01 February 2017

Black People

I'm a fairly rich white guy living in a poor, mostly black neighborhood. I moved in almost four years ago to join ongoing efforts to grow and sustain Baha'i core activities, which have been moving along successfully. But this is not about children's classes, this is about some observations on race.

I'm not only a fairly rich white guy, but I'm in the whitest big city in the country. Portland had two neighborhoods where black people were funneled into during the 1950s, and where they had to stay. Both areas turned into high poverty/crime neighborhoods in the 1980s and 90s. One of these was gentrified and people migrated to poorer parts of Portland. The other was renovated with a federal grant and turned into mixed income housing, and that is where I live. Here are some of the antics that have gone on since I got here.
  • In the first month or so living here, when I would see a group of black teenagers walking down the street, I was afraid of them. Unconsciously, of course, but I realized that I was more cautious of black kids than white kids. This seemed strange because I was raised a Baha'i, grew up going to race unity events, and spent most of a year in Mississippi surrounded by black people. If that kind of prejudice is so baked into me, think of how difficult it would be to overcome in people who aren't even trying.
  • My neighborhood has attracted a lot of African immigrant families who were displaced from central African wars during the 1990s. While walking down the street with one of these African-born boys, we passed by two black American teenagers who were smoking. Afterwards my friend said, "I don't understand African Americans. They make bad choices." My mind melted a little. Was he just racist? Am I supposed to say something?
  • The African families generally have loads of kids, so a lot of them arrived in the US with teenagers. Being human, they arrive in high school very socially awkward and they're looking for friends, so they glance around and see some white people and some black people and some Hispanic people and some Asian people and some other humans. So which group do they befriend first? Right, they go to African Americans and try to make friends, but they are culturally totally different. Then they go to the white people and try to fit in, but they don't match up there either. Almost universally they have tried to adopt African American culture in an attempt to join a social club. This was fascinating to observe.
  • For some reason, in America people are considered black if they are any part dark skinned. Barack Obama is as much white as he is black, but everyone calls him a black President. In college I had an epiphany when a teacher showed how that attitude is racist. It means that being white is pure, and anything but 100% white is black. There is huge genetic diversity among Africans, so we really need to come up with some better ways to describe skin tone. 
  • One of my young friends in the neighborhood started telling me that he is not black and I am not white. I'd heard this before, that even using the term "black" is inaccurate and carries a negative association. That's why "African American" became the PC term a long time ago to replace "colored", "negro", and "black". So in a playful way I asked him what am I supposed to call people with dark skin, and he didn't have a good answer. Africans don't like the term "African American" to describe the American descendants of slaves, because they are culturally American. I don't have a solution either, but if you come up with a better phrase, I know a country who could use an answer. 
  • People often see racism where there is none. I care for the kids and youth in our classes like my own. When I was playfully wrestling with one of the teenage boys I was told by a white friend that I shouldn't do that because it looks bad, me being aggressive with a black kid. I found the comment quite strange. 
  • Once, one of the youth commented, "Why are all rich people white?" (she was including me in that category). I paused and said, "It's complicated." 
  • In the park one day, I saw a group of 6-7 year old black boys playing, and one of them got into a fight with a Hispanic kid. He grabbed a plastic pipe and was waving it around. I walked up and grabbed the pipe and said that they wouldn't be fighting as long as I was there. The black kids said that I didn't understand because I'm not black. I gave them a lecture about good behavior, and how they should try playing with the kid. A bit later they were all playing with the Hispanic kid. 
  • The problem of race in America is more about class and wealth than about skin color. Imagine you're playing a game of Monopoly (or maybe Settlers of Catan?) and all the white people get to go around the board three times, and then the black person gets to start. Most of the property will be taken up, and the black fellow is not on an even playing field. Even if racial prejudice were completely eliminated in access to jobs and housing (which it's not), most of the black communities would still be showing worse outcomes in education, wealth, and family cohesion. That's because you can't just let the black guy on the monopoly table and call it fair. There has to be a bias in favor of black people. Affirmative action was the right path, but it hasn't gone far enough. The status quo is unjust.
  • My neighborhood was designed around the principle of mixed housing, which I think is great. It means the neighborhood was designed for a mix of incomes, with about half the neighborhood part of low income subsidized housing. This helps prevent it from turning into a slum and provides social connection for upward mobility. My block is one with privately owned lots, and in three directions are strips of low income duplexes. This is a great principle, except the schools are not mixed. The wealthy families, who are mostly white, send their kids to better schools in other neighborhoods, and all the impoverished families, mostly black and Latino, send their kids to the neighborhood school, which is among the worst performing in the district. Kids there are notoriously misbehaved and disrespectful, especially above 4th grade. The physical mixing of the neighborhood was a great idea, but the schools are segregated by race and income.


  1. Would definitely recommend taking an ethnic studies course if you have any spare time, it has helped me immensely on learning more about race, and ethnicity and how people define themselves within the context of race. It is always good to note that race is not biology and that it is a social construct that came from racism, without racism there would be no need for the concept of race.

  2. I really enjoyed reading your account above. I am a black older woman and find you to be very open and honest. You seem to be very sincere and I thank God for people like you, who care. Vivian Da Artist