When W. E. B. Du Bois wrote The Souls of Black Folk (1903), he said that “the problem of the Twentieth Century is the problem of the color line.” With the 20th century now in the rearview mirror, it’s easy to see just how right and how eloquent Du Bois was over 100 years ago. I’m just a stone’s throw from Du Bois’ childhood home in Massachusetts. Making some observations about what I see when in Harlem may be useful in trying to determine how racism is still one of the most serious problems in the US today as it was during Du Bois’ lifetime.
I ride the subway frequently in Manhattan, both to and from Harlem, and it’s as if the color line that Du Bois named marks the places in the city where Black folks live and travel. Go back up to street level any day in New York and the signs of racism are found. Try to keep in mind that great souls like James Baldwin, Malcolm X, and a host of writers, artists, and musicians lived and performed on these streets during the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s. Keep in mind that there are great centers of literacy and caring in Harlem and a great spirit for the affirmation of life on these streets and a vibrant middle class. But also keep in mind that the Jim Crow US South was enforced by de facto means here and that the schools are more segregated today than during the years following Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka (1954). Pay attention to how mass incarceration has enslaved Black people in ways that often devastates a community. Read The Shame of the Nation (2005) by Jonathan Kozol for a sweeping account and condemnation of “apartheid schooling in America.”
I meet a street vendor in the heart of Harlem and ask him how business is. He sells hats, scarves, and gloves. He says that survival depends on having enough food, water, and adequate housing, and also expresses his belief that with those essentials met, it is up to a person to maintain hope. I think of Franklin Roosevelt’s Four Freedoms: speech, worship, freedom from want, and freedom from fear from his 1941 State of the Union address.
What shocks me in my trips into New York City is how the de facto line that remains the ghetto begins above Columbia University near 110th Street and continues to Washington Heights. Sometimes I am the only white face riding in a subway car in the area, or only one of a few. Those from the decade of the 1960s will recall the fight of local residents and radicals against the building of a Columbia University gym in the Morningside Heights section of the city that borders Harlem.
Of the four freedoms, freedom from want and fear seem to be most important on the streets of Harlem. The police presence is most obvious here after years of the failed Bloomberg administration policy of stop and frisk, another factor in the street to prison pipeline that devastated the Black community for years. The repression of people of color by police and the society is well documented.
Kalief Browder spent three years at the notorious New York City prison on Rikers Island after being accused, but never convicted of the charge that he stole a backpack. Kalief, at the time of his arrest, was a 16-year-old high-school sophomore and maintained his innocence and spent nearly 800 days in solitary confinement and was beaten by prison guards. Kalief, from the neighboring borough of the Bronx, committed suicide at 22 years old, in perhaps one of the most heinous examples of the gross injustice visited against Black people in New York. On Staten Island, Eric Garner is yet another Black person murdered by police brutality in New York City. With official violence targeted against Black people in the US, this shocking story of two brothers in New York City demands attention: “They Shared a Bunk Bed Growing Up. Both Were Killed by the Police,” New York Times, January 24, 2020.
On the streets again, it is apparent that some residents of Harlem are suffering from debilitating physical conditions which makes a companion of mine observe that some people in the community using canes and walkers appear much older than both my companion and me, although we are probably older than most of the people we see. This does not mean that this observation defines the people of Harlem since most people appear healthy and confident.
Martin Luther King, Jr. highlighted the evils of racism, poverty, consumerism, and militarism in his famous “Beyond Vietnam” speech in New York City in April 1967, delivered one year before his assassination. With environmental destruction and devastation added into this lethal mix, American Exceptionalism is exposed at street level.