American Apartheid

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American Apartheid: Segregation and the Making of the Underclass  
Cover
Author(s) Nancy Denton
Publisher Harvard University Press
Publication date 1993
Pages 312
ISBN 0674018214

For many, the word segregation conjures up visions of 1950’s civil rights protesters braving hostile white crowds and authorities as they demanded equality in American society. By the 1970s and 1980s, white politicians rarely used the term while Black Power advocates, elected politicians, and elite business people embraced segregation, arguing integration served little more than to dilute black political and economic power. Conservative critics decried the “culture of poverty” in which poor blacks resided while liberals blamed urban deindustrialization and racism. In American Apartheid: Segregation and the Making of the Underclass, Douglass S. Massey and Nancy A. Denton refocus the debate on the black urban underclass by declaring residential housing segregation as the driving force behind the ills of black America.

American residential segregation developed in the early twentieth century [note- kind of like Alan Spear in the sense that segregation was not inevitable … as Massey and Denton point out, industrialization and the migration of rural blacks to the North resulted in rising white antipathy toward blacks more generally but especially in northern cities] then accelerated in the post war era as the HOLC/FHA and other federal programs simultaneously funded suburbanization while penalizing integrated communities through its now controversial practice of redlining. Financial institutions followed the federal government’s example, rarely extending credit or financing to black homeowners. As Kenneth Jackson noted in Crabgrass Frontier, the ultimate affect was to “bureaucratize” private practice into public policy. For example, the FHA endorsed housing covenants until 1950 despite the 1948 Kraemer v. Shelly ruling that declared such practices illegal.

Unlike other groups blacks have been isolated spatially, economically, politically and socially by federal housing and urban renewal policies. White ethnics never endured segregation at the levels equal to Black America (“For European immigrants enclaves were places of absorption, adaptation, and adjustment to American society. They served as springboards for broader mobility in society whereas blacks were trapped behind an increasingly impenetrable color line.” (33)). The result penalizes African Americans in numerous ways. First, isolating a community removes them from the center of pluralist machine politics. With few shared interests with other groups, alliances become tenuous at best (as they note altruism/moral rectitude rarely serve as a reliable foundation for political unit), at the same time, depriving black communities of urban resources only hurts those neighborhoods thus, blacks suffer twice politically. Even when achieving political representation, their political leaders often served machines as part of a “black submachine” much like the legendary William Dawson did in Chicago. Black political leaders promised reduced agitation in return for public resources, though patronage never matched that of their white counterparts. Moreover, black business owners and politicians developed a dependence on concentrated black communities such that few sought to disperse their constituencies in the name of integration since it meant a loss of political strength and economic clout (example – William Dawson’s opposition to public housing b/c it threatened his political power base).

Conservative critics such as Charles Murray and his Losing Ground proclaimed the problems plaguing urban black communities stemmed from welfare systems robbing blacks of incentive and personal responsibility creating a “culture of poverty” that reinforced negative behaviors and activities, resulting in a stifling downward spiral. However, Massey and Denton argue such views fail to accurately capture the social ills haunting poor black urban communities. Instead, Massey and Denton suggest that the concentration of blacks into public housing high rises and the inability of many to find housing in integrated neighborhoods both in urban and surburban areas [ note –urban renewal here as in other works is seen as simply a way to move tenants and isolate blacks in public housing] led to the construction of an “oppositional culture” that posited blackness as the “opposite” of the ideals/behaviors exuded by middle class white Americans. Furthering this development, blacks isolation into concentrated communities of the poor meant that little interaction between blacks and other groups unfolded. Lack of interaction reduced job opportunities, experiences, and behaviors (“little direct experience with culture, norms and behaviors of the rest of American society and the social contact with other members of other racial groups.” (77)… continuing they go on “a segment of the urban black population has evolved a set of behaviors, attitudes, and values that are increasingly at variance with those held in the wider society.” (166) They suggest this is due to the harsh poverty/conditions of “black ghettos”) Individuals and families hoping to escape such situations found options limited or as American Apartheid summarizes a lack of spatial mobility prevents social mobility. (in poor black urban communities the social disorders that arise encourage community and withdrawal between members of the same neighborhood which in turn leads to greater crime and social disorganization).

Race though residential segregation serves as the driving force preventing the social mobility of blacks. Individual racism and discrimination play roles, but systematic institutional racism by far outweighs the former two examples. Class though relevant, remains secondary to the issue of race. Even enlightened whites fear dropping property values, whites’ dedication to integration often fades when their idea of preferential neighborhood balances no longer meet reality leading to “racial succession” which feeds disinvestment (esp. during the transition whereas once an area becomes predominantly black investment returns though not at levels equal to comparable white communities. As well, the isolation previously mentioned “The spatial and political isolation of blacks in tracts with declining public resources to create a powerful dynamic for disinvestment in the black community.” (152)) Using Afro-Latinos, most notably darker Puerto Ricans as a sort of test case, Massey and Denton illustrate that fair skinned Puerto Ricans and other Latinos benefited in housing and other areas, whereas Afro Puerto Ricans endured nearly identical economic, political, and social problems afflicting urban black communities. For Massey and Denton, the tendency of critics to separate class from race is a false choice. The two are not mutually exclusive, however, with that said, race remains the catalyst especially through residential segregation. Financial institutions, credit agencies, and real estate companies continue to practice subtle ways to avoid integrating blacks into white neighborhoods, while many whites simply flee such communities once they perceive their “ideal” racial balance has been permanently altered (note – blacks illustrate a much greater willingness to live in predominantly white neighborhoods than the reverse just as historically blacks have always been willing to vote for white candidates whereas whites repeatedly illustrate an opposite trend.)

Linguistically American Apartheid argues that “Black English” increasingly deviated from standard English (interestingly, they suggest that as standard English has diversified according to region and other factors, “Black English” has become increasingly uniform…), thus further isolating blacks from other groups. Written in 1993 this point might need revisiting. The book missed the internet/tweeting/blogging phenomena along with the rise of a popular culture that celebrated (some might say some aspects were negative for blacks and whites alike such as misogyny in videos etc.) aspects of perceived “Black” culture. This includes the appropriation of various terms that originated in “Black English” . For example, when Tim Russert asks any white senator, did he or she feel “dissed” by a counterpart, one could argue that the gap linguistically may no longer exist.

Ultimately, they advocate not new laws but new commitments by governments to enforce established housing policies. HUD must 1) take a lead role making financial aid to local Fair Housing organizations more available (one of the problems with the Fair Housing Act of 1968 and its revised version in 1989, is that it depends on private individuals to file complaints despite battling and entire system set up to discourage integration … HUD had few if any real way to enforce the provisions of housing acts) 2) establish a permanent testing program that can identify realtors that discriminate 3) create a staff to “scrutinize lending data” for discrimination 4) must promote desegregation under the Fair Housing Act and 5) Prompt judicial action since filings often take years and sometimes decades to complete (note Gautreaux case in which the complaintant died by the time the decision came down over a decade later). Still, not to be overly negative but one wonder if integration will even solve the problem since a recent study by Duke showed that Latino-Black relations have not improved in Southern towns where interaction increased and in fact worsened as Latinos drew increasingly negative opinions of their black neighbors.