The Good, the Bad and the Ratchet: How We Talk About Our Own Communities

With all the talk about our different neighborhoods, what's going left unsaid?

With all the talk about our different neighborhoods, what’s going left unsaid?

A group of good friends of mine and I had a long talk the other night about segregation in Chicago, and the different communities with which we associate. The conversation got complicated when we each started describing which neighborhoods in the city we frequent normally, where we feel most comfortable and where we don’t.

Eventually we got to the question: Is it racist or classist to avoid an entire region, like the South Side for example, because you don’t feel safe there? Many in the group maintained that no, it is not; The South Side is dangerous, has higher instances of gang violence, queer bashing and crime than other regions of Chicago. The fact that it is largely Black and has overwhelmingly less resources than other parts of the city has nothing to do with the choice to avoid it.

Others pointed out that the feelings they had about certain parts of the South Side were the same ones they had about certain blocks and areas in their own neighborhoods in other parts of the city. Some streets are ghetto, some hoods are ratchet, be they Black, Brown, immigrant or poor, and it is real instances of danger which dissuade folks from spending time there, not the specific identities of residents.

In Chicago, CPS and the mayor-appointed school board continue to push forward a plan to close 50 public schools in the next year, largely in poor Black and Brown neighborhoods, despite community protest, resistance and activism. The city is also, as it is often reported, the current murder capital of the U.S., not merely in terms of the sheer number of violent deaths, but also for murders of those younger than 18.

The coinciding of these facts is not coincidental. It has been pointed out again and again by families, experts and community members that the best way to predict rises in violence in a community is by noting how many social services have been cut from it. When jobs leave, welfare is rescinded, access to housing is disbanded, clinics are shut down, and programs lose their funding, real outlets which support, empower and unite communities are shut off, leaving members to look for other ways to sustain themselves, instate their power, and relieve the stresses of daily life–stresses which increase as resources diminish.

The question of school closings, then, is not simply about access to education and employment for oppressed communities, but is an issue of life and death. And just as Arne Duncan loves to talk about closing failing schools to give children the education they deserve, but never explains how a system of public education allows any of its schools to fail, the bald distinction of good and bad, failing and successful, blames oppressed people and communities for the conditions they’ve actively been made to endure.

How we understand and talk about these issues as they relate to our own communities has everything to do with how we react, respond and resist their occurrence. Our inevitable discussions of good and bad blocks, good and bad schools, good and bad regions, allows us to paint each of our communities in certain lights without ever asking how and why they got to be that way. It naturalizes poverty, crime, hunger and unemployment, as though certain populations were just more prone to them. It makes it seem as though violence is a mere cultural or regional difference, as opposed to how individuals respond to the social and economic rug being wrenched out from under them. It obscures the fact that law enforcement and policing protect certain populations by containing and instigating violence in others. (Why do we imagine that the best way to stop gun violence is by sending in more people with guns?) It allows us to believe that class and race have little to do with how resources are distributed, instead of being deeply embedded in the economies, real-estates, and geographies of our cities.

‘Ghetto,’ ‘safe,’ ‘cheap,’ ‘dangerous,’ ‘nice,’ ‘upscale,’ ‘gang-related,’ ‘abandoned,’ and ‘good’ are all code words for the inequities which exist between different communities–inequities which we know run along predictable lines of class, ethnicity, ability and educational access. They are codes which mask not only the conversations about injustice we are attempting to have, but also the forces and factors which are the root causes of those injustices. When we say a neighborhood is getting ‘better,’ we don’t mean it’s getting better for its original residents. We mean that certain populations and the social ills they’ve had foisted on them are being forced somewhere else.

More and more, they are being forced from the city altogether. They are pushed by corporations who pay no taxes, and by the business interests of politicians. They are pushed by the real-estate market, and the belief that one actually gets rid of poverty by getting rid of poor people. Every conversation we have which ignores the fact that violence and a lacking of resources are forced onto our communities, not native to them, supports this belief system.

Yet perhaps the greatest barrier to justice the good/bad dichotomy poses is that it teaches us to see other oppressed people as foreign. It builds boarders between ourselves and communities of other races and classes, but also between those in our own communities who need our compassion and support, whose suffering under the same regimes of austerity looks different than our own.

As long as we turn our fear, stress and anxiety on one another, we will never be able to turn our rage, creativity and strength on those who starve our communities. As long as we see each other as alien, we will never be able to build our collective force for radical structural change. We cannot fight back if we are constantly fighting each other. Instead of thinking of violence as normal for someone else, let’s see it as demoralizing and destructive for everyone, an issue we need to understand as belonging to our whole communities if we are to dismantle the systems which make it appear natural.

2 responses to “The Good, the Bad and the Ratchet: How We Talk About Our Own Communities

  1. Very interesting post — I found it through a suggestion from linked in. Isn’t it odd that the very act of avoiding certain areas of the city because we feel unwelcome there or because it is dangerous for us there is also the act that denies incremental help to that area. Then, as customers of all types quit frequenting these areas, they become even more economically blighted, which starts (or perpetuates) the spiral downward. In the final phase, we demand that someone do something about that area — the schools, the mayor, some Federal department of something. The simplest solution is to simply start supporting the businesses who remain there, maybe slowly by going during daylight in small groups for safety, then later, in the early (but not late evening), etc. That way, the good people drive out the crime and poverty without having to wait for some local or state or Federal agency to do it. Just my 2 cents.

    • Thank you for your thoughts! I agree with you that we often wait for economic justice to be handed down to us from government agencies, the education system (as you wisely point out), or some other office. But I also think that waiting for people with more resources than we have to work up the nerve to go shopping in our neighborhoods is a similar kind of forced dependence. Isn’t the free market a part of what has created the disparities we speak of, and which guarantees that certain communities have to struggle for others to succeed? I don’t think anyone needs to be driven out, but instead that we need to think about how to address the root circumstances which harm our communities. I think you are talking about self-determined ways of achieving economic justice, and I think that instead of asking how our patronage could bring up other communities, we should think about all the work there is to be done in our own communities to reach that goal. Poverty persists because of the decisions people with privilege and power make. What work can people of privilege do in their own neighborhoods to challenge the system as it stands?

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