Yale Sociologist: Stamford Graffiti Shows Racism Can Lurk Beneath Cosmopolitan Gloss

Mar 7, 2017

An interracial couple in Stamford, Connecticut, woke up one morning earlier this year to find racist graffiti painted on their garage. Incidents like this have become more common in recent months, but this couple's response was unique.

They decided to leave it up and not paint over it. They wanted their neighbors to see it. After six weeks, the City of Stamford fined them for not painting over it. The couple said they would leave it up in order to put pressure on local police to find whoever did it.

Dr. Elijah Anderson, professor of sociology at Yale and author of The Cosmopolitan Canopy, a book about disruptions into everyday race relations, sat down with All Things Considered Host Bill Buchner to give an academic’s perspective on the story.

Below is a transcript of their conversation.

So there’s actually a new development in the story, an anonymous person went over to the house and painted over the graffiti in the past week. Have you heard of anything like this?

Well, I mean, in some ways, this is an old story. What’s different, I guess, is the present day context. Today, we have the prevalence of these so-called cosmopolitan canopies. The idea here is that the canopy, the cosmopolitan canopy, is an island, a diverse island of civility, located in a sea of segregation.

Black people, for many others, have gotten out of their historic place, and they’ve moved about, or I should say, move about, increasingly in spaces that used to be completely white, and while many white people are receptive to this, given our interest in civil society, there are many others who are not so receptive to these black people.

The truth is, anybody under the canopy so to speak, can have this kind of a moment. You can be Jewish, you can be Muslim, you can be gay, you can be a woman, you can be Asian, Latino, and you can have this moment of acute disrespect based on your particularity. When you have it, it’s very disturbing. It causes one to question one’s belongingness to the so-called canopy.

The targets of this acute moment, they chose to fight back, I guess, by leaving the statement on the garage and leaving it up for the community. What do you think they have to gain from leaving the racist graffiti up?

I think that people, when they resist this, they have their own self-respect at issue. They’re saying they have the right to be in a place. They’re saying ‘I do belong.’ They’re combating this kind of effort to remind them that they don’t belong, so there’s tension here, you see.

Now, of course, the city responded by fining this couple. Do you think they acted properly?

Well, I think it’s really in my mind outrageous for the city to fine people who are victimized in this moment when acute disrespect occurs.

Your Cosmopolitan Canopy book was about the City of Philadelphia. Now Stamford is certainly much smaller than Philadelphia, but it’s certainly a diverse place. What do you make of Stamford being the backdrop of this incident?

I don’t know Stamford. I pass through by train, you know, to New Haven to New York or something. So I don’t really know Stamford. My image of Stamford is that it’s a small town, but like so many cities outside of New York, they’re sort of suburbs of New York in a sense, where you’d think that there would be a cosmopolitan mix of people, maybe a diverse group of people, that kind of thing, living there. And so this kind of an incident is rather provocative when it occurs in a city like this, being so close to a city like New York which is extremely cosmopolitan.

As ugly as this incident is, is this a chance, incidents like this, is it a chance for communities to move forward and confront that, yes, there is racism in this city, this town, and work on people sitting down, talking and coming up with a response?

Historically, this has been the case, that when you have this kind of an incident, and that’ll be people that dig in and think this is the right thing to do, you know, but there are many others who are shocked and ashamed and oftentimes are moved to work for positive race relations.

So there could be, you know, a silver lining to this kind of a dark cloud that more and more people know that this is what their community is dealing with and that it’s not always easy to see because the canopy itself is a place of gloss, being polite, being politically correct, showing good manners, that kind of thing.

But these good manners oftentimes belie, or cover up, what’s underneath.

Dr. Anderson, thank you for being with us.

Thank you.