Gowanus Lounge: Serving Brooklyn

Red Hook Noted in New Republic

January 31st, 2007 · 1 Comment

If you’re not a New Republic reader you might miss this next item, so we figured it’s worth passing along. It’s actually a story about Senator and Presidential candidate Barack Obama and his appeal across racial lines. The story, however, dwells quite a bit on some research that sociologists did in the 1990s in Red Hook:

In 1994, two sociologists went to Red Hook, Brooklyn, to solve a mystery. Red Hook abutted the East River, and along the waterfront sat shipping companies and warehouses — all in need of low-skilled labor. Next door sat a housing project teeming with exactly that. But the locals — primarily African Americans — didn’t get hired. Instead, the jobs went to workers from outside the neighborhood, often Caribbean immigrants. Employers, wrote The New Yorker’s Malcolm Gladwell in summarizing the sociologists’ findings, “had developed an elaborate mechanism for distinguishing between those who they felt were ‘good’ blacks and those they felt were ‘bad’ blacks.” Were the employers racist? Yes and no. They clearly held anti-black stereotypes. And they discriminated against those who conformed to them, even by association. But they discriminated in favor of blacks who defied those stereotypes. A man named Bruce Llewellyn described the phenomenon this way: “White people love to believe they’re fair.”

As it happens, Llewellyn wasn’t talking about Red Hook. He was talking about his cousin, Colin Powell — whose prospective presidential bid enjoyed mass white support roughly a decade ago. Like the employers in Red Hook, whites discriminated in Powell’s favor because he challenged their negative stereotypes of blacks. First, he had succeeded in a respected white institution: the military. Second, he was the child of immigrants, a man whose family history highlighted America’s opportunities, not its racism. Third, he wasn’t ideologically radical. And, fourth, he didn’t look or sound stereotypically black. No one was blunter about this than Powell himself. Asked in 1995 to explain his appeal to whites, he volunteered that “I speak reasonably well, like a white person,” and, visually, “I ain’t that black.”

Barack Obama would never put it that way. But he surely understands the uncomfortable subtext behind the adoration being showered upon him by white America.

You can read the entire story over at cbsnews.com, which is where we found it, or over at the New Republic, but you’ve got to register at the latter.

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1 response so far ↓

  • 1 3 // Jan 31, 2007 at 12:17 pm

    I haven’t read the New Republic article, but one one level, isn’t this at least a step in the right direction? Rather than seeing all members of a race as having universal characteristics, they made judgments based on how various members of that race presented themselves as potential employees. Perhaps it was how they dressed and spoke, what impressions the hirers got of their personalities, etc. If so few people from the projects got hired, it does seem fishy, but of course anyone who is hiring employees is going to make a distinction between “good” and “bad” qualities in potential workers. If the culture that prevails in those housing projects makes its residents more inclined to act in ways that might make them seem like they might not be good workers, racism isn’t necessarily the reason they’re not getting hired. All that said, though, it wouldn’t surprise me to hear that the employers recognized the address of the projects and put those applications on the bottom of the pile, due to stereotypes about poverty as much as about race.