I live in a middle class suburb about 15 miles west of downtown Birmingham. It has nice subdivisions and a collection of middle and upper-middle income families. It’s safe. I frequently walk the streets after midnight and don’t have a concern in the world. It’s a great place to live and a great place to raise children.
This past Sunday, I visited a different world for a few minutes. The contrast was scary. I’ve been thinking about it ever since.
We all know there are parts of just about every city where “everybody knows not to go.” But even expressing the idea that way reveals a terrible bias. “We” know not to go there, by which we mean people with the money, education and the ability to live anywhere else.
Just before noon Sunday, I headed to downtown Birmingham because I wanted to catch Amtrak’s Crescent passenger train coming through, because I’d been wanting to shoot video of it. By the time I got to the station, the train was already in, so I needed to find a place just west of the station to catch it as it started leaving town.
I don’t know that part of town well. The part just to the west of the train station is industrial and the streets are cut up. Many of the buildings seemed abandoned, so it felt a bit like an industrial ghost town. I had to turn down confusing and cut up streets to find my way past the area. Using my iPhone’s GPS, I was able to see that if I’d head about six more blocks and then turn and head in another direction for four or five blocks, I should get to a railroad crossing not far from the main line after it left the station.
I was quickly scared. Nobody looked like me. The cars they drove were different from mine. They looked at me as though I were an alien.
I didn’t see any other white faces anywhere in the area. I didn’t see any other Acuras. People were staring. Fairly or unfairly, I imagined people thinking that the white boy either got lost or he was looking for a drug deal. I was terribly uncomfortable, and I can’t say how much of it was objectively because of others and how much of it was just from my own self-generated fears.
I’d obviously been through bad sections of various cities before (including this area), so I’m not naive enough to be unfamiliar with the way this felt. But as I watched the faces of poor black people looking at me with what appeared to be contempt, distrust or both, I was reminded again that we live in very different worlds. We live in entirely different societies.
A couple of police cars screamed by me at one point and I found them a minute later at a convenience store where there seemed to have been a robbery.
As I waited the five minutes before I knew the train would be leaving the station, I drove down a few side streets, but I quickly changed my mind about being there. I was scared. People stood on porches and stared at me. I felt very unwelcome even though I never spoke to any of them.
I stopped briefly and opened my car door to take a picture of the apartment building above. As soon as I took the picture and closed my door, a woman stepped out the door, placed her hands on her hips and glared at me.
I wasn’t welcome there.
I went to the railroad crossing and waited for the Crescent to come. The people in every car that passed stared at me. They didn’t trust me and I didn’t trust them, at least, as far as I could read expressions. They didn’t seem to want me in their neighborhood. I just wanted to get out.
The train came and I got my few seconds of video as it flew past. I quickly jumped into my car and drove away. I didn’t want to stay in their world any longer than I had to. Yes, I felt afraid, but I also felt very, very unwelcome.
I don’t know how to change the squalid conditions in which they live. Conservatives will tell you it’s all the fault of the poor and that they don’t have the right values to pull themselves out of poverty. Progressives will tell you it’s institutional racism and lack of aid from the rest of society that keeps them where they are.
There are elements of truth in each narrative. The culture in places like that pass terrible values along to the people who live there. They don’t learn the kind of values that most of us learn — the kind that are indispensable to success in the wider world. But these ghettos are largely the legacy of racism and legal discrimination for many, many years. When you spend a hundred years repressing people even after they’re free — and then suddenly grant the best and brightest in the community the ability to escape — what’s left is a cesspool of humanity with poor prospects and little knowledge of how to escape. They don’t even believe it’s possible. For most of them, it’s probably not possible.
I don’t know how to fix the problem, especially since the two different sides of the mainstream have such different narratives about why the problem exists (and since they tend to angrily argue when the subject comes up). The various things that have been tried haven’t worked. In fact, black families and communities are far worse off than they were prior to the black civil rights movement of the ’60s, because the educated and the successful have left them with no role models. The people there have more rights. They can vote. They can technically be whatever they want to be. They have the right to lift themselves out of where they are. But they don’t have the knowledge, the tools or the motivation to do those things, for the most part.
White people have mostly written them off and don’t want to acknowledge they exist. Black “leaders” treat them as political capital to use to gain money and power for themselves. (I used to work in Birmingham city politics, and I’ve seen that with my own eyes. It’s just a new form of exploitation.)
All I know is that this can’t continue forever. In a couple of decades (or so), white people are going to be a minority in this country. As that tipping point gets here, we’re going to see shifts in power and in economics. What’s going to happen as more and more of the minority poor feel they should have more of the economic pie (not really understanding how to make the pie bigger for themselves)? What’s going to happen when those of us in the comfortable (mostly white) suburbs find ourselves outvoted by people who want the wealth and lifestyle that we have? It’s a recipe for serious social unrest.
I don’t have any answers. But it breaks my heart to see what we’ve created. And it also fills me with fear to think what this could eventually lead to. I’m afraid it could be ugly. We need to have some serious discussions about this, but I don’t see that happening any time soon, because it will just devolve into the usual ugly Red vs. Blue arguments.
I don’t know what to do about it, but it scares me. It scared me driving around Sunday, but it scares me in a much different way when I think about the future.