Friday, February 1, 2013

Housing Segregation Is A Good Window Into Unearned Privilege

Ta-Nehisi Coates had some good thoughts today on Thomas Sugrue's book Sweet Land of Liberty. For some reason I never got past the introduction of that book; I hope to read it later this semester. Anyway, here's TNC commenting on housing segregation:
The policy was to keep black people from moving out of ghettos, and to keep them from marketing their labor in competition with whites, unless absolutely necessary. It is not enough to merely understand segregation as a means to keep the "races" separate. Segregation is about rendering black people a permanent underclass. This is not about an amorphous diversity. This is about power.

Part of keeping power out of black hands is turning the community's aspirational class into a bevy of easy marks. You can only imagine what kind of money was made exploiting the dreams of middle class black people trapped in the ghettos of America. That money represents a transfer of wealth from black hands to white hands. It continued unabated from the early 20th century, through the New Deal (which actually aided this process), well into the 1960s.

We spend a great deal of time talking about the black poor, but less talked about is how America for most of its history has actively punished black ambition. The black middle class has been the field for demonstrations upon the subject of what happens to "niggers with ideas." Any history of race riots in America will note that the targets are invariably institutions of black improvement -- churches, "black wall streets," schools, homes, etc. It's worth considering what message a country sends to a people when it persecutes ambition.
This is as important as it is widely misunderstood. People are very confused about the dynamics of segregation, and its purpose.

First, the dynamics. Why didn't black people just, you know, move? The first answer to that is that they did, in the greatest mass movement of people in our history as African Americans ventured north during the World Wars. But that still leaves the question of why, in a given metropolitan area, blacks remained in segregated ghettos. There's actually nothing mysterious about it. For much of the period in question it was perfectly legal to carve out huge swaths of cities and have the homeowners agree that blacks were not allowed.

But even after the Supreme Court struck down restrictive housing covenants, blacks were still faced with the collective power of city governments, the police force, the realty industry, and the intransigence of the local white population. Until 1968, it actually wasn't illegal for realtors and homeowners to discriminate based on race. After 1968, the burden of proof still rested on the party claiming discrimination, enforcement was toothless, and even winning a case could leave you in debt.

As white Americans fought to keep black Americans down, there were other measures to turn to once the legal maneuvers failed. That's why bombings of black-owned houses was a regular feature of life on the west side of Chicago in the mid-1950s. This rigidly enforced segregation produced two housing markets: one for whites and one for blacks. Whites had the whole city to choose from and consequently paid less for housing. Blacks were forced to pay more for less in crowded and dilapidated buildings in cordoned off sections of cities.

The reason we ask why segregation persists is that we don't know, or have difficulty imagining, how hard white Americans have fought to maintain it. But now you know! So remember that African Americans seeking to move out of the ghetto have faced the following hurdles, some of which have faded, though others persist:

1) It might have been illegal.
2) The new house might have been bombed.
3) It was a life-threatening decision.
4) Somehow a realtor or homeowner had to be found who was willing to sell, and you had to come up with the money for the extra premium they would charge a black family.
5) Social isolation could be expected, and parents could not feel safe walking down their own street, or letting their kids go to the local park.
6) You and some other black families finally make it into a neighborhood, and before you know it all the whites have left and suddenly the city isn't providing the services it once was.

Seen in the clear light of day, our questions look a bit silly. "You can pay more for the house than it's worth and, oh yeah, you might die in the process, but it's a great neighborhood! Why not move?" Thankfully things are not nearly that bad now, but the 20-1 wealth gap and the ongoing discrimination of banks and realtors (look it up if you doubt it) goes a long way toward explaining things up to the present day.

Please don't ever lapse into thinking that residential segregation is some sort of benign dynamic in which people just congregate among those who are like themselves. No, our segregated neighborhoods were built just as surely and purposefully as our highways and skyscrapers were built (actually, they were often built together, as highways make great borders in cities).

I guess I didn't get to the second part yet: the purpose of segregation. As TNC noted, it had little to do with a silly desire to keep people separate from one another. If you think that's what segregation was you're missing the point. It was power. It was money and life and death and social status. It was about regular white people having more money and power and status than they would have possessed in a free country. It was about taking some of what is owed to others and keeping it for yourself. It was about keeping others down so that you could be a little higher.

This relates to some of the themes I've been addressing lately such as colorblindness and white privilege. How quick we are to deny any responsibility for what happened in the past, even as we enjoy the benefits of it. Both my grandparents were homeowners. They got those homes in the white housing market. They paid less for them. They built up some wealth. And now my parents own a home and a business. They paid most of my way through college. They'd be happy to help me get my first house.

How can I say I owe nothing for our past? I'm living in it right now! I'm enjoying its fruits. How desperately we avoid being honest with ourselves. We tell ourselves we built our success with our own hands, that we started out at first base like everyone else, that we only had opportunity, never privilege. That's certainly not how Christianity encourages us to think. The Bible says everything we possess is a gift. You say, wait a minute, I worked hard for that! Sure, but the Bible says that, for the Christian, boasting is "excluded." It is completely illegitimate. We take satisfaction in a day's hard work and a job well done, but we don't think it makes us better than anybody else. Anybody.

When Paul said God forbid that I boast in anything but Jesus Christ, he wasn't just making a pious statement of his devotion. He was implicitly acknowledging that he was no better than any other human being -- that, somehow, his arrival at such an exalted place was a gift. One suspects he recognized his own privilege: his early life in the Jewish elite, his education, his Roman citizenship. Most of all, he experienced the Gospel as a sudden invasion of unearned privilege as he was doing everything in his power to fight it. He spent the rest of his life trying to turn that privilege into an opportunity for the people of the Roman world.

Here's a helpful experiment: if the thought of being privileged feels threatening to me, it is a sure sign I'm indulging in an enormous amount of pride.

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