Yale sociologist Elijah Anderson speaks about ‘the black side of town’


“When I leave this building, I am at risk,” said Dr. Elijah Anderson — a preeminent sociologist, ethnographer and Yale professor — during his “Race and Space” Nobel Peace Prize Forum keynote address on Friday, Sept. 15 in Sateren Auditorium. “If I take off this suit and tie, I could be stopped by the police,” he said. Anderson was talking about what it means to live as a black person in the United States. His speech focused on how “black people must navigate white spaces as a necessity of their existence,” and live in the shadow of “the iconic ghetto.” He also drew many of his points from his 2011 publication on city spaces and race entitled “The Cosmopolitan Canopy: Race and Civility in Everyday Life.”
       Anderson first discussed his own background. He was born to a Mississippi sharecropping family, and he moved with them to South Bend, Ind., later in his childhood.
       Witnessing the civil rights era, Anderson recalled riots and burned hulls of major cities as those riots became more and more violent. “The nation learned to dread long hot summers,” Anderson said. In the wake of the movement, though, the United States created Affirmative Action, an administrative program that aided in the upward mobility of underrepresented groups in schools and employment sectors.
       Over time, however, Affirmative Action’s effectiveness waned. “Affirmative Action became a pejorative,” said Anderson. “It was about meeting quotas for diversity, promoted tokenism, but it did not fill the needs of black people.”
       According to Anderson, Affirmative Action’s failure to educate and lack of funding meant there was an absence of social nets that kept black families stable. As white residents moved out into the suburbs, black residents moved closer to the urban core, but redlining by banks and other institutions “sealed the fate of neighborhoods,” said Anderson. That is, residents were doomed to life in structural poverty. As a symptom of neglect, street safety and vibrancy are compromised. “The crime rates define the area for outsiders. Many believe that if you’ve seen one ghetto, you’ve seen them all,” said Anderson, “the iconic ghetto becomes an important source of the stereotypes against black people … In nearly every city, there’s a black side of town.”
       The stereotypical, anachronistic ghetto is “replacing what slavery first established,” said Anderson. The misinterpretation of the violent, destitute and unsalvageable neighborhoods allow others to perceive black folks as secondclass citizens and even sub-human as slaves from Africa were once considered in the United States and the rest of the colonial world.
       What Anderson deems “the shadow of the iconic ghetto” haunts not only the residents of disparaged and abandoned neighborhoods, but middleclass black folks who are not associated with these areas. “America is hardly a color-blind society,” said Anderson. “Some have ascended, but the ghetto places a shadow over them and defines the black body.”
       As educated, ascended black citizens enter white public spaces, it is hard for them “to shake off the image of the ghetto,” said Anderson, meaning they must, by necessity, prove themselves credible and upstanding in a tiresome display that does not end until they retreat from the white public eye. People of color run the risk of being mistaken for a janitor or a worker rather than a customer or patron in white spaces. Anderson called instances like these “drawing the color line.” To many in the black community, said Anderson, this occurrence is called the “N-word Moment.”
       Even in cosmopolitan canopies, or spaces where people of all backgrounds intermingle under the expectation of civility, the stereotypical “ghetto” persona pulls at the seams of the canopy and further isolates black residents of the United States from opportunity. In his conclusion, Anderson suggested that in order to mitigate inequality, the government needs to allocate funds for education, healthcare, housing and jobs for underrepresented groups living in the prison built by structural poverty and racism. “It will be expensive,” said Anderson. “But we need to bring people of color to full citizenship.”
       Anderson spoke again later that day in the Si Melby gym as part of a plenary panel entitled “Peace by Design: What Will it Take to Bring Peace to Our Cities?”

This article first appeared in the Friday, September 29, 2017, Edition of The Echo.