On the days I have work, I leave my apartment at 5:45 AM and ride my bike 4.9 miles to the nearest bus stop–the corner of Willow and McConnell, a block from the site of the Greensboro Massacre in 1979. Here I wait for the Number 5 bus to turn off of English Street, usually with about fifteen other people. This stop is always busy since it’s located right near the Morningside Hills Housing Project and it’s the most accessible stop to the people who live in the southeastern-most neighborhoods of the city that do not receive bus service (like mine).
When I first began my new job which required catching an early bus, I got a lot of stares at that bus stop. Sometimes, people would momentarily stop talking mid-conversation when I pulled up and dismounted. I was even asked once, by an older Black man wearing a postal service uniform, what I was doing in this part of town.
Because here, I’m classified as white. Because every day, without exception, I am the only white person waiting at the Willow and McConnell bus station. People who identify as Black account for approximately 38% of Greensboro’s population, but more than 90% of the people who use city buses are people of African descent.
If you’ve ever had the chance to take a bus early in the morning in a Southern city, you might have experienced something like this: when the buses roll into the depot and the transfer process begins, you can witness something very telling based on where people are coming from and where they are going.
Without fail, by the time the Number 5 bus for Gorrell Street, which serves two housing projects and several low-income housing neighborhoods arrives at the depot in the morning, the bus is full, often with no standing room left. When it leaves for the Outbound trip, the bus is usually empty, with the exception being after 7:30 AM, when the night shift workers are making their way home. Six other routes serving the south and east sides of Greensboro have similar patterns.
By contrast, the bus I transfer to, the Number 1 for West Wendover Avenue, usually arrives to the depot empty. I’ve never seen it arrive early in the morning with more than 3 passengers on it. It leaves the depot crammed full. Same goes for the West Market Street bus, the Lawndale bus, the West Friendly bus, or the North Elm Street route.
You can extrapolate a lot from who uses the buses and when. Essentially, the process I’ve just described is this: people of color board the bus in their neighborhood and go to work. Most of the people–taken anecdotally and from uniform observation–work in low paying jobs in manual labor or customer service. These jobs do not exist where working people–who are disproportionately people of color–live, but instead are located in the wealthy–and whitewashed–areas of Greensboro. Friendly, Wendover, and New Garden shopping districts, for example.
Anyone familiar with patterns of racial segregation won’t be surprised by this dynamic. After all, it exists in all cities to a greater or lesser extent. In Greensboro, which is one of the most segregated cities in the country, it is to a very great extent. Winston-Salem, NC where I used to live, is even more starkly divided, with the highest segregation rate in the country–a whopping 95%. In that city, a highway was designed to split the white and Black sides of town, and to this day, East Winston–the “Black side”–has no hospitals, few services, doctors, dentists, lawyers, grocery stores, or restaurants.
Greensboro lacks the clear delineation, but the toll of segregation is still quite clear. Travel across the city through Market Street, and the road quality deteriorates the further east you travel. Power outages in Friendly Avenue neighborhoods are quickly resolved, but travel south and east to English street and they occur more frequently and last longer. The University of North Carolina–Greensboro, when considering an expansion plan, pursued a plan of gentrification of the Glenwood neighborhood to the south of campus. Glenwood is a historic working class neighborhood, and is the most diverse in the city. It is a center of community organizing and local grassroots arts. People were evicted from their homes, and police presence in a neighborhood already terrorized by constant police brutality is on the increase. At the same time cuts were being made to education and services, a new jail was being erected (and is slated to open in December this year–but not if we have anything to say about it) by Guilty Guilford County right across from the wonderfully diverse Bryan YMCA.
Jim Crow doesn’t need to be explicitly in the law books for it to be real. The racially based economic disparities that exist in services and education are just another way of hanging a “whites only” sign on the door.
White racism is the underpinning of our whole city, and of the whole capitalist system. Everything can be drawn back to the question of racism, from the way our cities are planned to when police fire their guns.
The reason I study history is so I can understand the world specifically in order to fight capitalism, to fight racism, to fight all oppression. If history, both collectively based and that of personal experience, has taught me anything, it is that in order to get rid of something, you must face it head on, right at the root of the problem. Capitalism is not contaminated by cronyism or corporatism. It is set up to function exactly as it does, to exploit most of us in order to make a small minority incredibly wealthy. In the same way, racism is not just a problem of a few crazy white people with racism spewing from their mouths at every turn. No, racism was built, consciously, into this system at every turn. As Lance Selfa wrote in a 2010 article tracking the roots of racism:
Racism and capitalism have been intertwined since the beginning of capitalism. You can’t have capitalism without racism. Therefore, the final triumph over racism will only come when we abolish racism’s chief source–capitalism–and build a new socialist society.
And this is what I think every day when I board the bus.
Colorblindness is a lie. Only through conscious efforts at antiracist organizing can we make real gains in the fight to end oppression, and as David Roediger recalled in his book The Wages of Whiteness, the first step toward building an antiracist movement is systematically pointing out racism in every way it manifests, exposing all the racist myths as the vicious lies against working people that they are.