More research on race and space from sociologist Elijah Anderson

Sociologist Elijah Anderson continues his study of race in spaces with a new book. Here is part of an excerpt of that work:

Photo by Josh Hild on Pexels.com

When an anonymous Black person enters the white space, often the people there immediately try to make sense of him or her – to determine “who that is”, or to figure out the nature of the person’s business and whether they need to be concerned. When the Black person is unknown, stereotypes can rule perceptions, creating a situation that can estrange the Black person. In these circumstances, almost any Black person can experience distance, especially a young Black male – not as a measure of his merit as a person but because of his Black skin and its indication of “outsider” status in the white space. Thus, such a Black person is burdened with a deficit of credibility, especially in comparison with their white counterparts.

Strikingly, a Black person’s deficit may be minimized or tentatively overcome by a performance, a negotiation, or what some Blacks refer to derisively as a “dance”, through which individual Blacks may be inclined to show white people and others that ghetto stereotypes do not apply to them personally; in effect, they perform for credibility or for acceptance. This performance can be as deliberate as dressing well and speaking in an educated way or as simple as producing an ID or a driver’s license in situations in which this would never be demanded of whites…

In the minds of many of their detractors, to scrutinize and stop Black people is to prevent crime and protect the neighborhood. Thus, for the Black person, particularly young males, virtually every public encounter results in a degree of scrutiny that a “normal” white person would certainly not need to endure.

A more subtle but critical version of this kind of profiling occurs in the typical workplace. From the janitor to a middle-level manager, Black people, until they have established themselves, live under the tyranny of the command performance. Around the office building, the Black male worker comes to be known publicly as “the Black guy in my building”, and if there are a few such “Black guys” working there who “roam” the premises, white workers at times confuse one with another, occasionally misidentifying the person by name. Given such racial ambiguity, the string of white people standing in line to witness the Black person’s performance, or “dance”, may encourage those who were once approving or convinced to demand an encore. Thus, as long as the Black person is present in the white space, he or she is likely to be “on”, performing before a highly judgmental but distant audience.

While I have not read this forthcoming book, this strikes me as a companion work of sorts to The Cosmopolitan Canopy where Anderson examined spaces where people of different racial and ethnic backgrounds could regularly interact. In those relatively rare settings, people could encounter each other and generally enjoy it.

In contrast, Anderson now highlights the ways in which Black people are not welcomed in numerous spaces. This is not just about abstract spheres in society; this is about physical arrangements and the ways that race matters for who can be there.

There is a lot to explore here and I look forward to the book. In a typical city or suburb, how much space is primarily for whites and policed in the ways Anderson cites above?

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