Friday, February 5, 2021

this black history month, think about the power you wield

When little kids learn about Martin Luther King, Jr., they usually hear a version of this story: when Dr. King was a child, a white friend says they can’t play together anymore because his parents won’t let him play with a Black child. It’s the inciting incident in Dr. King’s story, what inspires him to fight for justice.

Students organized this Black Lives Matter protest in Bethesda last summer. Photo by the author.

King came from a relatively comfortable family. He grew up in a large Victorian house originally built for a white family. Both of his parents went to college, as did he and both of his siblings. His sister was a professor. None of those things could protect him from the whims of a white person defining where, when, how, or even if they would engage with him.

Decades after the Civil Rights movement, segregation and discrimination persist because that power imbalance still exists. This Black History Month, if you’re planning to do a day of service or support a Black-owned business, I encourage you to take it a step further and examine the power structures in your community.

Think about the spaces you move around in:

  • Think about your neighborhood. Who lives there? Are there different kinds and prices of homes? Now think about your neighborhood association or HOA. Who goes to the meetings? Who leads those organizations? Do they look like your neighborhood?
  • Think about your kids’ school. Who goes there? Does the school look like your neighborhood? Who’s on your PTA? Do they look like your school?
  • Think about your workplace: Who works there? Do certain groups appear to have some roles more than others? Do hiring practices ensure that diverse candidates are interviewed for all positions? Who’s in leadership, and who makes the decisions?
  • Think about your social circles: Who do you socialize with? Do they look like your neighborhood? What does your kids’ social group look like? Does it look like the schools they attend?

Chances are these spaces may have some Black people in them. But are they the only ones in the room? And are you ever the only white person in these spaces? I am half-Black, half-East Indian, and queer. From the neighborhoods I grew up in, to the schools I attended, to the places where I work and socialize today, I am often the only Black person, the only person of color, or the only queer person in the room. You get used to it. But I don’t usually get the choice.

Like that white parent who didn’t want Martin Luther King, Jr. playing with his child, white people often can choose how and where they interact with people of color, whether in decision-making roles, or by simply being able to choose between spaces where most people look like them.

This was the intended result of decades-old policies designed to exclude. In the early 20th century, the federal government’s redlining maps denied mortgages to Black communities, and racial covenants kept Black people from buying homes in white communities. As these policies deprived Black people of opportunities to build equity and wealth, zoning ensured that white and affluent communities could keep affordable homes out, essentially barring non-white people. School districts dragged their feet on integration: Montgomery County took seven years after Brown v. Board of Education to close its Black-only schools.

These 1930s-era ads for homes in Montgomery County were explicit about discriminating against non-white people. Image from the @rockcreekhills Instagram.

In a 1947 Washington Post article, Montgomery County residents said they were “continually harassed” by efforts to build apartments in their neighborhood.

Affluent, white communities in what’s called the “favored quarter” tended to attract lots of investment - schools, jobs, transportation, shopping - while Black communities either didn’t receive the same level of investment or were placed in harm’s way: built in a floodplain, or had highways routed through them.

Despite this, the region is unique in the United States for one reason: we have a large Black middle class. The Kinder Institute for Urban Research identifies just 19 prosperous, majority-Black zip codes in the nation, 11 of which are in the region. And Silver Spring is one of the few places in the nation where little white boys and little Black boys do just as well as adults. That promise is compelling for many Black people around the country. Spurred by an article in Black Enterprise magazine that said DC was the best place for a Black professional to work, my dad, fresh out of college, packed up his car and drove up here from rural North Carolina.

Yet even here, the legacy of segregation undermines that success. Like Dr. King, living in relative comfort still means grappling with the consequences of systemic racism.

Those white, affluent neighborhoods that benefited from redlining 80 years ago are still white and affluent today, and sit on the opposite side of the region from those majority-Black, affluent neighborhoods which, as a result, are a long commute from jobs and amenities. Homes in majority-Black communities are worth dramatically less than identical homes in majority-white communities - an average of 15% less according to a recent Brookings study. Not only does this keep Black families from building wealth and ensures that white neighborhoods stay segregated.

Local school systems remain stubbornly stratified by class and race. A recent study found that compared to white people, Black people in Montgomery County have lower incomes, worse educational and health outcomes, and pay more of their income for housing - and other jurisdictions are likely no different.

Of course, people will shrug that off and say that’s just how things are. Legal segregation is over, anyone can live where they want, and segregated neighborhoods and schools exist because people like them. It’s an argument that makes racism a personal failing (spray-painting racial slurs on a school, for example) instead of a broken system that we all play a role in, whether we like it or not.

Think about this: Just in the past few years, white neighbors in our region have tried to block school integration, zoning changes that would allow more affordable homes near them, and better transportation to and from job centers in affluent white neighborhoods. Most of these people would insist that they don’t have racist intentions. But they’re exercising the right to choose who can or can’t be in the spaces they inhabit. Unintentionally or not, this protects a status quo laid in place by policies enacted decades ago that continues to produce racist outcomes.

So this Black History Month, I encourage you to think about who’s in the room, who’s the only one in the room, who decides who gets to be in the room. It’s one part of a bigger, broken system you may actually have the power to change.

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