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Memo to My Fellow Americans

Better police, protest marches and T-shirts with militant slogans on them is not going to cure racism. Nor will passionate condemnations of White Supremacy, the Legacy of Slavery and Jim Crow. Ditto for the defacing and pulling down statues of Confederate generals and American presidents who owned slaves and genocided Indians. Instant history and quick fixes won’t result in meaningful change. As long as we Americans remain pig-ignorant of the more recent and more important causes for how we ended up in this situation, the future will look pretty much like the present. And those causes occurred not in the nineteenth or even early twentieth centuries but during the lifetimes of our parents and grandparents.

America is more segregated today than it was fifty years ago. We live in separate neighborhoods and attend separate and unequal schools despite the civil-rights legislation of the 1960s. Our prisons are disproportionately filled with young black men. The rest mostly live in urban and suburban ghettos. Black net worth per capita is less than 10% of white wealth, its income about half of White. This is not because of slavery and Jim Crow and color prejudice. Those were necessary but insufficient reasons. African American poverty and segregation are the consequence of mandated federal policy from the 1930s on by successive Democratic and Republican administrations, not by racist banks and individual prejudice. That government policy deliberately excluded “Negroes” from American society as surely as the Dalit, India’s so-called Untouchables, were deliberately relegated to lives as collectors of human waste whose shadow must not fall upon that of any of the higher castes. What we call Race is not a biological or even matter of personal prejudice or even of “systemic” discrimination in this country. It is a social caste, and only one group of people belong to it: Blacks. It existed before the administration of FDR, but it was only then that the death blow to African American inclusion occurred, the wilful and public exclusion by law that condemned Americans of African descent to an economic and social status beyond the pale.

Home Owners’ Loan Corporation Redlining Map, 1936

The decision not to afford home ownership to people of African descent under FDR’s Federal Housing Act of 1935 and its broad implementation for tens of millions of new, White home owners after the second world war, divided the nation into two groups: White and Black. And so it remains. The euphemism “people of color” is not just inaccurate, it’s misleading and dangerous. No other group, not Mexicans, not Japanese, not East Indians, were denied the right to home ownership under the auspices of the FHA and VA without whose underwriting virtually no mortgages for new or refinanced housing were granted. Only Negroes were denied. It was a requirement laid down not by men in white hoods but by acts of Congress signed into law by presidents whose political base lay in the segregated South and the segregated North. It remained the law of the land for several decades. The stipulation not to sell or rent to Negroes was written into the deeds of those homes, built by the millions for working- and middle-class people, especially after the second world war for those who had themselves been considered less than White until then, though their status had little or nothing to do with skin color. By making Negroes foreigners in their own country, our parents and grandparents were transformed overnight into honorary Whites. What made them so was just one thing they all shared in common: they were not Black.

Had there never been slavery or Jim Crow, if African Americans had been allowed to buy into residential neighborhoods like other Americans, that period of history would be just that: history, not a living reality. But if we keep focusing on Black slavery and Jim Crow, we will never overcome their true legacies: the economic and social exclusion that occurred by laws enacted in the 1930s and beyond, laws that established today’s segregated nation more effectively than slavery or Jim Crow were able to do.

It’s a lot easier to see today’s dysfunctional Black communities, whether we call it the result of “racism” or “black-on-black” crime, as the legacy of horrors perpetrated by people who lived in the 18th, 19th or early 20th centuries rather than the responsibility of our parents and grandparents. After all, how many of us are direct descendants of slave owners? But 1935 and 1947 are too recent to be called “history.” If centuries of African American oppression could have been overcome so recently by including Blacks in the so-called American Dream instead of legally excluding them from it, that’s hitting a bit close to home when it comes to this generation’s responsibility for the present situation.

A house bought for $8,000 in 1947 ($100,000 in 2020 dollars) is now worth $400,000-$500,000. That’s hundreds of thousands of dollars to borrow against for a child’s education or invest in a new or existing business or to will to that child to secure and improve their own life. But, even more importantly, the value of that house is dependent on its location in a desirable neighborhood, meaning one with good schools, home-owner-friendly zoning laws, good libraries, supermarkets and medical care, all of which are necessary to a middle-class life. Force African Americans into ghettos, at first urban but now more and more suburban zoned for manufacturing, with third-rate schools and other essential amenities, and you have a country of South Sides and Fergusons on your hands, if not on your consciences.

So-called Whites and Blacks, at least working-class ones lived together in cities all across America (even in the South until after the Civil War). They attended the same schools, made friends, fell in love. They had to be forceably separated by federal, state and municipal law. Those old “mixed” neighborhoods were demolished (think “urban renewal”), with Whites moved into Whites-only public housing and then into Whites-only suburbs, and Blacks left in what rapidly deteriorated into Blacks-only public housing and neighborhoods that deteriorated into urban slums after the industry and jobs that city-dwelling folk of all backgrounds used to rely on departed, creating Black slums in their place. The idea that racism is about color prejudice is just not true. It wasn’t even true in the Old South, except as a marker, after the fact, of social status.

Let people of African and non-African descent live together with no financial disability for either and within a generation or two we wouldn’t even be using the absurd phrase “mixed race.” What grandparent thinks of their grandchild as anything other than their beloved grandchild? What parent strives less to give their child less than the best possible advantages no matter what their ancestry?

What’s to be done? Street protests brought on by the flagrant murder of yet another Black man by a policeman is only a beginning and will be all there is unless a new Civil Rights movement at the grassroots level follows. America must be integrated residentially. There is no other effective way to level the playing field.

To do that ways must be found to make homes affordable to Blacks who otherwise would not have the cash to purchase them at today’s prices. A government subsidy could be one way to do this. Also and essentially if we are to break undo the lies we have been brought up on, textbooks in our primary and secondary schools must be revised to tell the real history of African Americans, the history that explains and takes responsibility for what our parents and grandparents benefited from to the detriment of their African American fellow citizens. Today’s texts pretend that present-day segregation is the result of private prejudice. That’s a lie. American apartheid in 2020 is the consequence of law, acts of Democratic and Republican administrations through the Federal Housing and the Veterans administrations. It was our moms and dads and grandmothers and grandfathers that allowed it to happen, and now we ourselves for perpetuating it and adding to it during our own lifetimes with “prison reform” and the criminalization of Black poverty.

To remedy these evils will take more than one generation, just as the Civil Rights Movement took many generations to achieve its modest goals of ending the legal segregation of schools and public accommodations. Will we accept that responsibility or settle for the feel-good but by themselves ineffectual street protests and destruction of the images of long-dead slave-holders?

A Tale of Two Houses

My latest in Eclectica:

“We have to stop pretending we live in a post-racial society. We have to start talking about race again—not class—as the determining factor in the lives of both white and non-white Americans. Otherwise, we’re just kidding ourselves.”

I got to know Roberta Harris (not her real name) through the man who occupied the house next door to hers, two of a row of half-dozen narrow half-lot fake-clapboard two-storey homes across the street from the apartment building where I and my wife live. Half a lot in this case amounts to no more than 15 or 20 feet, barely enough for a small living room and entrance hallway in the front half of the first floor, with a long dining room and kitchen behind. Upstairs, which I never visited, were two long narrow bedrooms and bath. In this limited space Roberta lived with her second husband and at least two, perhaps three, grown children. She had previously owned a substantial brick building on the same block consisting of two full-size apartments in which she had raised a total of six offspring, two of whom had died before I met her. That was when she was still employed as an administrator at a local high-rise residence for senior citizens. At the point we became friends, she was retired and confined to a wheelchair after losing a leg to diabetes, but she still enjoyed a good deal of respect from her days as the “mayor of 17th Street.”

Her next-door neighbor, Don Shoon, (not his real name) was a bachelor who had bought his own house back in the early 1970s for $8,000 when a brownstone in nearby Park Slope could still be had for under $50,000 (they sell for as much as $3 million today). He lived in it with his widowed mother until her death in the 1980s. When I met him in the early 1990s, Don was in his mid-50s, a few years younger than Roberta, a short, round, bald, toothless man with a physical appearance totally at odds with his courtly Brooklyn manners (Brooklyn’s the only place I’ve lived where men formally address women as “my dear,” though it sometimes takes “foreigners” a while to realize they are not being familiar) and a supreme confidence in his ability to charm the socks off any female he chose. His formal education had ended 40 years earlier when he was expelled from Brooklyn Automotive for gang activities. He then went to work as a stock boy for a Manhattan publishing house and had recently retired on the promise of a lump-sum pension check. He was “white,” vehemently so, an open admirer of the Ku Klux Klan. Roberta was decidedly not white, an émigrée from the Deep South where she had lived through the last decades of segregation, a woman for whom racism of the kind Don flirted with (partly for dramatic effect, I came to suspect) was more than something to experience via Hollywood or TV.

Two more unlikely friends would be hard to imagine. Yet, there they were, just he and his dog in his little doll house of a home and Roberta, her house literally attached to his, still responsible for two grown sons, one an unemployed man in his mid-20s who had spent time unsuccessfully in the Marines and his younger half-brother, one of two children by her second husband, who was attending a local two-year college…. Read the rest of the article.

The Making of Ferguson

When I was eleven or twelve years old my parents took a ride out to Levittown on Long Island to visit my mother’s oldest brother Martin, a retired New York City police officer. Though I didn’t realize it at the time, Levittown was then a brand-new community of 17,500 units of lower middle income, no-frills housing, one of several such projects constructed by the Levitt family during the housing boom following the end of the second world war. What I also didn’t realize was that Levittown was for whites only, not segregated by secret covenants but openly so in the public record and in the deeds themselves.

Now, thanks to a study recently published by Richard Rothstein at the Economic Policy Institute, I also know that what happened in Levittown was for many decades common practice throughout the United States, sanctioned, indeed encouraged by the Federal Housing Administration inaugurated under the administration of Franklin Delano Roosevelt. The FHA mandated that housing developments it stood behind — and for decades most new developments required FHA backing — had to be racially segregated in order to receive federal assistance.

Shocking as this sounds simply as historical fact and moral shame, the consequences of this federal policy, along with similar state and municipal restrictions, are directly related to the present conditions of African Americans, including the recent killings of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri and Eric Garner in Staten Island, New York.

Home ownership is the single greatest source of wealth for most Americans. Appreciation in the value of the family residence is the financial springboard from which all the other economic and thence social achievements are made. It provides equity with which to send children to college and also makes available to them a nest egg with which they can Fergusonpurchase homes of their own and continue the cycle of wealth. Homeownership also comes with a tax write-off for interest paid on the mortgage, and interest can ultimately add up to more than the original principal. Renters receive no such tax write-off.

African American income is 60% of white income. African-American wealth is 5% of white wealth. Both those percentages reflect deliberate public federal, state and municipal legislation and policies that were in effect from the early 1930s until very recent times. They also explain, along with other policies and regulations put into effect by cities and states throughout the United States, both North and South, why some neighborhoods are all-white and others all-black. Indeed, Prof. Rothstein maintains that any “mixed-race” neighborhood” is actually a neighborhood in transition, going either from black to white or white to black. New York City, where I live, is reputed to be the most diverse metropolitan area in the United States if not in the world. It is also said to be the most segregated of American cities.

Initially, at the beginning of the 20th century, blacks and whites both lived in the so-called inner cities. Whites were lured out of those inner cities by the promise of affordable, racially homogeneous private housing developments in the suburbs with all the benefits, such as superior educational institutions, that come with that environment. African Americans were left behind, indeed restricted to neighborhoods that quickly deteriorated into ghettos and slums, with all the social disadvantages that come with that environment. Later, when whites rediscovered the positive aspects of city living, African Americans were forced out of their slums to make way for the gentrification process. Today, old suburbs like Ferguson, Missouri – originally white until it became convenient to rehouse urban African-Americans there — have become the new slums, sandwiched in between a white exurb and a white-gentrifying inner city.

In order to preserve the racial and economic superiority first of the suburbs, now of the exurbs, zoning regulations were rewritten to prohibit the alteration of homes in white neighborhoods that would allow less affluent buyers and renters to move into those neighborhoods. Meanwhile, older suburbs into which African-Americans were crowded were rezoned as industrial areas, meaning houses could be subdivided and industry could locate there, insuring that public services like schools would be underfunded and that the same environment that had bred crime in the inner-city slums, whether inhabited by African-Americans, Irish, Jews, Italians or any other group, would provide the same social instability that gave rise to antisocial or even criminal behavior by some in those communities.

Three of my mother’s brothers became New York City police officers. I don’t believe any of them finished high school. They got their jobs because they were white and Irish-American. After twenty years service they could retire with generous pensions. In the meantime their income allowed them to buy modest homes in white suburban communities. Their children enjoyed all the economic and social advantages of growing up in those communities and had career options available to them that their fathers never had, never mind what was available to African American children of that generation.

The airwaves and other media in New York these days are full of self-congratulatory tales of public protests and the usual hand-wringing self-righteousness about “racism.” But racism, at least as we generally understand it, is not at the heart of what happened in Ferguson or Staten Island or Cleveland and before that to Trayvon Martin in Florida. “Racism,” like “anti-Semitism,” is a word we use all too frequently to avoid more serious thinking. We accept them as givens, we compare them to viruses that inhabit the body politic and its members, like herpes, becoming indolent but then breaking out again with frightening virulence. Rothstein makes reference to the use of the term “de facto segregation,” which is also a misrepresentation of the facts on the ground. Segregation, past and present, is not de facto, it’s de jure. It isn’t the result of a natural antipathy between people of African and non-African descent. Its roots are economic and social and anything but accidental.

For the most part, so-called white people do not react to African-Americans out of racist attitudes, though those attitudes may be very negative and prejudiced as a result of the image portrayed of African Americans in our culture as well as because of valid personal experience. Someone who fears an African American in a situation in which they would not fear someone with a complexion similar to their own is not a racist on that account. Confusing racism with the consequences of deliberate public policy only exacerbates the problem and alienates the very people who most need and are usually willing to entertain a reasonable explanation for how we ended up in this mess.

I don’t see any way out of it short of a massive initiative comparable to the denazification and economic resuscitation of Germany following the second world war. We undertook that project not for altruistic reasons but because we wanted Western Germany as an ally in our confrontation with the Soviet Union. We have no such motivation to make whole our African-American population. We no longer feel the immediacy of the holocaust of slavery. In fact, many among us are tired of what they perceive as an extended effort taken in the best of faith to afford African Americans full civic and social rights. When they see young people rioting on the streets of Ferguson, Missouri even some of the most liberal among us begin to wonder if their efforts were worth it.

This is a reasonable reaction, not racism, to the lies we have been fed by our government, our educational institutions and our media. Because African Americans have not done what the Irish, Germans, Italians, Jewish Eastern Europeans and, more recently, Asians have done — i.e. enter into the mainstream after a period of social marginalization and even demonization — we have come to believe, if only subconsciously, that African Americans are a case apart. Without being racists we have come to accept the same kind of thinking that informs real racism. What we do not take into account, largely because there is a society-wide blackout on the kind of information Mr. Rothstein provides in his study, is that African-American experience in America is indeed a case apart, not because they have failed to respond to the opportunities other groups took advantage of when they became available but because those opportunities never did become available to them thanks to a century of deliberate public policy throughout United States.

(For a concise and striking summary of the Rothstein report, I suggest you listen to this interview conducted with him by Mitch Jeserich at KPFA. It runs about 25 minutes.)

The Making of Ferguson

Instead of calling for more “conversations about race” and more marches against police brutality, it’s time we learned why the killing in Ferguson was inevitable and will continue to be so until we make up for deliberate, explicit federal policy (most of it inaugurated under FDR).

For a tight, appalling summary, listen to this interview with the author (Richard Rothstein) of the study linked to below. It only runs about half an hour, but I bet for most of us it is the most eye-opening information on the subject we will ever experience: http://www.kpfa.org/archive/id/109042

The conditions that created Ferguson cannot be addressed without remedying a century of public policies that segregated our metropolitan landscape.
epi.org

Dirty Linen

“Dirty Linen” (click on “Essays and Reviews” on the panel at the top of this page) is something I wrote several years back and then updated for publication in Ecelectica (where all the essays on this blog, so far, were originally published). It’s the longest and most ambitious essay I’ve written. Sadly, it still seems relevant, and that’s why I’m including it here halfway through Black History month.

 
The idea for the piece was originally generated out of the O.J. Simpson trial, but that was just the launching point for my thoughts and feelings on the subject. I think it’s difficult to gain a perspective, any real objectivity, on a phenomenon as deeply embedded in our social fabric as is “race” (you’ll understand why I insist on the quotation marks if you read the essay). It’s like trying to examine the back of your own head.  I made an attempt to do so in this piece not because I am any more free of this social pathogen than anyone else but because the subject has preoccupied me for as long as I can remember. Writing is largely a matter of exorcising old demons and realizing what frequently lies below the level of consciousness. If you’re lucky, you find readers who share your possessions and enjoy or at least are willing to suffer through the birthing of those realizations. Hopefully, that will be you.