after all the events of the past week, i’ve spent a lot of time reflecting upon the neighborhood in which i live, and the city as a whole. and what i have discovered is that i used to be a racist.
i’m not sure if many of you know this, but there is a distinction between the different geographies/cultures of DC. the nice areas of the city, georgetown, eastern market – the places that you go to have a good time (on purpose) – are referred to as “The District”. the rest of DC, the areas where people tend to shy away from and crime is a bit higher and school are a lot worse – those areas are called “D.C.” the District has gotten a bit larger in recent years, and D.C. a bit smaller, but the dichotomy still exists.
you want to know if you live in DC or the District? see if the restaurant closest to you serves mambo sauce or not. if they do, you’re in DC. if they don’t, but offer raspberry vinaigrette instead, you’re in the District. i live in DC because the chicken store next to my house has little cups of mambo sauce ready for all to take.
living in DC has been an interesting experience, especially coming from our last neighborhood, the sleepy suburb of centreville, virginia (which itself is not immune to crime – a child rapist was reported not 1 block away from where we used to live!). and since living here for the past two years, i have a lot more sympathy for the situation of people who live in DC, a sympathy that was non-existent previously. here are a few things that i have learned living here:
everyone has a pit bull because they need a pit bull. i think there is this stereotype of urban black communities, that they own pit bulls as a type of status symbol, or for dogfighting, or because they feature so prominently in rap videos. i suppose this is true to an extent, i don’t know. but the more fundamental truth is that they own pit bulls to protect themselves and their houses. after all, if everyone on the block has a pitbull except you, and everyone knows that, whose house will they choose to break in to and steal from? yours, obviously. which makes me wonder what people think of my family and my twenty pound dog.
and this exact same dynamic extends further, into guns. i was walking with my daughters at a local park, when i saw a foursquare game painted onto the asphalt. but someone had drawn over each square of the game, inserting the four rules of street life. this was rule #1:
again, there is a misconception among suburban people (myself included) that firearm possession in the city (legal and illegal) was a product of gang culture, where everyone who carried a gun was a thug who was seeking to establish themselves as a badass on the block. again, that probably is true to some degree. but the more fundamental principle is that everyone feels they need a gun because everyone else has a gun. and if everyone on the block carries but you, who are they going to pick to steal from? you. and so gun ownership in the hood becomes a necessity in some ways, as a deterrent to crime. even if you never want to use it, you have to have it. in some ways, it is hard to argue with the brutal and cold logic of this principle because it is logical decision born of a specific context, and that is living in a community with a lot of crime.
but you might ask why everyone feels a need to have a pitbull and gun for protection in the first place, and don’t instead turn to the local police to provide security. that is what i do – i’m pretty sure my local district police office knows the sound of my voice when i call 911 to report drug deals and fights, and privately snicker at my naievete:
“hello, police?? you have to get over here right away, there’s are guys in the alley behind my house, handing back cash and envelopes, and i think they’re dealing…*whispers* drugs.”
but you need to understand that there is a mistrust of the police (and many types of institutional authority) that runs deep within the black community, a mistrust that has historical roots that are centuries old. it was the police who turned fire hoses and german shepherds on civil right leaders, pressed cattle prods against the sides of peaceful demonstrators, and refused to prosecute leaders of lynch mobs half a century ago. for black people, you can’t trust police to do the right thing or look out for you – you have to do that yourself. surely things have changed and improved since then, but painful memories like that die hard – they would for me too.
i’m not justifying these mentalities and elements of culture – at some point, people will have to make a break from the cycle of violence and learn how to forgive and move on, and forward. i also don’t share these revelations as proof of how awesome i am, and how progressive my sensibilities. rather, i share these thoughts as a confession of sorts, confessing that a few years ago, i just assumed that people in black neighborhoods like this acted this way because they didn’t know any better, that they loved pit bulls and toted guns for some incomprehensible and ultimately idiotic reason. i thought i was more logical, more rational, more human than they. and yet, here i am, after suffering only the most minor of crimes over the course of a paltry two years, and wondering if i should have gotten a german shepherd, and why it is so hard to register a firearm in the city, and dipping my fried chicken in mambo sauce. just imagine if i and my family had lived in this community for generations, and had endured such experiences over the course of decades, how engrained that self-defensive posture would have become!
for lack of a better or more accurate word, i was a racist. or at the very least, prejudiced. perhaps even a bit supercilious (i have always wanted to use that word outside of the SAT’s, but have never had the chance until now). i may not have been the kind of racist that names his children after figures from the third reich, but the kind that quietly cloaks prejudices behind a mask of intellectualism and a professed but untested solidarity with the urban poor. but i have come to realize that we are all just human beings, and products of the environments in which we find ourselves. and so if you take a suburban, ivy league educated korean man and put him in the ghetto, guess what? he becomes as ghetto as anyone else, and no better. y’know??