When news outlets cover the harassment of black children in predominantly white neighborhoods, the narrative inevitable follows a familiar arc. Facts about the child and the circumstance of the harassment are stated before the anchor starts quoting Twitter hot takes surfacing the new hashtagged nickname of whoever called the cops on an innocent child, whether it was #BBQBecky or #PermitPatty. The story fizzles after that. There are no broader discussions of context or community. Whereas coverage of racial incidents in predominantly black neighborhoods tends to focus on those neighborhoods, coverage of incidents in predominantly white neighborhoods tend to suggest that whatever happened was an unfortunate turn of events or the act of a lone jerk.
But many black parents don’t buy the idea that there’s one bad actor in these situations. Though the narrative would be cleaner if #BBQBecky or even George Zimmerman were total exceptions to an egalitarian rule, that does not make it so. For black children, non-black neighborhoods and, in particular, affluent white neighborhoods present real hazards. It is no wonder that a growing number of black parents who can afford to move to more affluent and white areas with better school systems are choosing to keep their children in black neighborhoods.
As a black man who spent his early years in predominantly white neighborhoods, I understand the impulse to self-segregate. My first interaction with the police was around June 2006 when I was 14-years-old. I was wearing a red flannel shirt, a black tie, blue jeans, and a winter cap (admittedly not a great outfit) and taking a walk before school when two local cops pulled up and told me to sit on a corner. A resident of the small Pennsylvania town where I lived had called about a “suspicious character.” That was me.
My first interaction with law enforcement was pretty painless. I gave an address and an explanation. They let me go home. The second interaction wasn’t particularly traumatic either. The third time was fine. The fourth? The fifth? The sixth? The dozenth? The cops weren’t abusive to me, but after a while my interactions forced me to ask and answer an uncomfortable question. Why does this keep happening? I wondered. The answer came back: Because I’m black as shit.
I told my parents about my run-ins with law enforcement and we dwelled as a family on the more egregious examples (three squad cars with two cops a piece barreling down on me after hearing someone had been stealing copper gutters). My mother would get angry and yell. My father would keep his cool. Ultimately, they trusted me to deal with it. We didn’t move.
My parents believed that we, as a family, benefited enough from living where we did enough to justify the siren-blaring downside. Not all parents feel this way. And as Black Lives Matter and the mobilization of the racist right has brought racial tensions to the fore, more parents have been forced to interrogate the logic behind the decision my parents made. Black parents who believe that the benefits their kids might derive from proximity to whiteness aren’t worth the repeated trauma are now staying put or even leaving for black communities (though that latter approach turns out to be complicated).
“I grew up in predominantly black working-class neighborhoods. There were some white people in my neighborhood, but race really didn’t become an issue until middle school,” says Freddie Morgan, 39, a father of five from Charlotte, North Carolina. “Growing up around people that looked like me and my family helped because it gave me a strong foundation. I never had to deal with being treated differently because I looked different.”
As a father, Morgan wants the same thing for his own kids: the strength and self-acceptance that comes from growing up around other black people. Morgan’s intuition tells him that his children being around other black children will foster pride. If he asked an expert, it’s likely they would tell him the same thing.
According to Danielle Fairbairn-Bland, a psychotherapist and social worker who works with children and teenagers in New York City, being a black child in a predominantly white environment is hell on self-image.
“For black children growing up in white spaces that don’t nurture their identity and don’t create a safe space for them to feel confident, it definitely has a direct impact on their self-esteem, their ability to thrive in school, their ability to socialize…,” she says. “It can really skew their view of their role in society because they are usually one of few in a space where they’re expected to develop and perform like it’s business as usual.”
In Fairbairn-Bland’s experience, these effects are much more pronounced in the academic environments. In other words, black parents who move to take advantage of better schools put their children in a position to be ostracized or looked over in those same institutions.
“Children sometimes spend over eight hours a day in school, where maybe they’re not being affirmed and having positive experiences with other people,” she says. “It can really deal a blow to their self-worth.”
This reality runs counter to the idea that parents can help children sidestep racially charged environments by moving them into more affluent areas or facilitating a sort of a white acculturation. As Dr. JeffriAnne Wilder, a sociologist and research scientist for The National Center for Women and Information Technology points out, some black parents elect to raise their children in predominantly white environments with the mindset that that they’re sparing them from certain racial injustices or trends. This doesn’t work out.
“There are parents who think to try and protect their kids from the reality of race by moving into more affluent places and it doesn’t really curb the instances of racism that they encounter,” says Wilder. “They unfortunately find that their children are often confronted with race in very different ways. And, a lot of times it can often be harder for them because they’ve developed a mindset in which it doesn’t exist. Then when they have to confront that reality, it’s a way more difficult conversation.”
“There is this strange notion that by bringing whiteness around your child, things are just automatically better,” says educator Samori Camara, the founder of Kamali Academy, an Afrocentric homeschool formerly based in New Orleans and now in Accra, Ghana. “Every child is on their own journey in terms of what they learn. Some parents they say ‘C’mon man, it’s an all-black school with all black teachers. The world isn’t black, how’re they going to deal with other people?’”
To that question Camara simply notes that the positive reinforcement his students have received by being schooled by people who look like them and in spaces tailored to them has resulted in them “being able to walk with their head high among any man or woman of any color.”
Ingrid Macon, an educator from Detroit, echoes Camara’s sentiment. Macon, who lives and works in a remarkably segregated city with the nation’s worst schools, believes that black communities will flourish when black pride is allowed to create a virtuous cycle of achievement. She has seen this happen during her time as a G.E.D. instructor and a volunteer at The Nest, a community-operated education center.
“I respect parents enough to not force what my opinions are onto them, because there is no perfectly right or wrong way of being. You can’t really be judgemental about it. At the end of the day that’s their children and they’re gonna do what’s right for them,” Macon says. “However, if you’re in a community where you have examples of excellence before you, you don’t think of yourself as an exception, you don’t think ‘Oh if I talk this way or do this thing I’m acting white, because blackness and excellence, and being supportive are just a part of who you are.”
As an educator, Macon feels that a predominantly black community is still a rare and excellent opportunity for black kids.
“As a teacher, I know that everything can’t be done in a classroom. I don’t think that you can just drop the kids off at school and the teacher will manage to do everything for your child and that’s how it works. It’s not,” she said. “We need to get back to the days where there are black doctors, engineers, lawyers, teachers down the block that will support you in everything that you do.”
To Macon’s point, one recent study performed by researchers at Ohio State University, came to the almost obvious, but newly solidified conclusion, that a sizable number of black kids simply feel less safe in predominantly white communities and spaces. As Christopher Browning a co-author of that study noted, this isn’t something that white children face in black or white environments. Per his analysis, that’s in virtue of the fact that white children often spend more time in predominantly white environments, whereas black children are forced to navigate a world that’s foreign to them more often.
“It’s the experience of having to navigate places that are whiter that may actually introduce more scrutiny to black male youth — by police, by residents — creating the potential for harassment and even victimization,” Browning writes.
Still, there are plenty of black parents like Nelson Fuller, a father of two from Houston, Texas, who raised his kids in a white neighborhood and would do so again.
“There is no place in America that a black person can live and not be subjected to racism, either implied, systematic, or direct. So I don’t believe moving them to a white area puts them at a greater risk of self-hate or ostracism,” says Fuller. “I also believe that the black community does not have to be an actual physical location. It can be the shared ideas, needs, fears, and solutions for our people.”
Fuller may have a point. A recent study found that even when black boys were born into favorable economic circumstances, they often won’t remain in that category for the rest of their lives. Black children born to parents in the bottom income bracket have just a 2.5 percent chance of ever leaving it, and for white children it’s a 10.6 percent chance. Black children born into the upper quintile are almost as likely to fall to the bottom quintile as they are to remain where they were born. Conversely, white children born in the top quintile are nearly five times as likely to stay there as they are to fall to the bottom. The study still links discrimination in the criminal justice system and housing disparities as major drivers of this phenomena.
And then there’s the catch-22 that black parents face. Make a white neighborhood into an integrated neighborhood and it’s likely not to stay integrated for long. Social scientist Samuel H. Kye used Census data from 1990 to 2010 to examine white flight in suburban neighborhoods within America’s 150 largest metropolitan areas. What he found was that when minorities move into a predominantly white area, white residents almost immediately begin to leave said area.
“Residential economic integration may be slowly decoupling from residential racial integration with white residents,” Kye writes. “Stereotypes and prejudice may persist, even despite the socioeconomic attainments of minority groups.”
The best example of this phenomenon might be Prince George’s County, Maryland, where right now 65 percent of the population is black and roughly 19 percent is white. When Prince George’s County made the transition into being predominantly black between 1980 and 1990, many attributed the massive 38 to 51 percent increase to the flight of white families. Currently, the median family income in this county is also around $85,000, well above the black national average of $38,555. Over the last decade, the share of white people in that county has plummeted from a high of 27 percent as home values have grown from an average of $183,000 in 2012 to $291,000 in August of 2018. Yet at the same time, schools in Prince George’s County are remarkably segregated.
This kind of racial disparity in more affluent black neighborhoods is taking place as the wealth gap between black people and white people only widens and more black families are thoughtlessly displaced from their homes in black rapidly gentrifying cities like Oakland and Detroit. Put simply, the space for black families to raise their children in a predominantly black environment is shrinking, no matter how much a family makes or where their kids go to school.
Some 14 years after my first encounter with law enforcement, I think about the person who called the cops on me. I think about those cops, and how even a “tame” interaction with the police taught me everything I needed to know about my neighborhood.
I learned something that day, a lesson that I’ve grappled with ever since: I am unwanted in close to every space that I can imagine.
Those are hard facts for a teenager to take and I’m sure that being forced to see that truth colored the person I became. Still, I understand that there’s an essential value in understanding the permanence of my outsider status. Even as it sometimes feels performative in the context of a world where people who look like me grow up worried about far more than just state-sponsored violence. It’s abundantly clear now — just how little of this is about my own story, but about the kind of refusal to give credence to a narrative that says that black communities are enough on their own. That those communities don’t need white families, or integration, just some room and help to grow on their own.
I have never asked my parents why we didn’t move or critically demand that they lay all of their logic bare. Even after being singled out by the police for what seemed like the hundredth time — even after my father stormed over to the police station and demanded that they leave me alone — I didn’t ask. I didn’t think to. I assumed that they knew what they were doing and that they were firm in their conviction that they’d found the right place for me to grow up. Now, I know that’s not quite as true. I’m certain they were of two minds about their decision. How could they not have been?