Langston Hughes' poem, "Harlem
" has been floating around in my head, as I watch footage from Baltimore.
What happens to a dream deferred?
Does it dry up
like a raisin in the sun?
Or fester like a sore--
And then run?
Does it stink like rotten meat?
Or crust and sugar over--
like a syrupy sweet?
Maybe it just sags
like a heavy load.
Or does it explode?
We are watching one of those periodic explosions, which will continue until America gives itself a root canal, lances the boil or abscess, and addresses the cause of our national dis-ease of racism and xenophobia, while trying to put a compress on the symptoms.
Let us not forget that segregated housing was one of the main issues addressed in Lorraine Hansberry's "A Raisin in the Sun," title taken from the Hughes poem, which I discussed in "The Hansberrys, and Housing Dreams Deferred."
For almost every "riot" sparked by either white vigilante destruction of stable black and brown towns and communities, or by police murder of civilians or leaders, there is the story of economic frustration, racism, and planned racial segregation.
Follow me below the fold into "The Ghetto."
Though the term "ghetto" was originally used to describe areas in Europe Jews were restricted to, in the United States the term took on new meaning and became places where black Americans were residentially segregated
Urban areas in the U.S. can often be classified as "black" or "white", with the inhabitants primarily belonging to a homogenous racial grouping. Forty years after the African-American civil rights era (1955–1968), most of the United States remains a residentially segregated society in which blacks and whites inhabit different neighborhoods of significantly different quality.
Many of these neighborhoods are located in Northern cities where African Americans moved during The Great Migration (1914–1950) a period when over a million African Americans moved out of the rural Southern United States to escape the widespread racism of the South, to seek out employment opportunities in urban environments, and to pursue what was widely perceived to be a better quality of life in the North.
"Urban blight" or "urban issues" is polite speech for "ghettos" teeming with "those" people, or "us" people if you are of non-white coloration.
Frankly I've read too much of the "riots caused the decline and fall of (insert a city name here)" and hear too much of the "inner city-youth" (which isn't about white kids) aka "thugs" are the problem, or else it's their parents.
Baltimore is a symptom. Detroit, Harlem, Watts—name me a "riot"; the list is a long one, some you may know of, others you may not, but most were sparked by white violence (police and non-police) against people who lived caged in, trapped in prisons with no walls.
These segregated areas were a result of governmental policy, which is why you need to know the history in order to understand why we call it systemic racism.
Ta-Nehisi Coates in "The Racist Housing Policies That Built Ferguson," gives us some of that history.
The Economic Policy Institute has just released a report by Richard Rothstein that gives some sense of how the world of Michael Brown came to be. It turns out that that world was born from the exact same forces that forged cities and suburbs across the country—racist housing policy at the local, state, and national levels. Rothstein's report eschews talk of mindless white flight, and black-hearted individual racists, and puts the onus exactly where it belongs.
The same subject is covered by Alexis C. Madrigal in "The Racist Housing Policy That Made Your Neighborhood."
One of the most heinous of these policies was introduced by the creation of the Federal Housing Administration in 1934, and lasted until 1968. Otherwise celebrated for making homeownership accessible to white people by guaranteeing their loans, the FHA explicitly refused to back loans to black people or even other people who lived near black people. As TNC puts it, "Redlining destroyed the possibility of investment wherever black people lived."
To understand the depth of the racism of these regulations, you have to read the descriptions of the grades that FHA gave to neighborhoods from A (green) to D (red). I've included them all at the end of this post, but here is the "C" classification (emphasis added), which is where my Oakland neighborhood fell (keep in mind restrictions as used here, means clauses, written into the title, not to sell to non-whites).
One of the other factors is the G.I. Bill after WWII, which I call a massive white welfare program
, propelling mostly white workers into a new "middle class," paying for college, and giving them mortgages to buy into new "whites only" housing tracts, like Levittown
in New York. There were other Levittowns, like this one in Pennsylvania.
Whites Riot in Response to Arrival of First African American Family in Levittown, Pennsylvania
Upon driving up to their new home at 43 Deepgreen Lane, Daisy Myers was filled with doubt, recalling that she repeatedly asked herself, “what would be the extent of our ostracism? Would we be able to sleep comfortably?” as she studied the four law officers standing on the lawn of her address in the Dogwood Hollow Section of Levittown. These questions regarding the neighborhood reaction to the arrival of a black family in what had been an intentionally all-white enclave, were unfortunately answered over the next two weeks. At dusk each evening, crowds of people gathered outside the Myer’s home, angrily shouting and jeering, singing the national Anthem, and throwing stones toward the Myer’s home, as apparently these “spacious skies,” they sang of were not meant to be enjoyed in an integrated setting. Levittown police failed to enforce the court ordered protection for the Myers, prohibiting more than three people from assembling near the residence at once. Mobs consequently gathered in this fashion each night, only finally subsiding due to interference from the state police.
After an agonizing fourteen days, the riots ended, but the Myers continued to suffer the anxiety of the consequences triggered by the introduction of integration to Levittown. Harassment of the family persisted for almost three months, as Daisy Myers received threatening phone calls of those who “told [her] they threatened to shoot William down on sight,” the family’s deliveries of oil, bread, and milk stopped arriving, and the more than occasional unfriendly white stroller-by forced the Myers to have constant protection, or at the very least, sympathizing company. Anti-segregationist even obtained property immediately neighboring the Myers’ home, using the location to intimidate the family further, evident by their conspicuous display of the confederate flag.
The resistance seen in the August riots against the integration of Levittown, PA was not uncommon throughout suburban neighborhoods. Quite the contrary in fact, racial discrimination and the subsequent segregated communities were the norm in 1950s suburbia. Yet despite this plaguing harassment, the Myers refused to leave their Levittown home, justifiably feeling entitled “to live where [they] chose,” as William put it. Remarking on the family’s incredible determination to outlast their opponents, Dianne Harris, historian and author of Second Suburb: Levittown, PA, stated, “the Myers endured an ordeal that few could have weathered with such dignity, courage, grace, and fortitude.”
When my father was finally able to get his G.I. benefits with the help of a lawyer, we moved into an all-white neighborhood in Queens, NY which greeted newly arrived black people with fire-bombings and cross-burnings. I've witnessed firsthand what happened when my relatively privileged teacher parents bought that first home, the ensuing "white flight," the cross burnings, and a mini "race riot" my first day of junior high school.
Some black people, if they could afford it, escaped black enclaves, and if they could stomach the animosity, toughed it out in new white terrain. The majority of our brethren and sistren were left behind in neighborhoods which rapidly deteriorated, and were controlled by slumlords. Those same neighborhoods were policed by outside, mostly white occupiers who lived elsewhere. The schools then became mini-ghettos, with reduced money and staffing, and attempts made to rectify the situation with busing were met with hostile and vile attacks from angry whites.
Boston was a scene of major white Northern riots against integration of the schools.
The roots of discord in Boston—of a black Roxbury, and an all white "Southie" neighborhood can be traced to racially segregated housing.
Until American citizens are willing to live together, and until affordable housing, not just homes but apartments, are available in "non-ghetto" areas, we will continue to see explosions.
As long as police are essentially "zoo-keepers" and we are the animals you have caged, allowing us buses to get to your homes to clean them, or to mow your lawns, but no space to live nearby, and no jobs at all for the felons you have created, there will be explosions.
When we are relegated to vertical cemeteries called housing projects, we wind up eating our own young. The ones your police don't kill may wind up killing each other. If not, they are locked away. In rage we will lash out, in explosions.
The rise of gated communities, which are often both economically and racially segregated, exacerbates the problem, as do charter school movements in urban areas. Gentrification decreases the places that lower-income people can find places to live in as they are driven out of areas they have been kept in for decades. The smaller and more deteriorated and toxic the areas you restrict us to, the greater our angst and anger grows.
And we will explode.
So don't talk to me about "violence" in Baltimore.
It is simply another explosion.
But who provided both the fuel and the match?