Racialized Space and My Education

Yesterday, when I was waiting for a bus, a homeless man wheeling a shopping cart full of what looked to my untrained eye like garbage, approached me.  I stepped into the street so that he could pass by.  He made a gesture to me that, though small, was unforgettable.  Gaze downcast, avoiding my eyes, he nodded and thumped his fist to his heart.  He acknowledged that I, a white woman wearing a “Cal” hat, moved out of his way.  This gesture made my whole life flash before my eyes.

This small moment made me think of why I am graduating college, and this man is wheeling around garbage, living in the streets.  What have he and I respectively done to make our fates unfold in such an unbalanced manner?  Of course, in retrospect, I will never be able to ask him how he got where he is today, but it’s interesting to speculate and question how much of a role race played in our lives.  George Lipsitz’s chapter on the White Spatial Imaginary opens with a quote by Frances E. W. Harper:

“To be born white in this country is to be born to an inheritance of privileges, to hold in your hands the keys that open before you the doors of every occupation, advantage, opportunity, and achievement (3)”

In order to examine whether or not this quote rings true from my own experience of whiteness, I’m taking us back to 1984.  Yes, that’s me on the right, a blonde, white girl, playing in a park in Hoboken, NJ, my hometown.  My very first memory of race was around this time.  I was walking with my Mom when I referred to a girl my age as being Black.  I wasn’t saying it in a derogatory way, but my mother scolded me nonetheless, and told me that I should instead say “African American”.  My small ego was wounded.  I didn’t understand the distinction.

At that moment a seed was planted.  I realized that labels were important somehow, though at the time I wasn’t sure why.  Not long after the above photo was taken, we left Hoboken and moved to a nearby suburb, Springfield.  The reason was that my parents couldn’t afford to send my sister and I to private school, and the public schools in Hoboken at the time were subpar.

Here is the first fork in the road on my journey to Cal.  Though they were poor at the time, my parents were still able to buy a home in an almost all white town with high quality schools.  Lipsitz writes:

“Because money is passed down across generations through inheritance, the patterns of the past still shape opportunities in the present (xi)”.

One of the reasons it was possible for my folks to buy the house was that my Grandmother loaned them the money for the down payment.  So, due to my intergenerational inheritance, I landed myself in a top quality school in the suburbs at the ripe old age of 5.

There was a very small Black population in Springfield, however, their homes were not at all integrated into the white part of town.  Instead, they occupied a very small neighborhood that was repugnantly referred to as “the Square”.  The Square was literally a dead end.  It was three blocks of run down homes.

Eventually, as a teenager, I wound up back in Hoboken, where I was able to land a scholarship to a private high school in Brooklyn.  I hated it.  It was so “white” and elite that even I didn’t feel like I belonged there.  So, I went to yet another private school, this one in Manhattan.  Despite being in NYC, perhaps one of the most ethnically diverse cities in the world, this school was also probably 85% white. I graduated from The Beekman School in Manhattan in 1998.

After a long detour from the education system, I found myself at Berkeley City College many years later.  This was perhaps the first time in my life that I experienced true diversity in a student body.  The trouble is, that the majority of community college students never make it through to transfer to a 4-year school.  The ones that do, often times don’t finish.  So, what makes me the exception to the rule?  Why was I able to get through community college, get into Cal, get a full scholarship, and then graduate on time?

I chalk this up to my education.  Had I not had access to high quality schools, and landed at community college without the tools already developed to succeed academically, I am certain that I would not be here, on the precipice of graduation.

Graduating from Cal gives me this very inheritance of privilege that Lipsitz refers to.  After all, Berkeley’s student body is predominantly White and Asian.  So, as a soon-to-be alumna, I certainly, along with the privilege, have inherited the “White Guilt”.  I see how imbalanced our society truly is and want it to change.  I’m just not sure where to begin. So, going back to the initial question of why my life might be so different from the homeless man that I encountered, it’s hard to say, but it is certainly likely that race was a factor.

It is certainly true that I haven’t encountered a whole lot of diversity in my many years in academia.  In watching season 4 of The Wire, this also rings true.  We see the children that are victims of racialized space in schools: they are subsequently left behind, with a fate of becoming “corner boys”.

It seems that white people have maintained their stranglehold on academia in America.  With the inheritance of intergenerational wealth, public schools in white neighborhoods tend to be better funded.  Without access to education, the poor remain powerless.  Sadly, I suppose I have benefited from this. On a more positive note, at least looking at these problems, and being aware of social injustice is a step in the right direction.

However, the cycle will be a difficult one to break.  After all, with my Cal degree, and my prospects of going to grad school, if I have children, they will inherit the very same privilege that I did.  However, with the recent economic crisis, many families have lost their nest egg.  So, who can say?  Maybe there is an upside to this crisis, in that we are all effected by it.  Perhaps this is as close as we can get to a clean slate.

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The Wire: Crime and Politics

When my mom gave me The Wire box set back in December as a holiday gift, long before I enrolled in this class, she told me that it would “haunt my dreams”.  Needless to say, I was skeptical.  How could a mere TV show be so pervasive and deeply disturbing?  This scene, in Season 1 was my first inkling that my Mom might just be right.

Omar’s whistle still sends chills down my spine.  “The cheese stands alone”.   There is something so resonant about the gruesome simplicity of this line, extracted from a children’s nursery rhyme, and uttered by Omar (Michael K. Williams).

In a sense, The Wire is about survival, and adapting to one’s circumstances.  George Lipsitz writes:

“The Wire emphasizes similarities between drug dealers and police officers…Both view the work they do as ‘just business’ as they fight to survive and move up in their respective organizations.  Corruption is taken for granted… the ‘war on drugs’ relies on police practices that produce the very criminality they purport to prevent.  The Wire demonstrates that individual villainy has systemic causes, that corrupt police officers and criminal sociopaths are the logical and inevitable products of dominant approaches to drug interdiction and incarceration (p. 73)”.

The Wire asks us to question our own sense of morality.  Society wants us to believe that the government is benign, while the criminal underworld is malignant.  However, as Lipsitz suggests, right and wrong are not clearly delineated.  There is a large gray area.  Again, Omar provides words of wisdom in the following courtroom sequence (please just watch from 5:56 to the end of the clip):


The lawyer, Maurice Levy (Michael Kostroff) says to Omar,

“You are amoral, are you not?  You are feeding off the violence and despair of the drug trade.  You are stealing from those who themselves are stealing from the lifeblood of our city.  You are a parasite who leaches off the culture of drugs.”

To which Omar replies,

“I got the shotgun, you got the briefcase.  It’s all in the game though, right?”

Again, Omar’s sparse dialogue cuts to the quick.  Although society may view Levy as being moral and respectable, he is really no different from Omar in that his salary is inextricably linked to the drug trade, just as much as police and politicians.

When riding around Richmond with Officer Stonebreaker, I posed a question in the same vein as Omar’s.  I asked him, with all of the violence that the drug trade creates, wouldn’t it be better if drugs were legal?  Stonebreaker  said that he thought it would increase drug addiction.  However, as a police officer, his job and salary are tied up in the drug trade.

Interestingly, this theory is also put to the test in the Wire with Hamsterdam.  In the following scene, Bubbles (Andre Royo) walks through Hamsterdam at night.  Even he is disturbed by what he sees.

Despite the tragic nature of Hamsterdam, the idea raises an interesting question about the “War on Drugs”:  Who is the winner?  There are always going to be drug addicts in society, regardless of the legality of drugs.  This was something else I pointed out to Stonebreaker.  Besides, isn’t it the illegality of drugs that makes them more dangerous to begin with?  If trained pharmacists rather than drug dealers were doing the mixing, we would most likely see a decline in overdoses.

So, in response to David Simon’s assertion that The Wire is political, I would have to emphatically agree.  It shows us problems with society that don’t have solutions.  It points out the devastatingly fatal flaws in our system, and the vicious cycle that propagates crime.  It shows us that perhaps our only chance to improve such an impoverished, corrupt system would be to start from scratch.  Sadly, that will probably never happen.  This lends itself to the pervasive sense of hopelessness that the show musters.

I left my fieldwork experience with that same sense of gloom and hopelessness.  Despite the fact that I did not witness any crime, what I did witness is an environment that breeds desperation, a society that separates people socioeconomically in ways that are sure to keep them apart.  Much like the criminals in The Wire poverty is at the root of the crime that occurs in Richmond.

“Blacks may inhabit a neighborhood, but they are generally not owners of it or investors in it.  Their powerlessness produces profits for others.(Lipsitz p 33)”.

While people in Richmond live without access to healthy food. safety, and opportunity, nearby in Kensington, el Cerrito, and North Berkeley, reside wealthy, prominent homeowners.  Not surprisingly, that population is mostly white.

Part of the problem with the drug trade is that people are born into it.  It’s almost like having a family business being passed down to you.  For example, in season 4, Naymond goes to visit his father Wee-Bey in prison.  Naymond is being preened for a life of crime.

His mother complains that he hasn’t been showing up to work for Boadie, and Wee-Bey gives his son some words of wisdom.  The irony of his father advising his son on work ethic during a prison visit seems to escape this family.  In effect, the poverty of West Baltimore seems comparable to Richmond, with the same outcome: crime based on survival and circumstance.

More in the vein of comparing the Wire to real life, and even specifically the Bay Area, guest speaker Tom Peele said,

“The Wire is so damned real!”

He also said that The Wire is about people that don’t know any other way.  Tom said that his favorite moment in The Wire, which he feels encapsulates the theme of the show was at the beginning of season 2 when Boadie goes to Philadelphia in a rental car and hears Garrison Keillor of NRP on the radio.

He compares Boadie to Devaughndre Broussard, who grew up in the Bay Area, and also didn’t really have a chance to rise above his circumstances.  His mother was a drug addict that ran a crackhouse.  Tom stresses the importance of education, that knowlege = power.  However, like the children in The Wire, Broussard does not have access to education.

So, what it that makes The Wire so haunting?  It seems that if it didn’t feel so real, as Tom Peele suggests, that it wouldn’t have the same effect.  Is it “truer” than journalism?  It’s hard to say, but Fox News certainly doesn’t haunt my dreams.

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