Black poverty in Omaha, Nebraska.
November 6, 2007 8:41 AM   Subscribe

The Omaha World Herald is currently doing a special report on the plight of blacks in Omaha, Nebraska.---Omaha in Black and White: Poverty amid prosperity ---Omaha in Black and White: Losses shrink black middle class---Omaha in Black and White: Self-sufficiency still eludes the state's poor---Omaha in Black and White: Barriers to jobs are many--- Omaha in Black and White: Decline in industrial jobs hurts blacks---Omaha in Black and White: Few well-paid black workers

"Omaha is known far and wide as the home of Warren Buffett, one of the wealthiest men on the planet. It boasts the headquarters of five Fortune 500 companies, the most for any U.S. city its size. But the Omaha metropolitan area also has another economic distinction: home to one of the poorest black communities you'll find anywhere in America. Among America's 100 largest metro areas, Omaha has the third-highest black poverty rate. Worse yet, its percentage of black children in poverty ranks No. 1 in the nation, with nearly six of 10 black kids living below the poverty line. And this is in a metro area that is otherwise prospering, with a gleaming new convention center and arena, new high-rises filling out the skyline and national retail and restaurant chains by the dozens coming in to set up shop."
posted by j-urb (31 comments total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
I've done several plays in Omaha that specifically address issues of race. In researching one of them, we set up a series of town hall-style meetings with African Americans in North Omaha and with whites elsewhere. What consistently came across is that a lot of whites think we live in a post-racism America, and that blacks are just paranoid, seeing racism everywhere (and "using the race card," a disquietingly popular phrase used primarily to dismiss any charge of racism as being somehow disingenuous). As far as a lot of whites were concerned, if blacks weren't do as well as whites, at this point it was the blacks' fault.

Many African-Aemricans in Omaha, however, saw racism everywhere, in every daily interaction, sometimes subtle, sometimes grotesque. Random stops by cops. Being followed by security guards. Entire neighborhoods where people behaved frightened if they saw black people. Opportunities denied. Subtle cost of living expenses that affected only the largely African-American neighborhoods in north Omaha Etc. etc. etc.

I suspect this experience is not unique to Omaha. But it was pretty starkly expressed there.
posted by Astro Zombie at 9:06 AM on November 6, 2007 [1 favorite]

As far as a lot of whites were concerned, if blacks weren't do as well as whites, at this point it was the blacks' fault.

I'm fairly sure this attitude isn't limited to Omaha. Nor are the other perceived racist aspects of everyday life you recount in your next paragraph, nor those in the subheads of the "Omaha in Black and White" series in the FPP.

I guess I'll need to don my flame-retardant jammies after saying this, but to the extent that black kids I went to school with were hassled by other black kids for "acting white" in class when they'd raise their hands and answer a question correctly, I can sort of understand why some white folks think blacks are holding themselves back.
posted by pax digita at 9:30 AM on November 6, 2007

I'd like to give a shout out to all the brothers and sisters out there that accused me of " acting white". I'm doing quite well,
thank you. I'd like to axe dem a question doh? What's it like,
"acting black?!"
posted by doctorschlock at 9:46 AM on November 6, 2007

What's it like, "acting black?!"

Is that what's meant by the phrase "Keepin' it real"?
posted by pax digita at 9:56 AM on November 6, 2007

As far as a lot of whites were concerned, if blacks weren't do as well as whites, at this point it was the blacks' fault.

I dunno, I lived in Lincoln for a while and visited Omaha frequently enough to get a feel for the place, and while Nebraska in general is a pretty white place, I don't remember ever seeing or reading about any direct racial hostility targeting black people. If anything, there's more of a history of antagonism with the Native American population (Winabego in the Omaha region) than the black population. That's not to say it doesn't exist, just that I didn't get the feeling it was any worse than, say, New Jersey.

What I do remember pretty starkly is the incredible poverty of some of the inland and northern regions. Nebraska has something like 3 of the 10 poorest counties in the United States, and 99.44% of them are comprised of Ivory Whities.
posted by Civil_Disobedient at 10:04 AM on November 6, 2007

I'd like to give a shout out to all the brothers and sisters out there that accused me of " acting white".

I got accused of acting white as well. It hurt. Know what hurt more? White people telling me I didn't act like other black people.

I don't have black people telling me I act white nowadays. In fact, when I go to what I like to call "the old neighborhood" back in South Florida, some of the same people who used to say such things back in the day express their admiration for me and the success I've achieved.

However, here in Texas, I still occasionally interact with white people who feel compelled to comment that I don't act like other black people. Sometimes this is meant as a compliment. Sometimes it's expressed in puzzlement. It still hurts.

Yet, I don't get as angry at them as I do at the blacks who do keep insisting that homophobia, the celebration of violence and death, and the sexual abuse of black women is "real." I often think this is what sucks most about being black in America -- there's no safe haven, and vast numbers of people on all sides would rather you didn't succeed and enjoy the nicer things in life.
posted by lord_wolf at 10:09 AM on November 6, 2007 [2 favorites]

C_D, what I've seen outside of, say, certain barbershop conversations in Edgefield, SC, was not so much antagonism and hostility by whites towards blacks as shrugging indifference -- "You got the vote, you can put your kids in whatever schools you want; what's your problem? Can't handle a little honest opportunity?" When I tutored ESL, I worked mostly with "boat people" -- Viet refugees who seemed obsessed with learning English, getting jobs, and getting their kids into college. Some whites I knew saw that and mused, "Why can't black people act like that?" Over the last 25 years or so, I've noticed this attitude in Dallas, Austin, Columbia (SC), and Columbus (OH), and Astro Zombie suggests it's to be found in Omaha as well.

Nebraska has something like 3 of the 10 poorest counties in the United States, and 99.44% of them are comprised of Ivory Whities.

Huh. I've seen some mighty poor folks in, say, Williamsburg County, SC, but I never realized Nebraska had that problem. Are these largely depopulated counties to start with, whose remaining residents have no jobs, are on public assistance, etc.? I can't speak about entire counties, but I've seen some folks having a really hard time eking out a living as farmhands in rural areas North and South.

posted by pax digita at 10:24 AM on November 6, 2007

When I was younger, I didn't know what "acting white" meant until I was older. "Acting black" I assumed was blaming the white man, not getting an education, and living a stereotype.
Living well has been the best solution.
posted by doctorschlock at 10:59 AM on November 6, 2007

We would do well to always remember the past as we think of the present. "Acting Black" goes back some time and the word used in the novel Cane was "dicty" for a black person emulating white middle class. Clearly a put-down. Today, Blacks who do well in mixed schools "act white" and are sometimes not admired; blacks who do well in all black schools are considered outstanding. One of the sad things is that some immigrant groups that seem fairly often to do well are then used to sneer at blacks who do not do well, thus blaming "blackness" for poor performance rather than examining so many other factors. An d there are other factors that are seldom if ever considered. Even Bill Cosby thinks all that needs to be done is to make a quick change in language and habits and voila, all will be much better. Not so.
posted by Postroad at 11:25 AM on November 6, 2007

Civil_Disobedient, I've got to call you out for those rather fantastical statements. Nebraska has precisely zero of the nation's ten poorest counties - though several are in neighboring South Dakota. But those South Dakota counties - Buffalo, Shannon (where I've spent some time), Ziebach, Todd, and Sioux - contain reservations and have primarily Native Ameican populations. They're not "99.44%" white, or as you put it, "Ivory Whities."

I'm not aware of antagonism between white Nebraskans and the Omaha Reservation or Winnebago Reservation, but those reservations are two hours from the City of Omaha. Much too far for casual interaction.
posted by Sfving at 11:34 AM on November 6, 2007

Sfving is right about South Dakota. I've spent some time on those reservations as well, and it's about as depressing as it gets.

Native Americans truly are the ignored minority. Pine Ridge is poorer than some third world countries, and bizarrely enough, the Washington Redskins still exist.
posted by roll truck roll at 12:01 PM on November 6, 2007

Oh my, this brings to mind a story...once I rode a Greyhound bus from the US east coast to the west coast. Omaha is one of the stops. We pulled in to the big O late on a Sunday afternoon for a "meal stop", meaning we got something like an hour before we had to get back on the bus. I ate in the station and then headed out for a few block walk to stretch my legs before getting back on the bus. As I headed out the front door, I heard someone call out "yoo hoo!".

Omaha is a dead looking place. Really, you have never seen a more dead, silent, empty city as downtown Omaha, Nebraska on a late Sunday afternoon.

"Yoo, hoo!" again. The voice is coming from the bus shelter across the street. In the center of this quiet, midwestern tomb there is an impeccably, flamboyantly dressed black, gay man waving to me. He's wearing metallic red pants and a blue satin jacket. They contrast nicely with his yellow platform shoes. He has a huge grin on his face as he waves. I just have to go over. In the few minutes before my bus leaves we have a short conversation, which escapes my memory. (Yes, I know he was looking for pickups.) Later, as the bus drove away I marveled on how much like an orchid in the desert he looked. He's become kind of an archetype in my memory of an expression of the kind of mental independence and defiance of drab surroundings that I have on occasion, probably badly, imitated.
posted by telstar at 12:35 PM on November 6, 2007

The oldest gay bar in Omaha used to be just a few blocks from the Greyhound station. The Black Diamond.
posted by Astro Zombie at 12:44 PM on November 6, 2007

There's still a gay bar three blocks away - Omaha Mining Company or "The Run." The Greyhound station is definitely a quiet, dusty, mechanical part of town. Next door to the county jail, too.
posted by Sfving at 1:11 PM on November 6, 2007

Actually now that I think about it, there's at least five gay bars within five blocks of the Greyhound. What a welcome!
posted by Sfving at 1:20 PM on November 6, 2007

There's quite a crowd on Leavenworth, two blocks from the Greyhound Station, at closing time for the gay bars that line that street. They used to call the crowd "The Fire Sale," or something like that.
posted by Astro Zombie at 1:33 PM on November 6, 2007

Wait, what was the topic?
posted by Astro Zombie at 1:34 PM on November 6, 2007

Civil_Disobedient, I've got to call you out for those rather fantastical statements. Nebraska has precisely zero of the nation's ten poorest counties...

Not according to the U.S. Department of Commerce's Bureau of Economic Analysis. <cough>

I'm not surprised you have this (incorrect) notion, it struck me as somewhat surprising that, given all the poor counties in the U.S., Nebraska would be home to so many of them, but it's true. I think because Nebraskans traditionally have such strong community ties that they're just better able to hide it.

They're not "99.44%" white, or as you put it, "Ivory Whities."

The reservations obviously aren't. But the three counties in Nebraska I make mention of? Loop: 98.88%, Blaine: 98.97%, and Arthur: 96.4%. So yeah, not exactly 99.44%, but close enough that my cultural allusion stands.

those reservations are two hours from the City of Omaha. Much too far for casual interaction

It takes two hours to drive up someone's driveway in Nebraska. Two hours ain't shit. :)
posted by Civil_Disobedient at 2:42 PM on November 6, 2007

There's a great documentary about race relations in Omaha in the early 60s called A Time for Burning (imdb) which gives some pretty good insight into the two Omahas.

I grew up out there and, for whatever reason, have found myself fascinated with the local history since Ive moved.

There's one story in particular that sticks out to me in what Ive read about the history of Omaha's city planning:

See, North Omaha has traditionally been (and still is) where the vast majority of blacks in Omaha live. 16th street used to be the main business drag through downtown Omaha, running all the way up to and through North Omaha. It was also the site of downtowns main post office. In the late 60s/early 70s, a decision was made by whomever to move the post office and put in its place a high rise hotel. But instead of replicating the ffootprint of the post office, the hotel would cut right across 16th street, dissecting it basically in two. This worked as a subtle way of discouraging cross-traffic between North and Central Omaha.

You can see a pic of this hotel here: here

Now mind you, I found this out from one source, so I cant necessarily vouch for its truthiness, but if it is true then it expresses Omaha's specific brand of racism perfectly: subtle, sinister, effective, and below the surface.

I also dont know how things are going to play out now that so much posh development is aiming to transform Omaha's near north.
posted by Senor Cardgage at 3:54 PM on November 6, 2007

Thanks for aggregating these into a single post. I've missed a few of them because most days I tend not to get around to reading the fish wrap. The series hits pretty close to home given the SO spent large swaths of her childhood growing up in North Omaha. Her mother and stepfather live just off 24th and Wirt and you can see how thriving the community was not too long ago if you look past the plywood, posturing, and tagging.

Another interesting indicator is to compare damage repair between her parent's neighborhood and those in West O who were hit the by the same storm this summer. Other than a few empty spots in the treeline, West O is fully recovered while you can still see homes with tarp cover holes in the roof and collapsed buildings around Wirt street. This mirrors the reporting on the storm damage in the press. All the stations were doing live remotes out in West O while damage to North O was generally tacked on to the end of these reports if space/time permitted even though the damage was far greater there. You don't really notice these things unless you live there or know people who live there.

And that, IMO, is the core of the problem. Nothing will ever be done to alleviate the problems in North Omaha because the problems are so well confined to North Omaha in the eyes of those who have the social and economic capital. Senor Cardgage pretty much nails it.
posted by Fezboy! at 8:53 PM on November 6, 2007

OK<>Wiki page:

"In 1966 the City of Omaha approved a plan for First National Bank to build an office tower and adjoining high-rise Hilton Hotel complex on the site of the Old Post Office. The City allowed the new buildings to be built on 16th Street which effectively blocked the main north-south street connecting the downtown commercial district with the adjacent North Omaha area. Critics charged that the closure of 16th Street was a heavy-handed attempt to inhibit the flow of blacks from the predominantly African-American North Omaha at time of a fear of rising social unrest and riots nationwide."
posted by Senor Cardgage at 9:04 PM on November 6, 2007

Wiki page

My bad.
posted by Senor Cardgage at 9:04 PM on November 6, 2007

Senor Cardgage, I heard a lecture once about a situation very similar to what you describe, where a Main Street was obstructed to turn its back on a Black part of town. I think it was in the southeast though. But there's no reason to suspect your source at all: racist urban planning of the kind you describe is not rare in the US. That seems like a great example of it though! The landscape architect Ian Grandison has written a lot about this sort of thing, focusing on the landscape of HBCUs and how those landscapes evolved in contest with the hostile towns they were in.
posted by BinGregory at 9:29 PM on November 6, 2007

Oh, you've sourced it. Well that settles that.
posted by BinGregory at 9:30 PM on November 6, 2007

If anyone has any further reading they know of RE: racist city planning of the kind in my above post Id sure appreciate you tossing some titles my way.

posted by Senor Cardgage at 10:02 PM on November 6, 2007

No, just post them right in this thread! Share and share alike....
posted by BinGregory at 3:00 AM on November 7, 2007

I don't know of any other racist city planning, but I am aware of an annual festival in Plattsmouth, NE (just 20 miles south of Omaha) that is abbreviated the KKKKK (short for Kass Kounty King Korn Karnival).

It's often abbreviated further as "KKK."

I don't care whether you are black or white--I think the name of the thing is grossly inappropriate at best, or a blatant attempt to keep blacks out of the town at worst.

The first "King Korn Karnival" was held in 1932, so I can hardly believe the choice of spelling was coincidental.
posted by ralleia at 11:54 AM on November 26, 2007

I grew up just outside of Omaha and spent a lot of time there; the main thing I observed about race was that people from rural nebraska often considered the black parts of Omaha to be a terrifying foreign country where you went at peril of your life; when I got my driver's license, I remember being told repeatedly that I'd be killed or at least beaten and robbed if I broke down or ran out of gas on 30th st.

Weirdly, having lived in Minneapolis for 10 years, I have the feeling that Omaha's actually a more integrated city than this is. But that's more of a gut feeling, not something I can really articulate.
posted by COBRA! at 1:35 PM on November 26, 2007

Oh, and just to be clear: it didn't take me very long at all to realize that I was being fed a line of racist, xenophobic horseshit about "the wrong parts" of Omaha.
posted by COBRA! at 1:36 PM on November 26, 2007

That's a bit surprising to me that Omaha could be more integrated than Minneapolis. I've only been up there for a one weekend, but would have expected that it would be more progressive. At least the dancing was more progressive than it was here!

Omaha was just a shock to my system after growing up on military bases in Europe and Japan. I took for granted seeing black Americans, Hispanics, Asian ethnicities, Canadians, and all the different flavors of Europeans on a daily basis. I've never lived in anywhere more homogeneous than here.
posted by ralleia at 10:14 PM on November 27, 2007

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