You would be surprised how many people assume I am from New Jersey—"Born and Raised"—if you focus on how I articulate. The truth is I am an accent-less Brooklyn native, born and raised in an impoverished area called Brownsville. This is the story about how societal racism has been used to enhance the negative connotation surrounding the people and the city that sheltered me, nurtured me, and watched me grow. A tale of how my family's strength battled the racism surrounding my city to produce the woman I am today.
**For clarity, Societal Racism is defined as the formalization of a set of institutional, historical, cultural, and interpersonal practices within a society that more often than not puts one social or ethnic group in a better position to succeed and, at the same time disadvantages other groups in a consistent and constant matter that disparities develop between the groups over a period of time.
My grandfather Moses Porter migrated from the South to New York in 1952—where he discovered my grandmother, Grace Shoats—with hopes of starting a family away from the pressures of the openly segregated South. My grandparents were one of the FIRST families to move into the Samuel J. Tilden homes, an affordable housing apartment provided by the New York City Housing Authority. Little did my grandfather know he was hopping out of the frying pan of the prejudices of the South and into the fire of the redlining of the covertly prejudiced North.
"In the 1930s, as part of a new housing policy, the U.S. government drew maps to decide which city neighborhoods were too risky for mortgage loans. On the maps, areas whose residents were predominately people of color and recent immigrants, or neighborhoods with the potential for integration, were outlined in red. These redlined neighborhoods were then systematically deprived of resources." Brownsville was one of those areas due to an influx of African Americans and Latino majority. "In the early 20th century, the vast majority of Brownsville residents were born outside the United States; in 1910, 66% of the population were first-generation immigrants, and 80% of these immigrants were from Russia. By 1920, over 80,000 of the area's 100,000 inhabitants were Russian Jews, and Brownsville had been nicknamed "Little Jerusalem."
By 1940, Blacks made up roughly 6% of the population. Alternatively, in 1950, an urban planner by the name of Robert Moses decided to create public housing blocks, causing an influx of blacks and Latinos, including my own grandparents. Most blacks in the area were poor and reduced to strenuous living conditions, and due to socioeconomic barriers and racial segregation between blacks and Jews, improvements that needed to be made for Brownsville never came. As more NYCHA developments rose, many non-people of color fled, and by the 1960s, leaving population was predominantly African American.
The unemployment rate was 17% which was twice the city's as a whole due to Brownsville's limited economic opportunities and even fewer community institutions. Brownsville lacked the basic "middle class," and the residents did not own the businesses they relied upon. W.E. Pritchett described the neighborhood as a "ghetto," noticing the quality of life was on a decline.
"Brownsville began experiencing large-scale rioting and social disorder around September of 1967. A riot occurred following the death of an 11-year-old African American boy named Richard Ross, who was killed by an African American NYPD detective, John Rattley, at the corner of St. Johns Place and Ralph Avenue. Rattley believed Ross had mugged a 73-year-old Jewish man. The riot was led in part by Brooklyn militant Sonny Carson, who allegedly spread rumors that Rattley was white; it was quelled after Brooklyn North Borough Commander Lloyd Sealy deployed a squad of 150 police officers. Officer Rattley was not indicted by the grand jury."
Fast forward to 1970 where Brownsville's population is 77% black and 19% Puerto Rican, making up 96% total and 4% being Non-People of Color. "Despite the activities of black civil rights organizations such as the NAACP and Urban League whose Brooklyn chapters were based in nearby Bedford-Stuyvesant, they were, overall, less concerned with the issues of the lower-income blacks who had moved into Brownsville, thus further isolating Brownsville's population. These changes corresponded to overall increases in segregation and inequality in New York City, as well as to the replacement of blue-collar with white-collar jobs. The area gained a reputation for violence and poverty that resembled the South Bronx's, a reputation that persisted through the 21st century."
What does all of that mean to me? Well, my aunts (twins) were born in 1957, while my mother was born in 1963. My brother was born in 1987, and I was born in 1995, meaning three generations of my family all inhabited the same housing structure in Brownsville. The same Brownsville that we claimed—meaning the same Brownsville that saw its name tarnished by redlining, unemployment gaps, and isolation from my grandfather's time to mine—became the same Brownsville that the world knew as violent and poverty-stricken.
My mother, Stacey Porter-Blount, was a single mom, for the most part, who did everything she could to provide for us. From waking up at 5:30 am so she could catch the 3 train from Livonia to Manhattan to be at work every morning by 8 am to the sacrifices she made without us knowing, such as sometimes giving us the last of anything she may have had. But what I can say is Brownsville supported my mother, and it supported me! The stories you read are a small part of what really happens in Brownsville. The media only displays the horrid applications, and, in my opinion, this is part of structural racism that keeps us apart. It scares us to face obstacles. It keeps us from not going into impoverished areas & providing the resources to help them excel and reach their highest potential. I was blessed because I was given the resources in Brownsville, but only because my mother searched hard for them or made connections due to being treasurer for the community education council (district 23) for the board of education of New York. A normal school day ended around 2:45/3 pm, so my mom decided to enroll me in an after-school program at the Tilden Community Center. Here is where my horizons really expanded. I was introduced to dance, where I learned the immaculate sounds of Motown for the first time! I was introduced to community service here also as I was able to extend a hand on my off days from school during the day as it acted as a safe space for senior citizens to collaborate and come together. Many building blocks dedicated to who I am today are because of the Tilden Community Center. Once I decided to get into Drama club when I was in 3rd grade at P.S. 184, it filled a lot of my schedule also. From after-school rehearsals to Saturday rehearsals, I was always excited to perform! I had learned how to dance at my local community center, so now I had a reason to display the talents I was taught. Drama club was more than just performing, though. It allowed me further access to understanding my religion as well! Many of the plays were written to inspire our Christian faith, of course, featured with a modern twist. It always made me feel like I was in a version of a sister act movie. It encouraged me to make real space for God even if I did not fully understand it at the time. Many of our spiritual dances incorporated sign language, so of course, I had to learn! I got the incredible opportunity to study this at such a young age because of a valuable resource like performing arts. I was given a second family, a second home because of Drama club and P.S. 184. Another necessary resource I was provided with that many in impoverished areas and communities are not.
The media only displays the horrid applications, and, in my opinion, this is part of structural racism that keeps us apart. It scares us to face obstacles. It keeps us from not going into impoverished areas & providing the resources to help them excel and reach their highest potential.
George M. Fredrickson has written that societal racism is deeply embedded in American culture and that in the 18th century, societal racism had already emerged with the purpose of maintaining a white-dominated society, and that "societal racism does not require an ideology to sustain it so long as it was taken for granted". When looking specifically at structural racism within the United States of America it is the formalization of practices that frequently put whites, or Caucasians, in a position of advantage while at the same time being consistently detrimental to people of color, such as African Americans, Hispanics, Native Americans, Pacific Islanders, Asians, and Middle Easterners. This position of advantage often entails more opportunities to hold positions of power; privilege, white privilege; and superior treatment by institutions. This results in racial inequalities between whites and other ethnic groups which often manifest as issues of poverty or health disparities between the groups. Although structural racism often manifests as poverty or healthcare disparities, it also includes the whole structure of white supremacy that pervades the United States including cultural, political, historical, and socioeconomic parts of society; therefore, one can see that structural racism exists within and around every level of society and allows the formalization of structural racism by maintaining it across all levels of a society."
As I grew up, my mother was ready to improve my education! By 6th grade, I made a change to Teacher's preparatory school, and although still in Brownsville, a prep school that did further my education with speed. I remember a moment in my life where my best friend needed help on an algebra equation. 2X + 4 =8. I processed this equation on her mini chalkboard and showed her how to complete it. The answer was in the book, so after, she checked to see if I had the answer (lol), and I did, of course. At that moment, I realized that my mother knew what she was doing when she made the school switch. My best friend and I were learning at two different speeds. A resource in the math department that was provided to staff and students in my current school was not being provided at the same time in my previous public school. My mother learned of my new school once she sat as treasurer for the C.E.C. In science class, I was constructing spherical capsules primarily of gears and motors. I was in English learning Shakespeare. I was in a double dutch club. I was excelling at a rate most kids did not have the opportunity to have because of the lack of resources poured into the community. Lack of resources being poured into public schools to empower the children who needed it most.
During my childhood, I also attended summer camps! I did not want to let go of my friends from my first school, of course, so my mother enrolled me in summer camp each year at Salvation Army, Brownsville Corp. I found my love for museums from the trips we took each week, from aquariums to the circus, but my favorite was always the natural museum of history and learning throughout time. Here is where I also learned Karate which started my journey for discipline early. Not disciplined enough to finish (again, being young, you take a lot for granted), but I definitely am thankful for the lesson because it turned into me being disciplined with my body as I strived for the title of Miss New Jersey United States in 2018.
Many of the tools and resources I had was my privilege and I even check my own and humble myself. Unfortunately, many children in Brownsville have not and will not get to experience what I have—what has been able to help mold me become who I am today. As I write this, I look back and express my gratitude for my mother working so hard to provide me with the best life possible despite our circumstances. Due to my mother and her efforts of being a loving member of our community, she was able to make a way for myself and my brother. She was literally the epitome of superwoman as many nights I was right beside her during her community education council meetings watching her work.
Many of the tools and resources I had was my privilege and I even check my own and humble myself. Unfortunately, many children in Brownsville have not and will not get to experience what I have
I also realize my mother was a resource, and part of her purpose was for her to be used as a tool to combat societal racism as she poured all of herself into the community. From volunteering at community drives, volunteering always at my school, organizing her own mentoring program. She did everything she could to spread the same love to everyone as she did to me through the power of education and self-empowerment. Today, I get to continue my late mother's legacy as I strive to make not only my previous area of Brownsville a better place for girls but also my current hometown of Trenton through my organization, Stacey Blount's rising stars.
"The analysis of poverty levels across different ethnic groups can give an indication of structural racism." "In 2013, 39% of residents fell below the poverty line, compared to 43% in 2000, but the poverty rate of Brownsville is still relatively high, being twice the city's overall rate as well as 13% higher than that of nearby Newark, New Jersey. Brownsville families reported a median income of $15,978 as of 2008, below the United States Census poverty threshold."
Brownsville is surrounded by other high-poverty, high-crime neighborhoods like East New York, Ocean Hill, and East Flatbush. Its high concentration of public housing developments has traditionally prevented gentrification in this area. Brownsville is still majority African American and Latino, with exactly two Jewish-owned businesses in Brownsville in 2012.
Brownsville and many other communities have suffered from generations being impacted by racism embedded within policies. So, although I have not experienced a racial slur thrown my way, I have experienced Societal racism, and I did not let that define me. That is what I express when I share the quote, "my zip code doesn't define me." Brownsville is a part of who I am and has molded me for the better. So, when I am asked where I am from, I say Brownsville with pride. Without it, I would not be able to call myself the C.E.O. of a girl empowerment non-profit organization, and I would not be able to call myself Miss New Jersey United States 2018. So just ask yourself, what could happen if we pour true resources into the communities who need our help the most? You may just create the next Al Sharpton, Jay-Z, or even the next me.