’A Black Man in a White Space’: America has a Long and Troubled History of Segregated Public ParksRoundup
tags: racism, parks, public space
Victoria Wolcott is a history professor at the University of Buffalo and author of Race, Riots, and Roller Coasters: The Struggle over Segregated Recreation in America.
The Central Park confrontation highlights two related historical phenomena that structure American race relations. The “racial hoax,” false accusations aimed towards black men by whites, has peppered our history.
In 1931, for example, two white women falsely accused a group of young black teenagers of rape in Scottsboro, Alabama. In 1955 Carolyn Brant, a white woman in Mississippi, lied about Emmett Till, a black teenager from Chicago, accosting her, leading to Till’s lynching.
And in 1989 authorities wrongfully convicted five young African American and Latino teenagers of beating and raping a white woman in Central Park.
But Monday’s incident also reflects the legacy of segregation. Particularly, how some whites perceived African Americans who ventured into public parks as potentially dangerous and disruptive intruders, in the North and the South. In the 1950s and 1960s, for example, white teenagers paroled Chicago parks, terrorizing African Americans who frequented “their” turf.
Public spaces are not neutral. They are infused with the power of history: the legacy of segregation, police brutality, and white supremacy.
In moments of extreme stress, such as we are currently living through, that history weighs us down even more profoundly. The familiar scripts, including calling the cops reflexively when encountering blacks in white spaces, need to be put aside.
If there was ever a time that called for compassion in our shared spaces, it is now.