Race in New York City has a strange double quality. On the one hand it is a pretty liberal place, a place where if you have a good education you can do well no matter what your colour, where most people will not try to force you into one box or another and you can just be yourself. And yet, on the other hand, it is profoundly racist. Something that stands out clearly in the Sean Bell killing, in how some neighbourhoods are as white as snow and others as black as coal, in how the neighbourhood can change suddenly when you cross a street.
New York is about one half white, one fourth black and one fourth everything else – mostly Chinese and Latin American but also everything else under the sun. It is a city of 800 languages. Babel backwards. Not only do people come to New York from all over the world, but they even mix and create colours that are seen nowhere else – except maybe in London or Paris.
In most of the rest of the country there is just black and white and people who try to force you into one box or the other. But in New York, because there is a broad enough middle between black and white, because it has in it strange colours that no one can figure out, you can pretty much live your life without being forced into a box. And that gives you a freedom to be yourself in a way you cannot do in most of America.
This is not to say that when you go to look for work or for a place to live, employers and landlords are not going to look at you and come to unspoken conclusions about your colour. You can have an Ivy League education and still there will be plenty of white people who think you are not as good as they are and turn you away – or pay you less than whites.
But the thing is New York needs people with good educations, more than there are. That helps to make your education matter more and your colour less.
And yet the police are beyond bad. Sean Bell was just what made the papers. The police, in general, do not care much about black lives – not even black middle-class ones. As I found out from living in Jamaica, Queens, they care more about the lives of even white foreigners than they do about black Americans.
And it is very hard, at least for me, to see poor black neighbourhoods less than a mile away from rich white ones. But in New York you see that. It was something I saw day after day, year after year. I still cannot get it out of my mind. And there is no way for me to make sense of that other than naked racism on the part of whites. Either that or their hearts are made of stone.