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Black in White Space

The Enduring Impact of Color in Everyday Life

From the vital voice of Elijah Anderson, Black in White Space sheds fresh light on the dire persistence of racial discrimination in our country.

A birder strolling in Central Park. A college student lounging on a university quad. Two men sitting in a coffee shop. Perfectly ordinary actions in ordinary settings—and yet, they sparked jarring and inflammatory responses that involved the police and attracted national media coverage. Why? In essence, Elijah Anderson would argue, because these were Black people existing in white spaces.
In Black in White Space, Anderson brings his immense knowledge and ethnography to bear in this timely study of the racial barriers that are still firmly entrenched in our society at every class level. He focuses in on symbolic racism, a new form of racism in America caused by the stubbornly powerful stereotype of the ghetto embedded in the white imagination, which subconsciously connects all Black people with crime and poverty regardless of their social or economic position. White people typically avoid Black space, but Black people are required to navigate the “white space” as a condition of their existence. From Philadelphia street-corner conversations to Anderson’s own morning jogs through a Cape Cod vacation town, he probes a wealth of experiences to shed new light on how symbolic racism makes all Black people uniquely vulnerable to implicit bias in police stops and racial discrimination in our country.
An unwavering truthteller in our national conversation on race, Anderson has shared intimate and sharp insights into Black life for decades. Vital and eye-opening, Black in White Space will be a must-read for anyone hoping to understand the lived realities of Black people and the structural underpinnings of racism in America. 


"Penetrating ethnographic study. . . . [A] fine-grained portrait of how systemic racism operates."

Publishers Weekly

“Anderson is a legendary sociologist whose high ascent into the Academy has always yielded profound insights into the precious Black people living and loving on the night side of the American Empire. This text is another masterpiece from his flaming pen!’”

Cornel West

“With creative concepts and phrases, Anderson builds on his previous ethnographic research to illuminate racial reactions in settings of recurrent intergroup contact. Black in White Space is a captivating book that is a must-read for anyone seeking a lucid discussion of American race relations.”

William Julius Wilson, Harvard University

Black in White Space is an elegantly composed, brilliant, and intimate look at how Black people are seen in and navigate through predominantly white spaces. This will be an extremely useful text—particularly as we grapple with what diversity means in its substance as an aspiration.”

Imani Perry, Princeton University

“Explains how not just urban ghetto Blacks, but successful Blacks living elsewhere, share the need to manage the enduring stigma of being treated as inferiors. This is not Ralph Ellison’s ‘Invisible Man’ but the hypervisible Black person.”

Mary Frances Berry, University of Pennsylvania

“Rich in ethnographic detail and anchored in historical and sociological perspective, Black in White Space brilliantly informs us about the personal and social consequences of living in a society still stratified by racial inequality.”

Margaret L. Andersen, author of Getting Smart about Race: An American Conversation

“Anderson’s crowning masterpiece, Black in White Space is an incisive analysis of the iconic ghetto that illuminates the reality of white racism from police murders to everyday acts of disrespect.”

Fred Block, University of California, Davis

“With elegant prose, deep ethnography, and incisive theorizing, these essays demonstrate why Anderson is one of America’s ‘wise men.’ Black in White Space piercingly illuminates not only the chasm but also the crevasses that divide racial understandings in the United States.”

Jeffrey C. Alexander, Yale University

“Once again, Anderson demonstrates his clear mastery of the issue of race in America. This book is his gift to all of us who yearn for a nation of equality.”

The Honorable Rev. Dr. W. Wilson Goode, Sr., Former Mayor, City of Philadelphia

“Anderson is the Erving Goffman of race relations. He reveals the human realities behind the statistics and the everyday life behind the headlines.”

Randall Collins, author of Charisma: Micro-sociology of Power and Influence

Black inWhite Space is a searing ethnographic depiction of everyday life in America. Anderson’s work has redefined sociology, especially our understanding of race and the history of anti-Blackness. Anderson explains what it means to be Black in America at this moment in history, offering powerful insights into the ways economic deprivation, anti-Black racism, and social marginalization shape the Black American experience. In short, Black in White Space is nothing less than an ethnographic portrait of America.”

Waverly Duck, author of 'Tacit Racism'

"Anderson grounds readers in what is essentially a theoretical and empirical study that explores why racism in America does not have an income cap. What follows is a compelling theoretical argument and Anderson’s quintessential style of ethnography, capturing the microinteractions that create the ongoing marginalization of the Black middle-class."

Symbolic Interaction

"[Black in White Space] adds a significant and important contribution to our understanding of how race, space and place intersect in a world where the colour line is always present but at times shifts, blurs or appears to be momentarily erased. Anderson’s [book] is momentous, trenchant and insightful contribution into race relations, specifically how white racism is forever recalibrating and morphing into something that ostensibly seems more benign and palatable to White folks’ sometimes naïve, oblivious or jaded racial sensibilities."

Ethnic and Race Studies

"Black in White Space provides an inside look at the everyday injustices that Black people face in white spaces in the US. During a time when mainstream white communities are intent on registering and responding to overt manifestations of racism and extreme white supremacists, this book helps create a more comprehensive picture of the workings of anti-Black racism by highlighting the small but pervasive ways in which white supremacy impacts the lives of Black people."


"In his latest opus, Black in White Space: The Enduring Impact of Color in Everyday Life, Elijah Anderson, Sterling Professor of Sociology and African American Studies at Yale, explores the contours of daily life for urban black folk as they navigate predominantly white spaces. A keen observer of human interaction and the human condition, Anderson combines his observational skills, penetrating storytelling, and sociological insights to probe and decode the social organization of city life."

Sociological Forum

Table of Contents

Introduction: A Brief History of Anti-Black Racism in America
Chapter 1: The White Space
Chapter 2: The Iconic Ghetto
Chapter 3: Living While Black: The Deficit of Credibility
Chapter 4: A History of the Ghetto
Chapter 5: A Portrait of the Ghetto
Chapter 6: The Car Wash: A Racial Advertisement
Chapter 7: The Ghetto Economy
Chapter 8: Policing the Iconic Ghetto
Chapter 9: The Black Class Structure
Chapter 10: The Workplace: Of “Tokens,” “Toms,” and “the HNIC”
Chapter 11: Social Mobility: A Foot in Two Worlds
Chapter 12: Gentrification: Whites in Black Space
Chapter 13: The Gym as a Staging Area
Postscript: What Black Folk Know


I was born in the South on what used to be a plantation. My grandmother, a sort of village doctor who never accepted payment for her services, was the midwife at my birth. She was a religious woman who lived by the Bible, so she named me Elijah. My mother, who had an eleventh-grade education, was twenty years old when I was born and already had three children.

Her family members were sharecroppers, so she went to the field each day to pick cotton, as did my grandmother and my father. In those days, when crops needed to be planted or harvested, school would let out because that work took priority. My father attended school only to the fourth grade, but in World War II he drove a supply truck in the US Army in England and then in France. After returning from the war, he felt he could no longer live as a second-class citizen in the South. He believed he would encounter trouble there, and a better life in the North beckoned.

The factory jobs of the North were a magnet for rural southerners, both Black and White. My uncles had already migrated to South Bend, Indiana, and my family followed them there. Once in South Bend, my mother worked as a domestic, working “days” in the homes of well-to-do Whites, and my father, like my uncles, found a job at the (now-defunct) Studebaker automobile factory. For many years he worked in the foundry there. And at age seventy-one, after breathing soot and metallic dust over decades, my father died of lung cancer, though he’d never smoked...

Eventually my family moved into an apartment in a segregated part of the city. When I started public school at age five, I was one of only a handful of Black students at the excellent Oliver School, the result of a racially gerrymandered school district. By contrast, later, when we moved into our own home in an “integrated” neighborhood that was in effect transitioning from White to Black, I entered a segregated Black school. By the time I graduated from high school, the neighborhood was totally Black...

On Monday evenings in South Bend, the downtown businesses remained open until 8:30 rather than closing at 5:30. As I canvassed the downtown, I spotted Mr. Forbes, a heavyset middle-aged White man, alone inside his typewriter store. I went in and asked him for a job. “You need some help?” I asked. “What can you do?” “I can do whatever these other boys do,” I said.

I’d passed the store many times and noticed a few older boys, both White and Black, working around the shop. After seeing them, I thought I might have a chance...

After a few minutes of this back-and-forth, Mr. Forbes agreed to hire me. “Well, I can start you off at fifty cents an hour.” “Can you make that seventy-five?”
“Naw, you’ll need to work your way up.” “Okay,” I said, “when can I start?” “You can start tomorrow,” he said. I shook his hand...

Over the next weeks, Mr. and Mrs. Forbes would come to know and trust me, and I would come to know them. I would run errands for them like shopping for Mrs. Forbes’s groceries, picking up chop suey from the local Chinese restaurant or fetching sandwiches at lunchtime, and on occasion depositing checks and cash in the local bank. Much later, after I’d gotten my driver’s license, I even delivered typewriters in Mr. Forbes’s new Ford...

A sensitive man from a small town in Illinois, Mr. Forbes treated me well; he genuinely liked me and became almost like a father to me. He and his wife even included me on family trips to their cottage by a beautiful Michigan lake. I’d do chores around the cottage, swim in the lake, and eat dinner at their picnic table like a member of their family. As the only Black person at that lake community, I was fascinated by this White world, and I noticed what Mrs. Forbes cooked and how their family ate.

Since I worked in Mr. Forbes’s shop from age twelve until I graduated from high school, I had several years to observe that privileged world. Of course the customers who visited the store were usually White, as were Mr. Forbes’s friends, who would sometimes stop by to talk and socialize. I’d watch the constant traffic in and out of the store and eavesdrop on the conversations. Mrs. Forbes would sit at her desk and do the bookkeeping while the other boys and I would take typewriters apart, soak them in a cleaning solution, wash them down, and reassemble or repair them.

This was in the late 1950s and 1960s; the civil rights movement was going on, and by the time I was fifteen or sixteen, it was in full swing...

This was how I became aware of what race meant to him. This is the context in which I began to learn how he felt about Black people and their struggles for racial equality: that they were a funny, lowly, and distant people who had strange diseases and were different from Whites. Yet at the same time he was friendly to me...

On occasion Mr. Forbes sent me to other office buildings around the downtown to change typewriter ribbons, giving me an entrée to a host of entirely White establishments. But my real initiation into this White world began in Mr. Forbes’s store and through the experiences that job afforded me.

Then one day my coworker Jim said to me, “Eli, guess what Forbes told me.” I was curious.

“He told me I shouldn’t hang out with the colored boy so much.”

“No, he didn’t say that.”

“Yes, I swear he did!”

I was incredulous and continued to argue with Jim about whether Mr. Forbes actually told him, a White boy, not to hang out with me so much.
Mr. Forbes had been my mentor since he hired me at age twelve. Not only had he taught me how to take apart any typewriter, fix it, and put it back together, he also had absorbed me into the life of the store and his downtown office building where he worked and lived. I ran errands for him and Mrs. Forbes, and I knew not only Richard but his wife, Irene, and their young daughter, Beth...

After my conversation with Jim, however, I started to watch Mr. Forbes more closely and noticed racial issues I’d previously ignored. I began to see that while Mr. Forbes trusted me, even loved me, and would do almost anything for me, he placed limits on our relationship. In the caste-like system of South Bend, in which Black people were considered the lowliest, he wanted to protect Jim from my status. In effect, he taught me what it means to be Black in the White world.

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