Growing up in rural and small-town white communities, I had not one single encounter with a person of color until well into my teens. I heard about black ghettos only when they started burning. During my college years I tried to make-up for my sheltered – segregated – upbringing, attending Jesse Jackson’s Operation Breadbasket rallies in the South Side of Chicago, interning as a school social worker in Gary, Indiana and scheduling classes with every liberal arts black professor on campus.
But, the limits of my experience, one man, one life, a few cities, kept me from grasping the sheer magnitude of the century-long nationwide conspiracy that was the reality of Black segregation in America . . . until now.
From the beginning American Apartheid challenged my preconceptions about segregation in America. The title of this 1993 book from Harvard Press, authored by Douglas S. Massey & Nancy A Denton, starts by confronting us with a word most Americans associate only with South Africa’s history – apartheid.
Even Merriam-Webster defines apartheid in geo-specific terms — “a former policy of segregation and political and economic discrimination against non-European groups in the Republic of South Africa.”
Reading American Apartheid – and I recommend that you do – prepare yourself to be thwacked upside the head by vast quantities of unassailable numbers. After poring through Massey & Denton’s statistics – indices of black isolation, percentages of black-white segregation in Federally funded housing, charts documenting levels of black poverty neighborhood-by-neighborhood, block-by-block in thirty U.S. cities – and working through their exhaustive analysis, you will know that Black apartheid has always been a reality in the U.S. and still is.
Racism, as you might surmise, is the key ingredient, but staggeringly so. “The universal emergence of the black ghetto in American cities after 1940 rests on a foundation of long-standing white racial prejudice.”
In 1942, 84% of white Americans polled answered ‘yes’ to the question: ‘Do you think there should be separate sections in towns and cities for Negroes to live in?’
Not until 1970 did a white majority (53%) disagree with segregation. By then, black isolation had become deeply entrenched in all major American cities.
American Apartheid lays out the systematic process by which a society builds an underclass:
- Choose a minority group that is identifiably different from the majority.
- Isolate them by confining its members to a small number of contiguous communities.
- If this isolated minority attempts to move out of their designated neighborhoods, provide ‘legal’ means by which racist realtors can deny them access, confuse them and misinform them.
- If minority families succeed in moving into a majority neighborhood subject them to harassment – rock through their windows, racist graffiti, threaten phone calls. If too many rise above these challenges, abandon the neighborhood (‘white flight’).
- Develop home loan guidelines – used by private lenders as well as federally funded programs like the FHA – that ‘redline’ black communities thereby denying them loans for labeling them as ‘unsound investments.’
- The next step – once the group’s segregation is ensured – is to drive up its rate of poverty. City services are limited, government jobs are kept out of reach, political alliances are stymied.
In 1988 the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), after an exhaustive study, admitted that in 1977 they had vastly underestimated the prejudicial housing practices that blacks faced at all levels of home buying. HUD was admitting that since 1977 they had done little to mitigate the problem. And, still in the mid-1990s 21% of all blacks said they’d experienced prejudice in trying to rent, buy or obtain home loans in New York City.
As late as 1993, one third of all U.S. African Americans lived under conditions of “intense racial segregation” — hypersegregation. Through the Reagan years (early/mid 1980s) attacks on ‘the welfare state’ were popular among conservatives. Their proffered image of ‘welfare queens’ cheating the American taxpayer helped stall whatever progress had been made.
‘Spatial isolation’ combined with poverty, substandard education, lack of jobs and opportunities in mainstream society, created cultural isolation made it even harder for people raised in black ghettos to succeed. Blacks often experienced ‘integration shock’ going out into the white world – different language, different attitudes, different expectations.
So, what happened to the ‘60s Civil Rights Movement and, in particular, the 1968 Fair Housing Bill signed into law by President Johnson? The legislation lacked teeth, lacked enforcement and was purposely under-funded. Each new executive branch created their own policies of enforcement. The Reagan administration, for example, did little or nothing to enforce anti-discrimination policies.
Realtors caught violated fair practice laws faced minimal fines. And politicians like Orrin Hatch had their backs.
Supporting the National Association of Realtors he introduced legislation to limit the number of fair housing suits that could be brought to the courts in any one year. Then he suggested that all such cases needed to be heard in Federal courts, further limiting reprisal against racist discriminatory housing practices.
In the quarter century since American Apartheid was published, we have made some progress. On the 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s assassination an article in The Economist (April 4th, 2018) claimed, “Overt housing discrimination, which kept black communities tightly packed into confined, cordoned-off neighbourhoods, has been all but eliminated, though subtler forms still exist. Today, those who can afford to move to better neighbourhoods are able to.”
But . . . and this is a very big but . . . we are still a long, long way from desegregating America.
The The Economist article added, “despite the halting steps forward America has taken with regard to racial segregation, the country is indeed coming apart in another way: along the lines of wealth.” Meaning, poor black families are still unable to move out of depressed neighborhoods.
An even harder reality: racism still thrives in America. After forty years, Orrin Hatch is still a U.S. Senator and still a racist. And he actively supports the racist currently operating out of the White House.
Twenty-five years later American Apartheid’s closing lines are, sadly, still relevant: “Until we face up to the difficult task of dismantling the ghetto, the disastrous consequences of residential segregation will radiate outward to poison American society.”
White children in America still grow up, like I did sixty-some years ago, unaware of a vast segment of their fellow-citizens, the young Americans isolated by poverty, and, yes, by the color of their skin.
I pray that the next generation of Americans gets it right.