Take the 125th Street Challenge

As we passed, one by one, downtown’s hipster havens and the tourist hubs of midtown, the white and Asian population riding the Bronx-bound D train on a steamy Saturday night in July began to thin out. At 59th St./Columbus Circle, the last chance to transfer to a local train before the D would speed some 66 blocks north toward Harlem’s central thoroughfare of 125th St, or “Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd.,” most of the remaining whites and Asians disembarked. 

“Next stop, 125th St.!,” the conductor barked and then said it again, louder, with more emphasis, as if to make certain we knew what we were in for. Soon after, the familiar two-tone accompanying the closing of the doors sounded, and we were off, the rhythmic clank of metal on metal, the tunnel lights shooting by, the train speeding up, slowing, speeding up again, screeching, lurching and moving on. 

The onboard crowd was boisterous: sun people, for better or for worse, large in every dimension, with big bodies, big voices, Big Gulps in hand, big beats bounding off of the subway walls. It was easy to feel small in their midst, to cower in a corner, reduced to silence and stillness. 

The train platformed at 125th St., and I got out along with what seemed like a good third of my car’s remaining occupants. I wove through the crowd, navigating my way around a small clot gathered around some sort of latter-day beatboxer, then made my way to the staircase, following the labored ascent of a 300 pound woman clad in a cellulite-baring, barely-there miniskirt. I got out on the northeast corner of 125th and St. Nicholas Avenue, the smell of grease from the Popeye’s on the corner mixing with a street vendor’s fragrance of incense. 

I headed east. Much of Central Harlem, and 125th Street especially, had undergone significant gentrification, with all its associated upsides and downsides, as a result of plummeting crime rates in the area during the Giuliani and Bloomberg years and even into the Bloomberg carryover that insulated the first years of Bloomberg’s successor (whom it is better not to name for the sake of keeping this essay civil) from the full impact of his pro-crime policies. 

Alongside the few remaining black-owned businesses and historic landmarks such as the Apollo Theater, as I walked from St. Nicholas, past Frederick Douglass Blvd. and Adam Clayton Powell Jr. Blvd., on the way to Malcolm X. Blvd. and Lennox Ave. I passed a barrage of chain stores: DSW, H&M, Old Navy, GAP, Banana Republic, Victoria’s Secret, Bath & Body Works, Burlington Coat Factory, and even a Whole Foods on the corner of 125th and Lennox. 

Although the big box stores were still up and running, the bad old days had returned with a vengeance, with crime skyrocketing throughout the city but especially here and especially after Black Lives Matter hooters and looters had been permitted to run wild with virtual impunity by our self-styled Robin Hood mayor in the summer of 2020. With law enforcement sabotaged at every turn and under attack—ideologically, financially, and literally—from cowardly politicians, opportunistic, and their many enablers among the woke elites and their corporations, all the worst elements of society had come creeping out of the woodwork once again. 

Our current mayor Eric Adams, a sane, relatively moderate Democrat in this one-party town, had run and won on a tough-on-crime platform and was saying and doing many of the right things, but the banditry unleashed by eight long years of intentional neglect would take more than a few months to rein in once again. It will likely be years before the thugs and bums come to recall that subway turnstiles are not to be treated like hurdles in a track-and-field event, that sidewalks and subway platforms are not depositories for litter, urine, and excrement, that smoking pot and cigarettes on trains and in stations is not OK, that shoplifting, gunplay, casual street violence and the COVID-stoked bloodsport of targeting of elderly Asian ladies will be met with real consequences. 

So we can hold out hope for the future. In the meantime, while it was business as usual in the various immigrant enclaves of Queens and South Brooklyn, where local customs and mores substituted for more formal channels of law and order, in the City’s most historically dangerous areas in Central and Northeast Brooklyn, as well as in much of Manhattan, and particularly in neighborhoods like this one, we are condemned to the delicate balancing act of perpetually averting our eyes and constantly looking over our shoulders.   

I was on my way to visit an old friend who lived just off of Lennox. Lionel is a Caribbean immigrant and successful entrepreneur who’d moved into one of the area’s many beautiful old brownstones during Harlem’s late gentrification phase a few years back, when people were sure the 1970s and 1980s crack-era New York was gone for good, lingering only as a fitting subject for nostalgia about a vibrant, wild and free, sweaty, seedy, scary city before Disneyfication had taken hold—not a place in which we would ever want to live but one in which we still craved to set our imaginations free to roam for two or three hot summer nights. 

Lionel and his wife, Marla, a white American-born Left Coaster, teamed up for a home-cooked meal full of international flavors, with her following a Peruvian chicken recipe to perfection and he, having grown up in a culture in which everyone did the cooking, able to freewheel a delectable lamb chili over coconut rice. 

Spencer Platt/Newsmakers via GETTY IMAGES

After dinner, with the time ticking toward 10:30, we went for a walk with their dog Commodore, some sort of small, off-white furball variety. We went east and a bit south, toward the few square city blocks that housed Marcus Garvey Park. Normally, Marla explained, they wouldn’t go in here at this hour, but today, there was a performance going on, so it wasn’t as desolate and dangerous as it otherwise might have been. That didn’t mean, of course, that the drunks and derelicts weren’t there, just that there were lots of people who had to put up with them together. We strolled around the outer periphery. 

Marla and I were the only Caucasians we came across in the whole park, and there was nothing wrong with that. She lived in this neighborhood (even if Lionel confided that he often felt uneasy when she ventured out at night alone), and for me, meandering through the city’s diverse ethnic and racial environs, sampling the culture, the cuisine and the scenery, was something of a pastime. 

What was troubling was not the race of the park’s occupants but, yet again, their dress, their verbiage, their behavior. There were the teetering addicts, too many to count, that one could now see behaving erratically or falling asleep standing up throughout the city. Commodore eyed them warily as we passed, sensing, perhaps, the disturbance in their souls the way some cats seem to sense tumors growing inside their longtime owners. 

But the addicts are what they are; I am not talking about them. Among the “normal” visitors is where the greater problem was. What we kept seeing was barbarousness, people clad like near-naked slobs tossing bones and scraps of half-eaten food, cans and bottles on patches of scrub and asphalt already riddled with decomposing comestibles and disposable plastic waste, while around them foul-mouthed fat children who should’ve been at home in bed were running about with reckless abandon, throwing down bang snaps and getting in a few good smacks aimed at one another until their mothers had had enough and lit up screaming and cursing like sailors, bringing the festivities to a screeching halt for so long as they could maintain their focus, whereupon, losing it, the chaotic merriment cycled on again. 

“I don’t understand it. This is their park,” Lionel remarked, with the distance his Caribbean heritage permitted him. “If I used this park like they did, for picnics and barbecues and whatnot, I’d be proud of it and keeping it immaculate. I’d be setting an example for my children and for anyone who happened to be passing through.”

And that was the nub of it. The quality that was glaringly lacking all around—in the way the people here looked and talked and walked and generally conducted themselves—was self-respect. It was a quality that no amount of well-intentioned antiracist intervention, activism and outreach could provide because, by its very nature, it could only be built up from within. 

More than that, as the left-populist historian and social critic Christopher Lasch astutely observed, the antiracist agenda, once put into action, positively robbed people of self-respect because it turned them into helpless victims, offering—and failing—to do for them that which they can only do for themselves. 

Self-respect that stems from the experience of setting goals and achieving them through one’s own actions—not to be confused with ungrounded “self-esteem”—is why the city’s poorest immigrant enclaves are typically clean and orderly, full of normal, hard-working people with strong, traditional two-parent families and often extended family members who live in close proximity and take care of one another and each other’s children. 

In a generation or two, these new arrivals on our shores, oft-high-achieving black immigrants such as Nigerians included, have realized the hard-won fruits of their labor and pass into the middle class and beyond. Meanwhile, though there is near-universal agreement that racial discrimination against blacks has abated with every passing decade, the multigenerational Americans generally comprising the population of our black ghettos, living with broken families, crime, drugs and every other variety of dysfunction, keep standing still or even falling further and further behind

Although President Lyndon Johnson had explicitly envisioned his Great Society welfare state as a system of reparations for black Americans, resulting in a net transfer of many billions in wealth from disproportionately wealthy white to disproportionately poor black America, such programs only enabled poverty, making single motherhood an economically sustainable lifestyle choice (albeit a subsistence lifestyle choice) that simultaneously doomed future generations to poverty by driving the rate of black children born into single-parent families from 24.5 percent in 1964, at the birth of the Great Society and its programs, to more than 70 percent today. 

Having apparently learned nothing from this depressing history of ill-fated intervention in black communities by white would-be do-gooders, we are now once again hearing calls for yet more reparations by those oblivious to the fact that we have been living in a failed reparations regime for decades on end.

Black people, the woke narrative tells us, take their lives in their hands every time they venture outside, into a society in which an omnipresent, nebulous terror known as “white supremacy” reigns and any given day, a racist cop’s brutality poses a perpetual threat to life and limb. 

This audacious lie is foisted upon us so often that it can be difficult indeed to avoid its override of the evidence of our own memories telling us a very different story about our everyday experience of race in America: in most American urban environments, it is everyone else who lives in fear of black people. 

Not all black people summon up this fear, of course, but the ones who, at first glance—it is always an “at first glance” matter when it comes to making the kinds of snap judgments about strangers that we are routinely called upon to make when our safety is at issue—appear to conform to the familiar thuggish stereotype. 

No amount of diversity dogma and demonstrably counterproductive sensitivity training can beat this primal fear out of us, because it is a deep-seated mechanism refined by eons of evolution to protect us from danger, and as long as crime statistics retain the complexion they have had for quite some time, the danger is no mere racist fantasy; it is real

Crime, moreover, is the tip of a much larger iceberg. The obstreperous antics, the vulgarity, the profanity, the noise, the boorish behavior—all of these push our boundaries, try our patience and needle us in ways great and small as we go about our lives. They are “microaggressions” of a distinctly more palpable character than the kinds of subtle slights that go by that name among coastal elites.

Many of the well-intentioned wealthy white liberals responsible for forging and continuing to support the monumental policy blunders that got us where we are today live just one or two ZIP codes away from these scenes of savagery in Marcus Garvey Park, and yet they move about in an entirely different universe and rarely venture into the projects or the heart of Harlem on a Saturday night. 

This is my challenge to them: stop by for a visit. 

When the weather is good, wait until nightfall, until the late evening hours roll around, and then get yourself on your nearest uptown train. If you’re from Upstate New York, New Jersey, or Connecticut, drive on in. If you’re from elsewhere across America, find yourself your own nearest black ghetto to wander. When you’re there, take a good, long look around. Stop by a neighborhood bodega. Get on a local bus. Take a walk in the park. And then—this is the really challenging part—being unflinchingly honest with yourself, don’t look away, don’t distract yourself or override your instincts with any forced ideological overlay, and just keep on letting your thoughts go wherever they naturally want to go while monitoring them and asking yourself, again and again, this question: are any of the thoughts I’m having right about now ones I’d consider racist

What is the point of this exercise? You may have noticed that many of my descriptions that you’ve read up to this point fall squarely into what you consider to be that “racist” category. There is a simple reason for that fact: I have done precisely what I am suggesting you do. I have not flinched from my own unmediated thoughts, the kinds of thoughts deemed unacceptable by our white elite thought sanitizers. I have done this not because I have any wish to spew more race-hatred on the internet but because I subscribe firmly to Robert Frost’s dictum that, at least when it comes to racism in America, there is “no way out but through.” 

The liberals who blind themselves to the stark reality unfolding in our cities, including their own cities, and pat themselves on the back for having read one of race-grifter Ibram X. Kendi’s “antiracism” instruction manuals, for having had some dimwitted diversity doula induce their newborn consciousness of their supposed “white fragility” or “white privilege” or for having taken one of those junk science “implicit bias” tests and acknowledged their unvanquished and unvanquishable racism have still never dealt with the real thing. Their true “white fragility” is not the absurd Robin DiAngelo kind, viz., white people’s defensive reaction when confronted with their purported racism, but rather the kind that is entailed in the fact that their antiracist self-conception and their progressive beliefs are a fragile façade unable to withstand a real confrontation with racism’s true object.

In other words, until you get out of your physical and ideological silos and allow yourself to experience the flesh-and-blood people who might be the most obvious objects of your racism—not Barack Obama or your Ivy League-educated black co-workers or white-collar or even working-class Caribbean or African immigrants but ordinary, poor, black Americans living in our ghettos—and then allow yourself to think what you think and feel what you feel, only then do you have any chance to deal with what racism actually is—and, just as critically, what it isn’t

Those negative thoughts, those broad racial generalizations: unless they are false, they are not, in and of themselves, racist. It is not racist to permit yourself to feel fear when you are afraid or to permit yourself to feel revulsion when you are revolted. It is not racist to acknowledge the truth you’ve long known to be true in your heart of hearts and to be unafraid to level with yourself about it. 

What is racist is to believe that such broad heuristics apply to every individual who shares a particular pigmentation, to allow yourself to defy the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s sage commandment to take each individual as he comes. It’s also racist to believe things can’t change, that multigenerational black Americans are eternally condemned to their present circumstances or condemned to those circumstances unless white saviors, ever eager to infantilize their charges, swoop in with more kind words and more handouts and more diversity quotas and race-based reparations to save the day. 

It’s racist to believe that the plight of these black Americans is the product of biological determinism rather than counterproductive and disastrous policy choices that have birthed, yes, a “culture of poverty” robbing these denizens of our ghettos of the opportunity America has successfully offered to immigrants time and again: to pull themselves up by their bootstraps and earn self-respect. 

We said our goodbyes, and I headed back to the subway, passing through the haze of pot from stoops full of loitering thugs in durags, passing grotesquely obese women in booty shorts and halter crop tops, passing the fentanyl-tripping loon gyrating in the middle of the sidewalk to the tunes sounding in his head and the low-class woman who half-mockingly stopped to join him, thrusting her hips out in tandem with his rhythm for a few silent beats. 

I turned a corner, cast a last look behind me and all around, etching the scene indelibly in my memory before taking the steps down to catch the Downtown 2 express I could already hear rumbling in toward 125th along Lennox.

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