Thursday, March 06, 2008

If heaven is on the way

So I was talking with my mother-in-law the other day, and the conversation went like our conversations usually do, where she talks about 95% of the time, and I say "mmhmm" and "oh really?" and "yeah" a lot. She was telling stories about how she got into trouble in high school, but then got diverted onto the subject of how inconvenient it was for everyone she knew when the school district policy started to require forced integration of the school districts, which meant that the bus rides for some people took longer. She honestly couldn't see any need at all for integration of schools, because after all, the people she knew would never harass black students, and if the black students all sat at one table at lunch it was just because they wanted to. All integration was to her was a pointless hassle, and at that point I really didn't have anything to say.

My in-laws and the people I've met here in St Louis since moving here last summer are not bad people. They are intelligent, educated, middle class white folks who insist that St Louis is not, in fact, in the South, but is in the Midwest and so must be untainted with horrible horrible racism. It puzzles me, that they don't see it. St Louis is about half white and half black, I think, although I don't know the current statistics; we are currently living in my grandmother-in-law's house, which is in a neighborhood with exactly zero people who aren't lily white. I go to the grocery store around the corner and it's no more diverse than the stores in rural Washington state where I grew up. On the other hand, if you go up to the northern part of St Louis county, communities there are almost 100% nonwhite. My in-laws' social circle does not include a single person who isn't white.

The way money is spent by the local governments here reflects this segregation to a degree that makes my skin itch. The neighborhood here, which is white and upper middle class, is perfectly safe. You can leave your doors unlocked when you run to the store and you can walk alone at night. I get the impression that the nonwhite neighborhoods are rather dangerous; the principle advice I got when I moved here about how to get around the city was to not go north of downtown or across the river, because doing so means you're going to get shot. It's not just dangerous crime, either. The VA hospital downtown is in a part of town that is right on the edge between a university campus and, to the north of it, a patch of urban poverty recognizable by ancient, poorly maintained, or abandoned buildings: it's a 'black' part of town.

Some of the history of the area is outlined in these posts by The Infamous Brad, which I found via Orcinus. The shooting he talks about occurred in Kirkwood, which is a suburb of St Louis that is only about ten minutes from where I'm living now. Orcinus also gives a link to a previous discussion of sundown towns that mentions Seattle and the Pacific Northwest, which I thought was very interesting. It's easy for a white kid from a white town like me to grow up almost completely ignorant of the complexities of race in our society, but it seems to me like it ought to be more difficult to stay ignorant when your white town is right next to a black town and the difference is so stark. My in-laws do manage to be ignorant, though.

It makes me wonder if the difference between us really is just that I read so much science fiction at such an impressionable age, or if there actually is less racism in the Pacific Northwest like I used to assume. Or maybe the type of racism in Washington- the kind people don't talk about- just doesn't pass along to the next generation as reliably.


Elizabeth McClung said...

Well, I grew up in LA and most of my friend were black because I went to public schools and then there were the bloods and the crips yet most people (or at least the people I was with) didn't see the gangs and the skin colour as the same thing (like, "all black are in gangs"). And while I did recognize of racism or racial ideas about groups of people including whites, I guess my big shock was moving to the UK as my first question was, "Why aren't there racial riots here...all the time?" - the names people would say, I mean I was told, "Don't go there, that's the 'ethnic' area of town." I was like, "Um, can you be more specific.....?" But it was just sort of everyone non white was bad and then the anti semetic stuff I would hear - Wow! And I asked, "Do you know if there ARE any jewish synagoges around here?" I mean I was in Wales for goodness sake.

So yes, I find coming back here to be better and worse, since I like being in an "immigrant land" with an "immigrant culture" where EVERYONE a few generations back came from somewhere, but also, I find it difficult to reconsile some of the things I see in terms of funding or the total apathy toward diversity or integration.

Tayi said...

I have this theory that really horrible racism is worst in places where you can basically categorize races as only two groups. Like here in St Louis, there are black people and there are white people, while in places like LA there are black people and white people and koreans and phillipinos and thai and chinese and a variety of kinds of hispanic and so on, and it seems to me that it's more difficult to see things in such stark 'us v. them' terms when you have a variety of groups.

Of course maybe I'm just seeing connections that aren't there. Who knows.