Black in White Space by Elijah Anderson – 2021 Lynd Award Winner

CUSS Newsletter, Winter 2022, Vol. 35, No. 1

Elijah Anderson is the Sterling Professor of Sociology and of African American Studies at Yale University, and one of the leading urban ethnographers in the United States. His publications include Code of the Street: Decency, Violence, and the Moral Life of the Inner City (1999), winner of the Komarovsky Award from the Eastern Sociological Society; Streetwise: Race, Class, and Change in an Urban Community (1990), winner of the American Sociological Association’s Robert E. Park Award for the best published book in the area of Urban Sociology; and the classic sociological work, A Place on the Corner (1978; 2nd ed., 2003). Anderson’s ethnographic work, The Cosmopolitan Canopy: Race and Civility in Everyday Life, was published by WW Norton in 2011. Additionally, Professor Anderson is the recipient of the 2017 Merit Award from the Eastern Sociological Society and three prestigious awards from the American Sociological Association, including the 2013 Cox-Johnson-Frazier Award, the 2018 W.E.B. DuBois Career of Distinguished Scholarship Award, the 2021 winner of the Stockholm Prize in Criminology, and the 2021 Robert and Helen Lynd Award for Lifetime Achievement. For our newsletter, Elijah Anderson has shared part of his latest bookBlack in White Space. As noted in the excerpt, Black in White Space is an extension of his previous work. These ethnographies are now considered essential reading in community and urban sociology. In addition to contextualizing his body of work, the excerpt below also addresses his concern for the fragility of American society as a whole.   

When Supreme Court Chief Justice Roger B. Taney declared in the 1857 Dred Scott decision that the framers of the Constitution believed Black people “had no rights which the white man was bound to respect,” he ruled on the state of American society at that time: Black people, free or enslaved, held a place inferior to that of White people, and all White people were above all Black people. This ruling established and reinforced the societal prejudice that White people were simply better than Black people by virtue of being White (Painter 2010; Franklin and Higginbotham [1947] 2021).  

Black in White Space

After Emancipation, as Black people migrated to towns and cities in the North and in the South, their stigmatized “place” both followed and preceded them. When Black people settled in their new communities, their reception was decidedly mixed; they were resisted and tolerated, and as their numbers grew relentlessly, the local White people worked to contain them, at times violently, in what became the “Black section” of town. These settings where Blacks were relegated were the precursors of the Black ghettos that have proliferated throughout the nation since that time, settings that symbolically reinforced what slavery established: the lowly place of Black people in the public mindset. 

Now, in virtually every city in America, there is a “Black side of town,” an area where Black people are concentrated, which is generally apart from White residential areas. But the ghetto is not solely a matter of physical location; it is also a symbol of the ghetto’s peculiar relationship with the wider White community. In the past, the Black ghetto served as a haven from racism, a place of refuge where Black people could “feel at home” among their own kind. These neighborhoods developed as segregated communities, replete with their own infrastructures and social organization. In time, they would take on a more sinister definition and purpose— not just for Blacks but for the wider society as well. Eventually, the ghetto would serve as a place reminiscent of a reservation, where Black people would reside.

Eventually, the White population developed and elaborated their own sense of group position in contradistinction to the “place” of Black people, symbolism manifested in the physical space of the “Black ghetto.” Thus, in the minds of the White majority, and for Black people as well, the ghetto became a fixture of mental as well as physical space. Each generation of White people became socially invested in the lowly status of Black people; they understood their own racial identity in terms of whom they opposed, and this positionality was institutionalized, passed on from one racist generation to the next, and manifested through the enduring principle of “White over Black.”

The urban ghettos of America continue to struggle with a legacy of racial caste. Now buffeted by the winds of deindustrialization and a global economy that has left them disenfranchised and socially excluded, these poor Black communities are characterized by high rates of structural poverty and joblessness. Incivility, crime, and violence are all too common. For successful Blacks, who have made their way into the upper reaches of the larger society, but who share the phenotype and skin color of those left behind, contradictions and dilemmas of status abound, as they are at times confused with Black people of the ghetto, whom many White people, and especially the police, are inclined to view and treat as outcasts.

Meanwhile, the wider culture approaches the ghetto with both wonderment and fear. The ghetto has become an icon representing both a style and a derelict lifestyle, encouraging a new form of symbolic racism for which the Black ghetto as an entity unto itself is becoming the primary referent that defines anonymous Black people for the wider society. Thus, in the minds of many Americans, the ghetto is where “the Black people live,” symbolizing an impoverished, crime- prone, drug- infested, and violent area of the city. The history of racism in America, along with the ascription of “ghetto” to anonymous Blacks, has burdened Blacks with a negative presumption they must disprove before they can establish mutually trusting relationships with others.

In preparing this work, extending my own body of ethnographic research, I have tried to document the ways in which the most desperate of the Philadelphia Black underclass cope with making a living, and how these coping efforts and their social and cultural adjustments, in the context of existing racial arrangements, define the Black ghetto and the Black people who are presumed to reside there. Also, I am particularly interested in the persistence of racial prejudice and how it has become modified over the last half century, changes that have occurred in the group position of American Blacks and the positional arrangements of groups in American society more generally.

Ethnography is defined as the systematic study of culture, or what Clifford Geertz (2000) referred to as a community’s shared understandings. The challenge to the ethnographer is to engage in fieldwork among a population by observing what people do and by listening to what they say to apprehend the “local knowledge” that underlies their community’s shared understandings. Ethnographers try to render or represent this knowledge in their writings. To some extent that is what I’ve tried to accomplish in this book. Hence, the following pages will document ethnographically the circumstances in which Black people make their claims on American society, show the reality behind the powerful stereotype of the iconic ghetto, and describe the ways Black people struggle to address the resulting stigma that follows them throughout their lives, and especially as they navigate what they perceive as “White space.”

Reprinted with permission from Black in White Space: The Enduring Impact of Color in Everyday Life by Elijah Anderson. Published by the University of Chicago Press. © 2021. All rights reserved.

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