White progressives all have faced this annoying scenario: another Caucasian I by chance encounter presumes I think like they do, then spews grating stereotypes about black neighborhoods and their residents.
It’s a familiar litany — they’re run down, they don’t show initiative, they blame whites for their problems, they have too many babies.
The less toxic, ostensibly sympathetic line goes: they have no hope, there are no jobs there, it’s soooo dangerous.
To the bigoted version, there are two common white leftist responses: grit teeth and change the subject, or scold them on broad moral and historical grounds.
I am lucky enough to have discovered another. I ask, “Have you ever eaten at Jay’s?”
Jay’s is a cafeteria, turned restaurant and banquet place located for decades on West Muhammad Ali Boulevard near 18th street in the heart of West Louisville, aka the West End, Louisville’s black community. Specifically, that is Russell, a neighborhood replete with architecture and history.
During Jay’s heyday in Russell, I loved the taste of the restaurant’s sweet potato pie and the comfy feeling from its carpeted, soft-lit atmosphere – yes, a black neighborhood was where I went for escapist calm during harried days as a self-employed journalist and activist. This was in defiance of the crisis-point media imagery of “the hood.”
Today, the Jay’s facility, built about 25 years ago, serves as a “kitchen incubator” serving other restaurants and startups; the owners of Jay’s itself moved it to a location outside the city limits.
There are many other West End places of unspectacular commerce under the white mainstream radar, including the Lyles Mall, a group of small stores, offices and meeting spaces in a renovated industrial building at Broadway and 26th Street.
Coffeehouses and bookstores started by locals have popped up in the West End, and nightclubs, groceries and one supermarket are permanent amenities, as are business strips featuring auto parts stores, tax preparers, cell phone providers, clothing and beauty stores and hair salons.
Sounds mundane, but in that lies the ability of the West End to impress upon a patient white person this maligned part of town’s unheralded strength.
Starting in 1986, I was assigned to cover West Louisville for the pinpoint local Neighborhoods section of the Courier-Journal, Louisville’s daily newspaper. For several stints spanning more than 20 years working for the C-J, then other publications, I covered the precise neighborhoods, such as Russell, Shawnee and California (named because of its founding in the gold rush year of 1849), not the lump sum West End, usually described by Courier-Journal daily section reporters in only short generalities, and often in crime stories.
I had only an associate degree in journalism, so the weekly Neighborhoods was as high up as I could go in so great a newspaper. Instead of looking upward within the Courier-Journal’s ranks, I was focused outward at the neighborhoods I covered.
And I was impressed by what I found in the West End. Community leaders and neighborhood association council members there were the most competent of any I had met in Louisville. Passersby I solicited comments from during person-on-the-street interviews were cool with that and cogent in their responses.
The conversation all over the West End was diverse – mandatory overtime for factory workers drew laments, too; it wasn’t just inability to find good jobs. And as many community leaders complained that police response time was too slow as made accusations of brutality.
The scenes in groceries seemed just like those from the suburbs of my upbringing – though neighborhood advocates complained that the Kroger supermarket and the smaller stores did not stock the healthiest foods.
I covered the crises, as well: the drug-infested corners, homelessness and the struggles of block watch volunteers to grapple with crime and what one group felt was poor cooperation by police.
Overall, however, what I learned is that there is a core of normalcy to the West End. This led me, judging by this one urban example, to feel that the problems specific to black communities were due to forces from the outside – specifically the infusion of poverty wages and the nation’s lack of a social policy network, a failing unique to America among affluent countries.
I parted with the popular notion that a culture of poverty was the culprit.
For a white person, attaining this view so un-1980s took longtime interaction with the West End transcending my journalism work there.
I have kept going back, but my self-education in the West End has come mostly not by being a reporter, activist, or researcher – but just by being a shopper, diner, social service user, package mailer, medical patient or self-service gas purchaser. This is what it took for a white person from the suburbs to learn that black communities are normal; a central part of our overall communities. That black lives matter. And they are mostly about daily living, not just crisis points.
It had to become second nature that I would go to Jay’s for a meal as readily as one of the suburban Denny’s. And it took awhile before heading out to 18th and Muhammad Ali Boulevard for a salad, rolls and Sweet Potato Pie was completely motivated by my taste buds, instead of my goal of a more inclusive mind.
Same for going to the Auto Zone at 21st and Broadway and the bank branch in the Lyles Mall five blocks west of there. Or a bookstore and a coffeehouse at “Uncle Vic’s Corner,” a place named for the late founder of those businesses.
There are a handful of other locally-founded sit down restaurants in the West End, as well as chain fast food places. I go to, or skip them on the same basis as I choose eateries in any other part of town. That is, how much I enjoy a place, not to make any statement, or for any — what’s that much hated term? — teachable moment.
During the pre-ACA days, I often was self-employed and uninsured, so a community-wide network of ability-to-pay medical clinics was in order for me, and I chose the West End branch because it was just as close as the other locations in the area.
The two West End coffeehouses I visited were great places to plop down, sip, read, chat and browse the literature table, still a mainstay for activists before I-pads.
When the time came around for my car’s yearly mandatory Vehicle Emission Test, I went to the West End’s location because it was the most convenient of the four in the metro area to reach after leaving work in the downtown office where I was employed at that time. Some self-assured white person in an office next to mine had urged me to go to the West End location because surely the part of town “where all the clunkers are” would have laxer standards, allowing me to dodge repair costs.
As I said, I went there instead for the convenience, and I went back each year thereafter because on that visit, their staff said my car was not in compliance, prompting me to fix an exhaust system problem, cleaning the city’s air a little, and making my car run better for the long term – a good deal for all. (And I enlightened the bigot in the next office about my test results.)
It was the West End testing center’s citation that led to my first visit to that Auto Zone store in the heart of a packed business district on West Broadway. There, I found the required muffler, and in coming weeks I stopped in again when I needed a plastic funnel and a steering wheel cover. The merchandise was identical to that in any suburban location of the chain, and I found the young sales associate behind the counter helpful and engaging.
Who wouldn’t go to a place like that?
Notice there is nothing the slightest bit revolutionary in any of these ordinary experiences – no protest signs, statements read aloud, or chanting. No civil disobedience or Marxist analysis by a panel of speakers, and – at the risk of wrongly coming across as callous – I did not drop off canned goods at a shelter.
Deliberate activist methods such as those are essential, but for white Americans, it requires continuously visiting black neighborhoods for no other reason than a person would travel to any neighborhood for us to learn that they have strength and value as they are.
To understand black people, we must pause from habits and methods whereby we are always understanding black people as abstractions and issues. And, always being in need.
The “taker,” rather than “maker” image being parroted by the resurging racism of the last 10 years is one in which whites, even progressives, are socialized to maintain a kernel of belief – no matter how fervently they despise and denounce it. This white orientation to see black people first and foremost as dependent is almost impossible to extinguish – I don’t see how we could get past it if we do not regularly visit black enterprises in black neighborhoods, for the simple purpose of being a genuine customer.
This doesn’t mean all whites are racist, but all are brought along to associate blacks with needfulness.
The dominant societal paradigm of the black American historical trail is: slavery, to lynching, to urban renewal, to last-hired layoffs to gentrification to live coverage after street corner shootings. At every step along this oversimplified parade of images, the picture of the black American as hapless and pathetic is cemented in the white mind, or more specifically the white TV tube/meme.
And white progressives who believe they overcome this by activist-related plunges into black communities; i.e. marches, rallies, forums and envelopes stuffings at group headquarters, will have an incomplete understanding of black people if the only tone of their interaction with blacks is the fervency of protest, and the only theme is black communities as disadvantaged.
This should not be mistaken for me dismissing problems, or being cheery in overdrive. As I am writing this, it is moments after I viewed the horrifying video of Alton Sterling being shot dead point blank by Baton Rouge police while they held him against the ground – the crises are real and are in abundance.
And I expect to see a white conservative backlash on this killing on the same grounds as on previous fatal shootings by police – the refrain that it’s that “culture of poverty” that causes the problem. White racists do not care whether they have up close experience in black communities that would qualify them to speak on the issue – yet too few white progressives actually have such experience either.
Many whites would respond: West Louisville’s too dangerous to venture into for a piece of pie or a muffler — and for that matter this city even during its current crime uptick isn’t as hazardous as Compton, Detroit or Gary on an average day.
Others in the biggest of metro areas might say they live in the 20th suburb outside the city limits and it just isn’t practical to become a patron of black business districts.
Yes, there is the matter of what a white person is able to do, but I feel sorry for them over what they are unable to experience.
It doesn’t have to be just a morally or politically correct basis on which rests a white progressive’s opposition to racial profiling. I have, through decades of just letting the particulars and nuances of the black community become clear to me, begun to understand a complex factual correctness about black America that has made me innately aware of what African-Americans have been unjustly denied. Perhaps it is clearer to say I have learned that the truth about black America, as with any place else, is complex.
Understanding that black lives matter requires the patience and persistence to learn what black lives are.
Brian Arbenz has been a writer, editor and Sweet Potato Pie lover in Louisville for more than 30 years.