Too many people think today’s “de facto” segregation in metro areas is the result of personal preferences expressed by individuals, when the fact is that public policy has created the conditions we live with today. In fact, I see the demise of Jim Crow through the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act corresponding with the immediate rise of an insidious, “non-racist” racism that shapes our metros today. Our metro areas have never dealt with this.
In the aftermath of the Donald Sterling controversy (which, if you aren’t aware of, you truly are under a rock), the Atlantic’s Ta-Nehisi Coates posted an on-spot critique of how racism is viewed and how racism is really working in today’s society. It is a truly beautiful piece on the perception of racism versus its realities — the perception being that racism is the purview of dunces like Sterling (and Cliven Bundy before him) who get caught making inelegant statements that shed light on their true feelings, and a reality that is far more insidious and receives far less attention. Coates describes how “elegant racism”, that insidious force, shapes where we live, what jobs are available to us, how we’re educated, and who is incarcerated and who isn’t:
“Elegant racism is invisible, supple, and enduring. It disguises itself in the national vocabulary, avoids epithets and didacticism. Grace is the singular marker of elegant racism. One should never underestimate the touch needed to, say, injure the voting rights of black people without ever saying their names. Elegant racism lives at the border of white shame. Elegant racism was the poll tax. Elegant racism is voter-ID laws.”
And to better describe how “elegant racism” works, he cites Chicago as its key implementer:
“Throughout the 20th century—and perhaps even in the 21st—there was no more practiced advocate of housing segregation than the city of Chicago. Its mayors and aldermen razed neighborhoods and segregated public housing. Its businessmen lobbied for racial zoning. Its realtors block-busted whole neighborhoods, flipping them from black to white and then pocketing the profit. Its white citizens embraced racial covenants—in the ’50s, no city had more covenants in place than Chicago.
If you sought to advantage one group of Americans and disadvantage another, you could scarcely choose a more graceful method than housing discrimination. Housing determines access to transportation, green spaces, decent schools, decent food, decent jobs, and decent services. Housing affects your chances of being robbed and shot as well as your chances of being stopped and frisked. And housing discrimination is as quiet as it is deadly. It can be pursued through violence and terrorism, but it doesn’t need it. Housing discrimination is hard to detect, hard to prove, and hard to prosecute. Even today most people believe that Chicago is the work of organic sorting, as opposed segregationist social engineering. Housing segregation is the weapon that mortally injures, but does not bruise.”
(Let’s parenthetically stop here for a second; the symbolism in that last sentence is incredible. The implication is that victims of elegant racism “die” from internal injuries, which are often believed to be sustained from a lifetime of poor personal choices. But elegant racism made those choices for them. Absolutely incredible).
I don’t know if Chicago was the innovator of this type of racism, but I do believe it was something created in Northern industrial cities — i.e., the Rust Belt. I suspect it has its seeds in the antebellum North, whose cities had small African-American populations prior to the Civil War and immediately afterwards. I imagine at that time, when blacks comprised maybe less than five percent of, say, Buffalo’s population, it was relatively easy to isolate blacks without necessarily singling them out, as in the Jim Crow South.
But the Great Migration changed everything. The need for industrial labor in the North, and rapidly declining conditions in the Jim Crow South, pushed African-Americans into Northern cities. Once there they encountered competition for jobs and housing from both longtime “nativists” and more recent European immigrants. The ten years from 1910-1920 were fraught with racial conflicts in Northern cities, culminating with the Red Summer of 1919.
But Northern cities did something that Southern ones did not. They sought to limit and stigmatize the places where blacks lived, instead of limiting or stigmatizing the people themselves. Out of this a whole set of policies emerged. Racial covenants. Redlining emerges during the New Deal. Blockbusting came about as a tool to clear room for a growing black population, accelerate suburban expansion, and enrich real estate speculators. Public housing was concentrated where blacks lived, and infrastructure investments ground to a halt. Investments in education fell behind that of suburban schools, or couldn’t keep up with growing social challenges. “Tough-on-crime” measures like mandatory sentencing and the “War on Drugs” were effective in removing potential workers from the workforce, reducing competition. Taken together, these “non-racist” racist policies, often grounded in sound, rational economic thinking, created deeply ingrained patterns within metros that shape them today.
This position is further buffeted by research done by Nancy DiTomaso, a business professor at Rutgers University in New Jersey. In her book, The American Non-Dilemma: Racial Inequality Without Racism, she says this:
“Because whites disproportionately hold jobs with more authority, higher pay, more opportunities for skill development and training, and more links to other jobs, they can benefit from racial inequality without being racists and without discriminating against blacks and other nonwhites. In fact, I argue that the ultimate white privilege is the privilege not to be racist and still benefit from racial inequality.”
There are other strong claims made by DiTomaso in that interview; it (and the book, which I loved) is worth your attention.
In my opinion the practice was perfected in the Rust Belt but has spread everywhere. Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel is doing a series on political segregation in southeastern Wisconsin, and found that its roots are in the state’s residential segregation legacy. Lee Atwater’s famous quote about the abstraction of racial policies, uttered in 1981, possibly signaled to Southern metros that there was a way to accomplish the separation that Jim Crow had earlier provided. I see a correlation between the number of blacks within a metro area, and the impact of insidious policies on residential and job patterns. In some metros, the impact, while there, is not as strong (New York, Boston), because of lower relative numbers of blacks. In some Sun Belt metros, Jim Crow likely enforced similar patterns but subsequent post-War growth and the new policies altered things a little (Atlanta, Charlotte, Nashville). In other Sun Belt metros with more recent growth the numbers of blacks has hardly been enough for full-on “elegant racism” implementation (Phoenix, Las Vegas). But insidious racism is a critical feature of today’s Rust Belt cities.
This is in part why I’m skeptical of new calls from urbanists to increase affordable housing in cities, when I see vast neighborhoods that have suffered from policies that simply removed them from the consciousness of the majority of the housing market. I’d prefer to address yesterday’s mistakes before creating new ones.
Plus, I keep thinking about that saying that the only thing necessary for evil to prosper is for good people to do nothing…
This post originally appeared in Corner Side Yard on May 9, 2014.
Pete Saunders is a Detroit native who has worked as a public and private sector urban planner in the Chicago area for more than twenty years. He is also the author of "The Corner Side Yard," an urban planning blog that focuses on the redevelopment and revitalization of Rust Belt cities.