By Julie Lewis
I am a white woman who has been living in Baltimore for ten years. Previously, I lived in Upstate New York. The city I grew up in was predominately white and segregated. I didn’t even notice this segregation. It was just a matter of fact that all the black kids sat together, and the small group of first generation Asians sat together, and the white kids sat together. There were usually one or two kids who “crossed” these barriers, such as the handsome black basketball player, the white kid who grew up in the projects, or the Asian kid for whom English was a first language, but we mostly sat with those who looked like us. Even inside the classroom we were tracked like a caste system, with the “Regents” classes occupied by mostly white students. We learned about MLK in Social Studies and didn’t harass each other. We knew discrimination was bad and generally focused on issues that did not revolve around race, such as whose parents were going out of town so we could drink at their house. I did not become class and race conscious until I entered college. Even then it was more rhetorical than anything else. It wasn’t until I moved to a city that is almost 70% black, did I really consider my relationship to race in any practical terms.
When I moved to Baltimore in 2005, some visiting friends and family commented, “There are lots of black people here.” They don’t use the “N” word; they don’t promote discrimination; they voted for Obama! At the same time, too many black people walking around North Avenue made them uncomfortable. They considered rolling up their window. They didn’t want to stop anywhere that looked “shady.” I thought of my first days in Baltimore. I had a ground floor apartment in the “nice” neighborhood of Mt. Vernon. My door opened on to the street and from my bedroom I could hear people passing by. The first night in my apartment I dreamt that a black man walked into my door from the adjacent sidewalk and slit my throat.
By the time I had children my conscious thoughts about race shifted from my own safety to the double standard of living that exists in Baltimore. Most Baltimore neighborhoods (outside of a few pockets of beautiful homes and shops) have been neglected. The schools are truly lacking. The city closes recreation centers and concentrates its money on the development of the Inner Harbor. The most attention they pay to the poor, mostly black, blighted neighborhoods is in the form of ramped up policing. Yet, if you are a part of the upper or middle class, Baltimore is fantastic. You have access to great art, restaurants and homes at a reasonable cost of living. You also have more of a choice when it comes to sending your child to school.
My son Beckett will be starting kindergarten in the Fall. What are the options for a middle class family with a car? There are numerous private schools that cost as much as a college tuition. You can try to get your child into a public charter school, or you can pick up and move to the county. I have discovered that liberal-minded parents like to see “diversity” at their child’s school. I mean, what good liberal wants to send their kids to an all-white school? But just how much “diversity” do white parents really want? See, the unspoken sentiment amongst white parents is that they want their children to go to school with non-whites, but not too many non-whites. Yet, only two of the public city schools and one or two public charter schools have a majority of white students. There are some excellent free public charters and my sons will be attending one of them. Yes – they will be a minority, but don’t they see enough white people at home? Maybe they will not grow up with a fear that too many black people in one place is unsettling.
We like our diversity “sprinkled lightly” over our existing predominately white lives. As good liberals, we don’t like to go to places where there are no people of color, but we also get really uncomfortable when there are too many people of color and we are outnumbered. Are they going to stare at me and wonder what I’m doing here? Is a fight going to break out? Are they going to make fun of the way I dance.
Last Saturday we marched for a man who had his spine crushed by six Baltimore police officers. We marched against the decades of police brutality in this city aimed at blacks. See, in Baltimore, the police may not shoot you, but they will beat you within an inch of your life. The march for Freddie Gray began in West Baltimore and ended up at City Hall. It is not hyperbole to say it was the most peaceful march I had even attended. Up until that point, most of the protesters during the week had been black. Those, too, occurred without incident. What was unusual about Saturday’s march, though, was that there was truly a huge representation from the black and white communities. There were also healthy numbers of Latinos and Asians. Few marches fall along these demographic lines. One of the reasons why I think it was so calm was the presence of the “other”. Everyone was on their best behavior. Whites I had seen at previous protests were more subdued and respectful…not screaming and running around furiously. The black organizers and participants were on point – directing the crowd when to walk and when to stand still and asking for and receiving silence when listening to speakers. Seeing thousands of people go from marching and chanting, to stopping in silence within seconds of being asked, was astounding.
That evening things got ramped up, and images of angry “mobs” of black protesters went viral. Since then America has watched footage of unruly blacks throwing rocks and looting. It’s as if their fear of too many black people congregating in one place was coming true. Yet images of armed vehicles and police in gear from head to toe do not bother them. These are what make Baltimore look like it’s in the middle of a war, not people throwing a few rocks. Last night we brought our kids to another march, but this one was accompanied by hundreds of cops and military persons. There were at least four helicopters above us at all times, reigning down orders from the sky to clear out. The “us” and “them” was not about race, it was about those who were standing against a brutal system of oppression and those who were protecting that system.
Since Tuesday the National Guard and curfews assure us that it’s all under control, and that the “mobs” of blacks have been pacified. Ultimately it reminds me that white America prefers its diversity in small, orderly doses and its uprisings non-existent. But I don’t think this uprising is going away anytime soon.
All pictures taken by Devin Allen, check out more of his work on instagram @bydvnlln