Field Tripping: Citizening

I haven't had time for a lot of field tripping lately. The ladyfriend and I are buying a house, and that means we are spending most of our free time finding cardboard, folding cardboard into boxes, and then filling those boxes with cats and record albums and clothes—pretty much all we seem to own—in anticipation of what I hope will be my last move for a very, very long time. I've moved every couple of years for the last 20, and I'm totally ready to stop doing that, sit back, and accumulate that wealth everybody's been talking about.

Or at least that's been the Great Hope of private property for a very long time, and it sure has worked to secure wealth for white people who have passed it down, generation to generation, securing that race/class connection so necessary for the working of white supremacy. There's a history there, of banks refusing to lend to Black people, white communities signing covenants holding residents to a promise to never sell to black people, and real estate agents buying low from white people scared that black people might be moving into the neighborhood and selling high to black people with few other choices. And once you buy a house, rumor has it you can start using that house to borrow money to do things like start a business, send your kids to college, and other things that help turn money into more money into more money.


Sure, lending practices have changed, but now we're in the recovery period from the predatory lending that offered bad terms and excess loans to folks least likely to be able to repay those debts. That means it's harder than ever to get a mortgage if you've got any blemishes in work history or bill repayment. Given the economic crisis, that's most of us, and again buying a house looks like it'll be a privilege afforded to the few—and white folks will likely benefit again.

I'm one of those few, and I get how complicated homeownership is. I know I have to sign a bunch of papers at the closing, and I'm guessing one of those is my membership card to the Republican Party. Don't increase my property taxes to pay for basic city services that should be provided to all, and don't take away that giant tax break I get for owning a home, because for some reason owning a home means refusing to see one's own entitlements as social welfare and everyone else's entitlements as a drain on one's own personal, ostensibly "earned," wealth.

None of that means renting's particularly heroic. It's like thinking we can buy ourselves out of the bloodiness of capitalism if we just shop local, or donate 10 percent of our purchases to charity. I mean, it's better, maybe, but the system is still there, still wringing the life out of the many to enrich the lives of a few. I get all of this, and here I am, buying a house, having some feelings about it.

I took some of those feelings with me to Loyola University for one of my few recent field trips. Its annual Martin Luther King Jr. Convocation speaker was Claudia Rankine, and there was no way I was going to miss that in favor of more packing. She has a way with words that helps put all this big history in the context of daily life, translating the cerebral understanding of histories of racism into the gut-wrenching realities of living in a world where for some of us, the assumption that we can even move freely and safely through public space is constantly in question. I cried all the way through her reading at the National Book Festival last year as she described the micropolitics of something as simple as taking the bus, something I do all the time. So much history and present condensed in the moment of choosing where to sit—if you haven't read "Citizen," go read it, and then read it again. And again.

I expected big tears again this time, so I made sure to have my tissues with me, ready to take in what she explains so well about the gut-wrenching nature of settled dehumanization. I settled into my second-row seat, which turned into a first-row seat because we apparently never grow out of not wanting to sit in the front row, and leaned back to listen.

Rankine gave a different kind of talk this time, aimed at students, thanking the audience for leading all of us politically in their work to remind us that Black Lives Matter. She thanked us for our protests, our sit-ins, our tweets, our writing, our insistence that our voices be heard, be taken seriously, our demand for real change in a world that systematically undermines Black existence. We live in a world where an entire city's drinking water can be poisoned with lead, lives forever changed by higher-ups trying to save a little money. We live in a world where people can be shot by police for playing outside, walking down the street with their hands in their pockets. We live in a world where public housing residents are forced to trade sex for basic repairs and the housing commissioner somehow keeps his job. In this world, it is truly radical to say that Black Lives Matter.

Rankine's resounding message on this particular night was that we are all in this together, and her thanking us for our work was a reminder that if we're not doing it, we better get on it. Racism is built out of the big structural stuff of housing and banking policy, for example, but it can only do its work in the context of daily practices that dehumanize, that kill, that make clear, day after day, on every level, that white lives are simply worth more than black ones. See something, say something, they tell us, but what happens when some of us are the "thing" that is seen and others are expected to "say?"