The Atrophied Conscience of Apartheid America
By Mark Naison
Little by little, we have created an apartheid nation, a place where a profound spatial and moral divisions separate the lives of the privileged and the unfortunate. The boundaries are not strictly racial - though those on the lower side of the divide are overwhelmingly people of color - nor are they marked by gates and walls and fences. Rather, they are enforced by a complex set of codes followed by law enforcement authorities who have acquired immense power to assure public safety since the imposition of the War on Drugs and the War on Terror, powers that have effectively prevented the poor from doing anything to prevent their marginalization, and which have given wealthy elites virtually immunity from threats to their well being coming either from political action, mass protest or street crime.
You can see this in New York City where you can shop in a newly wealthy neighborhood, like Park Slope, go to and Arts destination in Manhattan, or go to one of those boroughs' great universities, like Columbia, NYU or Fordham, without seeing groups of young people from one of the outer boroughs' poor neighborhoods congregating in a group. Police practices have made it clear to them that they are not welcome there, that their very presence constitutes a virtual threat, a "crime waiting to happen."
But youth-of-color cleansing and spatial controls are not just imposed in already established centers of wealth. In Bedford Stuyvestand and Red Hook, both gentrifying areas, police practices keep young people penned into neighborhood housing projects, wary of walking streets, in a group, where middle class residents have moved or hip cafes have opened. Very quickly, young people with certain race and class markers learn that they are subject to being stopped and questioned and frisked in almost all spaces out of the neighborhoods, and in a growing number of spaces where they actually live.
But worse yet, what is daily life for young people of color who are poor is quite literally out of sight and out of mind, and thereby unimaginable, not only for middle class and wealthy residents of cities, but for the mayors of those cities. Because they never talk to young people who are on the receiving end of these spatial controls, and ever see them in action, they can pretend they don't exist. Their conscience has atrophied when it comes to the fundamental realities of life for the young and the poor.
Two recent events dramatize this for me: the police murder of Kimani Gray in East Flatbush Brooklyn and the school closing order given by Mayor Rahm Emmanuel in Chicago. Never has New York's Mayor Michael Bloomberg reached out to the grieving mother of a 16-year-old boy who was killed for doing nothing more than walking home from a neighborhood party. Instead, he hides behind a "narrative of criminality" used to hide the ugly facts of Kimani Gray's death, which is that this was an outgrowth of a "stop and frisk" procedure initiated by plainclothes police that will NEVER happen to young people in the Mayor's family or social circle. Kimani Gray was one of New York City's legion of "disposable youth" who must be policed and contained in every aspect of their lives to make the city's engines of economic growth secure. He could be snuffed out without anyone in power losing a moment of sleep.
Similarly, the lives of tens of thousands of young people of color to be disrupted by the school closings ordered by Mayor Rahm Emmanuel in Chicago could be conveniently erased from his thoughts by a ski trip because his own children, safely enrolled in Chicago Lab School, would never experience the disruptions, nor would their friends. The impact of these policies would be felt by "Other People's Children" - the same people who live in fear of gun violence, gang violence, and police containment, who feel alternately penned into poor neighborhoods or pushed out of the city altogether.
A leadership that can inflict this kind of containment and moral erasure on a large portion of their city's population can only be described as profoundly corrupt - but we are all complicit insofar as we have allowed our own security to be built on an edifice of other people's suffering.
Mark Naison is a Professor of African-American Studies and History at Fordham University and Director of Fordham's Urban Studies Program. He is the author of White Boy: A Memoir (2002, Temple UP). This article originally appeared at L.A. Progressive.