Anti-racist Neighboring: Where Will You Live? How will you neighbor?
An open letter to young white adults with options who want justice:
This may be a hopeful moment. Millions have taken to the streets to challenge police brutality against unarmed Black people, and, more broadly, against systemic racism. A series of incidents captured on video put on display the everyday ugliness and violence of our nation’s legacy of injustice based on race and class. Urgent voices are insisting that Black Lives Matter and are chanting for change. This creates a window of opportunity for our country to shift direction fundamentally.
But what this moment in history ultimately means for racial justice will be determined not by what people say, but by what people actually do in the coming years. What will your commitment to justice mean for how you live your life?
The moment of plasticity we are in now is not the first in our history around race; indeed, there has been a series of moments when change was possible, and, tragically, an accompanying history of failure to fundamentally dismantle systems of racial hierarchy and oppression. Too many times in the past, an unwillingness to undertake fundamental change or a weariness with fighting entrenched racism has crept in and instead white people of good will who wanted justice have accommodated themselves to new manifestations of the same racist assumptions. The noted African American theologian and faith leader Howard Thurman wrote in 1964:
“The walls that divide must be demolished. They must be cast down destroyed, uprooted. This is beyond debate….Their destruction is such a monumental undertaking and is calling for such huge costs in human lives, resources of money, time and energy, that an ever-widening weariness is apt to sweep over the land in the wake of the crumbling of the walls. And this is the danger. When the walls are down, it is then that the real work of building the healthy American society begins. The razing of the walls is prelude — important, critical, urgent, vital, but prelude nevertheless. About this there must be no mistake. The removal of the walls is the first step in the attack on the mood of which they are a manifestation. Care must be exercised to see to it that new walls will not be built.“
In the wake of the events of the past few weeks, it is heartening to talk with many young people seeking justice who are asking “how do we dismantle the unjust system in which we live?”. In the near term, the focus will be on long overdue and badly needed police reforms and reallocating budget resources from social control to social support. These reforms are essential steps so that people of color do not experience the police primarily as a source of danger and fear, rather than a source of protection. These changes are urgent, necessary. And just a beginning.
In the longer term, after the national media has moved on to other breaking news, the pervasive and persistent violence of concentrated poverty and systemic racism will still need to be dismantled. Those walls still will need to come down. And the fight to make sure new walls do not arise will be more urgent than ever.
The questions for those who care about justice must become centered on a commitment for the long haul. What can we do to create peace through justice? What can we do to prevent more deaths of unarmed Black civilians at the hands of police? What can we do to break down the isolation and despair that so many of our young people experience in marginalized and under-resourced communities? What can we do to support these same young people in realizing their unique potential? What can we do to dismantle the structures and attitudes that maintain systemic racism? What can we do to hold institutions and companies accountable to be agents for justice? What can we do to build relationships of hope, peace and purpose that transcend the walls that divide? What do we do to make our cities and country into what Dr. King called “the beloved community”?
There must be many responses to these questions at many levels — including policies and investments in neighborhoods to address the myriad inequities that characterize our social landscape — housing, education, workplace, health, criminal justice, transportation, jobs, and economic opportunities, to name just a few.
However, I would submit, all those policy changes, while necessary, still will not be sufficient to fundamentally alter systemic racism if white people with options continue to make key life choices that enable structures of racism to persist. The decisions that young people now in their late teens to early thirties will make over the next decade of their lives will determine whether 2020 was the beginning of something different or just another lightning flash briefly shedding a national light on our national original sin.
During these years of your life, you probably will make a set of fundamental personal decisions that will substantially define the character of your life. For most people in human history, and for many people in America today, these basic life choices are tightly constrained by tradition, coercion, poverty, debt, or the sheer need for survival. The ability to even have choices to basic questions is a precious privilege that you may have if you are college-educated, middle class, white, with decent health and job prospects and without crippling debt. You will answer key questions in three areas of life:
1. Work: What work will you do? How will you embody your commitment to being anti-racist in your work context?
2. Family: With whom will you share your life? How will you build your family?
3. Neighbors: Where will you live? Who will be your neighbors? What kind of neighbor will you be?
Here, I want to highlight the third set of questions –the ones that deal with where and how you will live. This third decision tends to be largely –indeed shockingly — invisible and unscrutinized among white people with options. But your answers to this question will profoundly shape your personal relationship to our history of racial and economic justice. It will determine how your daily life either dismantles or sustains the legacy of racism that we have inherited. And, writ large across hundreds of thousands of households across decades of day-to-day living, this decision has fundamental political implications. Indeed, in terms of racial justice, racial disparities, educational opportunity, health outcomes, and police conduct, I would argue that, without a fundamentally different pattern of answers by young white people with choices, the systemic structures of racism will continue to dominate our national landscape.
The context for these decisions is the way that American society has sorted itself out physically according to patterns of race and class. (See Fullilove, Urban Alchemy). Since the 1930’s, largely with the growth of suburban areas around cities, Jim Crow by race shifted into Jim Crow by place. At times the sorting was explicitly tied to race through redlining, racial covenants, segregated public housing, etc..
In other ways the sorting was ostensibly economic, based on wealth and income rather than explicitly on race, but had the same effect. In the context of 400 years of racial discrimination –what Ta nehisi Coates has called the “plundering” of Black labor — wealth in America is closely tied to race. In 2016, the net worth of a typical white family was nearly ten times greater than that of a Black family. (Brooking Institution, Examining the Black White Wealth Gap).
As a result, neighborhoods designed to exclude lower income people –whether by zoning solely for large lots or limiting affordable housing options — are de facto racially segregated, whether race is explicitly used as a criterion or not. The injustices built into an increasingly unequal economic system that creates a few winners and many losers are magnified by the injustices of centuries of racial exploitation, and then further exacerbated by the injustice of concentrating wealth in one physical area and concentrating poverty in other areas. Adding to this pattern are further inequities in the real estate market generated by ongoing illegal practices of housing discrimination (e.g. steering, discriminatory and predatory mortgage lending), which make it hard for people of color to access even the housing opportunities they can afford.
The consequence has been a geography of opportunity that is savagely unequal. Concentration of poverty has never worked as a context for people to thrive, not now, not ever, not anywhere. But this pattern of concentrations of wealth in some geographic areas and concentrations of poverty in other areas has become the unchallenged, unquestioned, invisible assumption that governs our social structure. In the American context, since sorting by wealth and sorting by race have been tightly linked, a dismantling of this spatial foundation of systemic racism requires addressing both race and class together.
This sorted out context is so pervasive that for most Americans, it is an invisible “natural” feature of the landscape. And therefore unquestioned. But to really move toward a more just society, it must be undone, uprooted, dismantled. As long as this is the pattern according to which we organize our social life, there will continue to be staggering inequities. There will continue to be dramatically unequal opportunities, educational options, health outcomes, and a systemic tendency toward police brutality.
To make the connection between police behavior and residential choices by whites more clear, much of the interaction of police with people of color occurs when police are enforcing the boundaries between communities based on race and class. Police in “white neighborhoods” enforce the boundary by asserting a presumption of whiteness. In fact, these boundaries are demanded and often violently enforced by white residents, even without the police, as exemplified in the vicious vigilantism that killed Ahmaud Arbery and Trayvon Martin.
When police respond to a 911 call about a Black “intruder”, they are being asked by white citizens to enforce a set of racial boundaries and expectations. A Black person in a white community is deemed by white residents as presumptively “suspicious”, thereby increasing the changes for a police encounter. To cite just one prominent example, Harvard Professor Henry Louis Gates was arrested in Massachusetts for trying to enter his own home in an upscale predominantly white neighborhood. This experience is so pervasive that it creates incidents beyond counting — in traffic stops, in differential treatment of Black residents and visitors, and in the presumption of suspicion which many African American residents endure within communities where they live. Whites also invoke the police to make public spaces more “comfortable” for themselves. Christian Cooper, bird-watching in the shared public space of Central Park, was threatened by a white woman who felt entitled to use the threat of the police to gain the upper hand when he asked her to put her dog on a leash. This vignette –white people employing the threat of police as an act of power — is repeated time after time, day after day, in community after community.
In short, police interact with Black people as suspects to a significant degree because white people report them as suspects and because white patterns of exclusion classify them as suspicious. White discomfort and exclusion invokes the police and creates the contact. Once the police are involved, the particular biases, implicit and explicit, of the police themselves come into play, often with tragic results.
At the same time, the brutality of police in neighborhoods of concentrated poverty is the flip side of the same coin. Low-income Black and brown people are constrained by the factors discussed above to live in neighborhoods of concentrated poverty (to a degree that low-income whites are not). Then, the police “keep a lid on” those communities by an invasive and at times arbitrary pattern of police behaviors. The arbitrariness of police violence (that a minor incident could escalate into police violence at any time) serves as a sort of force multiplier, creating a large degree of fear with a relatively small amount of resources, analogous to the way terrorism works. For all the timely discussion of reducing police budgets, the large-scale budget decision has been the cruel calculation that it is preferable to contain neighborhoods of concentrated poverty by aggressive policing than it would be to eliminate concentrations of poverty altogether.
Back to the prevailing residential patterns, the main focus of this letter. The driving force in this separation into predominantly white higher income and predominantly Black and brown lower income neighborhoods is white bias –not just the virulent conscious epithet-wielding racism, which is still unacceptable in most middle-class white circles. Rather the bias shows up implicitly in the quantum of discomfort –the degree to which white people feel uncomfortable in non-white spaces and want to escape such settings.
“Most whites still prefer predominantly or overwhelmingly white neighborhoods, while most non-whites prefer more co-ethnic (nonwhite) neighbors than whites would be willing to tolerate in their neighborhoods”. (Camille Zubrinsky Charles, “Can We Live Together?” in Briggs, The Geography of Opportunity).
For example, 80% of whites would be willing to move into a neighborhood in which only 5% of residents were Black, while only 20% would be willing to move into a neighborhood which was nearly 50% African American. For many whites in our racialized society, race has become an easy proxy for “people who share my values”, even though skin color tells one nothing about personal values, and race has nothing to do with whether someone is a good neighbor.
The good news is that there has been some steady progress in white willingness to live in diverse communities. The bad news is the progress is not enough. White discomfort is still the defining barrier to changing residential patterns.
Maybe this will be the moment in history where there is a definitive shift and whites will begin to show a preference for communities where many or most of their neighbors are non-white. It is very important in this context to flag that gentrifying neighborhoods do not fit into what I am talking about. Racial diversity in the context of gentrification is a temporary state of affairs while a neighborhood transitions from being historically Black or brown and lower-income and shifts to becoming predominantly white and higher income. It tends to destroy rather than create stable economically and racially diverse communities.
So, what next? What does a commitment to dismantling systemic racism mean for where you live and how you live? The call I want to lift up is to commit to “anti-racist neighboring”
Before getting into what that specifically would mean, it’s worth looking closely at the assumptions that are hidden in the conversation that most white people have about where to live. It’s worth noting that these conversations become even more intense and the coded words more freighted when young couples with children are deciding where to live. These assumptions may be communicated by real estate agents, peers who are deciding where to live, parents, and in countless images in our popular culture in advertising, movies, etc. The conversation usually includes phrases like “I want a “nice neighborhood”, a “safe community”, with “good schools”.
These phrases are highly racialized, but are almost never unpacked. What constitutes “nice” “safe” and “good”? What are the metrics? Are they applied at a block level (which is actually most important for daily quality of life in many respects), a neighborhood level, a political jurisdiction (city/county)? What constitutes a “good” school? Does that include a place where children will make friendships and know people across race and class lines? Does a good school mean white children will learn to be comfortable being in a minority? What do test scores actually tell you about whether your child will have a good experience? What does “safe” mean? Who is at risk, in what circumstances? What dangers are taken into account (e.g. drunk driving and teen substance use are more prevalent among suburban whites)?
So one first step in thinking about where to live is stripping the vagueness from these gauzy conversations over dinner with friends and being very specific about what you are looking for and how your criteria are defined. If you leave it up to the prevailing conversation, you will be aiding and abetting systems of racial sorting –with all the attendant tragic consequences.
I’d like to suggest three different basic ways of “antiracist neighboring”. Each involve different challenges and rewards and may fit differently into the particulars of your life. Each will involve different specifics in different places because neighboring is always particular to the unique context. But if you are fortunate enough to have options, I urge you to undertake antiracist neighboring in some way.
Option 1: Relocate across the race/class divide, redistribute, reconcile. This version of anti-racist neighboring is the most unusual among whites, but there are many who have chosen this course of life, particularly inspired by faith. The challenge here is to commit to live for the long term in one of the Black and brown communities where poverty has been concentrated. These are some of the actions involved: Move far enough across race/class boundaries that your presence does not contribute to a gentrification dynamic. Raise your family there. Be a neighbor in all the small daily and large systemic meanings of that word, to the children and families around you. Build ongoing relationships of respect and caring. Honor and nurture the gifts of the youth that are far too often ignored or denied. Learn from your neighbors and be blessed by their strength and compassion. Work with neighborhood institutions to strengthen supports for children, families and seniors. Connect with institutions and networks that can bring resources and help your neighbors realize their dreams. Wrestle with the complexities of relating respectfully, truthfully, and with humility across potential differences of race and class and seek to reconcile across those divides. Work to preserve or create decent, long-term, high quality affordable homes in your community. Seek justice in the concrete particulars of day-to-day community life and in the systems that affect that reality. Be the change you want to see.
This is the version of anti-racist neighboring that my wife Jill and I have practiced for the past 25 years. It is a pretty simple action, with far reaching consequences. This path is one which we have found over many years to be profound, challenging, and joyful. It has informed our work for justice, our family, our marriage. We are part of a small intentional community of families — which we call informally the Collins Streamside Community — in the Irvington community in Southwest Baltimore, a neighborhood which faces the full array of urban problems that disproportionately affect low-income communities of color. This is our home. Here we raise our children. Here we are thirsting for justice and striving for the beloved community. Here we are seeking to be neighbors in as full a sense as we can understand and as we believe our faith insists that we be. That call to act as neighbor takes different forms organically depending on the situation and the relationships involved, but the call is insistent, humbling and inspiring. (For more details, see www.collinsstreamside.org and “Coming Home to Common Ground: Intentional Civic Engagement in the Collins Avenue Streamside Community of Southwest Baltimore”, in Krasny and Tidball, Grassroots to Global: Broader Impacts of Civic Ecology.)
Option 2: Move to a diverse community, be a neighbor who connects people, work to make the community thriving and diverse for the long-term. In this version of anti-racist neighboring, the goal is to create and sustain a stable diverse community that does not resegregate and has an active and open neighborly life. The actions involved include: Insist that services and institutions (police, schools, etc.) function with excellence and in an anti-racist way. Work to improve the quality of life in small and large ways. Cultivate personal relationships with diverse neighbors and celebrate that diversity.
Diversity as intended here has important contours. A commitment to a diverse community must mean that that Black and indigenous people of color have a significant, stable, valued place in community life. For example, this meaning of diverse would not be satisfied by a community where there is a large presence of educated immigrants from around the world, but little or no place for African Americans whose families were directly touched for centuries by American systems of racial oppression. This qualification matters precisely because racism in housing in America has ranked groups as preferable neighbors, typically with whites at the top and Blacks at the bottom. This pernicious pattern of assumptions has been able to adapt to different situations and to continue across decades and centuries. It has to be uprooted. So, in this version of anti-racist neighboring, you would be mindful of the ways in which even a community that contains a variety of backgrounds and cultures can become a place where racist attitudes are reproduced in new and subtle forms.
Fighting for stable and fully inclusive diversity means opposing both gentrification and resegregation. Gentrification destroys the stability of a diverse community and eventually turns diverse space into exclusionary higher-income white space, redefined by racist assumptions. As a diverse community grows and develops, it would be essential to ensure that housing options remain in place for people of color (particularly Black and indigenous) of all incomes and this would be a key goal of anti-racist neighbors. This is particularly true in “hot housing market” cities, where the market moves quickly and mercilessly to replace people and remake communities, even going so far as to rebrand historic communities with a different name. At tthe same time, this form of anti-racist neighboring also opposes white flight, which is something that can happen in a diverse community, especially in “cool housing market” areas. White discomfort with diverse settings is usually the primary driver for the resegregation of diverse communities. Anti-racist neighboring in this context would mean challenging the assumptions that underlie this prevailing white discomfort.
This version of anti-racist neighboring requires the ability to appreciate, value, celebrate, and support cultural difference, without subconsciously inferring any cultural deficiency. It requires sensitivity, listening, humility. It supports efforts to build community and develop relationships, being open to a range of different cultural practices for how to build community.
In this option, you will be walking a path that has historically been hard to maintain in America because of the greed inherent in gentrification on one side, and the white discomfort leading to resegregation on the other. As you walk this path, you will have the opportunity and challenge of neighboring across cultural and racial boundaries as part of daily life. Learning how to do that well and how to help others learn the same will be be paramount.
Option 3: Fight for racial and economic integration in predominantly white middle class and wealthy communities. This version of anti-racist neighboring begins with a problem — at one level your presence as a white person with options who chooses such a community is reinforcing existing systemic racism, and you are still reaping “benefits” from race and income segregation (Stable or rising housing price values will create wealth for you; relatively resourced schools and recreational activities may make child-rearing easier; you will have access to higher quality amenities, etc.). So your anti-racist actions must be premised on undoing the segregation that at one level you yourself are “benefiting” from and contributing to. This has to be acknowledged up front.
Anti-racist neighboring in this context would involve calling out the racism inherent in the way the community is structured and fighting to break that structure down. Actions would include: advocate publicly and relentlessly for affordable housing–including deeply affordable housing available to people working low wage jobs — to be created in your community, as close to your own home as possible. This is the opposite of NIMBYism (Not In My Back Yard). Become part of multi-racial regional efforts to create affordable housing in high opportunity areas, taking your lead from groups combating racism in the region who give voice to low-income people of color. Advocate for the use of housing vouchers to allow some low-income people to rent in your community. Fight to change exclusionary zoning laws. (When I was working on regional housing justice, it was unfortunately hard to find many committed anti-racist neighbors in these well-off communities; those who did exist were very valuable in some of the difficult political conversations around creating affordable housing in high opportunity areas. But they were few and far between.) Hold local police accountable to serve everyone who enters the community with courtesy and respect, not to enforce the racial boundaries that isolate your community through discriminatory traffic stops and differential police treatment. Find realtors who will market your community to non-white buyers. Welcome Black and brown prospective buyers and new residents. Seek ways to pool money with others to purchase homes in your community that can be sold or rented to lower income families of color. Support anti-racist organizations with some of the wealth that living in this community has created for you. When it is time to downsize, market and sell your home at an affordable price to a Black or brown family.
The challenge in this version of anti-racist neighboring comes in publicly and privately challenging prevailing notions of many of your white neighbors. You will be explicitly and persistently challenging their notion that their economic and social status depends on exclusion. You will likely be perceived as threatening property values and community quality of life. You may have to deal with some social sanction. And you will have to commit to organizing enough others like you over the long haul so that your voice gains power, change actually does come, and you do not become simply an ineffective part of the scenery, while nothing actually changes.
In all three of these ways of anti-racist neighboring, I believe from experience that it is essential to find and build a community of people who share the same values and share the work. Anti-racist neighboring is typically not sustainable for an isolated individual or a single family. Your community of practice, particularly one that includes people of different races and economic classes, is a powerful source of learning, of growing, of support, and of joy.
Right now, there is an intensified interest among many white people in learning, reading, studying about racism, history, and how to be an anti-racist. This is a good step, if it is prequel to action. And action must occur in many spheres of your life — in the workplace, in politics, in institutions that you are part of. You practice of anti-racist neighboring will be in addition to, not in place of, other other structural work to dismantle systemic racism.
But without action no amount of study will bear fruit. A wise pastor once told me “you are more likely to live yourself into a new way of thinking than to think yourself into a new way of living.” Anti-racist neighboring is about action, about where you put your body every day, about how you relate to your neighbors every day, about how you nurture belonging and combat “othering”.
I remember a quote I heard once in a forum on anti-racism: “I am responsible for the house I did not build, but in which I now live”. The national house that we live in was built on foundations warped by racism. Those foundations now need to be remade, and the house reconstructed on foundations of justice. There are many, many dimensions to this work in policy, economic and institutional change. But fundamentally, in a democracy, the foundation is the people –what the people believe, what they want, how they act, how they live. And to reconstruct the nation on anti-racist foundations, we need to reconstruct our regions, cities, communities and personal lives on anti-racist foundations.
And an essential part of this chane begins at home, with your answers to these basic questions. Where will you make your home? Who will be your neighbor? How will you neighbor?
Black lives matter.
Your answers matter.
Black lives matter to your answers.
Your answers matter to Black lives.
Yours in hope,
 “For many whites, a racially integrated neighborhood is one that is majority white. Whites are willing to live with a small number of blacks (and slightly more Hispanics and Asians); however, they prefer predominantly same-race neighborhoods. Blacks, Hispanics, and Asians, on the other hand, all prefer substantially more racial integration and are more comfortable as a numerical minority. But each minority group has a preference for a greater number of co-ethnic (nonwhite) neighbors than most whites could tolerate in their own neighborhood –suggesting that racial change in neighborhoods might inevitably lead to “tipping” toward a majority race makeup rather than a stable mix. That is one reason that careful observers focus on the question of how stable neighborhood integration is in America, not just how extensive it is. Also telling is the fact that neighborhood racial composition preferences reveal a racial hierarchy in which whites are always the most preferred out-group and blacks are unequivocally the least preferred.” Camille Zubrinsky Charles, “Can We Live Together?”, in Briggs, The Geography of Opportunity, p. 51