Deadline invited the author to write this commentary after she tweeted about the case of Rochester Hills homeowner Jeffrey Zeigler, charged with two felonies after firing a shotgun last Thursday morning at 14-year-old Brennan Walker, a high school freshman asking for directions as he walked to school an unfamiliar way.
The writer, a former Detroiter who graduated from Bates Academy and Renaissance High, has degrees from the University of Michigan and a master's from Wayne State, where she was an assistant professor there from 2010-12. Dr. Thomas is now an assistant professor at the University of Pennsylvania's Graduate School of Education.
By Ebony Elizabeth Thomas
I am often struck by the similarities between race relations in Detroit, where I was born and raised, and Philadelphia, where I currently live.
On Thursday, I was invited back to the University of Michigan to give a lecture. The same day, a man in Rochester Hills chose to answer a request for help from a 14-year-old boy — the same age as my nephew — with the barrel of his shotgun.
Meanwhile, back in Philadelphia near ritzy Rittenhouse Square, two black men arrived at Starbucks to have a meeting. They were waiting for a third colleague before ordering. They were arrested for declining requests to leave, and later released.
Every day, all over the United States, people who are lost ask for directions and people meet at coffee shops. The teen in Rochester Hills, Brennan Walker, was a freshman on his way to high school. The men in Philly were about to have a meeting.
The problem wasn’t what they were doing, but where they were doing it — and who they were.
Rochester Hills is like many Detroit suburbs, which people of color avoided after sundown until 10-15 years ago. In "Sundown Towns: A Hidden Dimension of American Racism," sociologist Jim Loewen noted that most incorporated places outside of the traditional U.S. South excluded African Americans, and other groups like Chinese and Jewish Americans. He writes:
When I began this research, I expected to find about 10 sundown towns in Illinois (my home state) and perhaps 50 across the country. Instead, I have found about 507 in Illinois and thousands across the United States. This is their story; it is the first book ever written on the topic.
'Highest level of residential segregation'
Michigan is not exempt. On the Sundown Towns website that Loewen has been curating since the book’s publication in 2006, he notes that Detroit — and Michigan — are the most segregated U.S. areas:
The Detroit metro area has the highest level of residential racial segregation in the county. Nearly 9 out of 10 black residents of the area live in Detroit proper, Highland Park, Inkster, Pontiac, or Southfield. The level of residential integration has actually fallen since 1980.
Detroit is highly segregated even in contrast with other metro areas with large black populations in the central cities. 75% of Detroit metro area blacks live in the city proper, compared with 22% in the Atlanta metro area, 27% in the Washington, D.C. metro area, and 60% in the Baltimore metro area.
Hypersegregation — segregation across multiple dimensions of life, including housing and schools — leads to the sense that black Americans who are outside of majority black areas are out of place, and bringing trouble in their wake.
As recently as 2013, a Dearborn Heights homeowner killed 19-year-old Renisha McBride with a shotgun when she knocked on his door after crashing into a parked car nearby. She needed help, but Theodore Wafer saw a threat.
Only the safety being engaged on Rochester Hills resident Jeffrey Zeigler’s firearm spared young Brennan from being the next viral hashtag.
After this new case, local digital media is rife with commenters saying: "You shouldn't go knocking on strangers' doors." This is nothing new. I've said before I feel safer driving through certain Southern states than driving in my own home state.
Ever since I can remember, I've known that if your car breaks down or you end up lost in the wrong part of Michigan, you're in trouble. Sad but true.
My mother's observation is that some white Americans of her generation and older are terrified by what they view as black incursion into previously white neighborhoods. They see us as invaders, thanks to hyper-segregation. They can't see us as human, as their neighbors.
We're only four to seven generations distant from slavery. Those of us descended from enslaved Africans often recall that our ancestors' movement was restricted in North America. You had to have a pass to travel -- “free papers.” (The Oscar-winning film "12 Years a Slave" demonstrates what happened to even free black people before the Civil War – you could be captured and sold into slavery.)
Travel freedom restricted
After Emancipation, during the century of Jim Crow, the movement of black Americans was further restricted through redlining, local ordinances, and even lynchings. Not only were our elders and ancestors not allowed to live in certain places, they weren't even able to travel through parts of the United States because they might not find lodging, food, or other necessities.
After the advent of automobile travel, Victor Hugo Green published "The Negro Motorist Green Book" from 1936-66, "to give the Negro traveler information that will keep him from running into difficulties, embarrassments and to make his trip more enjoyable."
Perhaps we need a new Green Book for the 21st Century.
We've been asked to excuse this horrific, fatal behavior forever. But it's nearly 2020. There are no excuses. No one possesses an inalienable right to live around just "your kind" when everyone’s kind is humankind.
How do we get over this? Principled refusal of being hemmed in is a start.
To be black in North America is to be trapped. Caged. Contained. We deserve liberation.
On the verge of artificial intelligence and travel to Mars, all humans deserve freedom of movement and conscience. Black Americans are no different.
All people living in the United States need to know the history of this country as well.
The only reason why many are so startled by what happened on that Rochester porch last Thursday and in that Philly Starbucks later the same day is because they believe the myth of the American dream, instead of the hard reality that only some people have been equal here, and that not everyone has had the same access to the promise of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.
We should be allowed to meet our friends in cafes, and be able to courteously wait for them before sharing coffee or a meal, without fear of arrest.
And our children and teens deserve safety and basic human regard if they need help.