The United States is almost as segregated under Obama as it was in the time of Martin Luther King
As I arrived in New Orleans this summer, there was a juicy racism row blazing across the airwaves and the blogosphere.
Like lots of the juiciest rows, it was over a little thing. The question was, do black people use the social networking site Twitter differently from white people? According to Farhad Manjoo, Slate magazine’s technology correspondent, the answer is yes.
He’d noticed that a group of black Twitter users in America were much more likely to react to particular topics. Some of them were race-based, such as ‘If Santa was black …’; answers included ‘He wouldn’t say ho-ho-ho, he would say yo-yo-yo’. Another topic was ‘ghetto baby names’; ‘Weavequisha’ was the most popular answer to that.
But, according to Manjoo, there were patterns of black Twitter behaviour that went beyond purely racial issues. Black Twitter users tended to be keener on following amusing Twitter threads such as ‘Words that lead to trouble’. Among the answers there were, ‘Don’t worry, I got you’, ‘We need to talk’ and ‘The condom broke’. Black people also apparently tend to form ‘tighter clusters on the network; they follow one another more readily, more of their posts are directed at other users. It’s this behaviour, intentional or not, that gives black people — and, in particular, black teenagers — the means to dominate the conversation on Twitter.’
The article was given a sharper edge by its illustration of Twitter’s bird emblem, given black skin and a baseball cap at a jaunty — some might say gangsta — angle.
A media firestorm blew up, with some agreement — and more objections — from both blacks and whites. Why are white people always studying black people in this voyeuristic way, went the complaint (despite Manjoo not being white himself).
Black people are not like the borg from Star Trek, said another critic, all thinking and acting in the same way. Do we also ride bikes and brush our teeth in non-white ways, too, he asked.
I don’t use Twitter, so I can’t comment on differing racial uses of the website. But, in the course of a week travelling across the Deep South, it was clearly apparent that Barack Obama’s America is still extremely segregated — not by law, but by individual choice and income bracket.
On an eight-hour train journey from New Orleans to Memphis, I got out at Jackson — the state capital of Mississippi and the state’s biggest city — for a cup of coffee. I was the only white in a waiting room filled with around 50 people. Now, you might get the same situation in Tower Hamlets in east London, or other British inner cities with high immigration. But you would only get it on a small scale, in a shop perhaps, or at a bus stop. It would not happen on the platform at Bethnal Green tube station; and it certainly wouldn’t happen at Liverpool Street, the nearest equivalent to Jackson’s mainline Amtrak station.
The difference between the two places can only be partly explained by demographics. At the last census, Jackson was 70 per cent non-white, and 30 per cent white; Tower Hamlets is 46 per cent non-white, and 54 per cent white.
But the Bangladeshis who make up most of the immigrant population of Tower Hamlets are recent arrivals, over the last generation or so. Like the Huguenots and Jews who came to east London, they will in time spread out across the city and the country.
The black people at Jackson train station were descended from families who have been in the Deep South for centuries; and yet still there was absolutely no mixing of races. Segregation is not only more extreme there than in east London; it is more historically entrenched, and less likely to change.
Much the same experience continued throughout my time criss-crossing Louisiana, Tennessee and Mississippi. At Graceland, Memphis, on the 33rd anniversary of Elvis’s death, every single visitor was white; practically every single employee working on the concession stands in the steamy southern heat was black.
In New Orleans, I was taken round Pontchartrain Park, in the north-east of the city, by the black actor Wendell Pierce (Bunk Moreland in the HBO cop drama The Wire), who was brought up there. Pontchartrain Park — wiped out by Hurricane Katrina, and being rebuilt by a company set up by Pierce — was the first black private estate in the south, built in 1952. Even as late as the 1950s, black people were unable to buy privately owned property in New Orleans, because the white landowners exercised their right not to sell it to them. Those days are long gone, but still whites and blacks choose to live, for the most part, in different sections of the city; not just in New Orleans, but across the American south, and into the rest of the country. (Things are a little different in the old white parts of the town — like the French quarter, around Bourbon Street. Slaves lived in humble quarters attached to grander white houses; and the mix of poorer black housing next to richer white housing still exists.)
When Pierce was growing up in Pontchartrain Park in the 1960s, the next-door neighbourhood, Gentilly Woods, also settled in the early 1950s, was 100 per cent white.
‘The two areas were separated by a drainage ditch that had been diverted there for no reason except to divide the two neighbourhoods,’ said Pierce. ‘I call it the DMZ [the demilitarised zone]. We’d run across it and do little raids, shouting, “Hey, hey, white boy”, and they’d chase us back.’
In the 1970s, a few black people started moving into Gentilly Woods, and within a few years, the whole neighbourhood had become black, too. ‘It’s the classic model,’ says Pierce. ‘Studies show that, as soon as you reach 11 per cent black minority occupation in a white area, you reach a tipping point and you get white flight.’
The occupation of prosperous white neighbourhoods by poorer black incomers — and vice versa — is at the root of a new play at the Royal Court, Clybourne Park, by the Texan writer Bruce Norris.
In an excruciatingly embarrassing — and funny — way, Norris nails the way race still bubbles beneath the surface in the American brain, even after half a century of improved civil rights and the arrival of a black man in the White House.
The first half of the play is set in middle-class Clybourne Park, a fictional suburb of Chicago, in 1959. A white couple are selling their handsome two-bed home at a knockdown price to the first black family to move into the area, stirring ripples of discontent among their white neighbours.
In the second half, set 50 years later, the same house is bought by a couple of white yuppies, whose plans to demolish the house and build a fashionable new home disturb their black neighbours.
‘While I was working on the play, my country elected its first black president,’ says Norris. ‘And we white people congratulated ourselves and celebrated how far we’d come. But then, lo and behold, as the year dragged on and all of the change we’d so eagerly anticipated failed to materialise, and as more and more appalling examples of our entrenched, old-fashioned impulses continued exactly as they always had, I began to think, aren’t we more enlightened than that? Aren’t we able to choose? Can’t we change like Obama promised us?’
It looks unlikely in the wake of new American census data, published this month. One in seven Americans now lives in poverty, after the steepest increase in the number of working-age poor since 1959. And blacks are disproportionately represented among those dependent on food stamps, charitable donations and welfare payments.
The gulf between black and white incomes is not just a southern thing, either; it’s reflected across the country. The same goes for religious worship. Martin Luther King said that 11am on a Sunday was the most segregated hour in America. More than 40 years after King’s murder, only 7 per cent of America’s churches are considered racially mixed.
Yes, the geographical segregation is not so marked further north, like in New York, where I lived four years ago. But there’s still often a precise segregation by occupation: in the fashionable restaurant in SoHo where I used to eat, the girls taking you to your table were skinny white wannabe models, the waiters taking your order were black, and the men filling your water glasses were Asian.
As the black British writer Lindsay Johns said of New York, it’s more of a fruit salad than a melting pot. For all the gentrification of Harlem and falling crime rates, the West Indians of Flatbush live separately from the African-Americans in Harlem; the Hassidic Jews in Crown Heights don’t mix with the Italian-Americans in Bensonhurst.
With disastrous polls leading up to November’s midterm elections, President Obama’s mind is concentrated on keeping a Democratic Congress. Any dreams he might once have had of a post-racial America look much more unlikely.