While the ideas presented below have been kicking around in my head for a while, this entry was most proximately inspired by a Facebook post which was picked up and shared all over social media in recent days. It reads, in part:
“Instead of saying ‘I am Trayvon Martin’ it would do more good for white people [and non-Black people] in solidarity with the Trayvon Martin case to recognize all the ways they are Zimmerman.
“As in, if you live in a ‘safe’ suburban or gated community that is mostly white and that is considered a ‘good’ neighborhood because it excludes people of colour [especially excluding Black people] then you benefit from the same conditions that created Zimmerman.”
Last Saturday night, while walking my dog through the “good” neighborhood adjacent to the “bad” neighborhood I live in, I noticed a group of five young, African-American men walking down the middle of the otherwise deserted street. Although they had not noticed me and did not engage me in any way, I tugged on the dog’s leash and quickly walked in the opposite direction.
As I increased my pace back toward my apartment, I was struck by a sickening thought: I am George Zimmerman.
Let me back up. I live in an apartment within a rowhouse on Greenmount Avenue, which has a reputation throughout Baltimore for drugs and violence. The communities to the east of Greenmount, including Waverly and Pen-Lucy, are predominantly low-income and African-American. The blocks are laid out in a more or less grid formation and contain a seemingly paradoxical combination of high population density and high vacant housing rates.
Here’s a map with Greenmount as the dividing line. The neighborhood on the right side is the one I’m talking about.
Immediately to the west of Greenmount is a series of non-contiguous enclaves of predominantly white, upper-middle class homeowners. These communities are not quite as densely populated than those on the other side of Greenmount, yet there’s not a vacant house in sight. The streets are greener, more curvilinear, and much less heavily trafficked. Many are one-way, which makes neighborhoods like Oakenshawe and Guilford difficult to enter, difficult to exit, and virtually impossible to navigate.
Check out the demographic breakdown of the two sides of Greenmount. (Blue is for African-American residents, green is for white residents.)
Representing the profound racial, economic, and class divisions that separate these two sides of Baltimore is a mere six inches of concrete. A continuation of the sidewalk along Greenmount prevents any vehicles from turning into the more affluent neighborhoods. And although that low berm does not impede foot traffic, its presence acts as an astoundingly effective deterrent to any pedestrian ingress from Greenmount or the neighborhoods to the east.
[The phenomenal podcast 99% Invisible committed an entire episode to the architectural and design elements that perpetuate the segregation of these neighborhoods and their residents.]
The result is that if you’re African-American who lives on the east side of Greenmount at 35th St., you’re going to feel profoundly out of place if you walk just a couple of hundred yards outside your house. At the very least, you’ll receive sidelong stares from the people trimming their lawns. Likely as not, you’ll be accosted by the security service that patrols the tree-lined boulevards in vehicles with flashing yellow police-style lights. The message is literally built into the architecture of these neighborhoods: you are not welcome.
I choose to walk my pit bull mix in Oakenshawe for a couple of reasons. For one thing, she’s a shelter dog with a lot of anxiety that can turn into aggression around other dogs and people, so it’s better for everyone’s well-being, including hers, to walk her in a less traveled area. Secondly, it’s frankly more pleasant to walk alongside flower gardens and flagstones than amid broken glass and the roar of the MTA as it belches exhaust in its wake. Occasionally I’ll encounter unfriendly stares from residents who don’t like pit bulls, but I never once have been stopped by the security patrol.
The reason for this is white privilege.
White privilege allows me to walk my dog when and where I like. White privilege permits me to live where I choose, within certain financial constraints. White privilege determines how people respond to me when I greet them on the street. White privilege was a factor in deciding how and where I was educated, how and where I found employment, how I plan for my economic future. White privilege helps define my social and professional networks. White privilege is the main reason I don’t get hassled by the neighborhood watch in Guilford, even when I’m strolling down the street after midnight.
I am a legatee of white privilege. I am its beneficiary. I reap its rewards even though I cannot afford a house in the affluent neighborhood, my ethnic heritage is Latino, and I look like this:
As a frame of reference:
Back to last Saturday night: when I saw that group of men coming toward me on the street, my immediate response was fear for my safety. I thought about the verdict that had been handed down just hours before, and about the anger and anguish that I might be feeling that night, were I a young African-American man walking through an unfriendly neighborhood. I considered my own status as a fortyish, middle-class white man who enjoys the nightly privilege of strolling with impunity through what is virtually a gated community. I imagined a worst-case scenario arising from a hypothetical confrontation. And I chose to go back home.
The fact that I felt fear and made that choice had nothing to do with anything those five men did or said. It had everything to do with the way I have internalized the racist attitudes and responses that are woven into the fabric of our society. It had to do with the fact that if the neighborhood watch had rolled up at that moment, they would have made immediate assumptions about who “belonged” on that street and who did not. It had to do with which of us the legal system would intrinsically favor if some notional altercation had actually come to pass.
When it comes to the Trayvon Martin case, I have no answers. I don’t sympathize with George Zimmerman and I certainly don’t have any use for the fools, zealots, and panderers who have already made him cause célèbre. But neither am I compelled by my white liberal peers in social media forums who so casually and confidently reduce the case to the simple categories of “racist” and “non-racist” (and they know which group they belong to, thank you very much).
Structural racism affects all of us. Those of us who enjoy white privilege are complicit in it to varying degrees, but we’re all accountable. If I enjoy white privilege, it doesn’t matter whether I choose to think of myself as a “good person;” it’s not about that. It doesn’t matter whether or not I feel “white guilt;” it’s not about that, either. What matters, I think, is that I honestly consider my own role in perpetuating or reducing racism, and then – here’s the important part – do something more than changing my Twitter icon.
So I’m not George Zimmerman, not really. But I acknowledge that in the context of structural racism, privilege, and the protection of law, I have a lot more in common with him than I care to admit. As deeply troubling as that realization is, it strengthens my resolve to not delude myself into thinking this is somebody else’s problem.
Hopefully that’s a decent place to start.