Why does it take so long to absorb a simple fact?
Years ago, in a discussion about racial desegregation, my black Urban Affairs professor, Dr. Rose, looked me in the eye and said, “Blacks and whites don’t share the same space for very long.” He maintained that desegregation or integration (the more hopeful term) happened only in that slice of time when blacks and whites were trading residential spaces. Most frequently, it happened as black families moved into white neighborhoods. A few black families would be tolerated, even welcomed. But soon, an increasing number of black families hit what my professor called “the tipping point.” That is when white families exit, leaving the space to become one occupied mostly or solely by black people.
Dr. Rose teased me. “What do you think happened in Detroit? You think black people suddenly got all the power? No. The white people left.”
I knew it was true because he had had studied this phenomenon over many years. Census data bore out his thesis. But still his conclusion seemed disappointing and cynical. If that was true – that blacks and whites don’t share the same space for very long – then where was our hope? Was racial integration an impossible goal?
Now I’m really learning that the division is deeper than geography. Blacks and whites may not live next door to each other, that’s one thing. But the bigger thing is that they don’t share the same psychic space, the same frame of reference, or the same public experiences. White people think they do, they think that how they experience the world is how everyone experiences it. But black people know better. I think that this is really what Dr. Rose was trying to tell me. For example, it’s hard for many white people to accept the fact that black people are stopped by police essentially for ‘driving while black.’ Such a thing doesn’t jibe with their view of the world and how it works. It’s but one example. We may live on different blocks; we are actually in different worlds.
A black Facebook friend frequently posts about this topic. Her posts start off with “white people …” and I immediately rankle at the generalization. White people don’t know anything about slavery. White people don’t recognize their own racism. White people don’t know anything about black lives. These aren’t direct quotes but they are the gist of her posts. Each time I see one of these posts, I want to fire off a comment: Not me! I’m not like all the other white people. I feel indignant getting lumped in with white nationalists and other people whom I consider to be real and intentional racists, unlike me, an accident of birth racist who has tried to do right.
In an article adapted from his book, A Colony in a Nation, Chris Hayes puts it straight out there in his concept of nation and colony. He sums it up in this sentence: “In the nation, you have rights; in the colony, you have commands.” I don’t have to tell you who lives where in Mr. Hayes’ dichotomy, do I?
Here is one contrast Hayes draws that will stick with you if you think about it for a good long while.
“If you live in the Nation, the criminal justice system functions like your laptop’s operating system, quietly humming in the background, doing what it needs to do to allow you to be your most efficient, functional self. In the Colony, the system functions like a computer virus; it intrudes constantly, it interrupts your life at the most inconvenient times, and it does this as a matter of course. The disruption itself is normal.”
So how does it work to live in the Colony? What does it mean in the day to day? My Facebook friend has made the point in other conversations about the intense stress resulting from being black and having to negotiate in a white world. It’s energy-sapping, I could see that on her face when she said it. “You have no idea,” she said. No. Indeed.
I don’t have racial stress. I live in the Nation and things are swell here. And if I go into the Colony (figuratively speaking), I take my Nation status with me. I am always protected. And so I can relax and just live my life.
It blows my mind. Honest to God.