We Wear the Mask: The Debt We Pay for Racial Residential Segregation

By Kaloma Cardwell

Let’s be truthful. For many, it is easier to remove clothing that represents a hatred for young Black males than it is remove beliefs that are rooted in young black males being perceived as “less”—less human, less American, and less deserving of traditional and routine forms of public and private assistance.

Jenice Armstrong’s article, “Shocking Blacks into Action Against Violence,” illustrates this truth. In her article, Armstrong writes about Nicholas “Sixx” King, an African-American male, and his recent “creative” attempt to “dramatize the fact that the No. 1 killer of black men in America isn’t a racist hate group such as the KKK. It’s other African-American men.” Sixx’s idea? To express those beliefs while wearing a KKK robe and cone-shaped hat in Center City Philadelphia. Sixx’s expressed message then and since then has been that the “primary killer of African-Americans” is primarily due to a “subculture of young black men” and their “self-hate.”

Ironically, and especially if one is wearing a masked hood, self-hate becomes harder, not easier, to identify when one lacks the ability or will to discuss structural barriers and their relationship to how we perceive blacks (specifically), and ourselves and others (in general). Put more simply, “black on black” crime and “senseless murder,” will continue to be described as such, and also continue to be predictable and pervasive, if we do not advance our understandings of (and the interdependent relationships between) race, structures, the “self,” and conscious acts.

The “subculture,” which Sixx referenced in attempt to describe black male experiences, was created by and is maintained largely through racial residential segregation. “Black on black” crime is a norm for the same reasons that “white on white” crime (including white on white murder) is a norm: America’s residential neighborhoods, and especially those in the North, are structurally segregated by race. Since the 1930’s, Federal policies and programs (e.g., Federal Housing Authority and Veteran Affairs loan programs) and private discrimination (i.e., white flight, bias realtors) have been instrumental in restricting black homeownership in limited and poor geographic spaces. The murders that happen year in and year out in Philadelphia, which has led some to refer to the 5th most populous U.S. city as “Killadelphia,” mostly occur in the same geographic areas that Federal and financial institutions have traditionally refused to provide access to credit and resources. If you look at (or simply Google) a 1936 Home Owners Loan Corporation (HOLC) map of Philadelphia, you will see “redlined” Black neighborhoods. Redlining was a widespread housing discrimination practice that led public and private lenders to know which neighborhoods were “unworthy” of credit. At a time when these practices (and others) made homeownership affordable and a new American reality for nonblacks across the country, Black neighborhoods and racially mixed neighborhoods were almost always redlined. More disturbingly and decades later, these same neighborhoods, which received significantly less public and private investment than nonblack spaces, are the same neighborhoods where the majority of the 5,000-plus black men have been killed by firearms in Philadelphia (between 1988 and 2012). Federal government policies and private anti-black sentiments—forces that continue to determine how residential neighborhoods are structured and opportunity is distributed—isolated blacks and poor blacks to geographic boundaries that were low in social, political, and economic resources and opportunities. Common understandings of who “acts black” and who is treated as “black” were and continue to be shaped by policies, practices, and structures.

Though many continue to highlight urban cities’ “no-snitch culture”—a culture that can also be found in law enforcement communities and on “Wall Street”—and blacks need to get “proactive,” there is no widespread criticism or moral condemnation for the pervasiveness of racial residential segregation found in urban cities all across Philadelphia and the U.S. Voter disenfranchisement, police brutality, racial profiling, poor public school systems, lack of mentorship for urban youth, low inner-city employment opportunities, minorities’ vulnerability to predatory lending—all of this is held together by residential patterns that concentrate blacks (and often times Latinos) and poor blacks in geographic spaces. Why are so many silent about these housing realities? Why aren’t professionals, politicians, policy-makers, and priests drawing attention to the culture, people, and practices that maintain residential segregation? Why are so many adults committed and complicit in this “no-snitch culture”?

Many are silent for two reasons, among others. First, people aren’t socialized to think of race as a reality that is socially constructed and largely maintained by structures (i.e., institutions and their relationship to other institutions). Second, people’s disdainment for blacks is deeper and practiced by more than many of us believe or appreciate. The “subculture of people” referenced by Sixx in Armstrong’s article is reproduced yearly, in part, because the structures (and their relationships to each other) remain largely unaltered and unexamined. Racial residential segregation continues to distribute racial meanings and racialized opportunities. Structural arrangements—educational opportunities, transportation services, housing practices, access to health services, etc.—have led people to think it is both natural and normal for blacks to live in confined geographic spaces. People’s style of dress, speech, and athletic abilities are routinely considered products of individuals’ race, instead of where they grew up and their proximity and access to structures.

Put differently, the structures around us shape racial meanings, and yet we continue to rely on understandings of race that suggests some races are biologically different than others. When race and the disparities associated with them are first or permanently linked to biological and individualistic assumptions, too many believe people are merely “making excuses” when they focus on inner city blacks and their relationship to structural arrangements and forces; too many people never consider solutions that would result if more demanded more from the Federal government and government-subsidized financial institutions; and too many people continue to assert, as Chuck Williams, an associate professor at Drexel University did, that “this is a problem that only we can solve internally.”

Moreover, disdainment (to stick with Sixx’s language) for blacks remains widespread, and has become decreasingly discussed in the public in the age of President Obama. Conscious, explicit acts of animosity towards blacks has subsided significantly over the past couple of decades, but subconscious acts of disdainment remain widespread in practice (if not in principle) by both nonblacks and blacks. Study after study and our own life experiences continue to demonstrate that blacks continue to be disfavored, dehumanized, and marginalized in ways that are not necessarily traceable to people’s conscious motivations. As evidenced in our conversations, blacks unquestioningly become a “subculture of people.” In employment, people with “black sounding names” are discriminated against and disfavored even when their qualifications are identical to others. In housing, blacks’ credit options are limited and costlier than nonblacks even when factors such as income and credit scores are identical to others. In housing, desirability is often rooted in exclusivity or seemingly proportional to either the distance in which one lives away from blacks or the difficulty blacks have in gaining access to those communities (e.g., gated communities, suburbs, etc.). In our political commentaries, many continue to describe patterns of violence as “black on black” and “senseless,” in part, because many consciously and subconsciously believe many blacks cannot possibly be as rational or normal or human as the rest of us.

Self-hate, if the self is defined with a recognition that we define ourselves based upon our perceptions of others, is then indeed a primary killer of African-Americans. People no longer need to wear KKK robes and hoods to signal they are “used to young black males killing each other,” are “numb to it,” or are likely to “collectively shrug” to conveniently characterized “black male” realities. If the strategy, as Sixx and Armstrong appear to support, is to “shock people into paying attention about black-on-black violence,” let’s be honest about the hoods and masks many have on and will put on. Let’s ask each other and ourselves: Why are U.S. cities’ residential neighborhoods still structured as if the KKK designed them and continue to maintain them?