Trigger warning

White planners and preservationists see one thing when looking at this bridge. Longtime African American Lyttonsville residents see something else.

White planners and preservationists see one thing when looking at this bridge. Longtime African American Lyttonsville residents see something else.

A small Silver Spring, Maryland, neighborhood called Lyttonsville has been getting a lot of attention lately. Some local bloggers have been writing about the changes that a proposed light rail line will bring to the historically African American community. And, they have written about changes coming if the Montgomery County Council approves a new master plan for the area.

Over the weekend, The Washington Post published an article about the proposed demolition of a historic bridge linking Lyttonsville with historically white neighborhoods. The Post article was inspired by an article in this blog and it dovetails with the issues about which the bloggers were writing.

As the blog posts appeared last week and were batted around various Facebook pages, I commented that race remains an important issue in Lyttonsville land use decision making. My comments were rebuffed and rebutted by most folks also responding to the social media posts. One person’s private response to me, though, moved me to block him on Facebook:

Everything isn’t a racial issue and you are as Caucasian as me, so spare [me] the rhetoric. You are using race as an excuse for opposing change of any type and you know it.  Now you will excuse me, as I am having dinner with my family.


Overt racism is easy to spot. What about less obvious examples?

I thought a good bit after reading the message and blocking the individual. It took me a while to realize what was so troubling about the note beyond simply dismissing it as run-of-the-mill privilege speaking. After all, the writer is a well-educated former government worker who also has experience in historic preservation. On many issues, he’s a comfortable resident in my online echo chamber.

As I was into the first mile of a bike ride the morning after the exchange, it hit me. If there is widespread agreement that racial bias (overt and covert) exists in policing, employment, housing, presidential politics, banking, and many other aspects of our culture, then what makes land use planning, historic preservation, and other fields immune to bias?

I think that question itself is the answer to my quandary over what that personal message meant. It’s not a popular position nor is it an easy one to digest, especially if you are a planner, preservationist, or historian. But there it is.

Over the past 20 years academics and pundits have found a way to frame covert racial bias as “white privilege.” This defuses an explosive subject and gives authors and speakers a safety buffer that they hope doesn’t alienate their peers. After all, how civil are conversations that include an explicit assertion by one person that another is a racist? Or at the very least, actions and speech by that person may be perceived as racist?

For several years I fell into the camp speaking and writing about “white privilege” when in fact I was really writing and speaking about racism. I now believe that “white privilege” is code for “racism-lite.”

But let’s be honest. There really is no such thing as “racism-lite.” It’s like saying there’s alcoholism-lite, pregnancy-lite, or fraud-lite. It is an indefensible and absurd distinction.

Talking about race and racism is scary. The closer to home the discussion veers, the more fear (and defensive anger) in people it creates. That anger came through loud and clear in the message from my neighbor and former Facebook friend. I wonder if we will ever get to a point in our society where the fear of what we might find in ourselves doesn’t influence our interactions with others.

© 2016 D.S. Rotenstein

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