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“Don’t make this about race.”
I’ve heard this sentence a lot recently, read it a lot online. Saw its use launch a Facebook flame war while I waited for my plane to board at the end of spring break. It’s the easiest way for white people to invalidate experiences of oppression and avoid fraught debates about justice in America.
But of course it’s about race—everything is. Our country was built on oppression, and race is everywhere, at every moment on my standard trip back to Harvard.
The view from my airplane window is about race. Colonizers killed Indigenous people for those tidy plots of farmland. We profited from those fields by exploiting and terrorizing slaves. We rejected demands for land return and reparations, compounding racist domination based on the pretext of “free market” capitalism, and we devised new ways to produce and preserve systemic injustice. It is impossible to separate the wealth that paid for my plane ticket from structural oppression. When I land at Logan, it’s about race.
Sometimes, my uncle picks me up at the airport, and we drive into Cambridge on the Central Artery. The Central Artery is also about race. Its construction tore Chinatown apart in the 1950s and ‘60s. Land that was home to generations of low-income Chinese immigrants—who lived there because they were unwelcome in more desirable parts of Boston—was seized through eminent domain. Blocks of affordable homes were demolished, and more than a thousand residents were forced from the neighborhood. The Central Artery also severed present-day Chinatown from those who lived east of Interstate 93, dividing a whole community. Then, when the Massachusetts Turnpike followed in the 1960s and ‘70s, it further isolated the neighborhood from immigrants living to the south.
In combination with luxury high-rise developments, these infrastructure projects slashed away at affordable housing. This is not race-neutral. City officials knew these incursions would do irreparable damage, but the marginalized people of Chinatown had little political power. Today, low-income Chinese immigrants can no longer afford to pay rent in Chinatown. They represent less than half of present-day residents. A neighborhood that was built many years ago by people like them, for people like them, isn’t theirs anymore. That’s about race.
If my uncle can’t get off work, I take the Silver Line to South Station, then the Red Line to Harvard Square. The Silver Line’s about race, too. In the 1960’s, protests broke out in Jamaica Plain, Roxbury, and the South End when Boston started razing homes for another highway project. The people of color who inhabited these neighborhoods, primarily Black and Latino, knew their livelihoods and communities would never have come under such existential threat if they were rich and white. They forced the city to halt construction, but the deal stripped majority-Black Roxbury of its Orange Line access to the MBTA. The city promised to replace it, but residents are still relegated to the inefficient and unreliable buses of the Silver Line. Whether it’s retribution or negligence, that’s about race.
Right off the T station in Harvard Square, the benches on Mass. Ave are partitioned. Handrails also divide the benches at Trinity Church and Jamaica Pond, and solar panels segment flashy new seats in Central Square. This is hostile architecture. These narrowly spaced partitions—like concrete spikes on highway medians and iron studs on sidewalks—exist to keep people from lying down when they have no place else to sleep. Hostile architecture is designed to repel the homeless and others who “loiter” in public spaces. The majority of America’s homeless are people of color, the denial of economic opportunity is a function of structural oppression, and the fear that justifies hostile architecture is predicated on highly racialized stereotypes. These benches are also about race.
America’s wealth and power is derived from the violence of genocide and human bondage. We reify white supremacy through exclusion, eviction, and eminent domain, and we reinforce white supremacy by denying it. We say, “Not everything is a race issue. Don’t make this about race.” But Harvard exists on this land because of race, I pay for plane tickets because of race, and I get here on the Silver Line or by the Central Artery because of race.
Because in a country built on oppression, everything is about race. Including the benches.
Ted G. Waechter '18, a Crimson editorial writer, lives in Quincy House.
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