The Perpetual Stranger
What is driving the surge of incidents in which white people have called the police to report Black people who are simply going about their business—hanging out at Starbucks, birding in Central Park, or as was the case recently for a small group of middle-class Black women, talking too loudly on a train in California wine country.
Part of the answer has to do with the ubiquity of cell phones, which facilitate rapid reporting of racial incidents to police and the news media, along with social media, which bring news of the same incidents to the public with nearly equal speed. Yet there is also a sociological explanation.
White people typically avoid the Black space, but Black people are required to navigate the white space as a condition of their existence.
And many white people have not adjusted to the idea that Black people now appear more often in “white spaces”—especially in places of privilege, power, and prestige—or just in places where they were historically unwelcome. When Black people do appear in such places, and do not show what may be regarded as “proper” deference, some white people want them out. Subconsciously or explicitly, they want to assign or banish them to a place I have called the “iconic ghetto”—to the stereotypical space in which they think all Black people belong, a segregated space for second-class citizens.
A lag between the rapidity of Black progress and white acceptance of that progress is responsible for this impulse. It was exacerbated by the previous presidential administration, which emboldened white racists with its racially charged rhetoric and exclusionist immigration policies.
THE CIVIL RIGHTS REVOLUTION UPENDED LONG-STANDING NOTIONS OF WHAT SPACES COUNTED AS “BLACK,” “WHITE,” AND “COSMOPOLITAN
Over the past half-century, the United States has undergone a profound racial incorporation process that has resulted in the largest Black middle class in history—a population that no longer feels obligated to stay in historically “Black” spaces, or to defer to white people. When members of this Black middle class (and other darker-skinned Americans, too) appear in civil society today, and especially in “white” spaces, they often demand a regard that accords with their rights, obligations, and duties as full citizens of the United States of America.
Yet many white people fundamentally reject that Black people are owed such regard, and indeed often feel that their own rights and social statuses have somehow been abrogated by contemporary racial inclusion. They seek to push back on the recent progress in race relations, and may demand deference on the basis of white skin privilege.
As these whites observe Black people navigating the “white,” privileged spaces of our society, they experience a sense of loss or a certain amount of cognitive dissonance. They may feel an acute need to “correct” what is before their eyes, to square things, or to set the “erroneous” picture right—to reestablish cognitive consonance. White people need to put the Black interlopers in their place, literally and figuratively. Black people must have their behavior corrected, and they must be directed back to “their” neighborhoods and designated social spaces.
Not bold enough to try to accomplish this feat alone, many of these self-appointed color-line monitors seek help from wherever they can find it—from the police, for instance. The “interlopers” may simply want to visit their condo’s swimming pool, or to sit in Starbucks or meet friends there before ordering drinks, something white people typically do without a second thought, or take a nap in a student dorm common room, make a purchase in an upscale store, or jog through a “white” neighborhood.
For the offense of straying—for engaging in ordinary behavior in public and being Black at the same time—they incur the “white gaze” along with a call to the police. And we all know what can happen then. When the police have killed Black people—which seems epidemic—they have almost never been held accountable. The George Floyd case was an exception.
In times past, before the civil rights revolution, the color line was more clearly marked. Both white and Black people knew their “place,” and for the most part, observed it. When people crossed that line—Black people, anyway—they faced legal penalties or extrajudicial violence. In those times, to live while Black was to be American and nominally free but to reside firmly within a virtual color caste—essentially, to live behind the veil, as W.E.B. Du Bois put it in The Souls of Black Folk.
THE ROLE OF THE “ICONIC GHETTO” IN THE WHITE IMAGINATION
Social iconography is more complex today. Many urban dwellers now understand a city’s public spaces to be a mosaic of Black space, white space, and “cosmopolitan space”—the last designation referring to virtual islands of racial civility in a sea of segregation, or what I have described in my previous book as “cosmopolitan canopies.” In Philadelphia, for instance, where I have based most of my ethnographic studies over many years, examples of these cosmopolitan spaces are some large areas, such as the Reading Terminal Market and Rittenhouse Square, local university campuses, and smaller areas, such as offices, department stores, restaurants, and certain coffee shops (including some Starbucks locations).
In this sociological context, the urban ghetto is presumed to be, descriptively, “the place where the Black people live.” But it’s also, stereotypically, a den of iniquity and insecurity, a fearsome, impoverished place of social backwardness where Black people perpetrate all manner of violence and crime against one another.
Between Black and white space, travel usually goes in one direction. Black ghettos, and whites’ attitudes about them, emerged after slavery, and reinforced what slavery had established—that the Black person’s “place” was at the bottom of the American racial order. For the white majority, ghettos helped to fuse inferior status with Black skin, and they became fixtures of mental as well as physical space. Each generation became socially invested in the lowly place of Black people; these white people understood their own identity in terms of whom they opposed, and this positionality was passed down from one racist generation to the next.
In practical terms, whites know little about the iconic ghetto and the people who inhabit it. But for many whites, the anonymous Black person in public is always implicitly associated with the urban ghetto, and decidedly “does not belong” in the white space. The link to the ghetto is so strong that it becomes the “master status” of the typical Black person, to use a term coined by the sociologist E.C. Hughes. It’s the feature that most defines Black people in the white imagination.
In this system, Black people move about civil society with a deficit of credibility; in comparison, their white counterparts are given a “pass” as decent and law-abiding citizens. Black people wage a constant campaign for respect, which is lost before it begins. The judges are most often the contestants who compete with Black people for place and position in our increasingly pluralistic and rivalrous society. Thus, the issue here is not simply the white supremacy of old. It’s also a powerful new form of symbolic racism that targets Black people for being “out of their place,” or essentially, for behaving in ordinary ways, and especially in “white spaces,” while being Black at the same time.
Strikingly, the iconic ghetto impacts the image of almost every Black person—especially as Black Americans increasingly inhabit all levels of the national class and occupational structure. They attend the best schools; pursue the professions of their choosing; and occupy various positions of power, privilege, and prestige. But for all Black people in public, the specter of the urban ghetto always lurks—it hovers over American race relations, shaping the public conception of the anonymous Black person.
WHAT BLACK FOLK KNOW
Almost every Black person has experienced the sting of disrespect on the basis of being Black. A large but undetermined number of Black people feel acutely disrespected in their everyday lives, discrimination they see as both subtle and explicit. In the face of this reality, Black people manage themselves in a largely white-dominated society, learning and sharing the rules of a peculiarly segregated existence.
In white spaces, Black people are often tolerated, but seldom feel accepted, or know exactly where they stand with the white people they meet. The persistent question is whether the white people in their presence are friends or foes, whether they mean them well or whether they are out to block them. This uncertainty is typically left unresolved by the onslaught of regular, everyday public racism, including occasional yells of n****r from white passersby or their strong encouragement to “go back where you came from”—the ghetto. Out of the blue, and from complete strangers, unknown Black people receive occasional scowls and dirty looks, or expressions of outright fear, especially on elevators, which some white people refuse to enter if only Black people are there, choosing to take the stairs instead.
In upscale stores, young Black people—regardless of social class, and especially if they are male—are profiled and followed around. On the streets and in other public places, white people shun them or cross the street, and white women clutch their pocketbooks. Black men often feel they are regarded as criminals until they can prove they are not; one false move, and white people may call the police, and then, when the cops arrive, anything can happen.
Moreover, Black people generally are convinced that they must work twice as hard to get half as far in life. This sense of inequality is built into the working conception of the world that Black people share, providing a ready explanation of their relatively disadvantaged position in American society. And yet, they typically remain civil and are inclined to give the next white person the benefit of the doubt, while never really knowing for sure whether their trust was misplaced—at least until they are let down.
Upwardly mobile Black people who become professors, doctors, lawyers, and businesspeople are required to navigate a peculiar terrain: They are part of a prestigious class, but their Blackness marks them as stigmatized; and until they are able to prove themselves, they are burdened with a deficit of credibility. After successfully performing respectability, they may be granted a provisional status and, depending on their audience, they can always be charged with something more to prove.
In the white-dominated professions, Black people often feel marginalized by their white colleagues, but are constrained to keep their concerns to themselves for fear of appearing “racial” or troublesome in the workplace. So they keep their complaints about race to themselves, while giving their white colleagues who might be encouraged to improve the environment the message that all is well and things are just fine. Meanwhile, backstage, among their Black colleagues and friends, they vent.
Among their own, Black people affirm and reaffirm this central lesson and, out of a sense of duty, try to pass it along to others they care about, especially to their children. The white majority, in large part, does not easily apprehend such lessons, because it has little ability to empathize with the plight of Black people, and also because many see themselves in competition with Black people for place and position.
For Black people, experience is a dear school; the knowledge that Black people acquire is based largely on the experience of living while Black in a society that is dominated by white people. Strikingly, this cultural knowledge is most often inaccessible by white people, and when confronted with it, most whites are incredulous.
American society is ideologically characterized as open, egalitarian, and privileging of equal opportunity, but Black people are deeply doubtful. The everyday reality of Black people is that of being peculiarly subordinate in almost every way. In this social, economic, and political context, white people appear utterly advantaged, and Black people view themselves and their people as profoundly disadvantaged, and see white people—especially racist white people—as the source of their racial inequality. This reality becomes for many Black people their “working conception of the world,” or their “local knowledge”—what they know as they go about meeting the demands of their everyday lives.
Systemic racism is an intractable condition of American life. It is alive and well, and both subtle and explicit, a fact that is illustrated by the racially segregated patterns of everyday life in American civil society, as well as the color-coded occupational structure, through which all Black persons are racially burdened solely on the basis of their Blackness. Hence, racial equality is elusive, for no matter how decent or talented individuals are deemed to be, ultimately, they occupy only a provisional status, a place that is conditioned by the aftereffects of the original sin of slavery centuries ago.
These effects are manifest in today’s segregated civil society, and especially in the persistence of racial disparities in residence, education, health, and employment—racial inequality. Moreover, a strange, but powerful loop has been created. The iconic ghetto, the place “where the Black folk live,” symbolically denigrates Blacks as a population. White people typically accept and justify extant racial apartheid, which then works peculiarly to justify itself. Consequently, Black despair and alienation become ever more entrenched. A self-fulfilling prophecy has been set in motion that defines Black people as inferior to white people, which then becomes “proven” by the sight of the existential condition of the most disenfranchised elements of the Black community.
The old racism of slavery and white supremacy created the ghetto. The civil rights movement opened its gates, and a new Black middle class emerged. But the new form of symbolic racism emanating from the iconic ghetto hovers, stigmatizing by degrees Black people as they navigate the larger civil society and, especially, the “white space.”
• • • •
Early on a cool weekday morning in spring 2021, I parked my car near the docks in Martha’s Vineyard’s tony Edgartown. In the middle of the pandemic, I wanted to get out and about and to enjoy the ocean view. After pulling up to a metered spot, I realized that one thing was missing: coffee. I had passed a bookstore with a sign that promised coffee, and now I wanted a cup to make the morning complete.
I decided to walk the mile or so back to the shop, to get one. Passing one establishment after another, I saw workers inside busily cleaning up or servicing the equipment. Most were not yet open for the season, and their roped signs said as much. The quaint streets of Edgartown were unusually deserted that day, but I spotted a white couple here and there, then an older white woman who was walking her Yorkshire terrier. As I passed her, she scowled at me. A young white kid on a bicycle sped by me, perhaps on his way to work.
When I reached the bookshop where I’d spotted the coffee sign, the front door was open and I stepped inside. The lights were on, but the shop itself was deserted. As I walked amid the rows of bookshelves, I called, “Hello! Anybody here?” Silence. I was feeling somewhat out of place, even a bit vulnerable, and thought I might be vaguely threatening in my jeans, sneakers, and black hooded sweatshirt.
But I continued to walk around the apparently empty store, looking for a clerk. I was just about to leave when suddenly, a middle-aged white woman appeared, seemingly out of nowhere. “Can I help you?” she asked. “Yes, I’d like a cup of coffee,” I said. “Oh, we’re not quite open for coffee,” she replied, despite the large sign outside to the contrary. “Oh,” I said, puzzled.
She began to tell me about a place down the street and around the corner where she thought I could get coffee. I listened intently. Then, graciously, she said, “Do you have a phone? I can Google it.” With that, I pulled out my iPhone, and handed it to her. She found the place’s website, and set me up with navigation. Pleasantly, we said our goodbyes, and I was out the door, continuing my search.
On the way up the street, I encountered a white man of about 40 with a cup in his hand. “Excuse me,” I said. I wanted to ask him where he got his coffee. “Excuse me,” I said again. Clearly, he heard me, but looked away, ignoring my voice. I tried one last time, and then gave up, and proceeded on my way.
In about 10 minutes, I reached my destination, but the place was closed. I turned back to retrace my steps. On my way, I spotted the white man again, but this time, as he seemed to hurry along, a middle-aged white couple from across the street yelled to him, “Where’d you get that coffee?” This time, the man stopped. Politely, he engaged them, and then gave what seemed to be complicated directions to a place that was a ways away, and too far me, so I headed back to my car.
As I settled into my car, tension I hadn’t been aware of released me. This incident left me feeling uncertain, somewhat estranged, and possibly unwelcome on those streets, a “white space.” The police could have been called on me at any point that morning, I thought. I was just lucky that they hadn’t been.
Adapted by the author from his new book, Black in White Space: The Enduring Impact of Color in Everyday Life (University of Chicago Press, 2021).