The Problem with Delegate Lisanti’s “Nigger District”

Delegate Mary Ann Lisanti (Courtesy MaryAnnLisanti.com) / Hillary Clinton (Screencap via YouTube)

Prince George’s County, Maryland has regularly been described as the richest Black area in the country or the heart of Black affluence.  But this made little difference to Maryland Delegate Mary Ann Lisanti recently, as she merrily proffered her assessment that parts of Prince George’s County were better described as a “nigger district” at a bar in Annapolis.  This revelation comes on the heels of both Virginia Governor Ralph Northam and Attorney General Mark Herring both admitting to wearing blackface.  

While many are “appalled” and “outraged,” the deeper problem with such racist rhetoric and actions is that it can be translated into government policies and practices. Language such as Hillary Clinton’s invocation of “superpredators” becomes the basis of policy such as the 1994 Violent Crime Control & Law Enforcement Act which her husband Bill Clinton signed into law.  Hillary Clinton’s framing Black youth as “superpredators” with “no conscience, no empathy…we have to bring to heel,” helped justify the expansion of both the War on Drugs (i.e. war on Black communities) and mass incarceration.  In the case of Hillary Clinton, the racist language was coded enough to avoid larger outrage, but its effects were devastating.”

The Clinton 1-2 punch shows how racist language can and does influence government policies, practices, systems, and budgets.  The question that must be raised with the more recent revelations is: how does the expressed racism of governing officials impact Black Lives?  With the cognitive label “nigger district,” Delegate Lisanti and other lawmakers are in a powerful position to perpetuate government-enforced redlining, enact forced displacement, or allocate lower levels of resources and dollars to Prince George’s County residents.  All of which imperils Black Lives.

But it is not only Prince George’s County that is at risk.  If Prince George’s County—the richest Black area in the country—can be described as a “nigger district,” then all Black communities would fall under such a vile description as well.  If it goes for Prince George’s County, then it goes for Baltimore’s Sandtown-Winchester community, it goes for Black communities in the Eastern shore, and it goes for Maryland’s HBCUs.  

This highlights the fact that research shows that even when White people do not hold stereotypes about Black people, they often do hold stereotypes about Black neighborhoods.  Many White people cannot even envision the existence of thriving Black spaces or affluent Black communities. If White politicians like Delegate Lisanti cannot even IMAGINE a thriving Black area, then how could she pass the necessary policies required to heal and restore the Black neighborhoods that are redlined and subprimed?  

The white supremacist spatial imaginary has been used to pass the first residential racial zoning law in 1910 and enforce redlining in the 1937 Residential Security Map in Baltimore City.  In the white supremacist spatial imaginary, a “nigger district” would not be deserving of equitable access, resources, or opportunity. A “nigger district” would be unworthy of development without displacement.  A “nigger district” does not need better schools or quality transit. In other words, the white supremacist spatial imaginary has direct policy and budgetary consequences on the lives of Black Marylanders.

Without respecting the beauty and potential of Black neighborhoods, Maryland can never make Black Lives truly matter.  Ultimately, the white supremacist spatial imaginary phrase “nigger district” is a form of discursive redlining and racial zoning that should not now or ever be tolerated.  

Lawrence Brown is the grandson of sharecroppers who lived in the Mississippi Delta and an assistant professor at Morgan State University in the School of Community Health and Policy. He tweets as @bmoredoc.

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