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Staying safe in Baltimore: Waking up in a Sundown Town

A selfie Sandy took of herself the first night of the curfew in Baltimore Photo: Sandy Robson / Sandy Robson
Baltimore by Arash Azizzada via Flickr CC
Baltimore by Arash Azizzada via Flickr CC Photo: Baltimore by Arash Azizzada via Flickr CC / Arash Azizzada

White Quaker singer-songwriter Sandy Robson reflects on fear and how it operates to maintain segregation and racial oppression in this moving piece about growing up in Baltimore and learning about the vulnerability and lack of safety her Black friends feel. This piece was originally published on Sandy's website (her singer-songwriter name is Letitia VanSant) in May. - Lucy

Come to a full and complete stop at every stop sign. Follow the speed limit exactly.  If it says “No turn on red,” just don’t do it, even if there aren’t any cars on the street.  Never put anything on the dashboard.  If your taillight is broken, take the bus--don’t risk it.

These are the rules that my co-worker Paul, a Black man from Detroit, had unfortunately learned the hard way--by getting stopped by police, being illegally arrested, and even doing community service for crimes that he never committed. These brief periods in jail had severely disrupted his life, and so he did everything he could to avoid any encounters with the cops in his heavily-policed neighborhood.

In my decade or so of driving while white, I’ve learned that for the most part, I can roll through most stop signs at a slow speed. When it comes to speed limits, I’ve heard the rule “nine you’re fine, ten you’re mine” -- meaning the cops won’t stop me if I go 9 miles per hour over. I never even developed a cognizance about broken tail lights or dashboard storage.

Shut it down for Baltimore in NYC by All Nite Images via Flickr CC

Learning about my privilege has been a process of discovering ways that life has been easier for me because I was born to white, educated parents. It’s as though I’ve been running a race my whole life, and for a while it was convenient to believe that any gains I’d made were due to my talent and effort. But I continue to learn about the myriad ways that the race has been rigged in my favor, I have been given unfair advantages, and many were held back at the starting line.*

One of these advantages is that I've been able to spend most of my time in places where I feel safe, or at least I've had the option to do so.  If I needed to, I could call the cops with a reasonable expectation that they would help me. Wanting to keep ourselves and our families safe is a basic human instinct, entirely natural and right and good.  And yet this instinct can also cause us to perpetrate, or at least to tolerate, unnecessary harm to other people. It can physically and emotionally distance us, furthering our lack of understanding and concern about the lives of people who come from different backgrounds.  It's easy to buy into a false sense that we understand from watching TV or reading the newspaper. 

So much of the violence that we see in Baltimore is a result of structural inequality. We keep responding to these problems with police and with prisons, which in turn make it even more difficult for people to escape the cycles of poverty.  There are many reasons for this, but I think one factor is fear: it's hard for people in positions of power or privilege to see past our own fear, some of which is manufactured by the media, to shift our resources towards building a more secure future for everyone in the long term.  I wrote this song as a reflection on the sadness of letting an un-interrogated fear define our choices as a society.

Sundown Town

One of the most significant chapters in my education about my privilege was my experience canvassing for the 2008 Obama campaign in Detroit. I was one of about 6 or 7 white people on a team of about 80, most of whom were Black.

For the first few weeks I was partnered with the aforementioned guy named Paul, who weighed in at a formidable 300 pounds. Some members of our team speculated that I was paired with him because as a white woman I would be more at risk in these places and Paul would be my “protector.”** A Detroit native and a very sweet guy, Paul seemed to enjoy showing folks around his hometown and telling stories from his childhood.  Often we’d pick a section of blocks to cover and then split off on opposite sides of the street.

Most of the time we’d pick a few blocks to cover and then split off on opposite sites of the street to knock doors. While I was usually received pretty warmly, I noticed that people were often suspicious of him until he somehow demonstrated that he wasn’t a threat. Sometimes people wouldn’t answer their doors even though they were clearly at home, and once someone even opened the door with a shotgun in hand, instructing him to get off of his property.  I would return to the campaign office with relatively high numbers of voter contacts and was praised for my hard work, but we would joke that I ought to have been graded on a special curve for white people. (Unfortunately, although we unknowingly experience such advantages all the time in life, there is no special curve for white people. We just go on thinking that we're naturally fabulous at everything).

One day we were asked to canvas a white suburb outside the city limits (I believe it was Redford, but I’m not entirely sure) with another team member, a Black man in his 60s. As dusk fell and we got ready to go home, we had some trouble finding our companion. When we finally found him on a corner he was visibly shaken--terrified, even. He told us that when he was growing up it was well known that Black people were not allowed after dark in Redford. In some towns there would be signs on the outskirts saying things like “N*gger, don’t let the sun go down on you in our town” with the implied threat of physical violence. But more often, he said, there was no sign and you would just have to know, and he and his family made it their business to know where they were and weren’t welcome. I used to think that after the Jim Crow era this kind of overt racism would have only surfaced in a few rural towns--but Louwen makes the case that it was very widespread, perhaps even more the rule than the exception, and included some upper class suburbs of large cities.

Row houses in Baltimore by Stephen Melkisethian via Flickr CC

That was the first time I’d even heard of sundown towns. It was certainly the first time it ever occurred to me that a Black man would be so afraid in a quiet suburban neighborhood typifying what I had been taught was “safe.”  What struck me as even more absurd was that people on our team had been so concerned for my safety as a white woman, when there was so much more evidence to show that the Black men on our team faced far more credible threats of physical violence from citizens and police alike.

This is what it took for me to start to notice how many people of color have to grapple daily with the notion that their very presence might make a white person feel scared, whether it’s getting into an elevator, walking into a store, or even just walking down the street in broad daylight. Sometimes I was chagrinned to find that I was the one on the other side of it, feeling myself tense as I passed someone on the sidewalk. The fact that people are afraid of them puts people of color at risk - as the tragic death of Trayvon Martin and so many others goes to show. Because our society teaches us that criminals look like them, it’s like they are assumed guilty until they prove themselves innocent. Constantly having to prove one’s worthiness is a tremendous burden to bear, with enormous consequences psychologically and professionally. And this is just one strand in the complicated web of discrimination and oppression that so many have to navigate every single day.

Constantly having to prove one’s worthiness is a tremendous burden to bear, with enormous consequences psychologically and professionally. And this is just one strand in the complicated web of discrimination and oppression that so many have to navigate every day of their lives. 

Staying Safe in Baltimore

I grew up in and around Baltimore, another American city that once thrived on a robust industrial economy but was hit hard when companies shipped jobs overseas. I spent my childhood mostly unaffected by the consequences of this shift-- in the leafy, upper-middle class neighborhoods and suburbs of Roland Park, Lutherville, and Towson. Since returning to the city after college I’ve lived in Waverly, Hamilton, and Seton Hill.

I am Black, I am intelligent, and I am hated by Arash Azizzada via Flickr CC

While it seems that the term “sundown town” more often refers to rural areas or suburbs, Baltimore had its own ways of keeping Black people out of white neighborhoods, and more importantly of keeping Black people from accumulating the wealth that comes with real estate. Baltimore literally created the blueprint of racist housing laws and practices that shaped many of America’s large cities.  These policies are well documented by Anthony Pietila in Not in My Backyard: How Bigotry Shaped a Great American City. Decades after housing discrimination was made illegal, though, we still live in relatively segregated neighborhoods--in part because people want to live in places where they feel safe.

Societal notions of safety have been a defining factor in my experience of Baltimore.  Most people I know carry with them a mental map of what neighborhoods they won’t ride their bike through at night, where they might ask a friend to walk them to their cars, etc. When I had a job working with a number of Title 1 schools, co-workers of mine would tell me to “be careful,” or to “trust your instincts.” Once or twice every year, a friend of a friend who is moving to Baltimore for graduate school will ask me what neighborhoods are safe. I always struggle with this question. Safe for whom?

Safety is subjective, and thus everyone’s mental map is different. And as my experience in Detroit demonstrated, people’s real lived experiences of each neighborhood is different depending on who they are.

Growing up in the suburbs I knew people who seldom went in to the city except for Orioles’ games, and I have friends who wouldn’t come to shows in Station North because they didn’t feel safe to go there. In high school, when I volunteered at the Sandtown-Winchester Habitat for Humanity, a few of my friends’ parents wouldn’t let them come along.  All of these cautions still strike me as overly fearful, but then again who I am I to judge? This is all easy for me to say, as a person from a privileged background without kids, without much to lose. People do commit violent crimes, and it’s entirely natural to want to avoid those risks.  I also don’t mean to paint this as a strictly racial issue--there are many people of color who avoid certain neighborhoods because they are too dangerous.

But where does this fear really come from? Certainly, there are some objective measures of crime rates, but are our snap judgments really based on facts and figures? How much of it is rooted in media-based stereotypes?  How much of it is a self-fulfilling prophecy that is perpetuated by a racist, classist approach to policing?*** If we rarely venture outside of our socio-economic and geographic circles, how could these notions ever really be proven wrong?

The infamous redlining map or "residential security map" that helped to solidify Baltimore's apartheid system in 1937. Posted by Baltimore Redevelopment Action Coalition for Empowerment.

Whether this fear of falling victim to violent crime is legitimate or not in any particular circumstance, it profoundly divides us as a city. It is the elephant in the room; the dynamic that justifies and allows us to tolerate abominable infractions on the human rights of our neighbors. (Much in the same way that our fear of terrorists is used to justify the bombing of innocent people in the Middle East and Africa.) And when we call people “thugs” we seem to imply that they are incapable of reconciliation or civil discourse, that one must resort to brute force and imprisonment because they will respond to nothing else.

When the outrage of Freddie Gray’s death boiled over into an uprising, I and many people I know were saying the words “stay safe” to our loved ones. But as Mahroh Jangiri articulated far better than I can, this mistakenly implies that the real threat was to people from privileged backgrounds in the first place. There is no way for Black people to “stay safe” by just steering away from violence; many have to cope with threats on their person every day of their lives. We hardly heard about the killing of 109 people by Maryland police over the past three years, about 70% of whom were black, until some smashed windows grabbed the attention of the national media.

How can I be part of the fight for justice if we demand safety as a prerequisite for our participation? What course of events could have more aptly demonstrated that none of us are safe until all of us are safe?****

I didn't feel personally oppressed by the curfew, but I did have a sinking feeling that we were all being told to go back where we respectively "belong." "You upper middle class protestors, get out of Penn North now so that we can start treating the people there the way we normally do. And you, poor folks, go back home so that people in the upper class neighborhoods will stop being scared of you messing with their property."

While it has been heartbreaking to hear of more and more incidences of police brutality, and the struggle remains a long game, I’ve been so inspired by the overwhelming response to the tragedies of police brutality in the past months. There have been so many productive, frank conversations about race and class and privilege. There has been a wider movement to recognize and support the leadership of Black communities.  The fight for justice remains long and daunting, but I was so heartened to see so many different kinds of people marching alongside one another at protest after protest. We are really fortunate to have such talented organizers. The national media came to Baltimore and tried to tell us that our youth are thugs, and Baltimore, particularly the Black leaders of Baltimore, grabbed the mic and said “No, we are telling our story.”

At the same time, I’m concerned that the same people who had warned me against living in the city will shake their heads and say “I told you so.” I worry that the uprising will serve to further entrench some people in fear--moving to a gated community with a security guard, or otherwise distancing themselves from the notion that there is no true peace, no true security, until there is justice for all.  I wrote this song as a cogitation on the sadness of a future in which we let fear define our choices in life.

I am not saying that anyone should intentionally put themselves in situations that they regard to be dangerous, nor am I saying that white and/or otherwise privileged people should flock to Sandtown, nor am I saying that integrated housing would solve our problems. Indeed bringing Black people physically closer to white people won’t address the power dynamics that are at the root of injustice. I am saying, though, that one important step is for white people like me to become more aware of the ways we have been taught to fear Black people and how this fear has been used as a tool of oppression. Unless we notice it and seek to interrupt the cycle, we’re doomed to repeat the past.


*There are many more advantages I could list -- going to well-rated public schools, having parents who are supportive and encouraging, and so on. The analogy that I name here still leaves a lot out of the picture. In fact, it’s like the original rules of the game were for black people to help carry white people down the racetrack.  And it doesn't need to be a competition, anyway, but that's the way a lot of our society as set up- for instance by grading the SATs on a curve.

** Even this incidence reflects the historical fallacy that white women must be protected from black men. In decades past, black men were lynched for raping white women, or in some instances even just looking at a white woman.

***On the day that the riots began, the police received a "credible threat" that gangs were forming an alliance to take out police officers--an accusation that gang members went to great lengths to refute.  At the same time the "purge" graphic was supposedly circulating among teens, and was widely re-tweeted by reporters and others, but I have yet to see journalistic confirmation that it actually was being spread by kids that intended to participate. While police were obviously thought it better to prepare for a possible threat rather than wait and see, I wonder how much of the way things played out at Mondawmin was elevated by the media frenzy around it, whether the fact that these rumors reflected our pre-existing fears made us quicker to believe them.  How would the response have been different if the purge graphic were being circulated in a predominantly white school?

****In years past I was afraid to talk about race at all, because I was afraid that I would say something wrong and that I would be criticized for it.  I somehow wanted to be sure that whatever I said was the "right thing." I now recognize that this was an example of white fragility -- wanting to be guaranteed that my identity as a “good person” would remain intact before I engaged in the conversation about racial justice. As a white person I have a responsibility to learn and to talk about white privilege, not to leave this burden of education to people of color. I will inevitably make mistakes, and hopefully I will learn from them.

About the Author

Sandy Robson is a Quaker singer-songwriter from Baltimore, Maryland. Until recently she worked for the Friends Committee on National Legislation. She performs under the name Letitia VanSant.