Fact of life: white kids don’t talk about race in a public forum. Sure, we spill our guts on the subject when we’re among friends, even friends of other races. On the rare occasion that white kids do opt to engage the issue in a newspaper column or among strangers, they tend to guard againstcriticism by taking a radical stance, concluding that white racism is the root of everything from the Iraq war to erectile dysfunction. But generally we have an absolute lack of sustained, interracial discourse on a subject that is as complex as it is unavoidable.
This lack of public conversation creates a situation that a conservative extremist would proscribe for approaching the issue of race. The conservative argument goes that racism is merely a factor of our own racial consciousness, and that if we ignore the entire issue of race, its harmful manifestations will simply dissipate. This is the case against racial considerations in congressional districting, and Chief Justice Roberts’ justification for the anti-affirmative action decision upheld by the Supreme Court this June. This school of thought is reminiscent of an understanding of racial injustice so elementary that it no longer explains the major vestiges of racism in today’s world. In truth, the dominant sources of racial inequality are structural, not a result of our tendency to categorize people by race so much as our unwillingness to recognize that our society actually is divided along racial cleavages.
Consider the racial gap in incarceration rates. As you may be aware, a black male born in the 1980’s has about a one in three chance of being convicted by a jury and spending time in prison, whereas a white male born in the same year has about a one in 20 chance of doing the same. Only a small degree (about 5 percent) of the disparity can be explained by racism in a conventional sense — that police are slightly more likely to stop a black man than a white one, and that a jury is slightly more likely to convict a black man than a white one under the same circumstances. The bulk of the racial gap in incarceration is only explained by the intricate processes of background, socialization and economics … that a black adolescent is more likely to have grown up in a neighborhood graced by high crime rates, to have gone to school in a decrepit district and to view the drug trade as a legitimate path to social mobility. None of what I’ve said so far should really be that controversial — the point is that the structural roots of racial inequality in today’s society will not be mitigated if we simply ignore race as a real political force.
The reason, then, that white kids don’t talk about race? It’s because they’re afraid they’ll mess up and say something that’s perceived to be racist. Moreover, because white kids aren’t used to talking about race in front of a mixed audience, they are indeed more likely to say something stupid on the subject. White kids don’t deserve all the blame for perpetuating this taboo though; the most benign comments on the subject are sometimes received with excessive combativeness, not so much because of their substance but because white kids are not perceived as having legitimacy engaging the issue. If the social disincentives of approaching “race” remain far stronger than the average white kid’s interest in the issue, why take the risk? Instead, white kids retreat into topics that are safe for them, like Cornell parties, cigarette smoking and sometimes international relations. Sorry — I’m sure I’ll write a column about Israel and Palestine at some point, but at the moment my chosen focus group is black hipsters. Better to risk saying something wrong than not talk about race at all.
As mentioned in my last column, D.C. is a city of black hipsters. This is rather enigmatic, as those who dress in straight-leg jeans, plaid shirts with snaps and for whom skateboarding has somehow become the preferred mode of transportation, tend to be overwhelmingly white in any other city. Although I don’t profess to be able to fully explain the forces governing all of this, I’ll suggest three possible causes:
-Racial relations seem to be less tense in D.C. than they are in cities like Chicago, Cleveland and New York. There appears to be far more interracial dating, less geographic segregation (in part only a function of the sporadic pattern gentrification takes) and more interracial discourse in general. This leads to more social and stylistic cross-germination, the end result being black hipsters.
-D.C. has virtually no indigenous white population. Not only does D.C. vie for “blackest city,” but the population of 25-29 year olds is nearly twice its population of 10-14 year olds. This is mainly because so many highly educated kids interested in electoral politics (read: white suburban kids) end up moving there after college. What this means is that D.C.’s white population is made of the type of person whose social life in undergrad revolved around campus politics and Zogby polls. As this population is decidedly not-urban and not-stylish, the image of hipster is no longer closely linked to whiteness in D.C. Hipsterism almost becomes a legitimate means for black kids to convey racial difference from the white community (like different black and Latino styles do in New York), and stores like American Apparel become legitimate places for black kids to buy clothes.
-Hipsters are never as poor as they would like to seem; I think it’s a safe guess that the economic spread within which virtually all hipsters fall ranges from middle to upper-middle class. Although D.C. has a very great number of poor black citizens, it also has a noticeably established black middle class. This may be because the black middle class is employed in or otherwise linked to the public sphere at higher rates than the white middle class, and so much of the public sphere is located in D.C. Additionally, for reasons of historical embeddedness and cultural significance, the black middle class is less likely to move out to the suburbs than the white middle class. The end result is a larger proportion of black middle class youth in D.C. than in other cities. Whereas the New York middle class is white and hipster (or Asian and hipster), the D.C. middle class is black and hipster.
Even though these issues are intimately connected to matters of race, class and socio-spatial segregation, it’s probably true that the specific topic of black hipsters isn’t all that central to the aforementioned structural racism that white kids need to start talking about. Consider it an icebreaker.
Tim Krueger is a senior in the College of Arts and Sciences. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org. Educating Your Guesses appears alternate Thursdays.