Thursday, April 9, 2020

More Than Self-Segregation

Lots of anti-racism books, podcasts, and discussions start by asking white people to reflect on their earliest experience of race. Sometimes these are extravagant epiphanies apparently where people report noticing difference for the first time. I didn’t have any such experience.

My parents moved to Prosperity, PA when I was two. My dad built what most would term a cabin in the woods. We identified heavily with Laura Ingalls Wilder as ours was also a little house in the big woods.

A look up from the ground at a stand of green pine trees on a blue sky day.
I grew up spending lots of time outside. Running. Jumping logs. Pretending I was a horse or a deer. In the evenings we’d watch tv together as a family.

Prosperity, in spite of its idyllic name, is what you’d call an insular community. I recently discovered this concept in the Pittsburgh subreddit (r/pittsburgh) because even the place we thought of as the big city doesn’t take kindly to outsiders. Redditors from other parts of the country find Pittsburgh neighborhoods quite insular.

An hour or so south of Pittsburgh, Prosperity is a little spec along Route 18 in southern Washington County. In the eighties and nineties when I lived there, it had a post office, a “general store,” and a gas station. Seemingly abundant were longtime, multigenerational families that didn’t bother to get to know us. They knew we weren’t going to last. When my parents sold their place after 27 years, I’m sure those Prosperity folks felt vindicated. If they ever thought of us.

This was the setting for my upbringing which was by all accounts a very good childhood. Before the age of 11, I don’t recall ever interacting with a person that wasn’t white. By the late 80s, I’d cultivated quite a Steve Urkel impression and I knew that Highland Avenue in Washington, PA was a place my dad avoided by driving several blocks out of the way. Though it wasn’t something we regularly talked about, I distinctly remember my mother telling me that a black family once bought a house in Prosperity but the Klan chased them out.

That seemed wrong to me, but also inevitable.

In 1991, I moved up to middle school. Prosperity is in the McGuffey School District which has a bunch of elementary schools. At that time, 6th was the grade level where everyone came together from the different elementary buildings. It was also the year kids from the Mel Blount Youth Home started going to our school.

Former Pittsburgh Steeler Mel Blount built his youth home in Taylorstown and the community wasn’t happy. At the time, I was only tangentially aware of the kerfuffle. In sixth grade, I was sporting a Milwaukee brace for scoliosis and trying to appeal to a broader group of friends while routinely exclaiming things like, “hot dang, look at that thang!”

Scrapbook photo page next to an image of the Milwaukee brace for scoliosis.
Here's the scrapbook page for the old back brace.

So I was only catching snippets. These kids were coming to our school from a group home that was either for foster kids or juvenile delinquents. And people idolized the Steelers, but not enough to trust Mel Blount’s judgment on the matter.

The whole thing didn’t impact my life at all. After a bit, we found out that one of the kids from the youth home stole a teacher’s car and drove it to Pittsburgh. And that proved McGuffey was right and Mel Blount was wrong. Here was a community, 100% white, being forcibly integrated and these were the kids meant to teach us black people are okay? Nice try.

Time passed. I got out of the scoliosis brace before high school. I sat next to a white boy from the Mel Blount Youth Home as a ninth-grader in this weird 15-minute study hall we had in the run-down auditorium to give the cafeteria workers time to clean tables between lunch periods. His name was Jeff and he said he was in the youth home for aggravated assault. I shared homemade cookies with him out of my lunch box. He told me I was the “kind of girl a guy would want to marry.” And I stored that memory forever because we all thought Jeff was pretty hot. And apparently, we were quite willing to give him a pass on the assault.

There were black guys from the youth home too in ninth grade. And by my sophomore year, the experiment had ended.

It was 2016 when I began to think seriously about what it has meant for me to be a white woman that’s always lived in white communities. I started to think about the coded language I use with my self-segregated peers. What it means when we define a safe neighborhood. How willing we are to write off a black middle school kid that steals a car and give limitless second chances to a sixteen-year-old white male that beat someone to a pulp.

The Cross Burns Brightly: A Hall-of-Famer Tackles Racism and Adversity to Help Troubled Boys by Mel Blount book cover with Mel Blount in a cowboy hat with his arms around two boys from the youth home. Mel Blount in Steeler's helmet and jersey inset.
In 2019, I found Mel Blount’s book, The Cross Burns Brightly, and read about events that went on during my middle school years as a middle-aged woman that’s listened to Seeing White and read White Fragility. And I was horrified. Mel described a little white boy, likely a kid in the grade below me, taking the KKK vows as a cross burned in front of Blount’s Taylorstown farmhouse. Mel wrote about the Pittsburgh Press reporters that lurked in the woods and accosted the boys with leading questions about the strict rules at the youth home. And that boy that stole the car, a tiny boy I know I saw in the halls and wondered how he could even see over the steering wheel to drive a car, that boy never came home. He disappeared into the city to whatever life a pre-teen child has in those circumstances.

That was Prosperity and Taylorstown and Claysville in the 80s and 90s. It wasn’t racism, we said. We were people protecting our way of life. Keeping ourselves safe. Other people burned crosses. They were bad.

The place I live now, 30 minutes from Pittsburgh, is 99.7% white and strikingly similar to Prosperity. It’s an insular community. I’ve lived here for 10 years and even if I live here for 30 more, I will never belong. When school was still in session, there were two pickup trucks in the high school parking lot with trump flags on 2x4s bolted to the tailgates. For a while, a neighbor had a confederate flag covering their living room window.

I could ask myself how I ended up here, but when I daydream about moving, my big idea is Vermont. I really couldn’t get any whiter.

So the more salient question is: what do I do now? Now that I see this awful systemic racism matrix. Zeros and ones of bloated police forces (my exurban township has about 30 cops), coded language, a supposed post-racial America full of color-blind Beckys.

For now, I write. And vote. And pray. I subscribe to SURJ. I read. And I hope to convince those around me to do the same because self-segregation and systemic racism don’t keep us safe. Tolerance and inclusive community are our only chance to survive.