Nothing strikes fear into the heart of a homeowner community like the appearance of renters, and absolutely no renters generate fear--and loathing--like the government-subsidized tenants known as Section 8.
I am reluctantly learning this. I admit up front that I am one of the homeowners made uneasy by the recent arrival of a Section 8 family a few houses down the block from me. I was somewhat surprised at my resistance that felt almost physical. I promptly argued with myself that it wasn't the fact this family was poor and black that I objected to, it was the shift in local fortune that their arrival portended: this part of Inglewood was trending down from south of middle class to working class, maybe a bit south of that. We were all watching the recession fray the edges of an already rare and delicate fabric--a modestly middle class black neighborhood, which Inglewood happens to be--and the new neighbors were proof of a new reality. Of course it was distressing, but it was nothing personal. The new people could have been anybody. That they were numerous, disinclined to be friendly and sporting several tattoos among them had nothing to do with anything.
I was right in one way. But I was also fooling myself, or at the very least half-fooling myself. And I felt like a hypocrite. It's one thing to advocate for poor black people in theory, which I do, quite another to have them living next door. So accustomed have we grown to their isolation, we don't expect them to live anywhere except amongst each other (Inglewood does have poor blacks in its mix, always has, but they don't live on my block--emphasis on "my"). And let's face it; while everybody reviles the poor in America, no one is reviled quite like poor black folk. The seemingly permanent fusion of race and poverty, and the isolation that always comes with it, is like a neutron bomb that explodes all the good things that we desperately want to believe about this country: that it is fair, decent, colorblind, democratic, etc.
And nobody is more frightened by this bomb than the working and middle class blacks who have worked so hard to put as much distance between themselves and black poverty as they possibly can. I'm talking about distance that isn't just geographic, but psychic. Black people may talk longingly about the good old days of segregation in L.A., when blacks of all classes lived together in the same communities and those communities were better for it. But today that kind of economic diversity is hardly a goal; indeed, it's something to avoid at all costs. The unspoken conventional wisdom is that black poor people don't strengthen a community, they undermine it. Just ask a normally stoic neighbor of mine down the street who, upon hearing about the Section 8 family, groaned loudly. "Oh good lord," she said, looking crushed. "That's it." It's like we'd all died, or were getting ready to.
I can report at this point that the new neighbors, for all the consternation they've generated around here, are nearly invisible. I hardly see or even hear them. It's like they know they're being watched and worried about, know exactly the kind of baggage they're perceived to be carrying, and so keep to themselves. The worst thing they've done is let their little dog loose in the street; I worry for his safety. Of course, that's a such a bourgeois thing, worrying about the welfare of a dog first--is he eating enough? Is he well, happy? At some point I'll have to ask those questions of his owners.
Journalist and op-ed columnist Erin Aubry Kaplan's first-person accounts of politics and identity in Los Angeles, with an eye towards the city's African American community, appear every Thursday on KCET's SoCal Focus blog.
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