, and the money and power were more distributed across schools? What would happen if children grew up with close friendships across race, and had experiences where they all felt like equals? What would all those people be like, would they shake off some of the systemic racism poisoning our culture?
But then I wonder how possible it is for a community to remain diverse. Are Shaw and Bloomingdale on their way to being more uniformly white? Is school integration even possible — is housing integration?
Is integration always a temporary state?
I keep thinking about something one of my interviewees, an African American man who has lived here since the 80s, said:
“Let me ask you a question — you name one healthy integrated neighborhood. When you say ‘oh, the diversity’ the diversity is a code word for ‘white people are moving into black neighborhoods.’
‘Oh, it’s diverse!’ It’s diverse because white folks are coming in. When black people try to move into white neighborhoods, white people move out. That’s just the way the country is.”
Is it crazy to think that we may be able to change? I feel something in the air right now — white people talking about anti-racism, trying to learn, and trying to shake off Amy Cooper-esque liberal racism. Acknowledging it. Covid crisis time could be a huge opportunity to reflect on personal decisions that lead to a more unequal society. What if everyone stopped segregating? What if we all enrolled our kids in integrated schools, and figured out how to be a community? Could it be possible?