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Barack Obama Eased My White Guilt For White Flight

As a straight white guy with a propensity for boozing, I feel qualified to observe that not only is everyone (at least) a little bit gay; everyone is (more than) a little bit racist. It doesn’t matter if you’re white, … Read More

By / March 28, 2008

As a straight white guy with a propensity for boozing, I feel qualified to observe that not only is everyone (at least) a little bit gay; everyone is (more than) a little bit racist. It doesn’t matter if you’re white, black, brown or tangerine; if you are a human being, you hold a few conscious or subconscious prejudices. And you’re a little bit gay.

Sen. Barack Obama’s speech on racial tension seems to have rescued his campaign from the liability of his radical pastor. He criticized whites for ignoring racial injustices such as our prison population and unequal public schools, but also hammered black leaders for their simmering resentments against Caucasians who have rejected bigotry for generations. It was a major break from conventional identity politics, and has received widespread praise as the most forthright commentary in decades, but a complete abandonment of America’s racial tensions might exceed our limited human capacity.

The speech came at an especially meaningful time for me. Over the last ten months I’ve lived in a mostly black neighborhood in Brooklyn, which has prompted a large degree of soul-searching. Although I lived in Washington, D.C. for six years, I spent most of the time in the “affluent” northwest quadrant. (Oh, there are so many fun words amongst real estate professionals that substitute for illegal ones: “young professionals,” “trendy,” “middle-class,” “lots of families,” “safe.”)

When I moved to New York, I only had two days to find an apartment. Rents in “affluent” neighborhoods with numerous “young professionals” are considerably higher than in “up-and-coming” neighborhoods. Whereas I lived in a luxury building in D.C. with a gym, pool, doorman, deck, chandeliered lobby and (most lavish of all) dishwasher, I was suddenly—thanks to my desperate rush and journalist’s budget—in a neighborhood where the only appetizing-looking restaurant is a McDonald’s, save for a Mexican eatery that gave me a gastrointestinal holocaust.

The real estate agent assured me that the neighborhood is “safe” and “middle-class,” but since I moved a few people have been murdered around the block and numerous delis have been robbed at gunpoint. Police sirens and car alarms blare throughout the night. Even the graffiti is graffitied. Drug dealers sometimes hang out at the self-service laundry, which might be okay if A) I hadn’t stopped smoking marijuana after college, and B) the drug they’re selling were marijuana.

Although I have not been threatened or mugged, I have notified my landlord that I am not renewing my lease. I will soon move to either a “nice” part of Brooklyn or “Manhattan below Harlem,” despite the exorbitant rents. Except here’s the thing: “nice” and “below Harlem” are fancy ways of saying “white,” or at least “whiter.” I don’t like to admit this; it makes me feel dirty, which is saying something.

Of course, I’m leaving because of the crime, and there’s nothing discriminatory about wanting to stay bullet-free. If the gangsters were white, I wouldn’t want to live around them either—and Little Italy is too touristy anyway.

But I can’t deny that part of my motivation for leaving is that I feel like an outsider. It’s not that I feel endangered walking down the street, or at least not most of the time, but I can feel eyes staring at me in the grocery store and subway station. I frequently remind myself that it’s a matter of class instead of race: poor whites are just as likely to commit crime as poor blacks, and it’s not like anybody wants to be poor. And it’s really not that bad here—a little “shady” (yet another word) but hardly an urban war zone, as Hollywood would have us believe. I play Martin Luther King, Jr. quotes inside my brain, trying to reassure myself that it’s important—for the good of my character and my country—to challenge my comfort zone. This is exactly what Obama urged last week.

When I first moved here I hoped that I would make a ton of friends, understand another culture and transcend the social barriers that have segregated our country long after the demise of Jim Crow. Unfortunately I haven’t gotten to know anyone, and have felt increasingly isolated. I could have tried harder, I suppose, but there’s an awkward cultural gulf between us. The neighbors are very nice people—they always offer to help if I’m carrying too many groceries or packages, which I would never expect of “affluent” snobs on the Upper West Side—but I can sense the tension in the air.

The tension stems from this, as some of the longtime residents have explained to me with a tone that is (usually) kind and patient, but frustrated: just as “young professionals” tend to prefer neighborhoods with other “young professionals,” the people who live in ethnic neighborhoods—and mine is largely Caribbean—are very proud of their cultures, and don’t always view Starbucks and luxury condos as signs of progress.

Often they view such things as harbingers of skyrocketing rents and dissolution of their tight-knit communities. I’m not the only “young professional” who has moved here recently, and many longtime residents fear the cultural onslaught of gentrification. Some believe there are positives, for example an influx of cash into local businesses and (supposedly) more police protection.

However, they don’t necessarily want their jerk chicken stands replaced with organic vegan restaurants and sushi fusion; they don’t necessarily want their churches replaced with $1,000 per month fitness clubs; they don’t necessarily want their way of life replaced with yoga-practicing, smoothie-sipping, insufferable bourgeois bohemian freakiness, which has happened over and over in this city. Just as “young professionals” don’t want to live in a “certain kind” of neighborhood, we aren’t always welcome in the first place. (Yesterday I heard one resident say to another as I walked by: “more white people—not a good sign.”)

Segregation was one of the most horrendous evils of our history, and Obama’s words are beautiful as usual. It might be harder for us to embrace one another’s culture, however, than to simply ignore one another’s skin color. We are all afraid of something and weak in some way—everyone gravitates toward the familiar—but human nature isn’t always the problem; sometimes it’s the limits of our nature.

In other words, racism is totally gay.

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