Race, Space, and Privilege

Recent events have reminded me that as a white teacher engaging students in many racially tinged topics I need to foreground my own privileged social position.  Part of this privilege is the possibility of dismissing race as something that happens elsewhere and to other people.  My daughter just turned thirteen, and the guidance that I am trying to still provide does not include a version of The Talk that black parents often feel the need to have with their own.  My parents didn’t have The Talk with me, and the only time I’ve ever been in a police car, after a low speed car accident in the winter of 1984-85, I was much more concerned with their reaction than that of the cops.  Since then I have known a lot of white people, and none of them have shared fear of the police.  There is no price of whiteness comparable to “The Price of Blackness” described by Lanre Akinsiku.

I grew up in Wisconsin in an overwhelmingly white area, where race was something that happened somewhere else, usually Milwaukee.  But, I was born in and frequently visited Detroit; and, race definitely happened there.  Trying to make sense of the racial hostilities of so many white folks that I knew and the visible difficulty of the black folks whom I only observed while visiting my grandparents probably contributed to an interest in race and racism in American life.  I was also trying to square this reality with my understanding of civil rights gains and my relationship with open-minded family members.  At some level, I think, I was puzzled by the dissonance from living in world where racial divisions persisted while professed racist attitudes and laws diminished.

The recent events in Ferguson, MO have brought all of this to the forefront of my consciousness.  This consciousness of an America still tragically and inequitably makes thinking about other pieces of my work and practice seem trivial, naive, and possible only because of how my race insulates me from having to confront the divisions of race in America.  To be white in America is to have the possibility of avoiding race of living away from the “there” where race happens, but in my own tiny action I reject that.  Students of color know this, and I have found that some respond positively when they sense that I have some inkling that my reality is different from their’s and that I care about that.  More depressing have been the words of other fellow whites that mean to dismiss Mike Brown, jr’s death, some by playing the violence card or what could be called the non-violence card.  As Adam Serwer reports violent elements adjacent to non-violent actions are nothing new in civil

Pew poll showing the racial gap in feelings about the events in Ferguson
Pew poll showing the racial gap in feelings about the events in Ferguson

rights struggle, and the tragedy today is that more people can’t see past them them to greater injustices.  The ease with which many white Americans dismiss the events in Ferguson as insignificantly related to race is evidence of not only the power of these rationalizations, but the degree to which our society remains segregated.  As Justice Ginsburg recently noted the “separation of neighborhoods” is an important factor in the separation of perspectives.

Dismissing this, I think, also means refusing to interrogate or even question the history of racial segregation in America.  The intense racial segregation of urban areas like St. Louis has a history.  It did not just happen.  Actually, it happened in way that penalized African Americans and benefitted white folks.  Any white person whose white family owned a home is beneficiary of government social engineering and white apprehensions of integrated neighborhoods that became a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Since researching the history of post-war racial segregation ten years ago I have worked on how to convey the importance of housing programs and racially segregated neighborhoods to students.  One version of my efforts is below.  A twenty plus slide presentation flies in the face of how I want history instruction to happen, but I have yet to find the time and sources to have students uncover this story.  But, I think the story is important to for US History teachers to learn or review.  My own interest in this story involves an attempt to make sense of the urban uprisings of the 1960s.  Why would people be so angry amidst the progress of the civil rights movement?  This is a personal question for me as I was born in Detroit exactly two months after the uprising there.  This story helped me to understand that:

Racial Segregation in Urban America, post-WWII America from Eric Beckman

As john powell remarks in the episode three of Race: The Power of an Illusion, whiteness is slick because it allowed millions of people to reap the financial rewards of public policy and private prejudices without needing to acknowledge them.  In fact, people did have to work to pay their mortgages, and, even though those mortgages allowed people to pay less for more while  building wealth people still felt that they earned their good fortune.  Powell sums this up as geography doing the work of Jim Crow by creating separate and unequal urban and suburban Americas with disparate racial identities.  The relationship between race and housing is reflexive.   Neighborhood characteristics affect racial content and racial identities.  People take on racial identities as a result of their neighborhoods.  Noel Ignatiev argues that Irish immigrants became white by becoming white workers, and I argue, along with others, that many European Americns secured their whiteness by living in white neighborhoods.  Conversely, millions of African Americans moved north to urban seeking opportunity and instead found themselves confined to overcrowded neighborhoods that were leaking jobs, and the condition of these neighborhoods was “ghetto” as the kids say.  These conditions, that word contributed to how many Americans construct the meaning of Blackness.

My mom’s working class parents in Detroit avoiding being stigmatized by a decaying neighborhood by using my Gramps’s GI Bill benefits to buy a house on the far east side.  My Gramps served in the Navy proudly, though with little risk at his desk job in Hawai’i, and he worked hard to pay the mortgage that allowed him to slowly accrue wealth, and as importantly to keep the family’s housing cost stable and affordable.  Gramps was a great person and his warmth of spirit and open heart are part  of the person that I am today.  His whiteness, however, allowed him to convert service and work into a stable family life in way that was not available to all Americans.  These advantages flowed downhill to me.

It is to recognize these privileges and honor my family at its best that led me to spend time editing the overly long presentation above despite not teaching any US History this year.  These issues of race and housing are especially germane in St. Louis, a very segregated urban area that was home to the three most significant legal challenges to racist housing practices in the 20th century.  Although the Supreme Court invalidated the instruments of separations in each case, the racialization of space and privilege created by decades of discrimination has ensured that it lives on and continues to color how people see the residents of Ferguson and across the metro.  So, I made meager contributions to the #FergusonSyllabus on Twitter and pulled my copy of Mapping Decline, a history of racialized space in St. Louis, off the shelf.  The companion website to the book is an excellent resource  for history and geography teachers.

The racialized divisions of thought and circumstance so tragically evident in Ferguson, MO this month have a history.  US History teachers need to tell this story in order for students to see from whence these divisions come.  White teachers need to recognize their own privileged position in these stories to keep real, to model for white students, and signal to students of color that we at least think about these things.

By Eric Beckman

I am a veteran high school history teacher interested in decolonizing history curricula, anti-racist pedagogy, and e-learning.

One reply on “Race, Space, and Privilege”

Eric, I appreciate your interest, insight, and historical knowledge about the past history of racial inequity and your willingness to articulate and expose the roots and connections of contemporary bias and racism. Your research about the redlining and the GI Bill have revolutionized how I teach about race and class; I was always confounded by the lack of economic progress by many people of color until you helped expose the systemic way that the government institutionalized the race and class divide.

As you know these issues are close to my heart. Two of the most potent impacts on my life have been the financial repercussions of our decision to live in a racially diverse neighborhood/ school district. Another major awareness was that I could not protect my children from the racist actions of others, including teachers. Often these people were unaware of their own biases and would claim their actions had no connection to my children’s race. I remember the incredible change in other people’s attitude toward my (biracial) son. In kindergarten the teacher “pegged” him as a “ring leader”; het too shy to talk, but she projected his quiet behavior into a sullen/ belligerent attitude.….in kindergarten!! When he was about10-12 …. upper elementary he was stopped by police when walking to his cousin (Maya’s) home because he” fit the description” of a burglar (really? age 10/12… on a bike). This happened not once, but twice! In junior high, he found a $20 bill in the bathroom, thought he got lucky, went to the cafeteria to buy an extra lunch and was hauled in the principal’s office where they questioned/ interrogated him about running a counterfeiting ring…. they were serious! He was in 8th grade. The message that these encounters with authority figures from dominant white society, whom we teach our children to trust, can not be underestimated. The messages that were given to my son AND to all the other children around him then and that is still often communicated to our students is very powerful.

Let me know what you think!

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