Thursday, October 7, 2010

White fear of blackness on trains

The NYTimes had an interesting, if brief, commentary piece on a phenomenon I've observed many times riding trains, subways, and buses all over the city of Chicago: white people tend, on average, to have an aversion to sitting next to black men.

I've pointed this out and thought about this many times on the CTA in Chicago. I can't even count the number of times I've clawed my way into a jam-packed subway car at rush hour, only to find an empty seat (or two, or three) where a young, black man is sitting. Amazed to have found a seat on a packed train, I sit down. And like the author of the article I do actually appreciate the free seat on crowded trains, since, as I say, I tend to eagerly snatch up the free space to sit down where many riders, strangely, fear to tread. But though there is a small, individual-level silver lining, we need to be clear here that the context is an oppressive one. This phenomenon is due to racism.

When I say this is due to racism, note that I'm not insinuating that every single white rider consciously decides that they just hate the black person on the train and therefore avoid sitting next to them. Notice that I'm not calling all these fearful white passengers "bad, mean people", though it is no doubt true that at least some of them are. No, instead, I'm describing an oppressive set of social norms, practices, and forms of consciousness in our society which devalue and subordinate blackness (note that I do think that racism has an institutional and material element as well, but it's not as prominent or directly relevant in this case).

As the political philosopher Tommie Shelby has pointed out, racist ideology shifts throughout history. As he puts it, "in the present phase of capitalist development, blacks are often viewed as parasitic, angry, ungrateful, and dangerous" (whereas they'd been characterized as "docile, superstitious, easily satisfied, and servile" under the conditions of plantation slavery). This seems to me accurate. But I would add to this description of the newer forms of racist ideology the contributions made by the "culture of poverty" non-sense that has wide informal currency among white folk, and which is also still passed off as scientific in some sociology departments. At any rate, this cluster of ideology no doubt underpins the aversion and anxiety white people have in sitting next to a black man on a train. Rather than seeing black passengers as fellow city-dwellers getting from A to B... black passengers, and black men in particular, are treated like pariahs. We should be part of dismantling this phenomenon, and calling it for what it is.


dnw said...

Incredible. I have not witnessed this phenomenon in New York, Philly, or Berlin (can't comment on Vienna, since I've never seen a black person here). Do you think Chicago is particularly racist, or have I just not noticed it in other places?

t said...

Well, for one, the New York subway cars are laid out different than the CTA subway cars. In New York, all of the seats face the aisle, and there are less seats total per car. And on top of that, New York subways are probably more crowded. Chicago has two seats side by side in the body of the car that face the direction of travel. So you feel more like you're sitting next to someone than on the New York subway. This is speculative- I'm sure there are other reasons why this is so. Perhaps racial segregation, and racism, is simply more acute in Chicago. But the author of the NYTimes piece was describing the NYC-Providence commuter rail, so I wouldn't chalk it up to Chicago. Hard to say. It's certainly a problem in Chicago, though.