My neighborhood is a balm against the brawling meanness President Trump unleashed. It is stably integrated. The white people who live here do not fear my family, and we are not afraid of them.
As African Americans, my husband and I choose to live in Shepherd Park because it is an integrated, predominantly black neighborhood with beautiful older homes that cost much less than similar homes in whiter parts of the city. It is not lost on us that the white people here choose to live in a space where they are outnumbered by African Americans.
Folks in my ’hood possess “cultural dexterity.” It is the opposite of colorblindness, an enhanced capacity for being among people of a different race or ethnicity. A culturally dexterous person sees and accepts difference and typically acquires this tolerance through intimate interracial relationships. Loving, marrying or adopting a person of a different race is a radical act that requires brave optimism. But there are less high-stakes means of achieving dexterity.
Sometimes a neighborhood promotes love. With short setbacks from the street and only a few yards between each house on our block, we are forced to deal with each other daily. While there have been debates about property lines and permission to plant or build something that crosses them, racial tension is not a subtext.
Nonblacks in Shepherd Park experience the risks of higher crime and less public investment that often attach to black neighborhoods. They acquire some of the scar tissue of race, or at least have a realistic, three-dimensional understanding of black people. A Jewish neighbor was robbed at gunpoint and had his car stolen by two young black men. His response and that of our community to a rash of similar crimes was a clear-eyed focus on solving the problem rather than overheated rhetoric that associated black people with criminality.
As parents of black boys, my husband and I feel confident that our neighbors would not feel threatened by brown kids partying or horsing around and would call us rather than the police in any unexplained situation. Like other parents of African American children, we live with the dread that someone who carries the insanity of supremacy in his head — the inability, say, to listen to a black boy’s preferred music or see him as someone’s presumably innocent child — will start shooting.
Yet in our neighborhood we breathe free of such worries. Several neighbors have been guests in our home and vice versa. A single Jewish female neighbor became “auntie” to our sons; she gives them presents and treats on every holiday and birthday and loves them with capacious hugs. The children on our block play together, roaming back and forth between houses, weaving intimate ties of affection among the parents.
This extends beyond our block. One street over, a family hosts an annual ice cream social. Neighbors gather on a front lawn, an array of humanity, black, white, Asian, Latino, talking between spoonfuls of vanilla or salted caramel sweetness. They engage with each other and act collectively.
Shepherd Park parents who wanted a playground as nice as the architectural wonders in wealthier environs organized, demanded and succeeded in creating a beautiful commons for old and young. The Shepherd Park branch of the D.C. Public Library was also borne of organized citizen demands.
The neighborhood is defined by diversity and civic activity, the opposite of what sociologist Robert Putnam suggests happens among non-dexterous people who tend to avoid civic engagement when they enter diverse settings.
Shepherd Park exudes diversity and civic engagement because of its specific history. As happened in Oak Park, Ill., and Shaker Heights, Ohio, in the 1950s and 1960s, citizens of Shepherd Park mobilized to create and sustain integration in the face of blockbusting and other forces that might play on people’s fears.
That activism continues and is sorely needed in a sharply divided country where a fault line between dexterous and non-dexterous people defines American politics. Fear is the impulse of the moment. Gerrymandering, voter suppression, border walls and zones of exclusion, stopping and frisking, and arming to the teeth are consistent with a fearful society. The dexterous aspire to something greater and more humane.
Progressives may long for a grand, national strategy to fix what is broken in this country. There are no shortcuts, however, to unlearning racial dogma. Real pluralism requires practice, and that can happen only in specific places.
While agitating for a more perfect union, it is possible to create small utopias now: a school, a grass-roots organization, a gospel choir, a neighborhood — spaces where diverse people can build trust and something that works for all comers. In small, diverse utopias, citizens can break things and start anew. They can escape echo chambers that cultivate a righteous sense of entitlement and a dangerous lack of empathy for anyone outside one’s tribe.
In Shepherd Park, we make it up as we go along. Yet trying, and sometimes stumbling, to create our diverse Eden is so much better than succumbing to systemic exclusion. Having a shelter from the madness of division, we experience “e pluribus unum” daily, and that helps us to imagine that the same is still possible for the United States and to keep agitating.
Sheryll Cashin is the author of “Loving: Interracial Intimacy in America and the Threat to White Supremacy.”