Neighborhood Coma — The State of the Black Community

According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, the two definitions of a medical coma are a state of profound unconsciousness caused by disease, injury, or poison and a state of mental or physical sluggishness. During a state of coma, a person is still alive, but the brain is functioning at its lowest stage of alertness. The body’s systems are operating at minimum capacity. The person does not respond to light or touch but in a sleepy zombie like state. The Black community is in a neighborhood coma. Let’s examine what that means.

Neighborhood coma is a community existing with systems including housing stock, streets, city services, schools, and businesses but those systems operate at minimum capacity. These same systems are the backbone to any community and necessary for it to function and thrive. Similar to a medical coma, neighborhood coma occurs from an injury. In the case of Black communities, it is systemic racism and oppression that has plagued Black communities for centuries. Black people are functioning with systems that metaphorically just keep them breathing.

In a neighborhood coma, residents go to work and school, shop on their commercial corridors and even sing happy birthday at the neighbor’s backyard birthday party. Residents are functioning within their community. But, what are the conditions of the systems by which residents operate on a daily basis? Black communities function with substandard housing, broken school systems, food insecurities, divested commercial corridors and alternative banking. These same systems look dramatically different in white communities.

In Black communities, residents shop for groceries in some cases from what we call in Chicago a corner store. The store usually has an owner not from the community who operates it from behind bulletproof glass. The store is fully stocked with junk food and sugary drinks. There are very limited options for healthy food like fruits and vegetables. So instead of Black children grabbing an apple on their way to school from the corner store, they grab Cheetos and honey buns. It is truly the norm for any type of shopping in the Black community to occur in building with bulletproof glass, security cameras, and windows with security bars should windows even exists. This is not the norm for white communities which one could argue metaphorically are alive and well with fully functioning systems.

In Black communities, banking occurs at payday loans, currency exchanges and pawn shops because residents cannot get bank accounts or lines of credits. Multi-family housing is either developed with some form of government assistance (e.g., low-income housing tax credits) and operated by a nonprofit or through slumlords that do the bare minimum to avoid city fines. Far and few black people actually own any property. And if they do, the properties are significantly undervalued compared to their counterparts in white communities.

One could ask how do you fix this problem? Well, it definitely won’t happen overnight. Similar to a medical coma, it takes time for recovery. The first step is to acknowledge the state of being. There are a few dedicated individuals within Black communities that recognize the conditions. They show up at all the community meetings and advocate for change. There are others that might have grew up in these communities but are now educated adults with jobs that provide the opportunity to move out. The remaining residents have accepted the conditions by which they live in part because of either a sense of hopelessness and defeat or that simply they know no different. They are numb to the state of their systems.

The second step is to start the recovery. After a medical coma, one would goes through physical therapy and other treatments to get the body fully functional. While potentially painful, the goal is to help the individual to function at their best. Recovering from neighborhood coma is the same. The systems that support those neighborhoods need to be reworked to support a thriving community. It requires no longer shopping behind bulletproof glass to encourage shop owners to understand that not all Black people are criminals. It requires holding slumlords accountable for heat and building repairs. It requires holding school systems accountable for providing enough books and computers in classrooms. And most importantly, it requires a collective and collaborative effort by the Black community to push for change. Black communities deserve better!

Ja’Net has more than 20 years of management consulting, urban planning and real estate development experience with a passion for revitalizing communities.

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Ja’Net Defell

Ja’Net Defell

Ja’Net has more than 20 years of management consulting, urban planning and real estate development experience with a passion for revitalizing communities.

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