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.

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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.

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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.”

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