Sunday, February 24, 2013

The Corner of Washington and Grant: A Confession

I'd like to think that people are incapable of scaring me. I'd like to think I'm untouchable, immune to the plaguing fears of the common man. I'd like to think that nobody's out to get me.

Two winters ago, I lived with my girlfriend in one unfurnished room of a half-shotgun house on Washington Avenue near Tchoupitoulas Street, in the Garden District of New Orleans, Louisiana. They're called shotgun houses because one could feasibly shoot a 12-gauge round through the front door, straight through the rooms, and out the back door.

We slept on an air-mattress insistently sinking into a linoleum floor, constantly cold and surrounded by cockroaches seeking warmth. I jury rigged the broken heater with a bent bottlecap. We acquired two filthy chairs from a pile of evicted furniture sitting on the curb across the street, and strung dollar-store Christmas lights for ambiance.

An early 90's Ford Explorer decayed on the curb outside our shotgun, flat tires, rubber rotting away, at least a year's worth of leaves collected under its rusting frame. The immense duplex across the street was long abandoned and boarded up, an orphan of Hurricane Katrina.

On Washington, we all lived in ruin.

Our flatmate was white, our neighbors in the other half of the shotgun were white, and combined we formed the only Caucasian household for two blocks in any direction. Coming from a rural all-white community in Pennsylvania, I was severely out of my element. My girlfriend grew up in South Carolina, with a distinct Southern mindset of how one lives among people of color.

"I love black people!" she exclaimed, on more than one occasion. "They know what respect is."

They. That word haunts me. The concept of The Other personified in actual, relatable beings: Shawn, whose courteous street greetings made me excited to know Southerners, and the always curler'd Miss Sylvia, who invited us to her birthday party only because we happened to be on her walk home.

A few days before Christmas, sitting in our ratty chairs and drinking three-dollar wine, the soundscape broke with a sudden pop-pop-pop. My girlfriend looked up at me, worried.
"Don't worry, baby," I reassured her, "It's just firecrackers."
We kept on playing cards, and then Shawn ran by the window, and then all Miss Sylvia's babies, the innumerable teens who live in-and-out of her house, flooded by like the levees had crumbled again.
"Lil Remo got shot!" was all we heard. Our street was cordoned off for days. I've checked, since then, to see who exactly took a bullet that day. No Google search reveals the police report, no mention of a shooting on Washington Ave that night. We didn't imagine it; it simply went unnoticed.

In the ghetto bordering the Mighty Brown River, a fistful of blocks from where Mardi Gras krewes prep their floats and Tipitina's continues to host incredible music, where Washington Ave is an eyesore in the midst of Magazine Street's boutique shopping and hipsters eating organic eggs on hungover Sundays, nobody fucking cares. Because they don't live there.

We live on Grant Boulevard, which sounds fancy in name, but it's a paltry approximation of post-Katrina avenues. It's post-industrial central New York, bleak houses gilt with hardwood floors and glass doorknobs cut like crystal, exteriors charcoaled with exhaust fumes, built in the hundreds for Irish and Italian factory workers. The boulevard is shabby but not chic. Rent is cheap. Sidewalks crumble, winter snow and snowplow salt eat away at fundamental structures, and everybody keeps their head down.

It's gross to smoke inside, so we sit on our porch. Catercorner to the northeast, a grizzled Italian in coveralls accepts the hand-off of a puppy through the window of a decrepit Chevy van. Those folks yell a lot, and they pass an awful lot of puppies from house to vehicle. We watch kids walk by, oblivious to the cold. They are black, and they are white, and they don't see The Other. They're just them, tromping through the unshoveled spans, cursing everybody and singing along to whatever's playing through earbuds under woolen caps.

The walkway in front of my house is clear. Bare pavement, and snowbanks on either side up to your hips. I tried to shovel it, but I got trumped by the guy next door with his growling snowblower, early in the morning, before anybody goes to work. I don't know if he works; the bro upstairs says our neighbor is a wannabe drug kingpin.
I don't care, that was awfully nice.

I'm in this neighborhood because I'm poor. That makes me statistically just as likely to rob a stranger on Syracuse streets as anyone of any race. I know, logically, that socioeconomic status is the primary factor in crime rates. I know, reasonably, that race is secondary to class, that folks around here have little hope of breaking out of our debt-ridden rut, and that creates an atmosphere of desperation. Rationally, I have nothing to fear because I have nothing worth stealing.
Expectations are rarely rational.

But when I sit on my porch, a white man in a black neighborhood, I watch. I tense.
I wish I wouldn't.
When the sirens roll by, I peek out between Venetian blinds to see what drama is unfolding on my street. I'm afraid Lil Remo followed us to Syracuse and got shot again, just to freak us out. I'm that white guy, peering from his perceived safe space thinking I'll probably be okay.

And I hate myself for it.

Sunday, February 17, 2013

Pots and Kettles: Saw That Coming

(Apologies for the delay. Things have been crazy with the Gawker essay and all. Enough of that, let's get back to business: the evisceration of ignorance!)

In a previous post, I referenced a Buffalo man who made some rather disconcerting remarks last summer, following an arson fire that destroyed a Congolese family's home. Now, William Shanahan has been arrested for robbing a First Niagara Bank on Wednesday morning.

My first thought was, Figures. A bigot swears up and down that black people bring crime into neighborhoods, and then gets nabbed for larceny. That, Alanis, is what we call "ironic."

My second thought was, Wait, is it ironic? She got it wrong a dozen times, maybe I need to check myself.

In a rational discussion of controversial topics, does a participant's character or background have any bearing on what they say? If someone in a glass house chooses to throw an unwise stone anyway, does their motivation for throwing that stone come into play?

Visit any website's comment section or discussion forum, and you'll find countless instances of character assassination and ad hominem attacks, formulated to distract from the actual topic at hand. It's often easier to discredit the person than the argument, simply because digging up dirt, real or imaginary, takes far less effort than forming a logical assault on facts. The narrative paradigm becomes laced with emotional outbursts and vitriol rather than calm statements and discourse.

But I'm not telling you anything new there. We all have felt like our character was on trial rather than our statements. Here's the problem: we've all felt like that. And not everybody has a right to make that complaint.

See, the narrative paradigm relies on one very, very important axiom: consistency.

I'm with William Fisher on this one; people are essentially storytellers. Our arguments in modern times are not Socratic campfire sessions based on rigorous, objective rules. Nowadays, we rely on anecdotes and parables, presenting a logical flow with a subjective twist.

We want to relate.

The one big obstacle to accepting a storyteller's version of events, or opinions, is the perceived lack of cohesion between their character (in itself a subjective byproduct of culture, personal history, and too many other variables to count) and their story. Did they behave uncharacteristically? Did they have a sudden about-face that doesn't fit the narrative? Does it all make sense?


William Shanahan makes sense, at least to me. My first thought was categorically unsurprised. I fully expect an ignorant white supremacist to be uneducated, thus prone to drug arrests leading to multiple run-ins with the police that culminate in a stupid-ass statement to the press and a delusion of bank robbery grandeur.

Even though he's wrong, he's not a hypocrite. He is a fully-fleshed, absolutely consistent character within a story: a goddamn idiot with goddamn idiot prejudices committing goddamn idiot crimes.

Saturday, February 9, 2013

The Redneck Elite

“Prejudices, it is well known, are most difficult to eradicate from the heart whose soil has never been loosened or fertilised by education: they grow there, firm as weeds among stones.”
― Charlotte Brontë, Jane Eyre

The tavern floor is covered in snowy bootprints. Blue-collar country men sit at the bar, sipping bottles of Labatt's and chatting about the oncoming blizzard. They're unconcerned. It's just one more CNY winter, nothing to get riled about.

The door opens and a suit walks in. He takes a seat at the far end of the bar, well away from the grizzled locals, and orders a Scotch. The regulars, a homogenous crew of flannels, Northface fleeces, and Carhartt coveralls, go silent. One, a bleary-eyed mechanic with a shaved head and a nose like a rotten potato, shakes his head. "Uppity fucking city-folk," he mutters. He orders a round for his buddies, deliberately ignoring the well-dressed newcomer.

The man next to him, wearing a newsboy cap and reeking of stale urine, clamors gleefully, "Hey, Johnny decided to be a white man!" That's what they say when somebody buys them a drink. Only white men are generous.

Xenophobia, the fear of foreigners, is widespread throughout many rural areas in America, and the rural suburbs of Syracuse are no exception. Insular communities cherish their well-known surnames, family connections, reputations, honest dealings, and time spent in one area. Travel outside the community is alright, as long as you come back. Living anywhere other than the town you grew up in is seen as betrayal. Moving up in the world equates to snobbery and arrogance. There's nothing a country boy hates more than somebody thinking they're better than he is, except for maybe a black man in the Oval Office.

Where does this value system stem from? Nas said it best, "Niggas fear what they don't understand, hate what they can't conquer."

My father, a country preacher with no formal education beyond Bible school, taught me a fundamental Greek concept that has stuck with me to this day. Knowledge (epignosis) is a list of facts, which leads to understanding (sunesis, literally, "the flowing together of two rivers"), which leads to wisdom (sophia), the practical application.

To conquer this fear of what we do not know, then, it seems clear that the process begins with knowledge. Oh, if only someone would invent a method or create a system that could give us this magical "knowledge" thing!

These are the men with their snowy boots and their 11 AM beers, their bigotry and their snark. Without a worldview shaped by education and experience outside their comfort zones, they craft their own narrative: a story in which only white men buy each other drinks, outsiders with their outside knowledge and fancy edumacation are suspicious creatures deserving of distrust, and everybody has magical bootstraps with which to pull themselves up... but only so far.

Sunday, February 3, 2013

NIMBY vs Movin' On Up

My first thought upon hearing this passive-aggressive rant was, You, sir, are a goddamn idiot.
I've heard this opinion voiced a thousand times, and usually more explicitly than the anonymous Buffalo resident articulated. There's far more "damn niggers" in the complaints I hear, almost daily, from aging drunk white men in the southern suburbs of Syracuse, lamenting how their neighborhoods have been overrun and recounting their imagined halcyon days of quaint restaurants, honest dealings, and murder-free walks along Salt City streets.

But, to play Devil's Advocate, are they
right? The answer is, like many race-related issues... complicated.

Underlying the interviewee's smirking, "Minorities... African-Americans," clarification (in which one can clearly hear his brain-to-mouth filter overloading with epithets), is his assertion that black people ruin predominantly white neighborhoods. Drilling down even further, the primary problem is a perception that when black people start increasing in numbers within a previously white-dominated area, the crime rate increases, poverty levels go up, education diminishes, property values decline, and overall neighborhood aesthetics take a turn for the worse.

Is this really happening? Well, kindof. But not for the reasons he thinks they are. And not for the reasons those red-nosed, red-necked good ol' boys in the outlying farmlands think they are, either.

Let's step back in time a bit, to the 1930's. It's the dusty bottom of the Depression. Banks don't want to lend money, because nobody's making enough to pay it back. If you wanted to buy a home, you paid half down and the rest over the next five years or so. In steps President Franklin D. Roosevelt with his mighty New Deal, which spawns the Federal Housing Administration, forever altering the landscape of the American Dream. Homeownership now meant only 10% down, thirty years in which to pay it back, and a reasonable interest rate, all guaranteed by the FHA.

If you already lived in an area that could be guaranteed by the FHA, that is. See, the banks that handled these FHA loans wanted some promises of their own, namely, that they wouldn't have to loan large amounts of money on remarkable terms to folks that, in their judgment, would never be able to pay them back. Enter the Home Owner's Loan Corporation. In one year (1936) they managed to rate every neighborhood in the country on a scale of Green to Red; Green meant you were automatically guaranteed an FHA-backed mortgage, and in a process that came to be known as redlining, everything in Red was royally fucked.

How did the HOLC manage to rate every major metropolitan area in just one year? They had your average real-estate guy survey the neighborhoods and answer the following questions: 
  • Is the area new or recently-built?
  • Is there an infiltration of a lower-grade population? (including Negroes, Jews, and foreign-born whites?)
Here's the map that resulted:
If you live in Syracuse, like I do, this will seem like common knowledge. But keep in mind, these designations were made in 1937, halfway between the Civil War and now. Nedrow, the South Salina corridor, the quadrants created by the intersection of 81 and 690... these are the Red Zones. Anything along a railroad or bordering a factory is at risk. Downtown is No Man's Land.

Now take a look at a map of Syracuse's poverty levels based on 2010 Census data:
Look familiar? Red zones from the HOLC map correlate almost exactly with today's percentage of 'Cusians living below the poverty level. Green zones coincide in much the same way, concentrating wealth in areas deemed by the HOLC as white, homogenous, wealthy neighborhoods.

Unlike what the unnamed Buffalo contractor is telling us, or what the fairly well-off ruralburbian folks are bitching about, this isn't a story about inherent laziness or welfare addiction or black weakness.
This is a story about privilege.

It's a well-studied fact that lower household income correlates to a higher risk for drug use, unemployment, low education level, and crime. That fact is the same regardless of race. Poor white folks hit the rock just like poor black folk. The problem is, Roosevelt guaranteed there'd be more poor black folk than any other kind, when the FHA and HOLC made it damn near impossible for blacks to buy property in neighborhoods where they already resided. And to move on up required monumental gains in capital, which, given the leg-up whites in Syracuse had in the manufacturing sector (remember when that was a thing?) and overall percentage of income that went to simply providing basic needs, was also damn near impossible.

The folks living in neighborhoods deemed Green in 1937 were almost exclusively white. And they stayed white, because there was no reason to move unless more affluent blacks "infiltrated" the area. As whites have moved out of "yellow" areas, more blacks and Hispanics have moved in, until the overall integration of Syracuse has become even wider and weirder. White folks are moving out, because they're ignorant of their city's history, and they're scared and ignorant. People of color are more than glad to fill that vacancy because they can afford to, and, because they were given nothing in the New Deal and raked over the coals by sub-prime lending, have not much else to lose.

Black people don't ruin neighborhoods anymore than white people keep them nice. Neighborhoods are communities, and they are maintained by groups of people with common goals, and maybe a little spare cash to keep those goals afloat. Any neighborhood, regardless of racial mix, will be an eyesore if its residents are below the poverty line and can't get a foothold in the current system.

I guess what I mean to say is, we are all in this together. And that guy from Buffalo is still a goddamn idiot.

(Thanks to Kristen R. for the video submission.)

What Happened to the Laboratory?: An Introduction

In the mid-1800's, there was no more important issue facing our nation than that of slavery. Caught smack in the middle of the conflict between those who viewed African-Americans as property and those who fought for freedom, was the city of Syracuse, NY.

Though the Civil War wouldn't arise for another decade, unrest was already fomenting after Congress passed the Fugitive Slave Law in 1850, declaring it a federal crime to interfere with a slaveowner's right to reclaim his "property." Syracuse fought back, through the activism of those like Congressman Gerrit Smith and Reverend Samuel May, even to the point of executing a prison break to spring an escaped slave from the Syracuse city jail. Secretary of State Daniel Webster condemned Syracuse as a "laboratory of abolitionism, libel, and treason."

Clearly this city's activist roots run deep. There was once fertile soil here, where ambitious ideas of equality and suffrage could grow. Yet, 160 years later, we find ourselves in Upstate NY listed as the 2nd most racist region in the country.

Sadly, this comes as no surprise to many residents. Anecdotally, most of us have had brushes with blatant racism, homophobia, misogyny, and overall social inequality. This begs the question: what the hell happened?

I do not pretend to have the answers, but I know a problem when I see one, and Spoiled Orange is my spotlight. For us to deal appropriately with a disease, we first must properly diagnose it. That is my intent here. I will be exploring local incidents of prejudice, interviewing community leaders, showcasing activist movements, and dragging the oppressors out of their dark, safe places and into the public light. Kicking and screaming, if need be.

If you have questions, stories, suggestions, or links, feel free to submit them.
Let's rebuild the laboratory.