Unusual Billboard Campaign Pops up in Bed Stuy

Has any one else noticed the unusual series of bus-shelter billboards in Bed Stuy about race and such topics as fast food, stop and frisk, and real estate? Colorlines Press has done a story about the series, although they were not able to uncover the identities of the creators of the series and its accompanying Tumblr blog. Whoever they are, the group, Racism Still Exists, or RISE, clearly has some resources because it’s not free to rent billboards, as Colorlines points out. “RISE is a project designed to illuminate some of the ways in which racism operates in this country,” explains the group on its Tumblr. While we would hasten to point out that fast food chains do in fact exist in white neighborhoods — absolutely! — we think their characterization of the effects of subprime lending is pretty spot-on, even if some of the details of the causes could be debated. You should see the junk mail we get.
Series of Bed Stuy Billboards Puts Racial Inequity on Display [Colorlines]
Racism Still Exists [Tumblr]

6 Comment

  • Actually, LaLa, Harlem was built to be racially segregated — for whites, that is. And when blacks started to move in, whites certainly resisted, organizing civic groups to enforce exclusionary covenants. (Don’t know about Bed Stuy, but as a 19th-century residential neighborhood it was likely the product of the restrictive covenants pervasive at the time.)

    Old covenants make fascinating reading. They mandated not only the type of houses that could be built in a neighborhood but also their materials, architectural style and occupancy, with houses in the “highest class” areas restricted to white, Christian families and their servants.

    Around 1900, Harlem was an upper-middle class enclave proud of the fact that it had the “highest proportion of native born citizens” of any district the city — at a time when 2/3 of New York was foreign born.

    And remember, during the 19th century, Irish, Italians and Jewish people weren’t considered “white.” Only with economic and political assimilation did they become white. (Political cartoons of the period were astonishingly racist. The Irish, for example, were drawn to look like apes!)

    I’ve begun to think that part of European Americans’ prejudices are rooted in the old days, when their forefathers were considered no better than blacks. To separate oneself from blacks was an important step in becoming a “white” American. (I look at part of my family’s own history and, sadly, find this true.) That goes on today, too, in the not-so-subtle prejudice I hear occasionally expressed among Indian and Asian acquaintances, some of whom are darker than African Americans (and were called “black” by their English colonizers).

    In an earlier post, I mention the past decades’ decline in white income, life expectancy, marriage rates, etc. across the U.S. As we grow more economically stratified (the U.S. at the bottom of upward mobility among major industrial countries), increasing numbers of whites may very well find themselves consigned to the status of blacks — as were their ancestors.

    Won’t that be interesting. (Read between the lines of Charles Murray; it’s already happening!)

  • Interesting about Harlem; the narrative in my head was it was built for whites (of course) but huge parts come to market during a recession, and the ever-moving line for the ‘good’ part of town had already moved North or the built subways or something, so they let in whoever would take the apartments.

    Regarding your second point that’s definitely true. My wife isn’t white and I’ve had to teach her how stratified ‘white’ people are: I’m 1/2 jewish 1/2 irish, and in the early 20th century (and certainly earlier) would have been discriminated against for both halves, as well as thrown out of either community for marrying ‘outside the race’. I grew up in Connecticut surrounded by wasps, and there was no love lost between the ethnic whites in the cities like mine and the rich wasps in the suburbs. Gentlemen’s agreements were in place until the 70’s-80’s at least up there, and it wasn’t until the Japanese started showing up with piles of cash in the 80’s that they really even began to diversify at all with ‘safe’ minorities (still not at all diverse, don’t get me wrong).

    As for your last point – there are tons of poor whites already in the same class as blacks; if they could unite they’d have some clout. Dubois said the planter class pitted the poor whites against blacks so the whites wouldn’t rebel against being exploited by the planters; the same could easily be said by the elites running a certain political party these days – sad to see history repeating itself in all the worst ways.

    • Yes, the subways brought blacks to Harlem from the “Tenderloin” surrounding the site of Penn Station, whose demolition displaced them. And there were apartments built in anticipation of the subway whose completion was delayed and where a trickle of blacks first moved. But an entrenched white community bitterly resisted their new neighbors, even circulating handbills with sections of the area designated as whites-only. Rallies, civic meetings and political action in the end led nowhere. African Americans, sometimes using endowed institutions like churches, might buy several apartment buildings at a clip. And for a time — and for the first time — they enjoyed some of the best housing in the city.

      As late as the 1930s there were still Harlem blocks that were almost exclusively white, generally along the northern edge of Central Park. (It wasn’t until 1928 that the famous Astor Apartments — now a landmark and still desirable — had its first black residents.) The complete transformation, I recall, didn’t occur until World War II. (What I know about this is from Kenneth Jackson’s History of New York class at Columbia, which he still gives, I understand, these many years later.)

      As for the situation of poor whites, I think their position is changing. There are more of them. They are more socially and geographically segregated from the white middle-class. And they’ve become subject of political derision that uses the same language once openly directed at blacks, their “deficiencies” blamed on their “culture” and “moral shortcomings.”

      How they’ll respond is unclear. But it does seem an opportunity to make common cause, especially now that there are nearly 50 million Americans living at or below the poverty line.

  • Dittoburg, I was going to respond earlier, but I had to get on a plane (I know you were waiting eagerly and the suspense was no doubt thrilling).

    if your argument is that these issues ought to be talked about in the calm, rational environment of our classrooms (ha!), then I’m all for it. People need to learn the good, the bad, and the ugly in American history. Redlining and housing discrimination – indeed, any form of discrimination outside the South – is pretty much left out of the picture. Barring that, we have few public forums where this is discussed. It’s too bad someone has to post these on a bus stop, but hey, it’s better than nothing.

    A full understanding of past wrongs does not necessarily lead to progress in the present, that’s for sure. But I doubt we can make progress today without understanding how we got to this point. We can disagree about solutions, of course. The problem now is that people blame “black culture,” whatever that is, or “moral failings,” or “the black family” [see the Moynihan Report] for all the problems of the present, as if culture and so on arose out of a vacuum and black people are just deficient. That’s not the case at all – until very recently the slope has been much steeper for blacks than for whites, and we must understand this. It’s worth repeating ad nauseum.

    To those who think this is all just grievances or victimology or hatred of white people, I’d ask them why we should airbrush (dare I say “whitewash”?) this sort of history. Why is it that some people are entitled to remember their history, and others must forget their past?

  • This has been an engaging and substantive thread.

    I contribute to Brownstoner only occasionally these days but very much enjoyed the exchanges with (for me) unfamiliar writers (unless some of have assumed new handles). I’m an “old school” Brownstoner from the days of The What. (Remember then, Montrose and Bxgrl?)

    Is s/he still around? S/he’d add spice to the proceedings, although now that Brownstoner’s gone mainstream, s/he’s probably turned her/his tart remarks elsewhere.

    Which is too bad.