“…it is not space that defines language, but language that defines its space…”
“The official language is bound up with the state, both in its genesis and its social uses.”
-Bourdieu, in Language & Symbolic Power, 1982
A decade ago I moved to a small town in north central Illinois. Prior to the move, I was uncertain about the “best” areas to move to. My concerns were related to access - access to my employment, access to the highway, access to grocery stores, and access to educational institutions for my children. However, having become slightly familiar with the space due to work, I was aware that access to all of those things had a very racialized component. When I asked local residents for moving advice, I was often given the same answer - I should move near “the river,” but not on the east side of the river but not too far west of the river. I remember quickly coming to realization that in that town, a river literally ran through it, separating black neighborhoods from white neighborhoods and separating the social classes as well. What I also soon came to realize was that many residents of the town refused to travel west of the river for any reason, until a few years later, when gentrification became evident. Of course, the story of this town is not unique. The patterns of spatial separation and the assumptions made about those spaces is a pattern that is reflected nationally. The explanation of this pattern, however, is much more complex than migration and choice alone. The explanation is directly tied to the racial and economic structures of society, as well as what Ibram X. Kendi (2016) refers to as Racist Ideas. Kendi writes, “There was nothing simple or straightforward about racist ideas, and thus their history. Frankly speaking, for generations of Americans, racist ideas have become their common sense…muffling the more complex antiracist reality again and again” (2016). And thus, an understanding of space and its’ relationship with race and racist ideas has often been understood as some naturally occurring phenomenon, or personal choice. A more critical understanding, however, reveals that our very understanding of space is tied to historical patterns and policies, rooted in racist ideas. My own interest in this is related to these questions:
· How does perception of space influence movements and migration patterns?
· To what extent does perception of space reflect racial hierarchies, a racial identities, and a racial ideology?
· What is the relationship between perception of space and language?
I have written before about the use of language and how language serves as a gatekeeper of valid and valuable experiences. Frequently, the way in which language is used either values or devalues or validates or invalidates in an effort to send a message about the individual speaker and the group to which they belong. In other words, when people use Spanglish or Ebonics/ Black Vernacular English (BE/AAVE), or many of the other pidgin languages that stem from English, those pidgin tongues are devalued. That is to say, as a society we find those versions of English to be lacking compared to American and British English. However, not only do we perceive that they lack value, but by devaluing it is implied and understood that value of the spoken tongue is taken away. Which is to say, these dialects and versions of English have less than no value. Consider what this means for our perception of the speaker. Englishes that have been devalued allows for individual speakers to be viewed as less than intelligent, incompetent, and lacking in literacy skills. From a sociolinguistic perspective, this view of the speaker and the view of the language has very little to do with whether or not the rules of that dialect and language are being followed, but rather it has everything to do with the perception of the speaker and the group that is most likely to use that form of English. What this means then, is that if we devalue a group then it becomes easy and ideologically necessary to devalue the attributes of that group to maintain a social hierarchy. So if a marginalized groups speaks a particular form of language, and that group experiences devaluation within that society, then all of the attributes including language will also experience devaluation. This idea is one that is incredibly clear as a relates to language and the use of language in public spaces and educational institutions. When we devalue of the attributes, belongings, and spaces occupied by marginalized groups, it is completely related to the value and validity that we associate with that group, rather than the thing (attribute, belonging, space) that we are devaluing. Simply put, when racial, ethnic, and class groups are devalued, the languages that they speak, the places they live, and perceived behaviors are also seen as inherently deficient and inferior.
Considering what this means for spoken language and perception led me to the realization that this plays out in other ways as well. It is a truth that in the United States, we have been sold a particular structure of a racial hierarchy (both global and national) and we may often buy into it, if we are not using a critical lens. This impacts our perceptions of our own neighborhoods, home values, schools, identities, language, and behaviors. I was recently in conversation with an associate of mine. The topic of crime in neighborhoods was brought up and he stated, “if you live in a black neighborhood, you live in ‘the ghetto’… all black neighborhoods are the ghetto. All black neighborhoods have crime. Don’t pretend as though your neighborhood is any different than any other black neighborhood.” I was taken aback, in part because I could not fathom that this individual felt that I agreed with them, but also because the argument was so rooted in a white supremacist thought of black criminality and spaces inhabited by Black people. I struggled to respond, as I did not want to give the impression that I saw myself or my community as any different than other Black Americans; but rather that Black criminality is not innate and inherent to black spaces. While some might experience higher levels of crime in their communities, it is not a function of race. Additionally, the black experience is not a singular experience, and assumptions of criminality as a function of blackness was flawed. His announcement however, was not totally surprising, as I am well aware that racial socialization and white supremacist thought does not only impact people who are white, but when socialized in a white supremacist society even members of the disadvantaged to group are impacted.
A week later, as I listened to National Public Radio, I heard a segment with a spokesperson from the Cherokee Nation. While the segment was focused on the economy of tribal lands, one thing that the spokesperson said resonated with me. She noted that many have a flawed perception of people living on “reservations” and tribal lands. Often, she noted, tribal lands are mistakenly viewed as places with an incredible amount of poverty, hopelessness, and social ills. As such, related to the views of the spaces, the perceptions of those who inhabit those spaces also tended to be quite negative – that they were somehow trapped, or unhappy, or ignorant. I was struck by the similarities of the way in which black communities are described. That “tribal lands”, “Indian Country” (which has its own set of connotations) and “the ghetto” were described similarly, as places of entrapment and hopelessness, where no one wanted to live, was not as much about the physical space, but instead an attempt to describe the type and status of the people who inhabited those spaces. To a certain extent, this then becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. Or, we have a perception based on racialized stereotypes, which then impacts our perceptions of the spaces that occupied, and those perceptions become a reality for others in the society, who avoid those spaces, leading to further perceptions of a void of opportunity filled with hopelessness.
There has been much written about gentrification, migration, and space. However, not as much has been written about perceptions of race and space. How this differs is that those perceptions are rooted in stereotypes and ideologies about race, which influences migration and settlement patterns. Much of the spatial gatekeeping is done through racially coded language; but also, perceptions of race impact policy as well. The policy has worked to create racially and class based segregation patterns. In The Color of Law, Rothstein (2017), provides a comprehensive history of the impact of federal policy on segregation and migration patterns. The widespread practices of redlining, restrictive covenants, and neighborhood clubs threatening violence all but ensured that communities remained racially segregated even as laws were passed to diminish blatant de jure segregation. Nevertheless, even as public policy and neighborhoods worked to ensure continued racial segregation, they used the argument of economic necessity to justify the inequities. Or rather, if neighborhoods become “black neighborhoods,” the property values would decrease and the neighborhood would become impoverished. In reality, the opposite was true. When Black Americans moved into neighborhoods, White Americans sold properties for less than the value of the property, often to investors. These investors, knowing that black residents were not privy to this information, then sold those same marked down properties to black home buyers for far more than they were worth – sometimes trapping black home buyers into mortgages that they would sometimes lose. The investors would then sell the same properties to new home buyers for highly inflated prices as well. For those black homeowners who were able to keep and maintain their homes, the highly inflated prices meant working multiple jobs and shifts and debt. What this means then is that the idea of a decline in property values was actually opposite of reality. Property values, and all of its subjectivity, actually increased during White Flight as a means of making a substantial profit off of black folks. Additionally, the view of the space as a black neighborhood and it’s association with property value was related to the value placed on the inhabitants rather than any economic value. Isabel Wilkerson (2010) also details this pattern in Warmth of Other Suns, providing a history of the Great Migrations. A consistent pattern has been white violence, white resistance, and then white movement away from neighborhoods as black families move in. Interestingly, however, communities are seen as “Black Communities” when there are a mere ten percent black residents. Wilkerson details the lives of many black residents from southern states to places like Chicago, Detroit, and Los Angeles. Especially in places like Chicago, predatory lending drove up the prices of home for black home buyers, even as racist ideas permeated the society suggesting that property values had dropped due to the migration of Black families. Such a paradox. The racist ideas, of course, impacted business in the communities as business owners moved away even as the property costs increased.
Not only were Black families violently restricted from buying in white communities, but white families were steered away from black communities. These practices impacted, and continue influence behaviors; but more significantly, impact ideology and sense of identity, providing white Americans with an over inflated sense of value and worth in themselves and in their properties. The same behaviors and ideologies impact (some) black folks, especially with regard to their neighborhoods. Other people of color as well buy into this ideology, desiring to live in predominantly white communities and seeing Black faces as signaling a decline in property values and an uptick in criminal activity and more policing and law enforcement. To be clear, this association of Black communities, crime, and is not a new phenomenon. In fact, Khalil Gibran Muhammed discussed this phenomenon in The Condemnation of Blackness (2010). In the early years of the twentieth century, there was mass movement of Black Americans to northern cities such as Philadelphia, at the same time that there were large numbers of European immigrants entering the nation. In many white and immigrant communities, vice districts were commonplace. Due to racist ideas, there was already an association with crime and race. Or, many residents believed that crime belonged in black communities and that white spaces should be kept free of vice. As a means of “protecting whiteness,” police officers would pick up people engaging in crime and vice in the poor white communities and drop them off in the poor black communities. This was multi-purposed- it served to make white spaces free of vice, while justifying harsh treatment of those in black spaces. After all, black spaces were filled with vice and danger, even if the cause of that vice and danger was the literal placement of those elements in the black community. The stereotype of black spaces as inherently dangerous continues, however, as does the variation in policing in white and black spaces. Again, this association of blackness and crime was a function of stereotypes and racist ideas, which led to behaviors that exacerbated social problems in very specific places. This was, of course, still far more related to perceptions of inhabitants of the communities than to the spaces.
Of course, as just as housing is impacted by racist ideas and spatial separation is maintained through the ideas and the use of language influencing policy and choices, educational experiences are also influenced. I hesitate to make the claim that educational access and opportunities are impacted, as that claim also assumes value and validity. I can only make the broad claim that educational experiences are impacted. However, for many, because of the racist ideas related to education and housing, the assumption is that “white schools” or “mixed schools” provide better opportunities. While it is true that racial, ethnic, and class diversity is associated with increased creativity, assumptions of “better” or quality of educational experiences cannot be deemed to be innate or inherent. Sadly, however, all too often the value and validity of educational experiences are tied up in perceptions of the racial and ethnic makeup of the school buildings. These perceptions may have their own detrimental consequences for both black children and white children, as white children are socialized to see their education as “quality” and themselves as more competent (DiAngelo, 2018). So then, even educational spaces are influenced by racist ideas and language, assigned a value and validity based solely on perceptions of race.
When we assume that something had less value simply because it is owned by, frequented by, served by, led by, spoken by, and populated with black and brown bodies, we perpetuate white supremacy and racism. This impacts our perception and realities of communities and educational spaces, and has long lasting impact. It is incredibly vital that we realize that even members of marginalized groups are impacted by these ideologies through racist ideas that become social realities. The challenge is to always be aware and cognizant of the language and perceptions that serve as gatekeeping tools of legitimacy and dominance.
Bourdieu, P. (1982). Language and Symbolic Power. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press.
DiAngelo, R. (2018). White Fragility: Why it’s so hard for white people to talk about racism. Boston, Massachusetts: Beacon Press.
Kendi, I. X. (2016). Stamped From the Beginning: The definitive history of racist ideas in America. New York, New York: Nation Books.
Muhammad, K. G. (2010). The Condemnation of Blackness: race, crime, and the making of modern urban America. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press.
Rothstein, R. (2017). The Color of Law: A forgotten history of how our government segregated America. New York, New York: Liveright Publishing Corporation.
Wilkerson, I. (2010). The Warmth of Other Suns: The epic story of America’s Great Migration. New York, New York: Random House Publishing.