Monday, July 11, 2016

Race in America

In making the transition from electrical engineering, I spent quite some months thinking about what exactly it was that I wanted to study in graduate school, which would define the rest of my life. Which is how I finally settled on urban planning programs--cities were the physical settings where all the issues that interested me, worried me, came together.

In one of the courses in my first year, the assigned readings included a lengthy essay on the "underclass" here in America.  To quite some extent, that essay was also how I first came to know about a literary world in America that was immensely more than the Time and Newsweek and Readers Digest, which were the only ones that I had seen and read in India.

I was reminded of that essay when reading this book-review article in the New Yorker.  Yet again I am left wondering why a book-review essay in the New Yorker is so much more enjoyable to read, while book-reviews in academic publications are incredibly boring and painful!

The essay from the graduate school days introduced me to the spatial aspects of injustice here in America.  The setting of the university where I was a student further drove home the reality that America was a land of milk and honey, but not to everybody.  The university was surrounded by visible signs of poverty, in which the people's skins were in various shades of brown--to the south, it was a dark brown that we refer to as black, and to the north and east was the lighter brown of the Hispanics.

The New Yorker notes:
By some estimates, African-Americans are more isolated now than they were half a century ago. 
The President and his wife are more the exception than the norm.

The essay is about gentrification, which here in America is closely correlated with race issues as well.
The story of gentrification was, curiously, the story of neighborhoods destroyed by desirability. As the term spread through academic journals and then the popular press, “gentrification,” like “ghetto,” became harder to define. At first, it referred to instances of new arrivals who were buying up (and bidding up) old housing stock, but then there was “new-build gentrification.” Especially in America, gentrification often suggested white arrivals who were displacing nonwhite residents and taking over a ghetto
However, there is also a distinct pattern about where the gentrification happens:
A recent study found that Chicago neighborhoods that were forty per cent or more African-American were the least likely to experience gentrification. This statistic was cited by the journalist Natalie Y. Moore in her new book about her city, “The South Side.” She recounts the pride she felt when she bought a condo in a seemingly up-and-coming South Side neighborhood: she paid a hundred and seventy-two thousand dollars, and she was shocked when, five years later, an assessor told her that its value had depreciated to fifty-five thousand. She writes about herself as a “so-called gentrifier,” adding, ruefully, that “black Chicago neighborhoods don’t gentrify.”
Gentrification bypasses neighborhoods that are "too black"?

The more things change, the more they stay the same :(


Ramesh said...

You admonished me against scratching a somewhat sparsely coiffured head, and yet I can't but do it again. Unclear why race relations have become so sensitive an issue in the US . When you elected Obama, the world looked at you with admiration and respect. Why has it gone so south now.

It appears to be more cop focussed than a real race issue. Your cops and people in positions of some petty authority (read TSA, immigration officials) are the rudest in the world. Since blacks face the most action from the cops, perhaps it has turned more starkly into a race issue, but if you dispassionately consider the behaviour of the cops in the US with the cops in Europe, the difference is stark.

Sriram Khé said...

Yes, the world looked at the US with awe for having elected a son of a Kenyan, and with a descendant of a slave as the First Lady. Many of us were truly elated by it.
However, the GOP's presidential candidate spent the past eight years throwing flaming torches questioning Obama's eligibility. Trump was the chief of the Birthers! Trump, et al, have managed to make bigotry and racism fashionable :(
My point is to question your usage of "now" ...

Immigration officials used to be super-friendly--even back in my student visa days. But, after 9/11, they seem to have switched to suspecting anybody who is not fair-skinned. It is really, really, awful. I started making sure that at airports I don't do or say anything that can remotely bring attention to the bearded, accented, brown-skinned me. I would similarly think that in this contemporary state of affairs, blacks have plenty of stories ...

Your comments made me get away from the gentrification issues ... in any case, race issues are for real--they are not imagined. The only ones who perhaps do not feel any race issues are, well, the white folks.

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