May 12, 2014
Two college students knocked on my door last summer to solicit my participation in the Black LIFE study (Linking, Inequality, Feelings and the Environment) conducted by Dr. Naa Oyo Kwate of Rutgers University. The goals of the project were “to explore the effects of multiple levels of racism on the immune function and overall health of urban African Americans, and to test a novel structural-level intervention to reduce the negative impacts of racism.”
I live on Bedford Avenue, a major thoroughfare in Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn, which made me the ideal participant, a Black man living in a historically African American neighborhood, where there are too many landmarks and native sons and daughters to name. It’s where Spike Lee filmed Do the Right Thing, where Shirley Chisholm rose to become the first African American woman in Congress, and home to a number of churches that were stops on the Underground Railroad. I have lived in New York for seven years, and during this time, Bed-Stuy has been my only home.
I moved here as buildings started to be shuttered and replaced by multilevel condos with organic markets on their ground floors and penthouses views to Manhattan. The Senegalese restaurant across the street was still there. Now it’s a Mexican chain with locations in Manhattan and Park Slope. The specialty bakery hadn’t opened either, nor the Italian spot, nor the Indian, nor the taqueria. The restaurant featured in the New York Times and the New Yorker used to serve West Indian food. Now it offers, among other eclectic dishes, fried frog legs prepared with a Dr. Pepper glaze. The Dominican salon became a juice bar. The wine shop prepared taxes. The bars were actual dives, not kitchy ones. Now, there’s one modeled after an English pub that streams soccer from the European leagues and another with a working fireplace separated from the bar by jigsaws of old house speakers.
All these businesses operate blocks apart on my street, and my feelings are mixed about their arrival. I like the artsy atmosphere they’ve created, but many of the new residents display the self-important air of pioneers as if the neighborhood was formerly a barren frontier.
So when the students came knocking, I welcomed the opportunity to explore the study’s questions. How many times had I been a victim of racism at work and in Bed-Stuy? How were my stress levels altered due to these experiences? What are the demographics of my ideal neighborhood? Three times I met with students, each session an hour, and I even submitted blood samples for further examination. My responses were prompted by hosts of images, and those that moved me most were six infographics from the RISE (Racism Still Exists) campaign which, unbeknownst to me, were placed at bus stops throughout Bed-Stuy as variables of the study. One had particularly commanded my attention, months before the students arrived, and I remembered being fascinated by its direct affront to racism, wondering if it was some sort of hoax or crude joke. Its headline read “Representations of Black People In Film: Rewarding Black Women for Playing Servants for 73 Years.” The poster, situated across from the gourmet doughnut shop–yet another newcomer–juxtaposed the images of two Academy Award winners, Hattie McDaniel in her role as Mammy in Gone With The Wind and Octavia Spencer in her role as Minny in The Help.
The study also forced me to articulate my perceptions of racism in ways I hadn’t considered. I’ve had my share of encounters and space won’t allow me to detail them all, but I’ll let you be the judge of three.
Were these examples of racism, or did I misread these exchanges?
The first occurred as I returned home after riding my bike. I had dismounted and placed my key in my door when a patrol car sped to a stop behind me. The officers jumped out quickly and asked to see my identification. Startled, I asked why, what had I done to be questioned? One said he would tell me after I gave him my license. Then something in me snapped and I became defiant and attacked their level of education and worth as officers. Much of what I said, I regret, was punctuated with foul language. When they confirmed I wasn’t a criminal, I was issued a ticket for riding my bike on the sidewalk. I had ridden it for less than twenty yards, the distance from my door to the corner.
Another incident occurred at eight in the morning while I was driving to work. A police officer pulled me over on Bedford Avenue and asked for my license and registration. He didn’t offer why he stopped me, and I was pissed. It was the second time that I had been stopped within a month. After he ran my name, he returned and placed a contraption on my front and rear windows. He explained that my tint was too dark and that he could have given me a ticket for them all; he gave me two. I had purchased my car used at a dealership in Long Island where the tint was already applied. It isn’t limo or mirror tint and I don’t have gaudy rims or a loud stereo system. I was late to work.
The last incident involved my friend. He had stopped by for drinks and offered to go to the bodega on my corner for coconut water. When ten minutes elapsed, I figured he took a phone call before returning. When twenty minutes elapsed, I figured he went to buy another bottle. When thirty minutes elapsed, I was aghast. A trip that normally took two minutes became an ordeal. Had I stepped onto my balcony, I would have witnessed why he was delayed. He had been stopped by a cop and forced faced down on the ground because a white couple had just been robbed. The woman, with tears in her eyes, told the officer she didn’t think he was the guy, but the cop persisted. “Have you ever been arrested?” My friend hadn’t and gave him his identification. He apologized when he realized my friend wasn’t the culprit. The exchange wouldn’t appear in a database, he informed him.
Perhaps these incidents fail to prove that I was a victim of racism, but what’s more important is that I perceived them as such, that my stress was heightened, that they changed me for the worse. I look forward to the findings of the Black Life study to know if others share my sentiments, if my health is at risk. My family suffers from hypertension, like many others, and I care for answers to cope with my biggest fear: the more white people move in, the more I will be treated like a criminal in my own neighborhood. I enjoy buying fresh fruit and dining at nice restaurants and drinking at cool bars, but it troubles me when I consider if this comes at the expense of my health and the discrimination of people who look like me. My Blackness used to signify community; now it signifies intrusion.
While the storefronts continue to change, inequality remains rigid, steadfast like a promise destined to be honored ad infinitum. Just weeks ago, blocks away from where I live, a fourteen year-old discharged a gun on a public bus. And why, was it merely a poor decision? Certainly, but the society that neglects his uplift is also culpable. He is not the victim. We all are. Unless my new neighbors are determined to break this promise, crime will still pervade. Gentrification is an ineffective, topical salve to the gaping wound of poverty. It can’t displace all the poor people, some who rely on the fringe economies of crime and still live in one of the sixteen public housing complexes that dot the neighborhood.
So as the weather warms and my white neighbors stumble out of the bars at the early morning hours, more of them are likely to be mugged. This is undesired, of course, but it also complicates life for those of us who are only guilty of being persons of color. The last robbery initiated police posts on every corner for weeks. Why the increase in presence I asked an officer then. “Don’t you feel safe?” she responded. I didn’t. I don’t.
A version of this essay first appeared via EBONY.