By Alex Kolker, United Way Community Impact Manager
Consider the following two mid-sized U.S. communities within the same region.
In one, the average household income is squarely in the middle class. Most people own their own homes. Three-quarters of their third-graders can read, and 95% of the adults have high school diplomas.
In the other, life is very different. One-quarter of the workforce earns less than minimum wage, and two-thirds of families rent rather than own their homes. Nearly half of the children are growing up without a father. Only 40% of the third-graders can read, and one in five adults never finished high school.
Now I ask you: What would the people living in the first community be like? How would their lives be different from their neighbors in the second? In which area would you rather live?
Most importantly, if you lived in the second community, how would you feel about the people who live in the first? Competitive? Cheated?
Now here’s the reality: Both communities are the Quad Cities area. The first one is the Quad Cities area that white people live in; the second is the area African Americans live in.
When people talk about achievement gaps, they make it sound like a list of grievances, and the solutions seem simple.
You want higher-paying jobs? Get a better education.
Can’t afford college? That’s what scholarships are for.
Can’t get good enough grades for a scholarship? Study harder.
But this is not the way the achievement gap looks to those people on the other side of it. For the African American community, the achievement gap isn’t so much about the things they don’t have – although it’s common knowledge that schools and neighborhoods in the second city are consistently underfunded – as it is about how, even when they work hard to gain these things, they still have to overcome barriers that people in the first “city” don’t face.
For the African American community – not just in the Quad Cities, but nationwide – it feels very much like they do not live in the same place that their white neighbors do.
If you’re skeptical about this assertion, try attending services at a predominantly African American church this Sunday. Notice all of the stares you get. The unasked but always present questions: “What are you doing here? What is your business here? Are you here to cause trouble?”
Now realize that this is the way that many African Americans feel on a day-to-day basis.
In his essay “The White Space,” Yale University Professor of African American Studies Elijah Anderson argues that, although the civil rights movement of the 1960s was successful at breaking down many of the barriers between the white and African American communities in the United States, it didn’t create a mixed space. It simply made it possible for African Americans to navigate into and out of “the white space.” But the space remains dominated by, governed by the rules of, the white majority who live there.
Speaking about upwardly-mobile African Americans, Anderson writes:
“Some of these women and men drive expensive Range Rover SUVs or Mercedes Benz and Lexus sedans, but when driving in the white space, they attract special scrutiny; on occasion, they get stopped and questioned by the police, who then may “discover” charges on which to detain them…. In these settings, often but not always, they appear distinctive and well dressed, wearing expensive designer clothes. But at times, particularly when appearing casually dressed, they can be challenged in restaurants, in their cars, in their buildings, on the golf course, in a fancy hotel lobby, or even arrested for “breaking into” their own homes.”
And this isn’t just something that happens in cities like Los Angeles and New York and Minneapolis. It happens here in the Quad Cities, too. Last February, an African American teen named Jaylan Butler was standing around in a rest area on Interstate 80 when several police cars raced into the parking lot and surrounded him. The young man ended up face-down in the snow with a police officer’s knee in his back and a gun pointed to the back of his head.
The police had been looking for a specific person – a suspect in a shooting earlier that evening – and they had a full description of who they were looking for. The teen they’d detained was eight inches too short and 70 pounds too light to match the description. Wrong build. Wrong hair. The shape of the nose. The shape of the jaw. Even the skin tone was wrong. The only physical similarities between the two men were that they were both males and they were both African American.
If you think this was an isolated incident, that George Floyd was an isolated incident, that Michael Brown or Eric Garner or Atatiana Jefferson were all just isolated incidents, then you haven’t been paying attention.
African American parents routinely teach their children how to act if they are ever stopped by police. “Keep your hands empty, open and in sight. Be polite. Answer all questions. Don’t give the police any reason to feel threatened.” Often African American parents first have this conversation while their children are still in elementary school.
Compared to that, how many white parents have ever had to have this conversation with their children even once?
This is what it means to say that African Americans do not live in the same community that that white people do. Everyday words like “police,” “urban” and “well-spoken” mean something very different to African Americans than they do to everyone else. African Americans do not live by the same rules or receive the same treatment as their white peers do.
I’m not saying, of course, that this happens to all African Americans all of the time, but that makes it even worse. If you never know when the next incident is coming – the next time that a person’s comment or actions reminds you that you are still seen as an outsider – then you can never ever let your guard down. Anderson writes:
"Individual blacks are required to show that the ghetto stereotypes do not apply to them; in effect, they perform to be accepted. This performance can be as deliberate as dressing well and speaking in an educated way or as simple as producing an ID or a driver’s license in situations in which this would never be demanded of whites."
So, yes: African Americans are free to enter the white space. But the space still belongs to the white people, and many African Americans still do not feel welcome there.
So, understand: when African Americans protested in the days after George Floyd’s death, it wasn’t just the Minneapolis incident in particular that they were protesting. It wasn’t just about the national trend of white police officers killing African American men. The protests are much broader than that. These people are shouting – to a white audience who hears the words but doesn’t really understand them – that the entire system they live under is inequitable, down to its very core.
Until white Quad Citizens can truly understand what our region looks like in the eyes of their African American neighbors – until we can create a single space where people of all races and ethnicities are accepted without challenge – there will never be true equity in our region.
What would we all have to do in order to create that single, welcoming space here in the Quad Cities?
Alex Kolker is United Way Quad Cities’ expert in data analysis, education impact strategies and academic achievement outcomes. He oversees the volunteer coordination and processes for our Strategic Impact Grants.
Let’s turn words into action — together
The United Way is dedicated to rebuilding a fair, more equitable Quad Cities. Read United Way Quad Cities President and CEO Rene Gellerman’s statement on equity, and find a list of resources on how you can make a difference: Click Here.