Opinion

By the Numbers: What does it mean to be black in RI?

To be black is to live in a state of math. It is a life of ratios, fractions and decimals. Blackness in RI is a story of numbers, a story of equations without equals. Dry tedious and ruthless numbers define blackness. I have a history with these numbers. I mean every Black person has a history with these numbers. What I mean is that my history with the following numbers took me to a very difficult and emotionally taxing place. I’ll be honest about it –the numbers hurt and in them I saw my people, my family, my dad, my grandma. I saw pain. I’m not writing as some sort of second sight fruitcake, I am writing as a man, a black man who has lived in RI, whose family is buried here, who raises his children here. So, let’s do the math.

My grandma Flora was the definition of home — loving and imposing, and she always had the good cereal in the bottom drawer of her gigantic stove. She would sit at the little formica table on Ford St. I would stand between her knees and she would smile, covering her mouth, just rays of light making the morning sun dim. Flora had been pregnant 17 times, had 14 survive infancy, and 13 survive to adulthood, (she adopted neighborhood kids after grandpa died, “my branches may be bare but there is room to roost”). The numbers missing in her life were her exact date and year of birth — probably 1890s or early 1900s. She was lucky to survive childbirth; black women did not have access to hospitals or doctors for the large part, and would she to receive care, it would not be unfamiliar to black families today. Nationally black women and infants face rates of infant and maternal mortality at significantly higher rates than white mothers. This number, in particular, brings sharp pain because of its frequency and tone. The rate of loss for black women is 10.9 infant deaths per 1,000 live births; for white women the rate is 4.7 infant deaths per 1,000. The causes are many, and include the consistent dismissal of black women’s claims of illness or unease and the stresses of dealing with racism.

Flora was the personification of endurance, creativity and resiliency. I used to ask if she wanted to be an astronaut, she would say she was too busy. I would agree. I still like to think that if she had the time, Commander Flora would have made a fine pilot.

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When I was a teenager, I did teenager things, well, nerdy teenager things (I watched a lot of “Star Trek”). I had white friends who lived in other parts of the state and I would go visit them. I went to Barrington for whatever reason. Anyway, I got stopped while walking by one of the town’s uniformed finest, was cuffed and left sitting on the curb. All the Volvos slowed down to look — I was very out of place. My friend’s dad happened to be driving by and stopped to see what was going on. He got out of his Saab, walked right up to this armed man and started joking and laughing. After an interminable 10 minutes, he and the cop walked up to me. The cop picked me up by the armpit, looked at my friend’s dad and said, “So this belongs to you?” The dad said, “Yup he’s mine.”

I will never forget that shame, and it has an impact on my life as a 50-year-old man. I am afraid of traveling outside of Providence/Pawtucket/Central Falls. I thought I was crazy until I saw the math on RI. As of the last census there are 68,200 black people in RI or 5.3%. It’s a small number: 29,100 (16%) of us live in Providence, 12,800 (18%) live in Pawtucket, 4,100 (5%)  live in Cranston, 4,000 (21%) live in Central Falls, 3,200 (8%) in Woonsocket, 3,100 (7%) in East Providence, 2,400 (7%) live in North Providence, 1,600 (7%) live in Newport. That’s it. The number of black People in the other 30 towns are so insignificantly small as to not make a statistical mark. If you were to draw a three-mile circle centered on downtown Providence, you would encompass 81% of all black people in Rhode Island.

Try to hold those numbers in your head — the small minority population, pushed into a small area. There are ugly names for it that have a terrible history, yet here we are today.

Now what does this have to do with my fear of travel? Why did my white friends think I was crazy? I knew I wasn’t crazy, yet as a 15-year-old I was too young to understand the calculus of ghettoization or the algebra of fear. The tale is in the back of cop cars and in reports moldering away on a desk sergeant’s inbox. It’s in the arrest statistics for the state that the formula of a siege emerges. It is such a complete proof; its numbers fall neatly and precisely. Each one the worst day of black person’s life, each digit a heart stopping fear, not only of death, but of having your life so radically altered by a single interaction, a multiplication of terror in the heart.

In some ways RI is a garrison state for black people. In towns that have zero or very few black people, arrest rates are staggering. The best-case scenario is Providence with a black arrest rate that is just under 4 times that of whites, 99.3 per 1,000 to 26.7 per 1,000. The worst-case scenario is Newport with a black arrest rate that is 394.2 arrests per 1,000 as opposed to 77.6 per 1,000 for whites.

In South Kingston, the arrest rate for black people is 331.8 per 1,000; for white people it is just 36.3 per 1,000. These numbers do not show interactions that do not result in arrest, like my humiliating experience in Barrington. The effect of this is to make much of the state inaccessible for black people — a tiny state comprised entirely of sundown-towns. These metrics make a simple thing like going to the ocean a risk of freedom and dignity.

My dad died when he was 66 years old, after a childhood in Fox Point that was marked by malnutrition, polio and boxing. He died after a long struggle with CTE. He was prize fighter, a painter and janitor at Brown. I was privileged with the task of caring for him some of the time when he could no longer perform day-to-day functions. Yesterday’s me found this very difficult, emotionally taxing and physically draining. He died before he could collect his pension. The gravity of this did not occur to 26-year-old me, but today’s 50-year-old me sees it. To be black is to live in intimate proximity to death. From infant and maternal mortality, to violence, to simply fading away as older adults. This last set of numbers perhaps is the thing that made my once open mind one that became unstable. It is a number set that carries the pain of losing people before they can be in the full flower of their lives. An early relationship with death deprives black people of legacies, time and retirement. Black lives are abbreviated by hypertension, heart-disease, lung disorders … really, stress. Black people feel the physical effects of racism internally as well as externally, emotionally and socially. Only 13% of black people in RI are between 55 and 75, while 25% of our white neighbors are. A mere 3% of black people in Rhode Island are older than 75, while as much as 8% of the white population makes it to that ripe age.

Though unemployment is more than twice the rate for black Rhode Islanders as it is for whites a larger portion of black life is spent at work. What this means economically, and certainly meant for my dad, is that black mortality amounts to a vast transfer of wealth from black labor, to white retirement.

To be black in RI is to originally be seen as real estate, a fungible piece of property, then to become a geographic measure — a small coordinate, only to become a number on a headstone. Our black bodies have been receptacles for the violent and negative expressions of white society, at once to be controlled and imitated. A Hegelian nightmare of master resentment. Do I have solutions? Yes; however, they involve the wholesale de-colonization of our bodies, land and white minds. Do I believe in the state’s motto? Well, no. There is precious little reason for hope.

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