Crossing the Cascadilla

April 10th, 2007

By Emily McNeill

We are living on top of history, Jhakeem Haltom tells me. History has been packed down in layers, like the snow outside the Cayuga St. apartment where we sit this cold February evening. There is new snow falling tonight, sticking to everything, covering the dirty banks along Cascadilla Creek with a new coat of white.

Like so many communities in America, Ithaca has a physical line to help divide its classes and races, and Cascadilla Creek is it. On one side is Fall Creek, which is 87 percent white and 7 percent black and Hispanic. On the other is the Northside neighborhood, which is a third black and Hispanic and two-thirds white.

This division, Haltom says, is the product of a history we like to disown. “People aren’t really thinking about our history, and it’s become a little bit of a psychosis,” he said. “It’s the origin of a lot of issues that we see, and until we deal with this race issue, things aren’t really going to change.”

Haltom is a social worker, a musician and a community activist – the son of a white mother and a black father – who grew up in Ithaca and returned after college. These days, he’s devoting much of his energy to trying to deal with racism in Ithaca. To him, Ithaca is a progressive place trapped by history. It’s a forward-thinking town that is, as he says, “spinning its wheels.”

Conventional wisdom might suggest that Ithaca would be different. In 1997, UTNE Reader named Ithaca the “Most Enlightened Town in America.” This distinction corresponds with the stereotype of Ithaca as a haven for progressives and a center for alternative thinking. “What’s stunning about the place,” UTNE said, “is the sheer volume and quality of social innovation, pragmatic activism, spiritual seeking, open debate, and homemade and imported cultural fun that goes on here – in an atmosphere of robust local pride.”

But an accompanying article in that issue, written by an Ithacan, pointed out the great paradox of this community: “I get pissed off when progressives take Ithaca for granted and ignore its problems,” Brad Edmonson wrote. “It burns me up when Ithacans blithely walk past crack houses to attend fund-raising vegetarian brunches for Tibetan exiles.”

When it comes to racism, Ithaca’s enlightened tendencies come through in the willingness among at least some segments of the community to talk and think about race. The achievement gap in Ithaca’s public schools has led to an ambitious initiative to tackle the problem, which includes an “Equity Report Card” that could be the first system in the country to annually track a school district’s progress in dealing with the gap. The Tompkins County Diversity Consortium works to encourage diversity in the workplace and sponsors events and forums around diversity issues. Both Cornell University and Ithaca College have academic centers working on issues of race and inequality, and there are a number of community groups dedicated to race issues.

But for all its virtues, Ithaca is still an American city, and the divisions along racial lines, even if they are permeable, have not disappeared. They are evident in the makeup of neighborhoods, inequity in the public schools, racial tensions on college campuses and the ways that different segments of the community speak about and think about all these realities.

Statistics show that race is an indicator of economic status in Ithaca, as it is throughout the country. In 1999, when the most recent data was collected, the poverty rate in Northside stood at 36 percent. Of that population, 46 percent was under the age of 18. In Fall Creek that year, the poverty rate was 13 percent, and 18 percent of Fall Creek’s poor were children.

Racial inequality also shows up in statistics about the Ithaca City Schools. According to the New York State Department of Education, only 68 percent of black students who entered Ithaca High School in 2000 graduated by 2004. For white students, the graduation rate was 87 percent. Blacks and Hispanics are underrepresented in Advanced Placement classes and are overrepresented in Special Education.

These statistics paint a familiar picture, and perhaps their shock value is gone. For some, talking about racial inequality is getting old – and getting frustrating. Maybe that’s why we look away from Ithaca to advocate for Tibet. Maybe we’re looking for new frontiers, for problems whose roots are further removed, not so wrapped up in our own history, our own neighborhoods and schools. The numbers are stuck in unsatisfying and uncomfortable places.

But behind these stubborn numbers there are attitudes. That, after all, is the difference between racial inequality and racism. And here is where things get tricky, because numbers are tangible, and attitudes are not. Inequality we can pin down in statistics, but racism is an elusive concept and a word weighed down by history. If discussions of inequality in our community can be a rallying point, discussions of racism can be a stumbling block. Racism is a dirty word, and it can make us defensive.

For some Ithacans, though, discussions of race are unavoidable.

“I think I talk about race every day in one way or the other,” says Antonia Davis, a senior at Cornell University. “It’s just part of being a minority in this country. You have to talk about it, you have to think about it, because you’re reminded every day that you’re a person of color.”

The reminder is especially stark in a place like Ithaca and on a campus like Cornell or Ithaca College, where the proportion of black students is so small. For the first time in her life, Davis, who comes from Baltimore, often finds herself in situations where she is the only person of color. Her friend Jen Quick, also a senior, says that Cornell has forced her to think about race more than she ever did at her high school in inner-city Rochester, N.Y.

Davis and Quick don’t see their white peers thinking about race and racism to the same degree. The reasons for this may seem obvious; the ability to ignore one’s racial identity is one of the privileges of being part of a dominant racial majority. But the fact that white people can avoid thinking about race may translate into an expectation that black people should be able to do the same. And that, say Davis and Quick, is one of the problems.

Since their junior year, Davis and Quick have lived in Ujamaa, a program house at Cornell that revolves around black issues. While anyone can live there, most of its 140 residents are black. Davis and Quick say Ujamaa has provided them with a supportive and comfortable community, something they didn’t find living in a mostly white dorm on West Campus their sophomore year. But the house has drawn criticism from some students who see it as another way of segregating people and perpetuating ignorance and racism.

College campuses can sometimes illuminate attitudes that elsewhere remain under the surface, and at Cornell, ethnically based program housing has sparked a debate that is fueled at least in part by a disconnect between how whites and blacks perceive and respond to racism.

“People think that we just don’t want to be around white people,” Davis says. “We’re around white people every day, all day. [Ujamaa] is about living where you feel comfortable, where you feel like you can be part of a community. There was no community for us on West Campus.”

It’s easy to criticize black students in Ujamaa of self-segregating, but why, they wonder, don’t mostly white dorms on West Campus face the same accusations? “Self-segregation” by blacks in an environment like Cornell, one could argue, simply produces a community for blacks equivalent to the one that whites find automatically.

The debate about program houses at Cornell displays a tendency, found in Ithaca and across the country, to focus on minorities in discussions of race. Whether the topic is affirmative action, closing the achievement gap or reducing incarceration rates, efforts to deal with racial inequality tend to focus on understanding and manipulating the behavior of people of color. Relatively few people are talking about what it means to be white and how white people might need to alter their attitudes and behavior.

There are a number of flaws to this approach, and one is that minorities find themselves bearing the burden of teaching white people about race.

Playing the role of representing your race is tiring, Quick says, and can be overwhelming.

The argument that at Cornell Ujamaa prevents white students from getting to know black students, Quick says, objectifies them in a way and turns them into teaching tools for white students who want to understand minorities. She and Davis stress how important discussions about race are, especially among people who normally don’t have to think much about the color of their skin. But at some point, white students’ ignorance and racism (whether conscious or not) is not black students’ problem. Davis and Quick want to be allowed their comfortable community, to be allowed to be a person there, not an object for observation or a spokesperson for their race.

But perhaps more importantly, avoiding discussions about whiteness keeps white people from thinking about their own role in this racially divided society. This is part of what keeps progressive people from effectively addressing racism, says Sean Eversley-Bradwell, assistant professor at the Center for the Study of Culture, Race and Ethnicitiy at Ithaca College.

“If we don’t talk about [whiteness], we don’t investigate it,” he says. “If we don’t investigate it, we don’t try to shift how it operates.

“I tell progressive folks who are interested in racism, know what whiteness means, because if you get that, then you’ll get everything else. You’ll get my response, you’ll get other people’s responses, you’ll get the way in which all racial identities are dependent on one another.”

For Jhakeem Haltom, part of understanding whiteness is remembering what whiteness has meant throughout history – and understanding that this history still influences how we live today. In Ithaca, Haltom sees a community invested in the idea that it’s not racist. But it’s a lot to assume that we are safe from the influences of a society that has produced the inequality we so readily decry.

“People think that not being racist is just not saying certain things or not acting in certain ways,” he says. “If I just keep myself together, they think, then I’m not racist.”

But racism goes deeper than that, and getting over it takes effort and commitment, he says. Ironically, our aversion to racism keeps us from recognizing and dealing with it.

Part of Haltom’s anti-racism work is raising awareness through his band, Thousands of One. But he is also involved with a group premised on the idea that ending racism requires individuals to investigate their own attitudes about race. The Race Liberation Alliance meets weekly and provides a forum for its members – who are mostly white – to talk about racism and their own encounters with it. The Alliance is an example of the kind of introspection and commitment that Haltom believes is needed from more Ithacans – especially those who say they care about ending racism.

Ithaca may be progressive, even enlightened. But to the extent that the so-called progressive population here sees itself that way, we risk becoming complacent about our own shortcomings. This is as true for individuals as it is for the progressive community. To be sure, there is work to be done across the nation and around the globe, but there are also problems to address in our own community and even within ourselves.

Emily McNeill is a junior journalism major who loves walking staight down the middle of the Cascadilla Creek. Email her at emcneil1[at]ithaca.edu.

Whaling Wall Matthew Farrell
Chow Feng Shui Josh Elmer
Stained Glass Ceiling Emily McNeill
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SaHarrison Desert Harrison Flatau
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Front cover and back cover of print edition by Jake I. Forney.
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