I am white. Most of the people near my house are white. This is the way it is for most of us white people in the U.S., and as we continue to be shown, the consequences are both critical and countless.
While the Fair Housing Act of 1968 prohibits all forms of housing discrimination, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development estimates that millions of instances occur each year, thus residential segregation continues to be a common facet of modern day life. To put it simply, white people tend to live by other white people, and it is the way it is by no accident.
Segregated neighborhoods are often reinforced by the practice of racial “steering” by real estate agents, or when landlords deceive potential tenants about the availability of housing or perhaps require conditions that are not required of white applicants. In addition, lending institutions have been shown to treat mortgage applicants differently when buying homes in non-white neighborhoods in comparison to their attempt to purchase in white neighborhoods. As a result of such practices, white people tend to live in a state of residential separateness, for as the most recent U.S. Census date confirms, genuine racial integration is — for the most part — alarmingly rare.
Of course, our own behaviors contribute to our current state of affairs. White people seem to prefer housing located by other white people. As a result, far too many white people are willing (and able) to pay a premium to live in predominantly white neighborhoods. So equivalent housing in white areas commands a higher rent than others, and through the process of bidding-up the costs of housing, many white neighborhoods effectively shut out people of color, because those without white skin are more often unwilling (or unable) to pay the premium price to buy entry into such white neighborhoods. As a result of such white flight and isolation, not only do we witness a rise in racial ignorance and indifference, but it also leads to increased injustice in the form of disproportionate hostility directed at people of color.
If we affirm the shared value and distribution of basic human rights among all citizens, then every member of humankind – regardless of skin color – is supposed to share a common dignity. The result is a connection of collective humanity that is expressed through companionship in community. In other words, not only does white housing isolation lead to increased levels of homicide within all so-called communities, but it leads to the homicide of community itself, as our white cultural conception of kinship is far too constricted. As a result, we should embrace the state of being connected as companions, for in doing so we are more likely to understand than ignore, serve rather than sever, walk alongside rather than push up against, and of course, speak with instead of shoot at.
There are many white people who wish to bring an end to residential segregation. For such people there are no simple solutions, yet one can argue that some of the most important steps are remarkably straightforward. We need to share life together. Black, white, brown, and every shade in-between, we need to be together. We need to struggle together. We need to celebrate together. We need to learn together. We need to live together. We need to speak boldly to one another. We need to listen humbly with one another. We need to enroll children in the same schools, set appointments with the same doctors, walk in the same parks, shop in the same aisles, serve in the same police forces, reside in the same streets, and sit next to each other in the same places of worship. We need to be human beings together because it is only together that we can truly be human.
If we that are white people are open and honest with ourselves, we would recognize that many of us simply do not know many people with a different color of skin. In addition, we would admit that many of us are afraid, which is why many of us direct violence – directly and indirectly – toward people of color. We need to be real about this, and we need to take responsibility for what it means to be white people in the U.S. This is not about guilt and shame, but it is about truth and reconciliation. We can move past so-called racial tolerance, go beyond our segregated residential comfort zones, and actively seek out cross-cultural and cross-class interactions, relationships, and most importantly, communities.
As we learn to be accompanied by others across various lines, we will surely lose much of the power and privilege we have come to know over the past hundreds of years, but such loss is necessary for us all to gain what it truly means to be free. We as white people need to allow ourselves to be moved into something new, so our isolation and fear can be transformed, we may have “we” redefined, and we all can be fully restored into what the human community is supposed to be.
Brian E. Konkol is an ordained pastor of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA), and serves as Chaplain of the College at Gustavus Adolphus College in St. Peter, Minn.
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