The Disturbing History of the Suburbs

“This is not fair. I did not get to pick which colour I was.”

“That’s right. Noone does.”

Adam Conover, a cast member and writer at a comedy site, CollegeHumor, published a video on the history of redlining of blacks in America.

This video discusses the major role that the government played in redlining by implementing “racist Federal policies”. The government deliberately drew out maps of cities separating areas based on race. They then gave loans for housing to predominantly white communities. No loans were available to black communities.

One could argue that by “working hard” a black person could acquire wealth and own a house in the white suburbs. But this was not possible because there were actual constitutional laws to prevent blacks and minorities from owning houses in white communities. Only people of the Caucasian race were allowed to live in certain neighbourhoods.

Over time, the advantage of whites became clearer. White neighbourhoods attracted businesses and economic productivity. They were able to build upon and increase their wealth because of the property they owned and could pass on this wealth to their future generations.

Although the laws were eventually changed, the effect of redlining is still felt. Predominantly black communities are poor and can hardly afford the homes and amenities in white neighbourhoods. Sadly, schools are affected too. Segregation exists in schools because children can only attend schools that are close to their neighbourhoods. Therefore black children will attend the predominantly black schools and white children will attend predominantly white schools.

How can this problem be solved?

I believe that over time, with individuals within the black race finding agency for themselves and fighting to reach the top, the effect of redlining will eventually wear out. Can we rely on time to heal this wound alone? The answer is no. Since the problem began with institutions and government policies, they would have to solve the problem as well. Banks and financial institutions have to be fair when giving loans to whites and blacks. Everyone must be truly equal before the law.

Black excellence and the racial mountain

Beyond the general notion of Nashville, Tennessee as a “music city”, this city has a deep history of racial discrimination and segregation given that it is in the South.  As I toured the city through the lenses of a historian, I visited Jefferson street, a place believed to be the origins of Black American music – jazz and blues. I also visited the pedestrian plaza that commemorates the African American history of Nashville and Jefferson Street. At the plaza, I saw black people that had made waves in the areas of education, athletics, music, civil rights and religion. There were black men and women alike who had invested tremendously in North Nashville but whose efforts were not recognized because of racial segregation that was the order of the day at the time.

As I looked through the pictures and achievements of these people, I saw individuals that had pushed themselves out of the box that society had created for them. It was clear that during the time of segregation, there were black people who had achieved great feats and could stand on the same pedestal as white people. There were many individuals who were as learned as Booker T. Washington, Marcus Garvey and W.E.B Dubois. One of the individuals that struck me the most, was Jesse Russell, the Father of 2G Wireless Communication.

These individuals had benefited from the work of previous black generations who built Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) in order to enable black Americans to integrate into American institutional life. The building of schools, clubs, churches and businesses marked the advent of the black excellence.

Unfortunately, black Americans began to have the desire to move up the racial mountain – to be white. Hugues gives an example of an artist in his article who said, “I want to be a poet – not a Negro poet”. Hughes interprets this statement as meaning, “I want to write like a white poet” or “I want to be white”.

Although it is interesting that black men and women decided to push themselves outside the box and strive for the same achievements as white men, could it be that some of these people were also attempting to climb up the racial mountain? Indeed for some, this might have been the case. Hugues mentions ‘high class’ Negro men, women and families who raced up the racial mountain. For this group, they might have striven to earn a place as close to the white man as possible. Therefore, for them, achieving excellence was synonymous with achieving whiteness.

On the other hand, the other group of black people such as those mentioned at the beginning of this essay created a whole new niche for themselves. They formed their own brilliant standards for black people that present and succeeding generations of black people could imitate.

In recent years, this has reduced the need for a racial mountain. Or has it?

Fighting racial segregation

Civil Rights Room at Nashville Public Library photo: Demarco Johnson

I was in Nashville, Tennessee last week and I had the opportunity to see the city, not through the lenses of a tourist but through the lenses of a historian. One of the places I visited was the Nashville Public Library and on the second floor was the Civil Rights Room. As I stepped into this part of the building, I began to think about what I had been learning in the History of Black America class since the beginning of the semester. Things became clearer to me, as I saw pictures of riots, pictures of black men who were jailed for challenging racial segregation and pictures of black women who accompanied their children to segregated schools at the beginning of the school term for the same purpose-challenging racial segregation. I saw in these activities as an attempt to change the status quo, an attempt to create the change that the laws had failed to create.

I saw a community of struggle. As mentioned in class, there were two goals that this community had. One of them was to “fight for integration into American institutional life, to integrate schools, the workplace, residential neighbourhoods, public accommodations like hotels and restaurants, and especially councils of government.” This generation of people had hardly experienced slavery, given this time period and so they could not fully understand the reason for racial discrimination. The non-violent protests that were carried out were aimed at achieving equality with white people and bringing an end to segregation in America.

The formation of black union organizations was also an attempt to bring an end to racial discrimination in America. The formation of organizations like the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) in the early 20th century went a long way in uniting black people and helping them fight racial segregation.

For me, thinking about the history of Black Americans and racial segregation has made me see that when laws are unable to adequately support the people bound them, engaging in non-violent protests and challenging those laws helps to bring about positive results.

Slavery – an institution

I am a 32-year-old white male. Both of my parents were white. As a child, I remember being rocked to sleep by a negro woman when I had nightmares. I also played with her first son who was about my age. But today, I sold him. That’s how things are here. I saw my father do it, my grandfather, and now, my brothers and me.

This short piece I have authored above is similar to an excerpt from one of the class readings. After reading that portion of the essay, I wondered to myself…

How did slavery survive for more than a century given that black women took care of white children and of course, formed strong bonds with the women over the years? Looking at this question on the surface, one would think that the white children who had been nurtured by black women would grow up and then abolish slavery; that they would treat black people with love and respect. But of course, this was not the case.

White children grew up to understand that slavery was part of the economy, it ran as an institution in the United States. Many white people inherited slaves from their parents, others understood that they had to either rent or buy slaves in order to acquire labour for their plantations, have a name in the society, or live comfortably. For slave societies, every sector of the economy depended on and benefited directly from slavery. For example, the banks accepted slaves as collateral for bank loans, insurance companies insured slaves as property and exports of cash crops like sugar and cotton depended heavily on slave labour.

Black women understood their place as well. They understood that the children they nursed might one day, own them or sell them or whip them. They understood that regardless of the level of intimacy they shared with the children, they were mere property – a means to an end. Society had determined their fate and the change did not lie in the children they carried in their arms.

The system itself was faulty. Many parties (sectors of the economy) were involved and intangible forces like race and history played vital roles.

Not even the bond that black women develop with white children could change how these white children treated black people when they grew up. Everyone’s place in the society has long been predetermined and nothing changed it. The white person – the slaveholder and the negro –the slave. No white person or negro was left out.