So, my first experience of living in America is sharing an apartment in Bushwick, Brooklyn, New York with a fellow “hipster” in his 30s (i.e. young, recently-settled, urban, arty and middle class). I’ve been in New York for over a week now and in the last few days have just started to relax into the neighbourhood of Bushwick. I’ll be frank. It’s not what I’m used to. Coming from a leafy middle-class arty small-town backwater like Lancaster in northern England, the urban, impoverished, dirty, jumbled and to my mind mean streets of Bushwick Brooklyn somewhat make me feel as if I’ve jumped in at the deep end.

Bushwick is undoubtedly poor, with over 75% of children in the neighborhood born in poverty.

But there is another aspect of Bushwick that is having an effect on my middle-class psyche, an effect that should not be overlooked, especially not by progressives. Bushwick just isn’t white.

As an anti-racist I struggle, as I think we all do, to talk about questions of race while trying to always maintain the right balance of respect, political-correctness and honesty. Political correctness has never been my strong point, so I think I’ll major on the respect and the honesty. Although my worry about walking these streets has lessened with familiarity, it’s still there, and although the streets are much dirtier than I’m used to – the occasional rat scurries by, and the atmosphere is sometimes silently infused with the smell of pot – my fear is – let’s face it – of people. Specifically of being mugged, and especially of being knifed. Is this a valid fear?

Well, my home area in Lancaster England has a most recent violent crime rate of 11 per thousand population. At last count Bushwick had a rate of 25.2 per thousand population. Is my level of fear just over twice my level of fear at my old home? No, because in Lancaster I felt practically never concerned in the slightest about any sort of crime (except perhaps bike theft). Statistically, Bushwick is just over twice as dangerous as leafy Lancaster. But I feel at least several times more anxious.

So, what is causing this fear in me…? My worry is that it’s because the people I see here don’t look like me. And let’s be honest that doesn’t mean that they’re not all young and trendy: it’s because they’re not white. Does this mean I’m a racist? No, I think it really doesn’t. I would like to think that acknowledging that we all – of whatever colour skin – have preconceptions and reservations of people who are different, is part (perhaps unfortunately) of human nature. I also feel that the first step towards effective anti-racism is a realisation, and a rational deconstruction of irrational fears. And do white people have irrational fears of black, and, yes, Hispanic people…? Absolutely. I don’t think I need to go into the history to prove that point. And they’re not necessarily our fault. So much in white culture, the mass media which we are fed every day, and American and indeed British politics is telling us, and has always told us that, “asylum seekers are not to be trusted”, that refugees are “flooding our shores”, that the black man is dangerous, that he will take your wife, practice voodoo magic, and knife you. The right wing Christian TV evangelist Pat Robertson in the last few days has attributed the terrible earthquake in Haiti to the population’s “pact with the devil” – alluding to voodoo worship (despite Haiti being officially Roman Catholic). I see that in America, as in Britain, right wing authors are happy to stir up feelings of “white nativism“, and indeed “White Flight” has already happened in Bushwick in the 60s.

Malcolm Gladwell’s excellent and eye-opening book Blink reveals how even black people are programmed by this endless exposure to prejudice to react to black faces in a more negative way than to white.

I personally feel guilty and naive when I consider the role that film and TV has had on me: a week ago – because I had not seen them before except in film – I was finding myself scared of big vans with tinted windows. Now I don’t even notice them. When I saw people on the subway dressed with baseballs caps, flashy jackets and baggy trousers, my mind associated that with images of black people I’d seen on TV or film: as gang members, as muggers, as knife-carriers, as criminals. Such is the overwhelming negative portrayal of black people on film and TV. We have the perniciousness of media stereotyping to blame for us feeling afraid on the streets. No wonder right-wingers get themselves so wound up. They believe their own hype.

My experience is deconstructed brilliantly in this turn-around by comedian and activist film-maker Michael Moore from his book Stupid White Men:

I don’t know what it is, but every time I see a white guy walking towards me, I tense up. My heart starts racing, and I immediately begin to look for an escape route and a means to defend myself. I kick myself for even being in this part of town after dark. Didn’t I notice the suspicious gangs of white people lurking on every street corner, drinking Starbucks and wearing their gang colours of Gap turquoise or J Crew mauve? What an idiot! Now the white person is coming closer, closer – and then – whew! He walks by without harming me, and I breathe a sigh of relief. White people scare the crap out of me.

Moore goes on to make the ultimate point: most of the people responsible for political betrayal, corporate greed, manipulation and exploitation in the Western world are white.

To me, diverse communities should be the healthy and desirable norm, and thankfully, slowly, Bushwick is becoming more mixed again, as young (white) people like my flatmate move out from places like the lower East side of Manhattan or from Williamsburg, mainly for economic reasons due to the gentrification and embourgeoisement of those communities.

This trend however brings a worry in itself. When I posed the question: “if Bushwick is up and coming, and rents will increase, what will happen to the poor people?”, I already knew that the answer was not really going to be “They’re all becoming artists”.

Neither of us were able to answer that question straight off. But my hope is that a more diverse community leads to a more healthy, more balanced and more mixed local economy.

It’s taken maybe 50 years for the white people to come back to Bushwick. But for everybody’s sake, I hope more find a way to integrate back into a healthy community.

And as for me, knowing the statistics and looking at my fears in the forensic light of day, not to mention meeting some kind and interesting people from different backgrounds, means that I already feel better walking these streets.

Email This Post Email This Post