I’m going to be vague on location here to avoid giving away too much, but I had a friend who just had to interview a group of homeowners in a portion of the northeast that’s very wealthy and smugly liberal. The group was concerned about a mixed-income housing unit going through the zoning approval process. These folks were going to get some new neighbors, and they didn’t like it. They actually feared it, and said so on the record.
Officially, the group was upset about increasing traffic, and that the plan called for some units’ backyards to face the street, forcing them to look at backyard things like playsets and grills. Zoning officials addressed those concerns, but residents were still not happy. When a group of a dozen neighbors called my friend over to their swanky townhouse complex, which is on the border between well-off and less well-off sections of the city, some unofficial objections leaked out through the aggressive use of pronouns.
I mean, why do they all have to live in this side of the city. Right?
Last week, this same town filled all three available board of education spots with candidates who came out against “heterogeneous classrooms,” which are experimental classes in some local middle schools that do away with the former method of grouping kids by ability. Ability is assessed at way too tender an age, and in suburban schools the achievement gap by and large splits black and Latino students from their white peers. The idea used to be that kids learned best in similarly abled groups, but it turns out that idea hurts lower-achieving students and does little if anything to help higher-achieving ones. This parental fear that lower-achieving kids are somehow going to infect the higher-scoring ones with their stupidity has no merit. I can’t say for certain that heterogeneous classrooms were the deciding factors in the elections, but it was a big issue during the campaign and those who supported them lost.
I don’t see the harm in calling “ability grouping” what it really is: segregation. And I see no harm in calling the condo-folks’ efforts what they really are: unofficial redlining. They believe lower-income residents, largely black and Latino, will lower their property values, blight their neighborhoods because they don’t make home improvements and use their pools without permission (kids knock on their doors in the summer to ask to use their pools, and are turned away.) But what really worries the residents is that people who don’t look like them will be so woven into their lives that they see their backyard playsets every day, that they can’t tell one yard from the next.
The people in the townhouses trying to guard their suburban idyll will tell you it has nothing to do with race, and I think they actually believe it. They were all white, young professionals who aren’t among the wealthiest in the city. This area went heavily for Obama last year, and in general aggressively pursues affordable housing projects like this one. It’s a city outwardly concerned with equality and opportunity for all but at the same time people gripe about the taxes and policies used to provide services for them.
Both these instances made me think about the controversy after a New Mexican hotel owner asked his workers to Anglicize their names. For some, it was a shock to call this racist. I learned about it when I saw a CNN banner that read “Racist, or Thoughtless?”
As if people can’t be thoughtlessly racist. In fact, people are more often thoughtlessly racist than they are aggressively so.
Which is why I was the only person on Jimmy Carter’s side when he called out the obvious racism against Obama. I know the argument against his having said it; that it’s not helpful, only puts people on the defensive and shuts down conversation. But I have a certain affinity for a fellow white Southerner who sees racism from a different angle, when it’s spoken in closed company by people who assume you agree with them. That’s what upset my friend the most; the homeowners spoke to her as if she knew what they were trying to say. They call it dog-whistling for a reason: It’s under the surface until you call it up and address it, and white Americans just don’t have these conversations that often, if ever.