Neighborhood listservs (and pages on sites like NextDoor) are the modern-day Neighborhood Watch: a place where nervous white homeowners can get together to wring their hands about black people coming into their neighborhood while assuring each other they're not racist, all with the mantra of "think of the property values!" (In Los Angeles, sometimes the black person is the president of the United States, or Chris Brown.) They're exclusive, obviously—you usually have to be a known homeowner to get access. But over at Pacific Standard, writer and Santa Monican Tamara Shayne Kagel reveals some of these private conversations to show the ways "denizens of my liberal Los Angeles neighborhood—who like to think of themselves as being Caucasian by accident while being upper-class by [desert]" talk when they think no one else can hear them.
Last month, a member of the group sent an email to the group with "a picture of some white children near an African-American homeless man." According to Kagel, there wasn't "any trace of drugs, weapons, or anything else untoward" in the photo. The man "looks slightly befuddled" that someone is taking his picture; the kids are not interacting with him in any way. The neighbor wrote: "These children had to pass by this homeless man camped out next to [identifying information deleted] tunnel today. He was rolling a joint in front of the kids and it is not right for the children to see this behavior. Bike patrol is needed since this area has become the new Venice Beach!!!"
Another neighbor who has perhaps been paying attention to the ways scared white homeowners have long been a primary mechanism of racism in America, replied "Homelessness doesn't equal dangerous. There has [sic] been a lot of racist comments on this group. If I can please recommend everyone double and triple check what they want to send out before they press send. Many Thanks."
Which touched off a long string of "that's not racist!!!" replies, complete with "I have black friends" and, naturally, the #AllLivesMatter canard "Racism has NEVER BEEN AN ISSUE ... human decency IS!"
Kagel notes that all the respondents were white, and writes "Xenophobia toward the 'other' is always racist, it's just not the kind of racism that my educated liberal neighbors would recognize as racism … By turning the conversation into one about safety, my neighbors can contend that it's not racist to beware the danger lurking on the other side of our front doors."
Another neighbor helpfully made it more or less explicit earlier in the year:
When you all see these people and they tell you what they are doing, why not tell them to get out of our neighborhood. I tell them that I am going to call the police and that it doesn't matter what they are selling or asking for donations for, they are not allowed to be in our neighborhood. Chased out a young woman the other day who said she was working for some church but could not produce anything to prove that. I really think we have to let them know that we are aware of them and that they are not allowed here! 99% of them will be scared and will leave because they know they should not be here. They're not allowed. Scare them off. They know they shouldn't be here. This is a liberal Santa Monica neighborhood in 2015.
A month later, a house on the block was burgled by someone the homeowner said "appears to be a white male." After seeing a security still, another neighbor asked "Is that a grainy image, or a short 'fro?"
"All of my white neighbors are likely horrified whenever they read about another police killing of a black man. Most of them would probably agree that we desperately need police reform," but it's exactly the kind of reactionary fear they pass around on the listserv that leads to deaths like Trayvon Martin's and Eric Garner's, Kagel writes. She quotes Ta-Nehisi Coates on police reform rhetoric, which he says is important, but "allow[s] the citizens of this country to pretend that there is real distance between their own attitudes and those of the ones appointed to protect them. The truth is that the police reflect America in all of its will and fear."
Kagel's white and while it's no black person's job to teach their white neighbors about their own racism, she wishes there were an African-American person on her neighborhood's listserv to say something about all of this. "But there aren't any African-American people in my neighborhood to push back like that."
· Is Your Neighborhood Racist? [Pacific Standard]