NYC: A Tale of Three Cities

        New York City: the capital of the world; the epicenter of exiles where dreams are sold as quickly as black-market goods. A conglomerate of culture acting as a threshold to inclusivity, opportunity, and diversity. This is what they pitch—a glamorized ad that lures the gullible, the hopeful into believing America isn’t always Black and White. That the daunting reality of the haves and have-nots within your hometown is only temporary; if only you make it to New York. The colorful land of refuge where the ideals of democracy are absorbed into your base culture creating a new and improved self-identity that permeates into other hopefuls producing a contemporary ethnic enclave. This is New York – the city of transient culture where minority customs absorb into the greater societies’ becoming one. Where all really means all. Where the grimiest of the underworld even has a chance to rise and find their place in the sun. This is what is wrapped and packaged in a neatly bound bow to be sold as the tale of one city. The story of the unified New York where natives and transplants become one who work together to maintain New York’s age-old narrative—a tale that has become the very ideal of the city. This year’s Oscar awards even capitalized off of this tradition. Green Book won Best Picture in spite of the criticism it received for the romanticizing of race relations between Blacks and “ethnic” Whites in 1960’s New York. People seem to love it—fantasies sprinkled with Ellis Island anecdotes and melting pot folklore full of woolgathering pitches of abundant awaiting opportunities that lure the ever-so common migrant. A tale that transcends race and is attached to everyone in New York no matter if you are Black, White, or other. For the first, second, third generations settled all of this may be true; but for a very unique community of New Yorkers finding truth in this alluring tale of one city is not so simple.

        When I moved to the city four years ago in search of the residuals of the historical Harlem Renaissance; the Brooklyn Boheme; the magic of Manhattan—I too believed in the spell of New York. Growing up in the late 90s and early 2000s at the close of the crack-cocaine epidemic; the idea of relocating from Philadelphia to New York was an escapist dream that promised access to a quality education, a salaried position working my dream job, and purchasing a brownstone to raise my future family in. Just as heading north to escape the terror in the Jim Crow south was a dream for past Black Americans. 50 years after Civil Rights why did I have the similar urge to escape to someplace better as my ancestors did? Wasn’t I already a product of their sacrifices when they abandoned their southern livelihoods to establish better opportunities for themselves and future generations during America’s great migration period? Wasn’t I already in the liberated north? The 80s and 90s saw New York having inner-city woes just like Philadelphia, so why did I dream to seek refuge there? At the turn of the millennium, New York seemed to pivot its social landscape and managed to reignite itself as the great sanctuary city by appealing to America’s new “creative class”. Philadelphia’s two city blueprint excluded me from this class while simultaneously propelling others towards gainful opportunities within it. I was only offered underfunded schools, scarce employment, and drug-infested public housing. By my twenties my desire to flee the inner-city dystopia I grew up in reached a fever pitch. The glossy, media-pushed, pop culture phenomenon that masked the failure of Black America influenced my belief in finding this new American experience in New York. From “The Cosby Show” to hip-hop infused pop entertainers of the millennium like Mariah Carey or Jennifer Lopez and the icing on the cake the election of the first Black president  were aesthetic representatives indicative of a post-racial America that shaped my belief in New York; A place that epitomized diversity and inclusion instead of the common two city dynamic rampant in Philadelphia.

        Since the end of America’s Jim Crow segregation era, metropolitan areas across America have maintained unequal divides between Black and White communities by enforcing dual city paradigms that continued the subjugation of Black Americans as the permanent bottom class. Tactics such as: “White Flight,” social welfare weaponization, and mass incarceration had become the new Jim Crow that maintained America’s racist caste system even with the implementation of Civil Rights policies. So, what happened in New York that differentiated it from other metropolitan areas that made it so appealing? Post 1989, after the highly publicized Central Park 5 travesty and the murder of Yusef Hawkins; New York was on the verge of a major racial uprise that hadn’t been seen since the draft riots of 1863. This growing tension between Black and White communities resulted in the election of New York’s first and only Black mayor, David Dinkins. Other inner-cities had already achieved this feat due to their Black population percentage ratios. While New York held the highest population of Black Americans in the country its population percentage compared to other demographics was relatively low to other cities. Dinkins’ election seemed to act as a marker for unification between communities. Yet, as Black and Latino leaders rose in power in the democratic party; ethnic Whites fled, resulting in Dinkins losing his second term bid to republican mayoral candidate Rudy Giuliani four years later. This marked the beginning of the 20-year reformation period that defined the dynamic of New York’s social landscape today. The pivotal policies pushed during this time invited progressives and America’s creative class to New York; policies that ironically were conceived and enforced through racism. This newer population was marketed as the face of New York and made the city seem like a plausible refuge. Finally, all of my dreams could be possible if only I made it to the metropolis of diversity. I hadn’t realized the policies implemented were beneficial for some but served as deterrents for upward mobility for native Black Americans. As the city evolved, New York no longer served as a mecca for Black American economic and social progression. Thanks to the introduction of “strategic gentrification” policies and the collapse of historically Black neighborhoods throughout the city the exodus and/or displacement of the city’s “supposed” strong middle Black class increased at rapid rates.

        New York’s higher rates of diversity and progressive politics does not translate to opportunity for Black Americans but instead produces similar failures as less diverse cities like Philadelphia. Instead of solving its race problem, New York has merely graduated to less explicit forms of racism than endured by earlier Black American generations. The common two city blueprint that has historically marginalized Black American communities throughout the nation has been reconstructed with a different approach that feeds off of New York’s diverse demographics thus transitioning conflicting demographics from a two-city mold to a three city. The added narrative is not one created to be later absorbed into a mono-American culture, that has benefited ethnic Whites and now some Asian and Latino communities but is rather a pivot towards erasure. This third city is composed of Blacks who are unique due to their adjacency to American slavery. Known as ADOS, American Descendants of Slavery, are slowly losing their visibility within the American political spectrum and are being replaced as the front-runners for justice claims in New York City and beyond.

        In New York there are Whites, Immigrants, and Blacks. Some Immigrants are Black, but all Blacks aren’t Immigrants. This tricky identity politics has been abused by those who serve as gatekeepers to opportunity in New York. The guise of cultural diversity creates conditions where at face value it looks as if Black Americans benefit but in actuality it disenfranchises them. Members of the African Diaspora and other minorities have progressed due to loopholes and ambiguous language that transform policies created for Black Americans to suddenly include a much broader group of people. Since the Immigration and Nationality act of 1965, the Black immigrant population has more than quadrupled and has had a 56% increase since the year 2000; increasing the overall Black population by 25%. Simultaneously, the scope of Black politics has declined. Policies with majority Black support have around a 10% chance of being enacted compared to policies with universal support which has more than a 50% rate of enactment. If the Black population and other minorities who benefit from civil rights’ policies has climbed since 1965 and the White American population has remained stagnant and/or declined since then; why hasn’t this growth benefited Black people politically? The distinctions among Black Americans and Black immigrants shed some light. According to research, the average Black Immigrant has higher education, income, and is less likely to live in poverty than Black Americans. These critical socioeconomic differences explain why the influx of Black immigrants has not attributed to the progression of Black politics. Research shows Black immigrants take up about 41% of the affirmative action spaces at Ivy League institutions. With the implementation of qualitative diversity, universities fulfill their affirmative action quotas by selecting Black immigrants who have no connection to America’s oppressive history over Black ADOS; in order to minimize political action on campus and maintain homogeneous classroom discussions. I recall experiencing this at Medgar Evers College in Brooklyn, NY. My professor introduced himself and told us he was a Caribbean immigrant who had been teaching for over twenty years. He then directed each student in class to introduce themselves and share their origin as well. With each passing introduction, I realized everyone had an attachment to some other nation except me and one other woman.

        “Where are you from?” Our professor asked the woman.

        “My family has been in Brooklyn for 10 generations” she answered.

        She was answered only with silence. No thrills of excitement. None of the markers of curiosity or interest that he displayed to other students. The professor just simply moved from class introductions into his lecture. As the class continued, a discussion on immigration policies prompted the professor to state that all Americans were immigrants, with Native Americans as the exception. Nearly all of the students expressed agreement save for me and the single other Black American student. People who are in America due to kidnapping and enslavement is not the same as willfully immigrating. I wondered how my professor could so carelessly abuse his academic tenure by teaching students that everyone in America is an immigrant or a descendant of one. Especially, after a student had just told him that her family was in New York City for ten generations. If he were in his home country in the Caribbean would he consider the people there to be immigrants? Technically, Caribbean Black people got there via the transatlantic slave trade as well. While I am not proud of the way this country has treated my community—I am still an American. Yes, I’m Black and I too am American—not just by birth but also by identity and lineage. W.E.B Dubois once notoriously spoke on this “An American, a Negro,” he wrote, “two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals in one dark body, whose dogged strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder.”

        Hidden within New York, sits an underworld—a third city. In this city, dreams do not flourish and the woes of American racism, unequal wealth access, and now ethnic tokenism cripple its community members. Black American specific agendas in this city are not encouraged or supported like other demographic specific agendas. They are instead vilified and seen as divisive, thus silencing their historical voice; robbing them of dreamt opportunities.

Hadiyah Harrison

Hadiyah Harrison is a writer with future career interests in intellectual property law for film and television scripts. An advocate for Black-led social-justice movements and formerly the coordinator for the New York Immigration Coalition Black Immigrant Engagement Initiative, Harrison is currently preparing for graduation from the City College of New York majoring in Literary, Media, and Visual Arts. She resides in Brooklyn, NY.

Opening Photo courtesy of Rachel Harris.
Author Photo courtesy of author.

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