It was a strange feeling watching the images from Baltimore on television. After moving to America nine months ago to report on this country, I had to stop apartment hunting in New York to visit Ferguson, Missouri. The unarmed young black man Michael Brown had just been shot dead by a white police officer, sparking widespread unrest. Now I was seeing the same kinds of images while sitting in my apartment. This time it was a young black man in Baltimore named Freddie Gray, who died in police custody. And again, it set off rioting.
For the nine months I’ve been in America, similar incidents have shaken this country every few weeks.
When I went to Ferguson, I wanted to get to know a city, but found two. The white Ferguson with an organic supermarket, a nice wine bar and microbrewery. And the black Ferguson, made up of 99-cent shops, nail studios and liquor stores. It’s an America many just don’t want to see.
I live in Park Slope, a gentrified part of Brooklyn, but when you take the F train from Manhattan, it’s still easy to imagine America as a melting pot where everyone happily lives next to each other. In the subway, Indians sit next to orthodox Jews and black. There’s no graffiti to be seen and the windows aren’t even scratched. Everyone is civilized.
Bill de Blasio, New York’s new left-wing mayor, also lives in Park Slope. Together with his formerly lesbian African-American wife and their two children, his family epitomizes harmonious coexistence in America. It’s also home to author Paul Auster, who has written much about the idyllic neighborhood in Brooklyn. It’s undoubtedly a progressive place.
But there are cracks in this idyllic image upon closer observation. Park Slope is a place white people escape to, but black people don’t escape from. The playgrounds are filled with black nannies taking care of white children. Whether at Starbucks, in supermarkets or at the drugstore Rite Aid, blacks are the ones working there. Often it’s young women, who have had the names of their children tattooed in cursive on their arms. Rite Aid pays cashiers $8.80 an hour, Starbucks $9.50. You’ll have a long subway ride from Park Slope to get to a part of Brooklyn where there’s an apartment affordable on such wages.
Black service workers, white consumers. There’s only one except to this rule: the Park Slope Food Coop. A type of organic kibbutz that local residents have run for decades, each member is required to work a certain amount of hours. Here Park Slope serves itself and you’ll see very few African-Americans.
In light of the images coming out of Baltimore, I thought back whom I’ve met working in America the past nine months. I’ve interviewed nuclear weapon opponents in Kentucky, politicians in Washington, Truman Capote experts in New York, police officers in Connecticut, actors in Utah, historians in Illinois, computer specialists in Wisconsin, as well as journalists, lawyers and feminists. Aside from the reporting done about Ferguson, I’ve interviewed only one black person: a New York public defender originally from the Caribbean.
Even if African Americans only make up 13 percent of the U.S. population, that’s still seems odd. Where are they all? Mostly not sitting at a desk, but rather behind a service counter.
To be sure, every society has its rich and poor. That’s never bothered Americans as much as Germans, because there’s the belief that anyone can make it in this country if they try. After all, wasn’t Loretta Lynch, the first black woman to become U.S. attorney general, sworn in on the same day that cars were burning in Baltimore? Not to mention she’s serving under America’s first black president?
Barack Obama and Freddie Gray are two extremes. Two results from the same societal development. There’s a lot being written about this and politicians like New York Mayor de Blasio are vowing to change things. Hillary Clinton and most other presidential candidates are talking about the decline of America into a nation of haves and have-not, where the middle class is being squeezed, and the promise of social mobility has become a sham.
It’s a development that all Americans are feeling, both white and black. But it’s hitting African Americans much harder. They’re the first to see their livelihoods threatened. Study after study shows that, most recently one by the Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago. Only those coming from better off backgrounds are likely to improve or at least hold onto their parents’ standard of living. Like Barack Obama, who had college-educated parents, or Loretta Lynch, whose father was a pastor and mother was a librarian, or Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, the first black mayor of Baltimore, whose mother is a doctor and who comes from a prominent family of politicians.
The great American Dream, that anyone can succeed if they try hard enough, is turning into a nightmare for an increasing number of African Americans.