- Digital Redlining: The Nextdoor App and the Neighborhood of Make-Believe
In the so-called long, hot summer of 1967, more than 150 riots took place throughout America—from Detroit to Tampa, Minneapolis to Newark. President Lyndon B. Johnson established the Kerner Commission to investigate the causes of the widespread unrest. The Commission researched and deliberated for about seven months before releasing the Kerner Report, an instant best seller. Among other things, the report argued that the protests were not a conspiracy planned by black communist agitators, as Johnson and others had suggested, but rather the inevitable outcome of long-standing discrimination and segregation.1 As the report explained, the cities the uprisings had occurred in had largely been abandoned by white Americans who took advantage of postwar housing initiatives and moved to new suburbs, communities and initiatives largely unavailable to Americans of color.
“Our nation is moving toward two societies, one black, one white—separate and unequal,” the report said. “Discrimination and segregation have long permeated much of American life; they now threaten the future of every American” (Kerner Report). The report went on to explain that “White society is deeply implicated in the ghetto. White institutions created it, white institutions maintain it, and white society condones it.” The Commission warned that more riots were imminent unless the nation took action. It recommended changes to welfare policy and increased jobs and housing. For many Americans, the Commission’s message was not a welcome one. Conservatives, the media, and liberals alike responded aggressively and continued to insist on the communist-agitator theory. Over the weeks following the release of the report, it became increasingly clear that Johnson had decided to [End Page 84] ignore its findings. Following the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. in April, another wave of riots occurred.
In February 1968, in the midst of this social unrest and amplified public discourse on discrimination, Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood premiered on public television. It would become the second-longest-running children’s television program in America. Through the use of hand puppets and an idyllic, fictional community housed in an elaborate train garden, the series aimed to introduce children to situations or experiences they might encounter in everyday life: moving to a new place, borrowing toys, feeling afraid. In the fourth episode, viewers are introduced to two concepts: fences and punch clocks. It opens with Mister Rogers and a Saint Bernard puppy, Lydia, which he places in a crib. He thinks Lydia looks worried, and he wonders if it’s because the crib looks like a fence. Lydia, he explains, doesn’t know whether she likes fences. And then our host sings a song:
Fences, fences, the world is full of fences,And some I like and some I don’t like (the kind that keep me out),The kind that keep me out are the kind that make me pout,They’re the kind that have no gate at all, they’re the kind that go up much too tall,Fences, fences, the world is full of fences,And some I like and some I do like (the kind that keep me safe) . . .
This bizarre lullaby puts Lydia to sleep, and then the doorbell rings: it’s the mailman. King Friday, the monarch of the fictional train garden community, has sent Mister Rogers a punch clock, unsolicited. The king has ordered the installation of punch clocks throughout the neighborhood—all residents must now punch in and punch out wherever they go. Curiously, the function of the clocks seems more about tracking location than tracking labor. There’s a punch clock on the tree, the fountain, the bridge, and the museum. “We’ll all get over this somehow,” the handyman says to console Daniel, a tiger hand puppet who is wary of the new punch clock mandate. Then the doorbell rings again: it’s Mrs. Saunders, an African American teacher at the neighborhood nursery school, and a few students from her diverse class. Rogers welcomes them in, they sing a couple of songs together, and then the teacher and children punch the punch clock and leave. The episode—the fence song, the punch clock drama...