Big Smoke

'cause it's hard to see from where I'm standin'

They Hate Us For Our Freedoms

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I’ve alluded to the division between the Black and white communities in Brooklyn on two separate occasions now, and have made direct reference to the randomized assaults the media had decided, in pure yellow journalistic style, as the “Knockout Game:”

They saw white teachers. When we brought them on a field trip for economics class, they saw white bankers. When we sent them on a jobs program for the fashion and theatre industries, they saw white designers, white models and Asian seamstresses. When they asked those people how they got their jobs, they heard about higher degrees, unpaid internships, and personal connections. Their parents didn’t have degrees. They couldn’t afford unpaid internships, and they certainly had no connections. In fact, none of the people they talked to even came from the city, let alone their neighborhood. It is, then, no wonder to me why some would lash out, even if randomly and impotently, such as with the latest news reports of Black teenagers attacking random white passersby.


It’s from this point of view – as the last to be supported and the first to be abandoned – that I can see the Puerto Rican and Black population of north Brooklyn viewing these young white liberals as an invasion force that speaks as if they’re allies while acting like enemies. It’s from that point of view that I can see outbursts on the subway or snatched Apple products as a muddled social statement: “They deserve it; they’ve already done worse to me, though they would never be so brave as to admit it to my face. What’s being robbed on the street twice a year when I’m robbed in my mailbox every month?”

There indeed have been multiple altercations with them and their neighbors, especially in Prospect Heights and Crown Heights. When I saw this video, where-in Black teenagers got into an altercation with a Jewish teenager that spun out of control, it wasn’t surprising to me:

That was the subway stop for my school. Those were mostly public school students arguing with the police when one of theirs got arrested for harassing and possibly robbing a Jewish kid. Was it racially motivated? Clearly. And while I’ve listed why they wouldn’t have any love for the hipsters that are beginning to filter down from Fort Greene through Washington and Franklin Avenues, the New York Post has suggested that Black teenagers are targeting Jewish people specifically.

Laurie Cumbo was recently elected as City Councilwoman to that particular section of Brooklyn, and has recently given her opinion on the matter:

I shared that many African American/Caribbean residents expressed a genuine concern that as the Jewish community continues to grow, they would be pushed out by their Jewish landlords or by Jewish families looking to purchase homes. I relayed these sentiments at the forum not as an insult to the Jewish community, but rather to offer possible insight as to how young African American/Caribbean teens could conceivably commit a “hate crime” against a community that they know very little about.


I also recognize that for others, the accomplishments of the Jewish community triggers feelings of resentment, and a sense that Jewish success is not also their success.

These three sensitively-worded sentences were buried in a far larger text in which she referenced the 1991 Crown Heights Riots and called for a general healing of divisions between the two communities. She tentatively alludes to a dysfunctional division by which what has become evident in the neighborhood is a zero-sum game: Where Jews make gains, Black people lose. “Your ghetto is encroaching on my ghetto.”

Now, the Hasidic community in that neighborhood is generally not well-received by anybody except Republican politicians, and then largely because they are a unified, disciplined voting bloc when they vote. When looking at a voting map of north Brooklyn, it’s a sea of deep blue within which is a dot of deep red, and that dot is the Hasidic Jewish community. Their bloc’s political power is partly the reason why city politicians would have any opinion at all on issues like the Metzitzah B’peh.

However, the division is likely to remain strong: This is the neighborhood where the Jewish community has set up vigilante patrols that even the NYPD have had troubles with in convincing them to cooperate, and where the riots started in part because the Jewish community had their own separate ambulance service. It’s been noted that while Black residents frequently patronize Jewish establishments, Jewish residents do not often purchase from Black establishments. In close-by communities of South Williamsburg and Borough Park, there were issues with Hasidic Jewish residents enforcing orthodox custom on public buses and city pools, and where they have successfully blocked city deployment of bike lanes on public streets because they were concerned over women biking by while dressed ‘lasciviously.’  In short, they keep to themselves.

Cumbo praises this in her statement:

I admire the Jewish community immensely. I am particularly inspired by the fact that the Jewish community has not assimilated to the dominant American culture, and has preserved their religious and cultural values while remaining true to themselves. I respect and appreciate the Jewish community’s family values and unity that has led to strong political, economic and cultural gains.

I have argued that it is not to ask to assimilate one’s culture to the American zeitgeist but to assimilate one’s politics to that of the American zeitgeist, which is where we have this issue. To call it a cultural issue would be to imply that Black people are jealous of Jewish success, which is not helped by Cumbo’s statement towards the other side of the aisle:

As an African American woman, this is challenging, because I recognize that it is Black children and not Jewish children that are playing the “Knock Out Game.” Why is this? In many ways governmental neglect, outside uncontrolled influences and failed leadership have led to the breakdown that so many young people of color are currently facing. I feel torn because I feel apart of the very system that has caused the destructive path that so many young people have decided to take while I am simultaneously demanding that they be arrested by that same system.

Effectively, the message she gave to the Jewish community is that this issue is a backlash against their success rather than a referendum on their methodology, and the message she gave to the Black community is that this issue is due to “uncontrolled influences” and not an outrage perpetrated upon their community.

In short, Laurie Cumbo is attempting to placate each side and may have instead insulted the intelligence of both. “They’re jealous of your success” is something you would tell somebody if you’re afraid of their reaction should you tell them the truth. “It’s due to uncontrolled circumstances” is something you would tell somebody so as to obfuscate and thus protect the actual cause of their problem. She is indeed walking a tight rope.

Now, while her statement may have been somewhat boiled away in political doublespeak, her solution is what is truly misguided, here:

I believe that it is critical for our communities, and especially for our young people, to gain a greater understanding of one another so that we can learn more about each other’s challenges and triumphs despite religious and cultural differences. I believe it is possible for us to create real friendships across cultural boundaries that transcend mere tolerance, but rather strive for mutual respect and admiration.

Ignorance can and does explain a great deal when it comes to xenophobia and irrational hostility, but it does not help when actual imbalances and injustices are afoot: Understanding more may indeed exacerbate the divisions extant. As an angry young man myself, I know that my anger is not because I don’t know what’s going on, but because I do know what’s going on, and the struggle is and has always been how to suppress, reroute and channel that anger into constructive solutions rather than explain it away.

Why did I start this article by conflating Black vs hipster and Black vs Hasidic? Well, effectively, to highlight a difference: Young people from these Black communities can and do turn into hipsters, and there is certainly very little stopping hipsters from joining Black communities. I defined these stark divisions in my last article but the borders are actually quite porous at times. This is still New York, after all, where you can find Black metalheads from Flatbush getting hipster cred. Students of mine came from these same places yet went on to state and city universities and plugged into those different crowds. Their relative connections and advantages were few, but they could join and rise through the ranks of these other constituencies, and in doing so change prevailing conversations among the liberal crowd to a unified political whole. To walk through East Williamsburg and Bushwick is to see a melange, not the Berlin Wall. Effectively, given enough social support, there can indeed be cross-pollination and the divisions can indeed dissipate.

This would, by contrast, make the growth of the Hasidic community closer to an actual invasion, like watching one’s garden get strangled by kudzu. To walk through South Williamsburg or Prospect Heights, you see boundaries. There is no interplay, because the Hasidic community deems it such in the name of not wanting to assimilate. I fail to see that as the problem: It’s not a matter of non-assimilation, but of limiting their interaction with the greater world. Du Bois dubbed the heart of the matter a “double consciousness” and there is clearly still an African-American culture distinct from an American culture despite a long history of open interplay between them. For the Hasidic community to turn it into a zero-sum turf war is to invite this division – and these attacks – forever after, no matter how much the need to “understand the culture” is proffered, because their “culture” will forever be “them,” not “us.”

The Big Tent

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I remember having an epic argument with a long-standing acquaintance of mine from Florida over a video I had once linked him. It divided us so evenly and vehemently that we haven’t talked since. The video was taken by somebody’s phone on the L train late at night, depicting an altercation between what can best be described as a Latino hood and a white hipster girl. The video got a lot of play on the usual circuit of online content aggregators and was billed either as humor or as a crime in progress.

The reason for the altercation in the video is unfortunately not depicted, leaving only the colorfully-worded tirade the hood levied against the hipster, where-in he invaded her space and yelled at her for attention-seeking. My acquaintance saw it as a baseless, unwarranted assault. I saw it as an unfortunate but natural reaction to social circumstance. It has flavors of both of those things, but our argument spanned the nature of race relations, of gentrification, of the Democratic party, and of liberalism in general.

We both consider ourselves Democrats and would never think, in this day and age, to vote anything but Democratic. It’s simply not even an option. But the Democratic party is a big tent nowadays, holding court over multiple disparate constituencies bound together mostly by their hatred of the unthinking bigotry of the Republican party and the lack of a viable alternative. This has, among other things, presented a somewhat ungovernable series of demands up the chain and allowed for a bit of a disconnect between card-carrying Democrats and the Democratic leadership.

The leadership is fairly easy to describe. From FDR onwards we had pro-government liberal populists who more or less got to dictate the direction of the country until LBJ, at which point they started losing elections until they retooled into government-agnostic technocratic centrists a la Bill Clinton and Obama. The New Republic posited that liberal disappointment with Democratic leadership today in the form of Obama and Hillary Clinton will herald another turn towards a more multicultural populism, but I’ll believe it when it’s in office.

Either way, that leadership will have to contend with factions within the Democratic party that simply don’t like one another, and I believe the afore-mentioned video illustrates a moment of that. It reminded me of the Occupy Wall Street movement, in a way, as well as the very neighborhood that train was trundling under at the moment of the altercation. Actually, Williamsburg is a good enough place to start so I’ll start there.

Williamsburg has been known for being a hotbed of hipster gentrification so long that even the New York Times has reported on it, and they’ve only discovered Brooklyn in 2005. The backlash, counter-backlash and various philosophical musings on the nature of “progress” over the displacement that the influx of white twenty-something underemployed college graduates is interesting in that it exists in a reality that doesn’t get much attention from Democratic leadership, for all the parties involved are Democrats. The whole area from the East River straight through Bushwick is a big, solid blue on the map. Yet, divided they are, and in three parts.

The first are the hipsters, or, as I argued in my last missive, upper-middle-class college-educated young jet-setters. The more classically “liberal” of the three. Indeed, in Williamsburg, they’re often referred to as gluten-free, environmentalist, bike-sharing, gay-friendly atheist free speech advocates who all work social media in unpaid internships for non-profits, usually by the second group. As I also argued in my last missive, they’re mostly white. They like the police unless they’re in a protest (at which point the police are the army of the rich), they’re not terribly concerned about unionism because they’ve never been in a union, nor are social services at the top of their priorities – except academically – because their degrees will (eventually) translate into a higher average earning potential.

These were the people I remember watching on TV during the Occupy movement, where their message was, essentially, “I had everything going for me: An advanced degree, solid work experience, exactly the right demographics to be hire-able… where’s my piece of the American dream? If things are this hard for me, people who actually suffer are fucked!” I remember noting at the time that their group was missing the other two parts of the Democrats, at least until the second part showed up:

The second are the trade unionists. The more classically “populist” if the least liberal of the three. In Williamsburg they’re referred to as the ones hanging around the Veterans of Foreign Wars clubs wearing Local 236 Shitstompers patches sewn onto their biker jackets and speaking with that old-time Noo Yawka accent that sounds great at a fireman’s ball but guaranteed to make you unelectable. They’re also mostly white, but can by contrast be typified as “white ethnic” – Irish, Polish, Italian card-carrying Catholics who have a sharp cultural divide between themselves and the more libertine members of the first group. Needless to say, they’re strongly pro-union while the first group would more likely believe the current media zeitgeist over pension scandals, but don’t much care about civil rights or social services unless it directly pertains to them. They like the police because they are the police.

When they showed up to the Occupy protest, they knew what they were doing: All those TV cameras are useful. They came en masse, brought the full force of their war chests to bear to clean up the proceedings and actually give a cohesive statement, and then promptly fucked off because they have better things to do than freeze in the cold. In another era, conversely, they would have had more in common with the construction workers than the college students during the Hard Hat Riot of the Lindsay administration, but this time around co-option beat out competition.

These locals in Williamsburg and Greenpoint mostly dislike the hipsters for, while the hipsters’ political and economic gravitas are prompting the city to bring greater investment into the neighborhoods, they’re also out-pricing them from said neighborhoods. By contrast, the unionists’ traditional political power has been much diminished, as the unions themselves find that they are no longer able to command voting blocs or sway public opinion.

The third group, minorities – less a shared ideology and more a shared identity – never showed up to Occupy Wall Street, and for good reason: There was little in it for them. Unlike them, the first group had all the time in the world to camp out for weeks on end. The second group didn’t really represent them. Had they showed up, the police would likely have cleared them out even quicker than they did.

That more or less parallels what they experienced in Williamsburg and Bushwick, too. Since more of them rent, they were pushed out even quicker than the second group, which has a higher rate of home ownership. While more police coverage came, it was mostly seen as a means of protecting the hipsters from them: Stop and Frisk basically targets minorities, even in mixed neighborhoods. The more classically liberal New York Times still couches the gentrification in terms of progress, when they’re not forgetting what was there before hipsters or simply out-right siding with hipsters. Social services still ride on the heels of the hipsters, and not one subway stop further.

It’s from this point of view – as the last to be supported and the first to be abandoned – that I can see the Puerto Rican and Black population of north Brooklyn viewing these young white liberals as an invasion force that speaks as if they’re allies while acting like enemies. It’s from that point of view that I can see outbursts on the subway or snatched Apple products as a muddled social statement: “They deserve it; they’ve already done worse to me, though they would never be so brave as to admit it to my face. What’s being robbed on the street twice a year when I’m robbed in my mailbox every month?”

But we all vote the same.

I saw the same thing while working in the public school system: The teachers were all Group 1: Largely white liberals with advanced degrees. The support staff were all Group 2: Secure, largely white unionists. Because the teachers were also unionized, they had plenty of common cause against the administration and in the general running of the school. They voted the same, and were of a mind on almost every issue. They all drank after school every Friday.

They did not drink together.

The first group went to a sports bar in Fort Greene and talked about post-graduate work. The second group went to a neighborhood bar in Far Rockaway and talked about second jobs. (When I switched schools, these changed to bars in Hell’s Kitchen and Greenpoint, respectively.) The second would never join the first because they thought the first were full of contemptuous bourgie effetes. The first would never join the second because they thought the second were full of rowdy, uncouth futureless goons. They were both right.

The students were, to a one, all comprised from Group 3. Neither Group 1 nor Group 2 would think to enroll their children in the school where they worked, which states all that needs to be stated about what both groups, in their hearts, felt about the students’ prospects and their abilities. Group 1 accused Group 2 of racism. Group 2 accused Group 1 of high-handed elitism. They were both right.

Going back to the video, my argument with my acquaintance was predicated on the notion that I identified with the hood, and he with the hipster. I argued that the out-sized reaction the hood had was due to sensing that he was speaking with a passively hostile out-group. My acquaintance retorted that he failed to see how that pertained. I argued that neither would the hipster girl, but her presence was itself a social force. This point of contention has failed to be reconciled between us.

Luckily, with the election of de Blasio on a coalition ticket comprised primarily of the first and third groups, we’re destined to be strange bedfellows time and again, though how this is to play out is anybody’s guess: The issue today with the Democratic party is not to take its constituencies for granted. The issue tomorrow is likely to be which constituency the Democratic party prioritizes, for god knows they can’t get anything done at the best of times.

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