Behind the Byline

"Savage Inequalities”

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We must listen more. We must love more. We must go out and find out more

To be a Negro in country and to be relatively conscious is to be in rage almost all the time.
―  James Baldwin

And it is rage that I see everywhere in the inner city where young men are lost, and old mothers are clinging on to faith to block out the fact that they are lesser mortals.The grand jury’s decision not to indict Darren Wilson, the police officer who shot the unarmed black boy named Michael Brown is what they might argue is a question of ‘legality’ but race in America is an uncomfortable question, and many would often shrug their shoulders and cite affirmative action, and Barack Obama, who is black and the president of the country. But he lives in what is called the ‘White House’ and there is always a thin line between real and symbolic.

In any case, a reporter should not get into theories, or academic viewpoints. We speak mostly on the basis on facts, and observations. We have that advantage – of going out there, and listening, and asking.

Like I did in North Philly, which many would tag as ‘badlands’ but I was curious. I had met a crime reporter from the Philadelphia Inquirer and he had taken me on a round to see the Italian neighborhoods to tell me the story on organized mafia’s descent into anarchy, and why the streets in the inner city were so full of everything that spelled gloom.

There’s a bug that reporters have. To go out, and see. So, we started to go to the inner city to see for ourselves what it was. They warned us – me, and a friend, who is also an anthropologist. So, we ended up in Black & Nobel, a bookstore that advertised itself saying it shipped to prisons because a majority of black men were incarcerated.

And that’s where we stumbled upon stories of hope, and gloom, and redemption, and defeat.

That was the time when Travyon Martin was shot in Florida. The rage was there, and they cried. There were outbursts, and there were protests. The Occupy Movement started to diversity. We went to attend meetings of Occupy the Hood, and began to understand what kept the blacks out of the mainstream. The argument that inner city is full of drugs, and violence, and every other vice because there was a lack of will, and participation, is ill-informed, and lacks empathy, or perhaps lacks any consideration of the facts of history. Consider the education system. If you tie the property taxes to the school district, it is a simple logic that schools in poor neighborhoods will suffer. I covered the school districts of New Hartford, a rich suburb, in Utica in Upstate New York, and sometimes wrote about the school district in the City of Utica, which was mostly inhabited by blacks and refugees. Utica had suffered and its salvation came through the refugee resettlement program when the population decline was reversed. It is still struggling, but it would have been a ghost town had it not been for its refugees. In any case, the two school districts showed a skewed education policy that kept the poor from performing, and pushed the rich. Jonathan Kozol writes in The Shame of the Nation: The Restoration of Apartheid Schooling in America “There is something deeply hypocritical in a society that holds an inner-city child only eight years old "accountable" for her performance on a high-stakes standardized exam but does not hold the high officials of our government accountable for robbing her of what they gave their own kids six or seven years before.”

I am only going by the experiences of a reporter, who wasn’t born in America, and didn’t carry any baggage.

I visited Bronx in New York City where the poor had been housed in what America calls housing projects. What these housing projects signify is another uncomfortable truth. Escapism is an uncomfortable truth, too.

In Utica, where I lived and wrote for a newspaper for a couple of years after finishing my master’s from Syracuse University, they would ‘comb’ Cornhill, a black neighborhood or a ghetto as the popular definition goes, each time there was an incident. They were humiliated, and they were full of rage. Rage is like a river. It will flow out.

So, there is rage on the streets. And it spreads like wild fire. And that’s how a river in flood behaves. But then, they control it, and the rage simmers.

In 2012, when I had come back from Philadelphia, I had written about my tryst with inner city. This was shortly after Travyon Martin’s shooting.

On 26 February this year, a 17-year-old African-American teenager carrying iced tea and Skittles was fatally shot by a neighbourhood crime-watch volunteer in Florida. Flayed as a racial killing, Travyon Martin’s death sparked protests across America.

That night, Martin had worn a hoodie. The man who shot Martin, George Zimmerman, as reports suggest, already had a record of calling 911 on fears of African-Americans acting suspiciously, as he thought.

Many African-Americans wear hoodies. “You know, if I had a son, he’d look like Trayvon,” President Obama said almost a month later, “All of us have to do some soul-searching to figure out how does something like this happen.”

That was a gated colony. But not much has changed in ghetto America either, that forbidden territory for most of the rest. In Philadelphia, you see rows of crumbling blocks. The ones that are inhabited are in a shambles, with broken window panes and garbage bags piled high outside doorsteps. Everything looks broke, broken.

America was founded here, the city of the Liberty Bell, the city that first held a beacon for freedom, meritocracy and democracy, the city where ‘inalienable rights’ were agreed upon for all. But in its inner city, they’d tell you the system does little but perpetuate racism.” In the City of Brotherly Love.

I went again. Not to Philadelphia. But to Bronx. And to Harlem, and on the streets, if you had the time, and a notebook, they would tell you about their problems. I had too much time. I listened mostly, and for days, I’d roam the streets looking for stories.

It is sad but this time, the rage must not succumb to delusion, and perhaps, the world can then understand that it takes more than a liberal tag to let go of the suspicion of the other that doesn’t look like you, or belongs to a different space and context in history. Inequalities are a fact of life. But to perpetuate them is a choice.

We must listen more. We must love more. We must go out and find out more.

And again, I say this only because I have been there, lived there, and knew people in the inner city. That was the only place that let me in, and no, I wasn’t threatened.