Some Introductory Thoughts
After nearly a month-long hiatus, I am finally able to push past my anxiety of writing for the gaze of others. The last several weeks have been personally difficult for me and I couldn’t seem to muster the mental fortitude to present my thoughts to other people – it had been too daunting, too energy draining. For people that struggle with anxiety about our performances and the reception from others, publishing our thoughts can be particularly difficult. It’s an unfamiliar vulnerability, really: we are used to silencing ourselves for fear of failure (failure that is often selectively defined to exclude our skills and talents); we are accustomed to self-defeating thoughts like “what could I possibly say that hasn’t already been said, but BETTER;” and, sadly, it can be difficult to be our own friend. But, you know what? This is a mental exercise for me and my writing skills can only be honed through repetition, mistakes, and practice. So, whatever!
Still, as a white man, my privilege allows me to more safely express mental hardship and what’s on my mind; and, I can be newly ‘shocked’ or ‘outraged’ by events because I am not recipient to many societal traumas. We have to be careful to channel our thoughts in a productive way, even if, for example, we become suddenly aware of an atrocity like the Flint water crisis. Our privilege allows us to be ignorant of the pattern of social and environmental degradation that afflicts impoverished, marginalized communities all across the country. Quite literally, it’s happening everywhere. Still, because of oppression and political erasure, we often don’t bear witness to these intersectional abuses.
For a pop culture example of this, recently Sam Smith, a white soul singer from the U.K., took to Twitter to vent his exasperation about witnessing his friend be racially abused in public. He said that he was deeply affected and that he had to “shine some sort of light on it.” Consequently, he received a fierce backlash from his followers that chided him for “discovering racism.” His response typifies a common tendency amongst white people to center racial discussion around their feelings and to express how hard it is to witness racism (or, to be called out for racist thoughts and actions). Ok, but what about your friend? What about people that endure these experiences, from the minute to the traumatic, every day of their lives?
White privilege put simply: after a life time of beneficence, you suddenly realize that racism still exists in 2016 – surprise! Like Smith, many of us are guilty of the same reactions to injustice because speaking publicly about someone else’s experience instills a kind of ‘courageousness’ in our words, usually stemming from good intentions. Good intentions, however, do not always equal good impact. Smith’s ignorance permeates his fame because, as a public figure who forged a successful career from soul music, a form of musical expression deeply rooted in the black cultural experience, he benefited from black culture while never caring to understand their narratives, struggles, or voices. Sadly, that’s called ‘Being White: 101’. In other words, cultural appropriation. White America routinely abuses and discriminates against black people for their culture (their hair styles, dances, music, etc) and then, when it suits us, we mimic it and say: “Wow, those dreads look so good on you! And, hey, nice music, man!” Hopefully Smith’s ignorance and our theft of black culture change over time, because how we handle hard conversations like these will determine whether or not we can overcome our ignorance. To Smith’s credit, that “Oh crap” moment of awareness is the crucially necessary first step.
Now, briefly stepping back to mental health, white men can define our narrative on our own terms without fear of the same stigmatization that others receive. Starkly contrasting this freedom to publicly struggle with anxiety are countless studies (and, well, you really don’t need to read studies because you could just LISTEN TO black people, especially black women) that have described the agony of dealing with mental illness/disabilities as black Americans, including college students. The ravages and stigmas of mental health are not restricted only to black Americans, but it serves to contextualize the way in which marginalized people suffer in every facet of society. And in America, the injustice starts young and defines their existence. When black children slip off of that awesomely climbable rock at the park and and break an arm, or have difficulty expressing themselves in class for any number of reasons, our healthcare and education systems dutifully remind them that their lives don’t matter as much as white lives. We deny them equal services and care. White children are taken care of while black children are criminalized, suspended, denied services, and disproportionately incarcerated (school to prison pipeline). And as an important note, these cursory articles I’ve highlighted are not even a pin-scratch on the tip of the iceberg of what it’s like to be black in America.
I can’t stress enough to you that the systemic deprivation of basic humanity for black Americans began before they were in the womb (re: slavery), before they could look at Earth and think, “On second thought, yeah, IMMA CHOOSE A DIFFERENT PLANET. This one wants to kill me.” They’re born into a world that’s hostile to them. And in America, they’re born into a country that doesn’t value their lives, that publicly murders them in our streets before a silently apathetic white audience, and one that forcibly amassed wealth and global hegemony atop the bloodied, lacerated backs of their ancestors. That’s criminal. That’s injustice. But, that’s us – it’s America.
The most significant misunderstanding that white people have about America is that the patriarchal/capitalist/white supremacist system of enslavement and exploitation has benignly crumbled away into history, into nonexistence. In actuality, the legacy of slavery is precisely why tragedy grips Flint and Detroit today, and it’s central to the return of segregationist, apartheid schooling in America (more on this once I’ve finished the book). White Americans are callously ignorant of our history of genocide, plundering, enslavement, rape, and terrorism; even worse still, there’s no end in sight. None of our presidential candidates truly understand race, not even Bernie. As always, fellow white people, we again need this reminder: white men are the biggest terror threat in the U.S. (and globally if the study would be extended beyond our country).
Despite any personal reservations about this piece, I’ve found that there are certain things that enrage me beyond measure. They compel me to entreat other white Americans to substantive, frank discussions. They toss aside any anxiety that shackles me to familiar patterns of inaction because I cannot continue to acquiesce to the status quo. Today, that rage focuses on Flint and Detroit, Michigan; but, even so, I must acknowledge that if I’m feeling thirsty on Monday at the school I work at, I can drink from the water fountain without fear of neurological damage. Black children in Flint can’t say the same. Black parents in Flint have been sending their children to school, a place culturally symbolic of safety, nurturance, and mental development, only to have their children’s brains irreversibly damaged by lead in their drinking water. As a parent, not being able to protect your child from abuse gnaws at your very existence. And children in Detroit might not even be in school on Monday because their schools lack the basic resources necessary to function. THIS IS WRONG. WHY ARE WE OK WITH THIS? HOW CAN WE NOT COME TOGETHER TO VALUE THE LIVES, EDUCATION, AND HEALTH OF BLACK CHILDREN?
Still, I would be remiss to speak out against these issues without pointing to the countless voices of people of color that have always stood up in defiance to America’s treachery. And you know who speaks out most holistically, most passionately, and with the least credit? Women: black women, latina women, asian women, trans women, neurodivergent women, disabled women, and every other possible combination. You want to know how the world really is? Listen to women, all of them.
If you’re on twitter and want to follow some amazing people, here’s a couple:
As a white male, I can clumsily wander into narratives of trauma/injustice and expect praise, respect, and to speak with authority (usually if the audience is white people, however). Conversely, people of color, since before America’s very founding, have always resisted oppression and cried out against injustice only to be terrorized and ignored. To disrupt that process of suppressive erasure, two of the most important services a white male American can offer to our national discourse are to listen to historically marginalized identities and to amplify their voices, writings, and endeavors (journalists/writers/thinkers constantly steal the work of people of color without credit, reference, or permission).
Still unsure how to begin to oppose injustices in our capitalist society? Here’s a good start: give your money to women, especially women of color. Some of the biggest opponents to this movement are, unsurprisingly, white people, so you know it’s a good one. There’s a positive relationship between how radically beneficial something is to how much white people despise it – it’s quite intriguing, actually. The basic thought process behind this movement is such that:
1) Our capitalist society defines the ability to lead a fulfilling and healthy life by your family’s accumulated money/wealth, your community resources, and access to opportunity. And wealth expands beyond your personal circumstances: for instance, I’m choosing to live at poverty wages, but that doesn’t make me poor. I can go home to a middle-class, secure family whenever I want. Family poverty denies that security.
2) Because we live in an inequitable, hierarchical system that grants wealth and opportunity primarily to white men, then that must mean, if you aren’t a white man, that navigating our capitalist system and power structures (job markets, education, healthcare, legal systems, etc) has more to do with surviving that thriving.
The manifestations of inequity cannot be fully elaborated here – there’s simply too many. However, here’s one on the racial bias of “white sounding” names in hiring to get you started. But do some googling for yourself and see what you find.
3) Within the constraints of capitalism, the most revolutionary thing you can do is economically empower people who have been historically denied wealth and opportunity. Women and their work (especially women of color) have always been devalued and patriarchal supremacy sustains itself by plundering women’s bodies, work, and social contributions.
So, GIVE YOUR MONEY TO WOMEN. Fire up paypal, endow women of color with your stolen blood money, and undermine hierarchical capitalism. Boom, done. This principle transcends American borders, too. Globally, women’s work, specially that of domestic, agricultural, and sex work, are profoundly stigmatized and undervalued. Nicholas Kristoff explores the necessity to economically empower women in his book, Half the Sky. And, again, although I highlight the work of this particular white man, please seek out the voices of badass women, like @
Anyway, Flint and Detroit are what I had planned to write about, so let’s get started.
So, What’s Happening?
For the past year, Flint’s tap water has flowed from the polluted and corrosive Flint River. Contamination still comes out of shower heads, hospital sinks, and school water fountains even though officials switched the water back to the Detroit system.
The shameful state of Detroit Public Schools: mold, decrepit infrastructure, and crushing debt have destroyed the city’s public education system and eroded the future of its children.
Right now, a city of 99,000 people, mostly consisting of marginalized social groups and a +40% poverty rate, lacks a basic human right: clean water. The government, against the will of its citizens, decided to switch the water system from a clean, well-regulated source to a river that has received industrial waste for decades. For over a year, the city then suppressed evidence of contamination and, once verified beyond any doubt, denied their responsibility. Can you guess which country it’s in?
Yep, right here in the good ol’ USA. Please, let that sink in for a moment. Allow that to shatter your idyllic conception of American excellence. America, despite our wealth and hegemonic status, refuses to protect its own people. America isn’t, nor has it ever been, a safe place for marginalized identities to exist, and our history of denying them basic human rights stretches back through hundreds of years of settler colonialism and enslavement. For Flint, that legacy has most recently manifested itself through the automotive pollution that courses into their homes, and by the deadly dismissiveness of its government officials. The state has since switched back to the Detroit water system, but only after the Flint River’s polluted waters permanently damaged the pipe infrastructure and poisoned thousands of people. To make this abundantly clear, the regional automative plants stopped using water from the Flint River because it was destroying their pipes. What more symbolism do you need other than the well-being of our cars precedes the health of black people?
Concurrent with the Flint water crisis, the Detroit Public School system recently reached a critical breaking point: it has been so thoroughly annihilated, defunded, and dismantled that teachers have staged sick outs at 88 of the 100 public schools in the city. Teachers have joined with administrations and parents to protest the harrowing conditions that children endure everyday as they attempt to learn, such as a lack of books for each child, rundown gyms that force children to gain their exercise by walking around the school, and rat infestations in their cafeterias and walls. Teachers sometimes have classrooms totaling up to 50 students (and if you’ve ever worked in education, the image of 50 kids in a class is nightmare material). Funding for public education in Detroit has consistently been deprioritized or reappropriated to other areas of the city, leaving the system buried in debt and unable to meet basic educational and safety needs. And that doesn’t even include the systematic diversion of money away from Detroit to other areas, like the surrounding white suburbs. Meanwhile, construction for a $600 million dollar sports arena in Detroit began last April.
Education is a fundamental right, a sacred requisite to human fulfillment, but Detroit’s children have slim chances of flourishing in the quagmire of poverty, segregation, and disempowerment. Taken at a glance, these calamities can seem unrelated. Two different cities – one is grappling with an education crisis as the other suffers from a year of water-borne lead poisoning. But I argue, like many others, that when analyzed together they represent the malicious depravity of America, a nation that masquerades as a beacon of liberty and justice; they embody the intersections of environmental and social injustice that most egregiously harm impoverished, marginalized people.
One common linkage between them is a man named Darnell Earley, the unelected emergency manager appointed by Gov. Snyder. He held an integral role in switching the water source to Flint, and now he’s the sole authority over the Detroit Public School system. Emergency managers assume responsibility over various systems when they become financially compromised and indebted (regardless of why they reach that status). Emergency managers like Earley enjoy unchecked state-sanctioned authority, and legal loopholes allow them to be endlessly reappointed and act unilaterally without involvement from the public. They’re virtually immune to opposition and can enact sweeping policy changes without any input from the citizenry, such as whether your tap water comes from a Great Lake or Ford Motor Company’s waste dump.
Sadly, the linkages go further than that. So far as a result of the crisis, several low-level officials in departments like the Environmental Protection Agency have resigned, but calls for resignation for the emergency manager or Gov. Snyder have been ignored. Here’s some of the demands that have been made in the wake of this travesty, all of them unmet, unheeded, and completely dismissed.
America’s Latest Environmental Injustice: Flint, MI
Attempts to clean the pipe infrastructure release torrents of toxic water into the streets of Flint.
*(Corporations, due to their economic, globalized scale, vacuum the Earth of its resources at the lowest possible financial cost and create incalculable amounts of waste and societal/environmental damage; therefore, it’s in their interests to resist environmental regulation)
First, to understand what’s happening in Flint, we need to understand “environmental justice.” It’s an important concept that is not fully understood in America. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), a federal organization almost entirely subdued by corporate interests,* defines environmental justice as:
“Environmental justice is the fair treatment and meaningful involvement of all people regardless of race, color, national origin, or income with respect to the development, implementation, and enforcement of environmental laws, regulations, and policies.”
That doesn’t get at the full picture nor does it reflect what’s happening in these cities. A fuller definition of EJ is: the deliberate tendency for societal power structures (various levels of government, corporate auto industry, etc) to force historically marginalized identities, people of color, and impoverished populations to bear disproportionately high and adverse environmental burdens that simultaneously damage ecosystems, biodiversity, soil health, etc.
Put simply, who in the region of Flint suffers most from decades of dumping automotive waste into the Flint River? People surviving in poverty. Undocumented latinx immigrants who have no means of appeal or resistance. Black/brown people who have been trapped in the city because of housing discrimination. In the wake of this crime, many people have wondered, “Would this have ever happened to affluence, to whiteness?” Obviously not. Through this acknowledgement, we show that we’re aware of environmental justice, we just don’t normally frame it like that. Still, in America, waste dumps of various kinds, manufacturing centers, nuclear power plants, and other sources of harms environmental/health degradation have been uniformly relegated to marginalized community, places with few means of opposition. Even if we aren’t aware of the evidence, we feel it to be true.
Ever heard the phrase, “NIMBY,” or, “Not in My Backyard?” Decoded, that means: “Not in the backyards of white people.” Because with startling universality, the toxic wastes of our industrial system pollute the backyards of black/brown/indigenous people.
Despite a good start, the conversation on environmental justice needs to be expanded beyond the harmful effects of waste dumping, though that represents a staggering portion of cases across the country. For a local example, the Ramapough-Lunaape Nation in Ringwood, NJ, a marginalized Native American community, have dealt with decades of waste dumping by Ford Motor Company and the town of Ringwood. Their struggle is criminally common in America.
Environmental justice is two-fold:
1) The disproportionate damage to marginalized people.
Want to see what environmental justice looks like? Look no further than the Bronx, Flint, Detroit, Paterson, or virtually any American community primarily comprised of impoverished black/brown/indigenous people. You’ll find high rates of asthma in areas concentrated with highways and little green space; obesity and malnutrition in food deserts, places without access to healthy and affordable food; high concentrations of manufacturing centers and blighted properties. You’ll feel pain. You’ll find injustice. You’ll face an intentional system that functions through a racist/sexist/corporate capitalism.
An equally important conclusion is that the disproportionate burden is not just to health. The children in Flint will suffer from permanent neurological damage, but the suffering created by the intersection of poverty and environmental damage infects every part of people’s lives. The burden is that parents that can’t sleep at night because they realize they’re powerless to protect their child. It’s the stress of being poor: it’s expensive, inherently insecure, and dehumanizing. It’s these cumulative effects that hurt your job performance, affect how you deal with daily stressors, dictate whether you have the patience to help your children with their homework that day, determine whether you can make it to that job interview that you desperately need, as well as your harm ability to politically organize. Environmental justice ravages every facet of personal and community life, and it’s not enough for us to be enraged at the lead poisoning. People in places like Flint live surrounded by tragedy with infinite manifestations. Environmental degradation always magnifies poverty, racism, and most generally, systemic oppression. They’re inseparable.
As with other aspects of American life, health is directly correlated with your skin color, where you were born, and your family/community wealth. If you’re white and born into an affluent family, you probably don’t live by a nuclear power plant. There’s a good chance you didn’t pick floating debris out of the Flint River for fun after school. And you definitely didn’t break out in hideous, painful lesions from your shower water. White people have largely been spared these systemic and hierarchical abuses.
There is another layer, however. Woefully, the story doesn’t end with human rights abuses and disproportionate burdens on marginalized people.
2) We must also grapple with the damage to the environment. It is Environmental justice, too. The baffling thing about environmental justice is that we routinely accept a poisoned river as normal. Citizens of Flint, and all communities along the Flint River, should be doubly outraged: the harm to people has been grave, but we can’t ignore the damage to our vitally important ecosystems. Ecosystem health is important in its own right, whether or not human health is also implicated.
The effects of lead contamination on ecosystems have been well documented, including stunted plant growth, destruction of vital microorganism populations, and impaired nervous systems among animals. And that’s just lead. Add lead to the staggeringly long list of contaminants that we release into our environment en masse, like biocides (pesticides, herbicides, etc), motor oil, car exhaust, nuclear waste, plastics and microbeads, and you really start to worry for the Earth. And even then, that’s only talking about waste. In the last century especially, America has eliminated much of its fertile soil, contaminated the many of its freshwater systems, and obliterated its biodiversity.
And that’s not nothing. We are living in an ecological crisis that involves waste, resource exhaustion, food insecurity, water contamination, climate change, and an astounding array of other factors. Think you can survive on Earth without a healthy, functional environment? Think again.
Well-intentioned people are calling this a natural disaster. It is, but that implies that people cannot be held accountable. It suggests that people weren’t the direct cause. Actually, people did cause this, and it’s beyond Gov. Snyder’s corruption. Industrial manufacturing systems, like the automotive industry, have long polluted freshwater sources and impoverished communities of color because it was cheap and they expected no resistance. At all levels of governments, corporate capitalists have successfully and quietly dismantled regulations that protect people and the environment from pollution, toxins, and other harmful byproducts of consumption. Without regulation and legal checks on corporations, the sheer power/wealth at their disposal allows them to callously pursue profits at the expense of all else. They don’t care who or what gets irreparably poisoned. And because corporate operations tend to be located in impoverished, marginalized communities, they feel the adverse effects most gravely.
As a rule, natural disasters tend to be things outside of human control, events that don’t choose their victims based on prejudice. Tornados, hurricanes, and viruses destroy at random and with abandon – this, however, is different. People switched off the water. People ignored complaints, pleas for help, and irrefutable evidence. People knowingly sent the polluted waters of the Flint River into the homes of black families.
That’s not a NATURAL disaster.
That’s capitalism prioritizing money over justice.
That’s racist power structures casting aside black communities with indifference and hate.
That’s the devaluation of human life and natural ecosystems.
We habitually destroy the environment that sustains us, but the places that are chosen first for destruction are where impoverished and marginalized people are living. The natural disaster is that we’ve horrifically polluted a fresh water system and destroyed ecosystems that are integral to soil health, fertility, and biodiversity. So please, when you think about environmental justice, don’t only concern yourself with people – our health cannot be separated from the health of the Earth, the entity that ultimately and solely sustains us. The Earth must be valued, protected, and respected for its own sake, as well as ours.
The Downfall of Detroit and its Schools
Detroit, MI, only 70 miles away from the city of Flint, has rapidly declined for the last several decades. As a nation we’ve watched their lives crumble into oblivion. The city recently filed the largest municipal bankruptcy in American history, its population has dwindled to a shadow of its former numbers (which means that jobs, talent, and energy has slowly seeped from the city), the public school system has imploded, and it’s officially the most impoverished city in the nation. Go on, take a guess at who lives there. Just take a wild guess.
The wikipedia page titled “Decline of Detroit” argues that Detroit has suffered because of the decline of the automotive industry, riots, and rise of the suburbs, amongst others. The New York Times blames Detroit’s decrepitness on its reliance on a single industry, auto manufacturing. Car makers left the city, hope and economic prosperity left with them – simple as that. Its section on poverty cites:
“About 36 percent of the city’s population is below the poverty level, and, by 2010, the residential vacancy rate was 27.8 percent. With fewer people paying taxes, the city has starved financially and has struggled to maintain social services. Swaths of the city are in total darkness because of nonfunctioning street lights. And the average police response time, including top priority calls, is 58 minutes, according to a report by the emergency manager.”
That’s absolutely horrifying. However, I’m still skeptical about the simplicity with which they summarize Detroit’s downfall. Are we really supposed to believe that the slow death of Detroit and its plummet into poverty, dysfunction, and segregation is that simple? Where is the analysis of why poverty so highly concentrates in Detroit? Where is the analysis of why marginalized people are so highly concentrated in Detroit? Have we collectively deluded ourselves into thinking that black Americans are destined to struggle in cycles of poverty, contamination, and disempowerment? Hm, I’m thinkin’ ‘no.’ Poverty isn’t accidental, and it doesn’t exist in a vacuum. Racist/colonial capitalism imposes poverty, perpetuates inequity, and makes you think it’s inherent to human life. Yeah, well, it’s fucking not.
So, how did Detroit come to be so impoverished? To find that answer, I think you have to revisit essays like The Case for Reparations, by Ta-Nehisi Coates, and books like Ain’t I a Woman: Black Women and Feminism, by bell hooks, or The New Jim Crow, by Michelle Alexander.
It’s a story of social justice, or rather, social injustice. In capitalistic American society, social justice can generally be defined as:
“The promotion of a just society by challenging injustice and valuing diversity. It exists when all people share a common humanity and therefore have a right to equitable treatment, support for their human rights, and a fair allocation of community resources. People are not be discriminated against, nor their welfare and well-being constrained or prejudiced on the basis of gender, sexuality, religion, political affiliations, age, race, belief, disability, location, social class, socioeconomic circumstances, or other characteristic of background or group membership.”
There’s probably better definitions, but for the purposes of this essay (I mean, I guess it’s an essay, it’s pretty lengthy by this point), social justice is the process of unpacking why black and brown children in Detroit dodge rats in their classrooms while white children in the surrounding suburbs enjoy safety and health, unlimited books in their classroom, and spaces to exercise. It’s the methodology of analysis behind why 88 of Detroit’s 100 public schools have closed due to inhumane conditions. It’s how we come to realize that mold outbreaks are no aberration, but due the deliberate devaluing of children of color. Mold isn’t maliciously following impoverished/marginalized children around the country, it’s spawning around them because of societal negligence.
So, to understand why Detroit’s mostly black population languishes in poverty, I want to direct quote some sections of Ta-Nehisi Coates’ article, The Case for Reparations. Please, read the whole article in its entirety. It beautifully and painfully outlines how places like Paterson, Detroit, Chicago, and many other predominantly marginalized communities suffer in concentration. It’s a long article, so here’s some telling sections that I want to cite:
[Describing Clyde Ross, a black home owner and primary subject of the article]
Three months after Clyde Ross moved into his house, the boiler blew out. This would normally be a homeowner’s responsibility, but in fact, Ross was not really a homeowner. His payments were made to the seller, not the bank. And Ross had not signed a normal mortgage. He’d bought “on contract”: a predatory agreement that combined all the responsibilities of homeownership with all the disadvantages of renting—while offering the benefits of neither. Ross had bought his house for $27,500. The seller, not the previous homeowner but a new kind of middleman, had bought it for only $12,000 six months before selling it to Ross. In a contract sale, the seller kept the deed until the contract was paid in full—and, unlike with a normal mortgage, Ross would acquire no equity in the meantime. If he missed a single payment, he would immediately forfeit his $1,000 down payment, all his monthly payments, and the property itself.
The men who peddled contracts in North Lawndale would sell homes at inflated prices and then evict families who could not pay—taking their down payment and their monthly installments as profit. Then they’d bring in another black family, rinse, and repeat. “He loads them up with payments they can’t meet,” an office secretary told The Chicago Daily News of her boss, the speculator Lou Fushanis, in 1963. “Then he takes the property away from them. He’s sold some of the buildings three or four times.”
Ross had tried to get a legitimate mortgage in another neighborhood, but was told by a loan officer that there was no financing available. The truth was that there was no financing for people like Clyde Ross. From the 1930s through the 1960s, black people across the country were largely cut out of the legitimate home-mortgage market through means both legal and extralegal. Chicago whites employed every measure, from “restrictive covenants” to bombings, to keep their neighborhoods segregated.
Their efforts were buttressed by the federal government. In 1934, Congress created the Federal Housing Administration. The FHA insured private mortgages, causing a drop in interest rates and a decline in the size of the down payment required to buy a house. But an insured mortgage was not a possibility for Clyde Ross. The FHA had adopted a system of maps that rated neighborhoods according to their perceived stability. On the maps, green areas, rated “A,” indicated “in demand” neighborhoods that, as one appraiser put it, lacked “a single foreigner or Negro.” These neighborhoods were considered excellent prospects for insurance. Neighborhoods where black people lived were rated “D” and were usually considered ineligible for FHA backing. They were colored in red. Neither the percentage of black people living there nor their social class mattered. Black people were viewed as a contagion. Redlining went beyond FHA-backed loans and spread to the entire mortgage industry, which was already rife with racism, excluding black people from most legitimate means of obtaining a mortgage.”
…In Chicago and across the country, whites looking to achieve the American dream could rely on a legitimate credit system backed by the government. Blacks were herded into the sights of unscrupulous lenders who took them for money and for sport. “It was like people who like to go out and shoot lions in Africa. It was the same thrill,” a housing attorney told the historian Beryl Satter in her 2009 book, Family Properties. “The thrill of the chase and the kill.”
[Talking about a particular neighborhood of Chicago]
According to the most-recent statistics, North Lawndale is now on the wrong end of virtually every socioeconomic indicator. In 1930 its population was 112,000. Today it is 36,000. The halcyon talk of “interracial living” is dead. The neighborhood is 92 percent black. Its homicide rate is 45 per 100,000—triple the rate of the city as a whole. The infant-mortality rate is 14 per 1,000—more than twice the national average. Forty-three percent of the people in North Lawndale live below the poverty line—double Chicago’s overall rate. Forty-five percent of all households are on food stamps—nearly three times the rate of the city at large. Sears, Roebuck left the neighborhood in 1987, taking 1,800 jobs with it. Kids in North Lawndale need not be confused about their prospects: Cook County’s Juvenile Temporary Detention Center sits directly adjacent to the neighborhood.
North Lawndale is an extreme portrait of the trends that ail black Chicago. Such is the magnitude of these ailments that it can be said that blacks and whites do not inhabit the same city. The average per capita income of Chicago’s white neighborhoods is almost three times that of its black neighborhoods. When the Harvard sociologist Robert J. Sampson examined incarceration rates in Chicago in his 2012 book, Great American City, he found that a black neighborhood with one of the highest incarceration rates (West Garfield Park) had a rate more than 40 times as high as the white neighborhood with the highest rate (Clearing). “This is a staggering differential, even for community-level comparisons,” Sampson writes. “A difference of kind, not degree.”
…This is not surprising. Black families, regardless of income, are significantly less wealthy than white families. The Pew Research Center estimates that white households are worth roughly 20 times as much as black households, and that whereas only 15 percent of whites have zero or negative wealth, more than a third of blacks do. Effectively, the black family in America is working without a safety net. When financial calamity strikes—a medical emergency, divorce, job loss—the fall is precipitous.
And just as black families of all incomes remain handicapped by a lack of wealth, so too do they remain handicapped by their restricted choice of neighborhood. Black people with upper-middle-class incomes do not generally live in upper-middle-class neighborhoods. Sharkey’s research shows that black families making $100,000 typically live in the kinds of neighborhoods inhabited by white families making $30,000. “Blacks and whites inhabit such different neighborhoods,” Sharkey writes, “that it is not possible to compare the economic outcomes of black and white children.”
Phew, that was long. Kudos to you for reaching this point of the article! In the proceeding sections of The Case for Reparations, Ta-Nehisi Coates goes on to argue for the need of holistic reparations to black Americans, an incredibly important movement that can be revisited another time.
As Coates eloquently describes, black people in Chicago have been locked out of the capitalist modes of accruing wealth: home ownership, access to functional community services, economic opportunities, and many others. I think that the racist, government-sanctioned housing policies that permeate Chicago have, in turn, functioned identically to Detroit, to Paterson, and to many urban communities of color. The story’s the same everywhere you look:
1) Our government, businesses, and power structures, overwhelmingly headed by white men (creating a white supremacist/colonial/capitalist system) have the power to deny black/brown/indigenous people their inherent rights and humanity.
2) Dating back to colonialism and persisting through slavery, apartheid schooling, mass incarceration, and predatory housing policies (etc), people of color have been continuously and universally denied access to jobs, healthcare, white neighborhoods, and to environmentally safe places. They’ve been kept from equal participation in capitalism and the ways in which Americans provide for themselves.
3) Industries leave your town, well-paying jobs become nonexistent, white people flee to other communities, and people of color are left with no avenues for escape. Escaping takes money, it takes family wealth, it takes access to transportation, and it takes opportunity. Being poor in America paralyzes you.
4) Marginalized people, therefore, become concentrated and forced into places with waste dumps, with nuclear power plants, without functioning schools, with vacant and blighted properties, without healthy food systems, and with governments that will take pleasure in funneling the last precious resources away from you.
5) Wages stagnate, costs rise as national inequity rises, public services are defunded and consequently privatized (the signature death knell) which further reduces their accessibility, and poverty ultimately reduces you to simply surviving. You’re not thinking about tomorrow, you’re thinking about not dying today.
6) Now, your city languishes and the rest of America, ignorant of racist/sexist/colonial capitalism, blames you for its own actions. We blame you for being born black, we’ve destroy indigenous communities with reckless abandon, and in the end, we’ll shrug our shoulders like we’ve had nothing to do with it.
This is America at its realest, and facing it is 250 years overdue.
Now, connecting the criminal negligence of the Detroit Public Schools back to the plight of Flint, we can now see that they innately symbolize the intersection of environmental and social injustice. Systemic oppression poisoned black people in Flint just as it continues to deny black children in Detroit their right to education. And, if you were to pursue any closer inspection of the two cities, you would find a plethora of overlapping traumas and injustices.
You can ask yourself a myriad of questions (maybe beginning with something about your own life that you’re interested in, like tennis or your career):
Is there ample green space (parks, rivers, gardens) for people to relax and enjoy nature?
What kinds of food do people in Detroit have access to?
How are undocumented immigrants in Flint treated?
Are waste systems and industrial pollutants highly concentrated in Detroit?
How much money do Detroit and Flint invest in education per child? How about to the white suburbs outside their city limits?
Is more money invested in police/incarceration or education?
Do the schools have arts and humanities programs?
Do people in Flint have access to affordable healthcare?
Can black people in Detroit find housing outside of the city?
You can continue on like this endlessly, and you should. You’ll find that, through whatever subject you decide to examine, that impoverished and marginalized people suffer disproportionately from environmental and social problems. Just like black women suffer from the intersection of racism and sexism, people in poverty suffer at the intersection of environmental and social injustice. And don’t be tempted to think that white people possess an immunity to these problems, they don’t; however, the reality remains that the scale, intensity, and pervasiveness are far different. America has normalized violence, suppressed resistance, and works tirelessly to reinforce capitalistic delusions of freedom, liberty, and excellence. America’s wealth was built on lands that were stolen and worked with the bloodied hands of the enslaved.
Bridging the Chasm: Look in the Mirror, White America
The brutal atrocities that afflict Flint and Detroit are not new, they’re not accidental or mysterious, nor are they intrinsic to the human experience. Poverty is socially constructed. Gender is socially constructed. And as with any social construct that people created, people can unmake them. As white Americans, we are responsible for why children in Flint face neurological damage and why children in Detroit don’t have books to read in school. Yes, you might not have been the one to press the water switch, and you probably weren’t the one to decide not to fund Detroit public schools. But you are the primary beneficiary of white American capitalism: You’re its sacred zenith, its complicit guardian, and the reason for marginalization and death.
And let’s do away with this harmfully erroneous concept of “We have to make America great again!” Hey, white people, America has never been great. We’ve been wealthy and our military can freely roam the world killing with impunity, but that’s not greatness.
Our culture (driven by our politicians and business leaders) has insidiously deluded us into regarding American history with revision and ignorance. What exactly are you so nostalgic for? Do you miss being able to legally and openly enslave black people instead of having to subtly steal from them? Do you pine for the good ol’ days of child labor?
Oh, and remember that time we “discovered” the existence of millions of Native Americans, systematically annihilated their communities, enslaved them, plundered their lands and resources, then celebrate Columbus Day centuries later without any sense of irony? CLASSIC. AMERICA.
No, America has never been great. We symbolize genocide and injustice. And don’t get all mushy about our founding fathers, either. George Washington physically abused the enslaved people he owned, and just look at the children’s book we recently wrote about him. It’s about his happy-go-lucky slaves baking him a cake to express their undying adoration. This type of thinking isn’t new, and if you want to see white revisionism in action, just look at our public schools and how we treat MLK Day.
Oh, and Jefferson was a rapist. Hey, white America, just so you know, your founding fathers were rapists, murderers, and slave owners responsible for creating the basis of exploitation, oppression, and capitalism that still exists today. They are not heroes. Contemporarily, when was the last time we saw our cadre of politicians, at any level of government, witness poverty and think, “Hey, maybe something’s wrong – what can we do about it? Do I have more to learn about our country’s past and how it created the present?”
Just look at Gov. Snyder of Michigan. His emails and administrative response perfectly capture his complete refusal to communicate and deal with structural racism, sexism, and capitalism. On a national level, your politicians don’t care, either. Republicans don’t deserve a mention. As for the Democrats, Hillary is a white supremacist capitalist that coopts progressive rhetoric while creating legislation responsible for mass incarceration. Bernie is the best hope we have, but he is still ignorant of many things outside of class struggle that will impact his ability as president to relate to people of color (he’s stated would not pursue reparations to black and indigenous if elected).
So, look in the mirror, white America. If you’re a white American, here’s a thought experiment for you. It’s more of a challenge, really: Every morning when you wake up, look in the mirror. In the mirror reflecting back at you, you should see poisoned, bloodied and disfigured bodies atop mountains of discarded food, animal carcasses, iPhones and motor oil. Everywhere surrounding festering heaps of flesh are leveled forests once home to ancient trees and extinct species you don’t know the names of. Now its bubbling rivers would dissolve your skin at the touch.
You don’t see all of the people that are gone. You won’t see the millions of Native Americans that once lived their lives as their lands and histories now lie beneath your condos and mansions. You won’t see George Washington’s slaves baking a goddamn cake, you’ll see them being whipped as they cry out in pain. You’ll see the collective agony that white Americans have coldly dolled out for hundreds of years. Looking back at yourself, you’ll see your face, someone that needs to understand where we’ve come from, who we’ve been, and why we need to own our REAL history.
And in that mirror, you’ll see the living faces of the marginalized and the forgotten. Return their stares. Revel in humility because, after all of the abuse, the silence, the colonial genocide, the broken families, the poisoned children, and after all that’s been done to them – here they are, looking back at you. You need to listen to their protests, you have to value their lives, and you have no choice but to marvel at the utter resilience of humanity. Despite it all, here they are before you, holding you accountable for the injustice you’ve so thoroughly ignored. It’s courageous. That’s resilience. They’re humanity. And as white Americans, it’s time that we see that.
We can’t just shrug our shoulders as black children’s brains are inundated with lead. we can’t stand idly by as schools are crumbling around children learning to read, and we as white people have to take responsibility for the American political/cultural system that empowers people like Gov. Snyder to systematically deny basic humanity to entire cities.
As long as we ignore the truth of American history and how it shapes our collective present, as long as we accept that children of color deserve their fate, as long as we accept that Native Americans deserved to be nearly wiped out, and as long as we accept that the Middle East deserves to be firebombed, we’re no better than people like Donald Trump. It’s a crisis of capitalism. It’s a crisis of consciousness. And it’s the maliciousness of white American affluence.
It’s up to you to care about it, because it’s not people of color’s responsibility to end racism. The erasure of women of color perpetuates not because they aren’t dedicated enough to its ending.
It’s up to us as white people, and it’s a matter of life and death.