With the rise of Black Lives Matter as both a phrase and a movement, a common retort by BLM detractors has been “Why don’t Black lives matter when Black people kill each other?”
We can’t ask that question without asking: How did we get to the place where life is cheap and fleeting? Where a simple act of disrespect and a misunderstanding can lead to death. In the end, it’s systemic and the current inhabitants of high-crime Black communities, while they may be participants in the system, they didn’t create the system. No, the foundation was laid long before many of today’s participants were even born and in some cases before their parents were even born.
In the 1960s, my maternal grandparents bought their first and what would be their only home in Chicago’s Auburn Gresham neighborhood on the city’s South Side. They were one of the first Black families to buy on their block and in less than five years the block would go from being racially mixed to the lone white woman, who apparently didn’t get the white flight memo. As a kid visiting my grandparents in the 1970s, I always wondered about that one white lady and why she didn’t leave.
As a kid born in the early 1970s, my weekends were often spent with my grandparents. I was the only grandchild at that time and my grandparents were solidly middle class thanks to good-paying factory jobs with plenty of overtime and regular raises. Their what-would-prove-to-be-precarious place in the middle class provided some buffer from my parents’ bohemian (broke-ass) lifestyle. My grandparents were more than happy to take me overnight to ensure that I was “properly” dressed with Buster Brown shoes and sensible clothes from Wieboldt’s and Carson’s. Weekends at their house meant treats and fun followed up by Sunday dinners with the entire family; these are some of my fondest memories from my childhood. My grandparents’ solidly middle class life gave me a regular visits into the middle class especially when juxtaposed against my parents’ less-well-paying working-class existence.
The Auburn Gresham of my childhood was an area where there were thriving businesses, where Saturday morning rounds with my grandmother included visits to the full-service grocery store, the bank and the barber shop. It was a place where neighborhood kids ran up and down the street playing until the streetlights came on, neighbors sat on the stoop and everyone knew each other. As I have shared before, those same neighbors narced on me when at the tender age of 14, I took up smoking. I didn’t even make it back from the store before some nosy neighbor called my grandma and mom. It was place where Ms. Peaches across the street regularly took trips to the Caribbean and brought treats back for all the neighborhood kids. It was place where my own beloved Granny made her annual trip to Jamaica and my grandfather went back to the family homestead in Galveston, Texas.
Today’s Auburn Gresham is a different story, it is one of those neighborhoods. In a city comprised of 77 different neighborhoods, Auburn Gresham ranks 12 for violent crime. You can almost bet money that when Chicago has an especially violent weekend, some of it happened in the Auburn Gresham area.
The last time I stepped foot in the old neighborhood was in 2004 when my mother died. I flew home from Maine and made arrangements with my father and afterwards we took a drive for me to sit with my grandmother. On the way to my grandmother’s house, I wanted a cup of coffee after being up for hours and weary with grief. There was no coffee to be found in the neighborhood other than McDonald’s. A stop at the local corner store was an adventure in urban experiences as my father and I were sized up by all the local hoods as fresh meat. It was a chilling experience. Granted, in our raw state neither my father nor I had any fucks to give. A year later my almost 80-year-grandmother would be robbed at gunpoint in broad daylight in the neighborhood she had settled some 40 years earlier.
Neighborhoods don’t go from the place of hopes and dreams that my grandparents bought into in the 1960s to a place where elderly women become afraid to venture outside on a whim. No, it is systemic and at the root of it race matters.
In the 1980s, I remember when the neighborhood shifted as drugs started to play a role…crack cocaine anyone? I remember when the good factory jobs that my grandparents worked at moved from the city center to outlying suburbs, creating hellaciously long commutes and thus making it harder for neighbors to know one another or creating voids as long-term residents relocated closer to their jobs if they were able to.
By 1991, I was out of the house but my parents who had hit one of their bad patches were staying with my grandmother and within a year they would leave because my brother who was about 9 or 10 at the time was being pressured to join the local gangs. A little kid being pressured to join a gang; think about that. Around 1993-94, my first marriage had imploded and alone with a young child, I needed to get my life together. My grandmother offered my son and I free housing which I was in no position to refuse.
As thankful as I was for that free housing, the year I spent getting myself together at my grandmother’s has been permanently seared into my memory bank because it was clear to me as a young adult that the neighborhood was not the one of my childhood. The full-service grocery store of my childhood was long gone. Buying anything other than third-tier meats in a corner store that smelled to high heavens but rich in cheap booze, chips, and snacks required a bus ride or two. I have never forgotten the one night when I offered to treat us to pizza, we placed our order and after two hours of waiting, I called the pizza parlor back and they said they were sorry but due to gang violence that night, they couldn’t deliver to our address. Turns out we lived in what is now called a “food desert” though I didn’t know it at the time. During my time there, I would never go to the local branch of the library because that required walking down a street well known for gang activity.
In the 1990s, the area didn’t have too much hope left for the inhabitants and if it was hopeless then, I can only imagine what it must feel like now. Especially under the leadership of mayors who systematically dismantle the resources from communities of color and reallocate to tourist areas, and areas where white people live.
Increasingly, conversations about race are starting to acknowledge the role of housing. Where you live and what is available where you live plays a huge role in one’s success. Going to school and getting a job is a lot easier said than done if a walk to school requires dodging gangbangers who want to make you a gangbanger and the schools don’t have the same resources as the middle class white school on the other side of town. As for the jobs, if the only jobs that are accessible to you don’t pay living wages and don’t offer reliable shifts or a shot at advancement, then work ceases to look attractive when the dope boys are looking far more prosperous than the few working stiffs you do know, who still can’t make their ends meet. We know this yet we pretend it doesn’t matter. How people are policed where they live also matters. Black communities that were hard hit with drug use in the 1980s and 1990s were criminalized yet now in white communities across the country including the state where I currently live, the same drug behavior that fractured Black communities is now being seen as a public health crisis with cries for treatment not jail. Even back in the days of cocaine’s peak, prison sentences for white coke users were very rare compared to prison sentences for Black crack cocaine users.
The casual disregard for Black lives lies at the foot of white supremacy that created a two-tiered system of survival that affects every aspect of Black life by creating hurdles and barriers to survival that simply are not as high for white bodies. When one is constantly leaping hurdles to survive, it is easy to forget your own humanity as well as the humanity of those near you. Running on empty from the day of consciousness can make life cheap and fleeting. To unwrap an entire system of oppression will take some time so perhaps we should focus on what we can grasp in the immediate which is dealing with the criminal justice system, police overreach and brutality and mass incarceration. It took hundreds of years to get here, it’s going to take a while to move the needle.
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