By Alex Miller
A recent study revisited the fifty year-old Kerner Report of 1968, the landmark investigation into what caused the civil unrest, racism, and housing inequality of the 60s. Not surprisingly, this inequality is still a problem, and neighborhoods are more segregated now than before. I started life in the ghetto. I’ve lived in white communities. I’ve also watched gentrification swallow up black communities. There’s one thing I’ve learned because of this inequality: Living in white neighborhoods where I’m not welcome is the same as living in poor black neighborhoods where I’m threatened with violence—I’m either going to be forced to leave, or forced to stay.
I’ve seen people get stabbed.
I’ve even seen people with bloody bullet wounds rushing through hallways, weeping.
On occasion I heard women getting raped, and once saw an assault.
This was part of the test, wasn’t it? Part of the government’s project?
All the massive brick buildings looked like a project, an experiment, and African Americans were the subjects. Chain-link fences zigzagged along the sides of the buildings. From 16 stories up, the walkways between the structures showed proof of how distant the rest of the world was. I would place my hand on the fence, much like a subject testing its glass prison, and I’d stare out at parts of the city I’d never been, would likely never see. The John Hancock Center, Navy Pier, Daley Center. I was a monkey in a cage. That’s how the government saw us… some simple, primitive creatures stuck in a state of arrested evolution. They didn’t care about how hard crack hit us. They did not care how many of us died from diabetes. Or gang violence. Or if we were knocked off by cops.
Just another statistic.
I graduated to an all-white neighborhood when I joined the Navy at age 18. Virginia Beach, Virginia was pretty. Quiet. It had perfectly-manicured lawns. Immediately I noticed the change: The cops were called the first night I moved into my apartment.
“Yes, Sir,” I said to the officer, sweating, even though I needn’t. “This is my apartment. I just moved in today. I’m in the Navy.” I hastily produced my military ID and quickly swiped up my lease from the table near the door. The blonde officer snatched the paper out of my hand, nearly ripping it.
He smiled. “I’m sorry, son. Just watch your back, huh? Don’t let me catch you up to no good, boy!” He said the last word like he’d been saying it his entire life. Calling a grown man a boy. Better surroundings, but still…
Just a Negro.
After that, my neighbors merely tolerated me. No one had done so much as to bring me a cup of sugar. But when other Caucasians moved in, it was a housewarming party. It hurt. Like being the one kid on the playground with cooties. I was 11 years-old again.
I never invited African American guests to my place. I made sure to go out to other people’s houses for celebrations, aware that every time I left my home promised to elicit a neighborhood watch. Noses and eyes peeked out from blinds or curtains, waiting for me to mess up. My greatest fear was that the guy in the apartment below me would murder his wife (I’d heard many violent-sounding arguments from my first floor neighbors), and I’d be the prime suspect. I let my lease run out and left the following year.
After the Navy, I left the South and moved to Bushwick, Brooklyn in 2012, aged 25. It was familiar surroundings. The neighborhood was poor and there was plenty of violence to go around. I remember hearing this guy, loudly, telling his friend that someone had stolen his weed:
One guy said, “I’mma tune him up, son!”
His friend yelled, “You want me to bring the goons?”
And the first guy said, “Nah, B…I got this.” Then somebody got shot. And then quiet. I remember trying to calm myself. Because nobody was coming after me, right? Then it happened again. And again. Fear was a constant acquaintance, though it dissipated as time went on.
Only a few months after Hurricane Sandy devastated the East Coast near the end of 2012, I stopped seeing so many black faces on the train on my way home after school. Guys with plaid shirts and red beards, ladies with pint-sized pooches in pouches, and strangers with rucksacks stuffed with what looked like their entire kitchen, boarded the train with me. It was like the storm dragged away the original occupants and washed these newcomers ashore. Once the rent went up and I began feeling like I didn’t belong in my own neighborhood, that I was being watched too intently, that’s when I knew it was time for a move. Just like in Virginia, blacks and whites could not cohabitate. I wrongly thought New York was more progressive. Unfortunately, NYC has been referred to as the Capital of the Jim Crow North.
Just more segregation.
I’m 31 now. I moved to South Harlem nearly three years ago, after living three years in Brooklyn. My new neighborhood is in transition; Harlem off of 125th and 7th isn’t quite Hood, and it’s not totally Hipster. Sure, we have the Whole Foods and the quaint coffee shops that, rather than serve Americano or Cappuccino, have cups of “Relax” and “Bliss” but cost $25. But we also have black-owned barber shops and beauty salons, and a few black-owned food joints with names like “Soraya’s,” and “Sylvia’s”. There are still black, white, and brown faces everywhere. I know that will soon change. How? The increased police presence. The way they treat African Americans…it’s a little too militarized. Normally, the greatest transgressions of these people of color will be standing around, outside the club, near the bodega, or on the corner near the chicken joint.
More often than not, I’ll hear cops shouting something at groups of blacks from their police car speakers:
“Don’t stand there.”
“We heard there was a disturbance.”
“Is everything okay? Well, move along.”
The more white people move in and the more of my neighbors move out, the less safe I feel, the more afraid I become.
One day I’ll wake up and the brown friends I’ve made will be gone. As the police continue to protect blue-eyed newcomers moving in, I can only wonder if I’ll be seen as a suspect just for standing outside the corner store. So, what do I do? The inequality just moves, it never changes. Five decades after the Fair Housing Act of 1968 I’m still witness to white flight and gentrification (thanks to unfair housing practices). I find myself wondering: Do I move back into the projects and risk a bullet, or stay where I am, and risk false imprisonment?
Just a new age…still the same old racism.
Alex Miller is a writer and editor for the black media website Blackexcellence.com. He has published work in Forbes, The New York Times, and The Washington Post, among other places.