What I’ve Learned on “Blood Corner”

There’s more going on with Ferguson and Staten Island than you think.

Nearly fifty years ago, as riots fueled by the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. erupted in cities across the country, I carried a proposal from a dozen major churches in Boston to a prominent black community leader, the Reverend Michael Haynes. The proposition was that black and white Christians march arm in arm through the city. It would have been the first time any of the white pastors had marched for anything. It was a frightening time and no one had a better idea.

“Call the march off,” said Rev. Haynes. “Every step would be a lie. It would suggest that there is a relationship between black and white Christians, but we are completely estranged brothers and sisters.” Long story short: we called off the march, and at Rev. Haynes’ suggestion I moved into the neighborhood, joined his church and shut up and listened. I still live there today, in a house overlooking a park where Dan Rather of CBS once staged his broadcast because it demonstrated the worst racial relations in Boston.

There was a sense then that better days were ahead, that ordinary people could make a difference. It was a collective version of the American Dream. We believed that if enough of us worked together to make changes, even the poorest could begin to enjoy a more equitable life. Sure, it would require sacrifice. Some of us would have to walk through the valley of the shadow of death. But we had a vision. We had hopeful songs about a better world a-coming. And many things have changed since then. But many others have not.

Today, for instance, it’s particularly depressing to read blogs about Ferguson and Staten Island that either call the police murderers or call black people animals. It’s heartbreaking to hear police mock the killing of Michael Brown, and then also to face the evil of policemen being assassinated. Irreconcilable opposites, each denying the humanity of the other, each deflecting criticism from itself, and so preventing even modest changes for the better.

When I’m honest I realize that I too, having given my life to fighting racism, still experience ugly racial thoughts triggered by the most innocent sight or sound. They may masquerade as social or economic commentary, but they’re attacks on another’s humanity, thoughts that others’ lives matter less than my own.

I remember two defining moments. After decades of examining racism on the ground, I saw that my abashed confession of my own prejudice allowed me to confront racism in others without preaching down from some higher moral plane. What if racism is in our air? What if we all breathe it in? If we each become alert to our own limitations, then perhaps the charge of “racist” will no longer be a bomb we toss at those evil “others.” Then we no longer need to deny that there is racism within the delight some take in degrading a black football player or a black president. There is good and bad within all of us.

The other moment happened in that park across from my house, the one famous for its racial turmoil. A local postman had bought a triple-decker house to enable a group of us to move into the area. We were an interracial community hoping to be a force for justice and reconciliation. We were welcomed with open arms as we rented nine additional apartments and quickly got to know the teenagers in the neighborhood. The most common flashpoint at the park was when black kids wanted to play basketball and white kids were already using the court. The fights were so frequent that privately we called our intersection “Blood Corner.”

I was mystified at why the Irish kids kept saying they were attacking the black kids “to save our houses.” Then, on an inspiration, I asked how many of them remembered living west of Washington Street. All their hands shot up. Suddenly I understood.

A few years earlier, in response to the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., the Boston Banks Urban Renewal Group decided to make home ownership available to poor black families. They literally drew a red circle on a map around a Jewish and Irish area. Then they distributed leaflets, which conveyed the message, “Sell your house before it’s worth nothing.” In just two years all the whites moved out, selling their houses cheap, losing their equity. These Irish kids’ parents had moved to the other side of our park.

The incoming black families lost too. It sounded good to buy with no down payment, but when the roof leaked or furnace failed, the same banks denied them home repair loans because they had built up no equity. This was predictable. As a result, more mortgages were foreclosed in that area than in all the rest of our state. The area deteriorated, black families were further marginalized, the Irish blamed the blacks and the kids fought each other. Oh, and the banks and real estate people sold those houses a second time, doubling their profits.

I knew two elderly black women who lost their home. “Roger,” they said, “we thought we were paying a mortgage, but I guess we’ve just been renting 15 years.” I was there at the sidewalk auction when the bank bought their house from itself to sell it again. It was my own banker, a very nice person. But his graciousness did not eliminate the fact that his standard, uncontroversial daily work resulted in the impoverishment of the Irish and Jews who moved out as well as the black families who moved in. The fights on Blood Corner were the direct result.

And it continues. Today I know some of the extremely nice, very spiritual, affluent white people who have moved into those same homes. Today a person needs an income of at least fifty thousand dollars to buy a house here. So the poor are being moved out and impoverished, indirectly, by some of the nicest people in the world.

These sorts of stories that are hidden from many of us strike me as helpful when we talk about Ferguson and Staten Island and the police. We tend to think of racism as a personal failing, like a “rogue cop” or a “radical protester.” But it was the legal structure of slavery that was evil, not just the personal attitude of Thomas Jefferson, who justified owning 225 slaves because “blacks are inferior to whites in endowments of body and mind.” The Indian Removal Act of 1830 legalized land grabs and extermination because “they have neither the intellect, the industry, the moral habits, or the desire for improvement.”

Structural racism continues to have a huge impact, without regard to personal niceness. The FHA insured millions of homes for whites in the 1930s and excluded most blacks. The G.I. Bill subsidized millions more homes for soldiers, but less than 2 percent of the funds went to non-whites. Those subsidies created wealth for those who received them—the resulting home equity empowered their kids to go to college or to start a business—and denied it to those who were excluded. The black parents I know are well aware that their children continue to suffer the effects of America’s historic, legislated economic favoritism.

Today’s downward mobility includes poor whites and much of the middle class. So on top of racial discrimination, America is building two cultures, one rich and one poor. The surface fight is black against white, police against those they are to protect. But perhaps the deeper issue is that we all together are becoming pawns of a tiny elite.

At the top of our country's income distribution, a single family, the Waltons, has the same net worth as the bottom 41 percent of America’s families. The exact figure is $171.5 billion. The top one percent now take almost all of the benefits of our economic growth. This disparity reminds me of Honduras, home of close friends, where ten families own virtually the entire country—oblivious to the poverty that creates such hopeless despair that its youth risk death to escape. In my experience, thats how many young black urban Americans feel today.

What Rev. Haynes said to me those many years ago stung at the time, but I’m grateful for his challenge to move into his neighborhood and see the facts on the ground for myself. Eventually I understood why Martin Luther King Jr.’s vision went far beyond combating prejudice to addressing structural racism by building a social movement to empower the needy. The vision that inspired King was the biblical concept of Jubilee—a command that every fifty years prisoners were to be freed, debts forgiven and land ownership (wealth) returned to a generalized state of equality. King gave his life for a large-scale common vision, not just to shame mean people into being nicer. After all these years, I still hold out hope that stories like these from Blood Corner will contribute to our next step forward as a nation.

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