Why Are Blacks Concentrated in Inner Cities?

Why do so few whites still not know about sundown towns? James W. Loewen, in his book Sundown Towns, wonders if there some major dissociation and denial going on here. As he explains (and as quoted in my post Racism Without Racists),

“Perhaps it is more accurate to say that white Americans know and don’t know about sundown towns.”

How could Americans not know when they are surrounded by the evidence? Our entire society is structured by a long history of racism that has left no part of our lives untouched. The segregation of populations is no accident. It certainly wasn’t the choice of blacks.

Sundown towns developed all across the country. They excluded blacks from moving there and expelled most of the blacks already living there. This wave of violence drove blacks into the inner cities, where they were able to find some safety in numbers, although no place was completely safe.

p. 53

“Similarly, blacks did find some refuge in majority-black neighborhoods in the inner city. Whites usually proved reluctant to venture far into alien territory to terrorize residents. Although whites attacked black neighborhoods in Chicago; East St. Louis, Illinois; Washington, D.C.; Tulsa; and other cities between 1917 and 1924, they were unable to destroy them for good.”

This ghettoization of the black population was exacerbated by public policies that further concentrated and isolated them:

p. 130

“When the federal government did spend money on black housing, it funded the opposite of suburbia: huge federally assisted high-rise “projects” concentrated in the inner city. We are familiar with the result, which now seems natural to us, market-driven: African Americans living near the central business district and whites living out in the suburbs. Actually, locating low-income housing on cheaper, already vacant land in the suburbs would have been more natural, more market-driven. One of Chicago’s most notorious housing projects, Cabrini Green, lies just a stone’s throw west of an expensive and desirable lakefront neighborhood north of the Loop, separated by the elevated railroad tracks. This is costly land. To justify its price, the Chicago Housing Authority had to pile hundreds of units onto the tract, building poorly devised physical structures that bred a festering, unsafe social structure. The steps taken by suburban developers and governments to be all-white were interferences in the housing market that kept African Americans from buying homes and locked them in overwhelmingly black tracts inside the city.”

Being ignorant of this history, many whites don’t even stop to question it for it seems natural and inevitable. Poor blacks live in inner cities. It is just what poor blacks do. But it should seem strange since at one time most blacks were farmers. After the Civil War, blacks spread out across the country.

p. 142:

“Before 1890, however, African Americans moved to counties and towns throughout America, as Table 1 showed (page 56)—even to isolated places such as northern Maine, northern Wisconsin, and Idaho north of the Snake River Valley. Then during the Great Retreat, they withdrew to the larger cities and a mere handful of small towns. Distance from the South, from African American population centers, or from major trade routes cannot explain this pattern, because towns in Maine, Wisconsin, Idaho, and elsewhere were at least as isolated socially between 1865 and 1890, when African Americans were moving into them, as they were between 1890 and 1930, when African Americans were fleeing them.11 In other words, because social isolation cannot explain the increases in black population in northern counties before 1890, it cannot explain why those increases reversed after that date. Something different went on after 1890.”

What happened? One common explanation is that it is simply an issue of class, of poverty. Blacks are poor, always have been and always will be. If that is the case, why are even wealthier blacks disproportionately underrepresented in wealthy suburbs and poor whites disproportionately represented in poor inner cities and poor communities in general?

Conflating race with class, as is common, doesn’t explain any of this.

pp. 143-145

“Other whites seem to think it’s somehow “natural” for blacks to live in the inner city, whites in the outer suburbs. This idea is a component of what law professor John Boger calls “the national sense that [residential segregation] is inescapable.” Most African Americans arrived by train, goes this line of thought, and they’re just taking a long time to move out from the vicinity of the train station; as soon as they make enough money, they too will move to the suburbs. But the whiteness of our suburbs is not “natural.”13

“Over and over, white academics as well as residents of sundown suburbs suggest that social class explained sundown suburbs, if not independent sundown towns. “I couldn’t live in Grosse Pointe either,” one professor put it in 2002, referring to one of Detroit’s richest suburbs, also one of its whitest. For all-white suburbs to result from classism is seen as defensible, because classism is OK, since we all presumably have a reasonable if not equal chance to get into the upper class. This ideology is a form of Social Darwinism: the best people wind up on top, and whites are smarter, better students, work harder at their jobs, etc. People who think like this don’t see Grosse Pointe’s whiteness as a white problem but as a black problem. “They” haven’t worked hard enough, etc., so they haven’t accumulated enough wealth—and perhaps enough social connections and knowledge—to crack these suburbs.

“This line of thought seems plausible. Segregation by class is an important component of suburbanization, and increasingly so. Residents of elite suburbs such as Grosse Pointe segregate on the basis of both race and class, and for the same reason: being distant from African Americans and from lower-class people conveys status.14 Nevertheless, the reasoning does not hold up, for two reasons. First, it ignores history. People who think like this have no idea that as recently as the 1960s and 1970s, when today’s mature adults were starting their careers, whites in much of the country flatly banned African Americans as a group from many occupations—not just professions but also jobs like construction work, department store clerk, flight attendant, and railroad engineer.

“Second, sundown suburbs simply do not result from class. Research by Michael Danielson points to a key flaw in the argument: the proportion of a metropolitan area’s blacks in a suburb, controlling for income, is less than half the proportion of whites in that suburb, except for the handful of interracial suburbs. That is, if we tried to guess the number of African Americans in a suburb just using income, we would always predict more than twice as many black people as actually lived there. Something has been keeping them out in addition to their class status. Conversely, a much higher proportion of poor white families live in suburbs, compared to poor black families. If income were the crucial factor, then there would be little difference by race in the distribution of the poor.15

“Continuing with our Grosse Pointe example, in the Detroit metropolitan area, class has mattered even less, race even more, than elsewhere in the nation, according to research by Karl Taeuber. “More than half of the white families in each income level, from very poor to very rich, lived in the suburbs,” he found. “Among blacks, only one-tenth of the families at each income level (including very rich) lived in the suburbs.” In short, social class, at least as measured by income, made little difference in the level of suburbanization. Rich whites have been much more suburban than rich blacks; poor whites have been much more suburban than poor blacks.16

“Sundown suburbs with an industrial base—such as Dearborn, Warren, and Livonia, around Detroit—have long employed African Americans, at least as janitors, but they could not spend the night. Some of these suburbs—like Livonia and Warren—are working-class. Other sundown suburbs, like independent sundown towns, are multiclass: houses in Dearborn, in 1997, ranged from starter homes around $45,000 to executive homes for $800,000 and up. Social class simply cannot explain the absence of African Americans from multiclass or working-class communities. Nor can it explain the absence of Jews from such elite suburbs as Kenilworth and Flossmoor, Illinois, and Darien, Connecticut.17

“Sociologist Reynolds Farley and his associates used our old friend D, the Index of Dissimilarity, to compare the power of race to that of class. Specifically regarding Detroit, they observed, “If household income alone determined where people lived, the Index of Dissimilarity would be 15 [almost completely integrated] instead of 88 [almost completely segregated].” Instead,

Economic criteria account for little of the observed concentration of blacks in central cities and their relative absence from the suburbs. The current level of residential segregation must be attributed largely to action and attitudes, past and present, which have restricted the entry of blacks into predominately white neighborhoods.18

“Indeed, blaming the whiteness of elite sundown suburbs on their wealth actually reverses the causality of caste and class. It is mostly the other way around: racial and religious exclusion came first, not class. Suburbs that kept out blacks and Jews became more prestigious, so they attracted the very rich. The absence of African Americans itself became a selling point, which in turn helped these suburbs become so affluent because houses there commanded higher prices. To this day, all-white suburbs attract the very rich. Twelve of the communities on Worth magazine’s list of 50 richest towns were all-white in 2000 or had just one or two African American families. Typically they were all-white first and became rich only when affluent families moved in. After 1959, for example, when Jews were let into La Jolla, California, a number of WASP families fled from La Jolla to Rancho Santa Fe, fifteen miles north and inland from the beach. Now Rancho Santa Fe is #16 on Worth’s list, well above La Jolla at #85,19 based on median home price.20

“In yet another way, blaming blacks for being poor, as a cause of segregation, reverses cause and effect. As Chapter 12 shows, residential segregation itself constrains and diminishes the cultural capital and social connections of African Americans, thus artificially decreasing their income and wealth. It won’t do to then use blacks’ lower income and wealth to explain residential segregation.”

Many other rationalizations are likewise carefully dissected by Loewen. None of them explains the history of segregation and its continuation. The only explanation left is that of racism.

5 thoughts on “Why Are Blacks Concentrated in Inner Cities?

  1. An earlier book by Loewen, the best-selling LIES MY TEACHER TOLD ME (1995), gives one major reason for the denial of reality so many Americans embrace: the systematic sugarcoating of American history in the textbooks used in high school history classes all across the country.

    To give just one relevant example, these textbooks routinely celebrate Woodrow Wilson as a great humanitarian (founder of the League of Nations, etc.) while completely suppressing the fact that he was a flaming Southern racist and bigot.

    I highly recommend that earlier book as grounding for his newer SUNDOWN TOWNS.

    • I really should read Lies My Teacher Told Me. I was thinking about its publication date. That was almost 20 years ago. It was published in 1995 and I graduated from high school in 1994.

      So, his book is specifically speaking to my generation. That book is about the (mis-)education I received. It was because of the failure of my educational experience that I have become so obsessively interested in history as an adult.

      Maybe textbooks have changed in that time. I’m sure they have. How much, I don’t know. But, even if much change has happened, there are still a majority of Americans who were educated with those old textbooks. And that (mis-)educated majority is part of the voting public. They are also our politicians and our media reporters/pundits.

      The failures of the past live on for a long time, for as long as the people live who those failures impacted. People alive today grew up under Jim Crow and remember the last of the Indian Wars. The failure of teaching history isn’t about some distant history that no longer matters. It is about a fresh wound that has yet to heal.

  2. In the last section of my post, I wrote this:

    “What happened? One common explanation is that it is simply an issue of class, of poverty. Blacks are poor, always have been and always will be. If that is the case, why are even wealthier blacks disproportionately underrepresented in wealthy suburbs and poor whites disproportionately represented in poor inner cities and poor communities in general?”

    I followed those questions with a lengthy passage from Loewen’s book about racial biases in housing and such. The implications of this are vast.

    I came across some data in another book that pointed out one reason it is easier being a poor white, even without considering racism. More poor whites live in wealthier communities than do poor blacks. This means that poor whites have access to more well funded schools, libraries, and public services. Also, this means that poor whites have more access to better jobs.

    I’ve lived below the poverty line in a wealthy community and I didn’t feel desperate. I’m white and I knew I was surrounded by all the resources I needed. It was very easy and simple for me to move out of poverty. There is more opportunity for economic mobility in a wealthier community.

    There is another piece of data from yet another book. It showed that single parents in communities with low rates of single parenthood don’t suffer the problems normally associated with single parenthood. This is because these are normally wealthier communities with tons of social capital and few social problems.

    It is easier being white, even when poor. And, even when wealthy, blacks still face much racial bias as other data shows.

    All of this accumulates into massive differences of opportunities and privileges. This gets inherited by each succeeding generation and it magnifies. This is how the rich have gotten richer even as the lower classes have either stagnated or fallen to the bottom.

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