Last weekend I stood on my friend’s stoop to keep her company while she smoked a cigarette. Since her luxury apartment building sits across from the Louis Armstrong Housing Projects on Gates Avenue in the continuously gentrifying neighborhood of Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn, we weren’t surprised to spot a police officer standing across the street. While standing there, a woman walking down the sidewalk stopped and approached us.
“Do either of you live on the second floor of this building, by any chance?” she asked.
“Sorry, I don’t live here and my friend lives on another floor,” I replied.
“Oh okay, because I live next-door and whoever moved in on the second floor of your building smokes out of their window and it goes through a vent in a child’s room.”
“That’s awful, have you tried leaving a note?” we responded.
At some point during our conversation, I noticed the white police officer who was originally posted across the street had walked over to our side of Gates Avenue. He stood just a few feet away while we finished our exchange.
“I haven’t left a note,” the neighbor explained. “But I’m concerned about the constant smoke going into the child’s room.”
“Sorry we can’t be more help, but we’ll be sure to say something if we see those residents.” We all smiled and wished each other a good night, and then the woman headed back toward her apartment.
My friend and I also went back inside, but not before taking one last glance at the cop who clearly thought it was necessary to make his presence obvious to the black woman who stopped to chat with two young white girls.
This is what gentrification does: it makes original inhabitants of neighborhoods into menaces when in actuality these new residents of renovated luxury buildings are the ones disrupting the peace. Cops are quick to notice and fear black women approaching white women on the street, but are equally quick to ignore problems like cancer causing smoke being filtered into children’s bedrooms.
Back in 2011, the New York Times noted that about 60 percent of Bed-Stuy residents are black, a 75 percent decrease from ten years prior, and that for the first time in 50 years the 2010 census reported black residents had become the minority in a particular section of Bed-Stuy, west of Throop Avenue.
White people who can no longer afford the already gentrified neighborhoods like Williamsburg and Greenpoint have set out to make Bed-Stuy the next “up and coming” place to live, and the implications of this show up in the every day lives of Bed-Stuy’s original tenants, much like my friend’s next-door neighbor.
Having white privilege in gentrifying neighborhoods means you’re not viewed as a threat. Instead, it means that black women who are simply trying to protect the health of their children are viewed as potentially dangerous. It also means you help perpetuate racist attitudes against the very people who you’re pricing out of their homes.
But a woman trying to protect a child’s health by kindly approaching her neighbors is not a threat. An officer of the law crossing the street because a black woman starts talking to her white neighbors, however, is indeed a threat to the neighborhood’s original inhabitants. And it’s a threat to ending racism in America.
The actions of this one officer aren’t reflective of an isolated incident; they’re indicative of the larger problem of white people automatically demanding and requiring protection, even if it means jumping to racist conclusions.
My friend and I didn’t need any protection that night, but because of the color of our skin, the blackness of the woman who engaged us, and the race of the observing police officer, we were the assumed potential victims. You know who does need to be protected? Children who suffer from second hand smoke, thanks to their new white neighbors, and black women in Bed-Stuy who are viewed as threats.
It’s easy to ignore privilege when you have it — in fact, it often renders undetected because of its very existence — but that needs to change, especially when failing to acknowledge your own privilege results in violence against others. The truth of the matter is, Bed-Stuy residents are not a threat to their own communities. Gentrifiers are.
On the corner of Nostrand and Greene Avenues — only a couple of blocks away from my friends’ apartment where the incident occurred — is one of Brooklyn’s better known murals, “Women Who Pursue Justice.” It’s a beautiful painting that juxtaposes images of 90 revolutionary women like Angela Davis and Maya Angelou who have ties to New York and are painted alongside the words, “A Catalyst For Change.”
I can’t help but notice the irony in honoring these women of color for their social justice work and activism around equality on the same streets that systemic racial oppression occurs. The mural is supposed to be inspirational, but walking by it on my way home felt like a punch in the gut after witnessing my whiteness aid in the racial profiling of Bed-Stuy’s original dwellers. Angela Davis and the other radical revolutionaries whose faces stare out at passers-by wouldn’t think very highly of the changes happening in this neighborhood.