I’d be more optimistic about achieving a post-racial society if some of my neighbors were black. Recently I visited a town in rural New Jersey. A white couple lives across the street from a black friend of mine, who has just returned from the hospital. The couple promised they’d drop over daily to help her out. Down the street three young black men pulled into their driveway, next door to a white guy mowing his lawn. An integrated community with at least one neighborly neighbor! Do they even bother to notice black and white?
In Princeton, some of us constantly notice black and white because we’re worried. As the value of land increases, along with taxes, black people whose families have resided in Princeton since its early days may be forced to leave. We say that we want to keep Princeton’s diversity, but it’s not certain that, even with white and black citizens working together, we can overcome the pressures of the free market on this ever-more upscale town.
I used to have black neighbors: a mixed couple down the block and the family next door (though for more than a year I didn’t recognize that they were African-American). I might have guessed when we were told upon moving in, “You’ll like the Phelans. They’re good neighbors.” Why else single out a specific neighbor? Eventually, when I knocked on their door bearing Christmas cookies and was welcomed into a house filled with colorful masks and carved wooden statues of African women, I found out. (The Phelans were very light-skinned and very private, so my ignorance is understandable.) What started out as neighborly assistance during snow storms and hurricanes became invitations to dinner and, once, an excursion together to New York for a special art exhibit. We didn’t often talk about race, but we could. Judy Phelan and I hated wastefulness. When her mother died, I gave her my mother’s urn for her mother’s ashes. We laughed about how shocked my mother would have been to share her urn with a black person.
Am I saying I want black neighbors just because they’re black? Actually, I am. Neighborhoods are defined by socio-economic similarities, so on my street, poor blacks would be excluded. But it would be reassuring to know that some black people can afford to live here. Neighbors, unlike the black and white friends we make at work who, like us, are scientists and teachers, offer insight into other fields and sometimes different perspectives. Having been raised to look down on anyone who was not a WASP, I learned a ton from my Italian, Catholic neighbor in Illinois, who was married to a butcher and had five children. Thanks to her tolerance of me, I discovered my own intolerance and overcame it. We are friends to this day.
Any person’s story can be fascinating, but every black person’s story is an education for me—not that I want to discuss race all the time. Besides, after working at Trenton High for so many years, I miss black faces. And maybe then I could stop noticing black and white.