Black faces in white spaces
Craig Ranch North Community Pool in McKinney, Texas was not a “whites only” pool, but it might as well have been. Before Eric Casebolt shoved a black girl’s face into the ground and pulled a gun on her two unarmed friends, white neighborhood residents at the pool assumed that all those black teenagers were in the wrong place. They didn’t see the invited guests of a black neighbor getting a little rowdy at an end-of-school pool party. They saw black people who didn’t belong in the mostly white neighborhood.
“Go back to your Section 8 home,” said one white woman to a black teenager at the pool before slapping her. That black teenager lived in the neighborhood.
Why would this woman assume that her black neighbor was trespassing? The community pool, like most of the places we work, shop, eat, and goof off in America, is what sociologists call a “white space,” or an area where black Americans feel and look, at least to many white people, out of place. I’m not excusing that cop. He was wrong. But the police never would have been called if the black teenagers hadn’t seemed out of place to the white neighbors.
Most of America, writes Yale University sociologist Elijah Anderson, is white space.
“The wider society is still replete with overwhelmingly white neighborhoods, restaurants, schools, universities, workplaces, churches and other associations, courthouses, and cemeteries, a situation that reinforces a normative sensibility in settings in which black people are typically absent, not expected, or marginalized when present,” writes Anderson, who notes that black people “typically approach that space with care.”
What the black teenagers were doing in McKinney were the normal things that teenagers do at pool parties—goofing off, yelling, having fun. There’s nothing wrong about behaving that way if you’re white. But ask a black person whether it’s OK to cut loose around a bunch of white people—to not “approach that space with care”—and if they trust you they’ll tell you what it’s like to never relax.
“I feel like I have to be ‘on’ all the time while non people of color have the freedom to just be themselves,” said a black friend, who said a typical example is “when you travel with co-workers on business and they go to dinner have three or four drinks and dance all over the place, tell too many personal stories and make inappropriate statements. I wish I had that luxury in life.Â Black folks are always on and watching their backs and surroundings. You take the mask off when you come home.”
This notion of America being divided into white spaces, black spaces, and cosmopolitan spaces explains why a West Texas elementary school teacher posted on Facebook, “I’m almost to the point of wanting them all segregated on one side of town so they can hurt each other and leave the innocent people alone.” She wanted them all back into their black space, in the Section 8 housing that the one McKinney woman imagined they were from.
Once you can get your mind around what it’s like to be a black person in a white space, you understand why they fear being stopped by the police for no reason, followed around a store, or suspected of trespassing at the neighborhood pool. To a typical white person, a person of color often looks out of place. That person of color knows it, feeling both the unattainable pressure to act perfectly and, at the same time, invisible.
The state-sanctioned violence of how law enforcement treats people of color in this country is a horrible, soul-wrenching problem, but wearing a badge doesn’t magically turn a white person into a violent racist. The badge just gives permission to act like one. If we really want to do something about incidents like the one at the McKinney swimming pool, we first have to admit that we’ve got a problem.
America is not integrated yet, not by a long shot, but we shall overcome.
Jason Stanford is a regular contributor to the Austin American-Statesman, a Democratic consultant and a Truman National Security Project partner.