I moved to Little Rock, Arkansas after my first grade year and attended a school where I was one of two white people in my class. Because the predominantly black school was behind the school whence I came, they advanced me to the third grade. The next year, after my parents’ divorce, we did what most white people who lived in Little Rock did: We moved to one of the small cities surrounding Little Rock. There, I repeated the third grade because I wasn’t that far ahead of my mostly white classmates.
I grew up in that town. It was largely segregated. All the blacks lived in one section of the city. It was called “Ni**er Hill.” It wasn’t said with any venom. It was said matter-of-factly, because that’s just what it was. There, poor black people and middle-class black people lived in the same neighborhood, on the same hill. It wasn’t uncommon to see a nice, middle-class house next to what looked like an oversized cardboard box. White people didn’t go there, unless on a dare. Until the year after I left and they connected my street to the Hill, there was only one exit for The Hill. Had there been a fire, the entire black population of my town would’ve lost their homes.
My family was racist. They used to say “ni**er” to get a rise out of me, because they knew it would. My father used to say that Abraham Lincoln was the worst President the country every had because he freed the slaves. Many of my friends were either casually racist or not-so-casually racist. The two most popular insults in the school yard were “ni**er” and “f*ggot,” uttered with the same inflection a fourth grader would use in calling someone an idiot or a poophead. I was friends with the mayor’s son, and the mayor threw around the N-word casually and often. At the lunch table in school, white people sat with white people. Black people sat with black people. By junior high, I’d been tracked into the classes for college-bound smart kids. I honestly don’t remember having a single black kid in one of those classes.
I haven’t been back to my hometown in probably 15 years. I don’t know how much has changed, but I am guessing not that much. Most of the black people still probably live on The Hill, and the kids who used to throw around “ni**er* and “f*ggot” now have kids of their own, and their attitudes toward gays and minorities probably haven’t changed that much. Their kids are probably inheriting the same attitudes, the same brand of racism. There’s no reason to think the cycle will ever stop.
I have no idea why I didn’t grow up a racist trash monster. I have no idea why I would cringe and turn red every time someone in my family used the N-word. Maybe it was a healthy dose of David Letterman, and very special episodes of Growing Pains and Family Ties. Or maybe it was attending a predominantly black school for a year and a half, where I was in the minority. I honestly don’t know.
I do know, however, that the only way to fix our current situation — a situation where white cops continues to kill black people at a rate of one per day — is not going to be fixed until that cycle is broken, until white people and black people in certain parts of the country are forced to co-exist. It’s not going to change in many parts of the South and the Midwest until they stop treating black people as the other. The problem is, white people in places like Arkansas or Missouri or Tennessee or Alabama don’t grow up with other black people. Black people live in St. Louis, or Little Rock, or Memphis. White people live outside of those cities, where parents instill in their children racism and distrust, and those white kids grow up to become cops and politicians.
The cycle is not likely to end anytime soon. The only solution is to start early, through school integration. It not only decreases the achievement gap between white and black students by a whopping 50 percent, it exposes both black and white people to one another on a regular basis. In cities like these, it’s the only way to end the cycle because white kids will start to stand up to their parents’ casual racism if they are friends with black kids.They’ll stop breeding it into their own children. It will also mean equal resources, which will mean black students will have the same educational tools to succeed as white students, and if white people and black people have the same access to a proper education, the poverty gap also decreases. We have to end separate and unequal.
This is how it has to change, but it’s not going to. Our politicians have set it up this way, because even our Congressional districts are gerrymandered by race. We can tweet our outrage and write think pieces all we want, but it’s not going to matter. It’s only going to to highlight the problems. I know that for many of the people in my hometown, it only amplifies and entrenches their racism. I know for most of you, it’s the same. When you share that thoughtful, well-written, irrefutable Black Lives Matter article on Facebook, you may get 30 or 40 likes from your sympathetic friends, but it only agitates that racist family member, and it only brings out the hostilities of that guy you went to high school with. They are the problem. They’re not going to change, and neither are their children.
We could vote our way to a solution, but that’s not going to work, either, because the choices we are given among politicians are never going to advocate for the changes necessary to fix our problems. It goes against their interests. White men vote Republican. Minorities vote Democrat. Neither party is willing to upset their demographic balance to bring the country together.
The system is broken, and in cities like Little Rock or Jackson, Mississippi or Mobile, Alabama or Detroit or Baltimore — where the racial composition is 70 percent black or more, while the suburbs of those cities are mostly white — that brokenness is only being perpetuated by a system that keeps the races as separate and distrustful of one another as possible.
How do we fix it?
I have no fucking clue.