The sociology of living while black

Protesters march past the Starbucks in Philadelphia’s Center City, where two black men were arrested for loitering, April 16.

Black Americans are asserting their rights in “white spaces.” That’s when whites call 911, a Yale sociologist explains.

What is driving the surge of incidents in which white people have called the police to report black people who are simply going about their business — hanging out at Starbucks, eating lunch in a “common room” at Smith College, barbecuing in a public park?

Part of the answer has to do with the ubiquity of cell phones and social media, which allow news of racist incidents (which have always existed) to spread more quickly than ever.

Yet there is also a sociological explanation. Many white people have not adjusted to the idea that black people now appear more often than ever in places of privilege, power, and prestige — or just places where they were historically unwelcome.

When black people do appear in such places, white people subconsciously or explicitly want to banish them to a place I have called the “iconic ghetto”—to the stereotypical space in which they think all black people belong, a segregated space for second-class citizens.

A lag between the rapidity of black progress and white acceptance of that progress is responsible for this impulse, which is also exacerbated by the current presidential administration, which has emboldened white racists with its racially charged rhetoric and exclusionist immigration policies.

The civil-rights revolution upended longstanding notions of what spaces counted as “black” and “white”

Over the last half century, the United States has undergone a profound racial incorporation process that has resulted in the largest black middle class in history — a population that no longer feels obligated to stay in historically “black” spaces. When members of this black middle class (and other black Americans, too) appear in civil society today, they demand a regard that accords with their rights, obligations, and duties as full citizens of the United States of America.

Yet many white people fundamentally reject that black people are owed such regard, and indeed often feel that their own rights have somehow been abrogated by contemporary racial inclusion. They seek to push back on the recent progress in race relations, and they now believe they have an ally in the White House.

As these whites observe black people navigating the “white,” privileged spaces of our society, they experience a sense of loss or a certain amount of cognitive dissonance. They may feel an acute need to “correct” what is before their eyes, to square things, or set the “erroneous” picture right — to re-establish cognitive consonance. They need to put the black interlopers in their place, literally and figuratively. The blacks must have their “uppity” behavior corrected, and they must be directed back to “their” neighborhoods and designated social spaces.

Not courageous enough to try to accomplish this feat alone, many of these self-appointed color-line monitors seek help from wherever it can be found — from the police, for instance. The interlopers may simply want visit their condo’s swimming pool, something white people typically do without a second thought, or take a nap in a student dorm common room, make a purchase in an upscale store, or drive a “nice” car. For the offense of straying — for engaging in ordinary behavior in public and being black at the same time — they incur the white gaze along with a call to the police.

In times past, before the civil rights revolution, the color line was more clearly marked. Both white and black people knew their place, and for the most part, observed it. When people crossed that line — black people, anyway — they faced legal penalties, or extra-judicial violence.

In those times, to live while black was to be both “free” and American but to reside firmly within a virtual color caste — essentially, to live behind the veil, as W.E.B. DuBois put it in The Souls of Black Folk.

The role of the “iconic ghetto” in the white imagination

But social iconography is more complex today. Today, public spaces are understood by many urban dwellers as a mosaic of “black space,” “white space,” and “cosmopolitan space” — the latter referring to a relatively few virtual islands of racial civility located in a sea of segregation. In Philadelphia, for instance, these cosmopolitan islands might include some large areas, like the Reading Terminal Market, or Rittenhouse Square, as well as smaller areas like certain coffee shops and restaurants (including some Starbucks).

In this sociological context, the urban ghetto is presumed to be, descriptively, “the place where the black people live,” but also, stereotypically, a den of iniquity, a fearsome, impoverished place of social backwardness, where black people perpetrate all manner of violence and crime against one another.

Between black and white space, travel usually goes in one direction only. While white people usually avoid black space, black people are required to navigate the white space as a condition of their existence.

Black ghettos, and whites’ attitudes about them, emerged after slavery, and reinforced what slavery had established — that the black person’s place was at the bottom of the American racial order, the ghettos helping to fuse in the public mind lowly status with black skin.

In the minds of the white majority, the ghetto became a fixture of mental as well as physical space. Each generation of white people became socially invested in the lowly place of black people; these people understood their own identity in terms of who they opposed, and this positionality was passed on from racist generation to racist generation.

In practical terms, whites know little about the iconic ghetto and the people who inhabit it. But despite that lack of specified knowledge, for many whites, the anonymous black person in public is always implicitly associated with the urban ghetto. The link to the ghetto is so strong that it becomes the “master status” of the typical black person, to use a term coined by sociologist E.C. Hughes, the feature that most defines black people in the white imagination.

Anonymous black people — wherever they may actually live, and whatever their profession — therefore move about civil society with a deficit of credibility in comparison with their white counterparts, who are given a “pass” as decent and law-abiding citizens.

The upshot of this system is that the average black person wages a constant campaign for respect, which is lost before it begins, because the judges are most often the contestants who compete with black people for place and position in our increasingly pluralistic and thus rivalrous society.

To some whites, every anonymous black person belongs in the “iconic ghetto”

Thus, the issue here is not simply the white supremacy of old but also a powerful new form of symbolic racism that now targets black people for behaving in ordinary ways while being black at the same time. Often these attacks seem to come out of the blue, but they are deeply rooted in the psychological unease created in many white Americans by the shift from a segregated to a desegregated society.

Strikingly, the iconic ghetto impacts the image of almost every black person — even as black Americans now inhabit all levels of the national class and occupational structure. They attend the best schools, pursue the professions of their choosing, and occupy various positions of power, privilege, and prestige.

But for black people in public, the specter of the urban ghetto always lurks. In all walks of life, the iconic ghetto hovers over American race relations, shaping the conception of the anonymous black person.

Elijah Anderson is the Lanman professor of sociology at Yale University. This essay has been adapted from his forthcoming book Black in White Space.

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source: vox

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