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.

Conservative Arguments Recycled and Repackaged

All the arguments typically made against blacks were once made against various non-WASP ethnic groups. Those other white Americans had (and, in some cases, still do have) high rates of social problems, violent crime, and addiction/alcoholism. They also were involved in some of the largest riots in U.S. history.

In the North, the KKK spent more time attacking ethnic immigrants than attacking blacks. Poor whites, including those coming from the South, were often viewed as worse than poor blacks. Part of the reason was all these new whites immigrating from elsewhere were competing with the jobs of whites already in the industrialized North.

One of the differences, though, is that most white ethnic immigrants were eventually forced to assimilate, often against their will. Take the destruction of German culture in this country that was almost entirely erased in the era of the two world wars, even though German descendants were (and still are) the majority of citizens. Blacks, on the other hand, were disallowed from assimilating, even when they wanted to, and forced into isolated ghettos with few opportunities of escape. Their successful communities were destroyed (e.g., Black Wall Street) and sundown towns forced them to flee into the inner cities, including during the New Deal when most Americans were looking toward a bright future.

Racists, racialists, and other defenders of the status quo claim that blacks brought it onto themselves. But how did blacks bring onto themselves a systemic and institutional racism that lasted for centuries through the New Deal Era with Jim Crow?

They have no answer for that. All they can do is evade the question and ignore the evidence.

Even if all they cared about is whites, why do they care so little about the mistreatment of white ethnic immigrants and poor rural Southerners who were at times treated with great oppression?

The Condemnation of Blackness: Race, Crime, and the Making of Modern Urban America
By Khalil Gibran Muhammad
pp. 6-7

“One of the strongest claims this book makes is that statistical comparisons between the Foreign-born and the Negro were foundational to the emergence of distinctive modern discourses on race and crime. For all the ways in which poor Irish immigrants of the mid-nineteenth century were labeled members of the dangerous classes, criminalized by Anglo -Saxon police, and over-incarcerated in the nation’s failing prisons, Progressive era social scientists used statistics and sociology to create a pathway for their redemption and rehabilitation. 27 A generation before the Chicago School of Sociology systematically destroyed the immigrant house of pathology built by social Darwinists and eugenicists, Progressive era social scientists were innovating environmental theories of crime and delinquency while using crime statistics to demonstrate the assimilability of the Irish, the Italian, and the Jew by explicit contrast to the Negro. 28 White progressives often discounted crime statistics or disregarded them altogether in favor of humanizing European immigrants, as in much of Jane Addams’s writings. 29 In one of the first academic textbooks on crime, Charles R. Henderson, a pioneering University of Chicago social scientist, declared that “the evil [of immigrant crime] is not so great as statistics carelessly interpreted might prove.” He explained that age and sex ratios— too many young males— skewed the data. But where the “Negro factor” is concerned, Henderson continued, “racial inheritance, physical and mental inferiority , barbarian and slave ancestry and culture ,” were among the “most serious factors in crime statistics.””

Poor rural Southerners who remain unassimilated are to this day treated according to a different variety of near-racist prejudice by the ruling whites of the South, two groups with different ethnic histories that have been in conflict for centuries. The same classism and ethnocentrism that keeps poor whites down is what also keeps poor blacks down. It is all about the feared ‘Other’, whether blacks and Hispanics or Scots-Irish rednecks and white trash.

By the way, the same sundown towns that expelled and excluded blacks did the same for ethnic whites (as described by James W. Loewen). These are the most WASPish towns in America. They lack both racial and ethnic diversity. The different threads of prejudice are tightly woven together.

Also, if the critics are so against affirmative action for blacks, then why don’t they equally criticize the affirmative action that was used against blacks?

When Affirmative Action Was White: An Untold History of Racial Inequality in Twentieth-Century America
By Ira Katznelson
from Preface

“From Robert Lieberman, we know how Social Security left out maids and farmworkers and how the landmark law of 1935 distinguished between social insurance for old age and more constricted , less centralized instruments of social assistance. From Jill Quadagno, we learn about the racial sources and implications of modern social policy. From Michael Brown, we discern the tight set of linkages that connected race and fiscal imperatives to the power of the southern wing of the Democratic Party when the modern American welfare state was shaped. From Suzanne Mettler, we are taught how even apparently universalistic public policies can divide categories of citizens from each other. From Neil Foley, we understand the impact of midcentury social policy on racial groups in the cotton culture South. From Lizabeth Cohen, we experience how, even in the North, the treatment of veterans after the Second World War was significantly differentiated by race. From Daniel Kryder, we comprehend the powerful impact race had on the nation during that global war. From Desmond King, we perceive the role that the federal government played from the 1910s to the early 1950s to secure racial segregation. From Nancy Weiss, we witness how torn black Americans were by the bounty and constraints the New Deal presented. And from William Julius Wilson, we grasp the economic, social, spatial, and political mechanisms that have divided black America between a growing but minority middle class and a far less fortunate and good deal more marginal African American majority.”

A similar point is made about sundown towns. The following explains why at least a certain segment of our society has a clear self-interest in remaining willfully ignorant of white affirmative action and sundown towns.

Sundown Towns: A Hidden Dimension of American Racism
By James W. Loewen
pp. 373-374

“Republicans do especially well in sundown suburbs owing not only to their racial ideology, but also to their NIMBY principles and small-government philosophy.41 But these principles too have a racial tinge and tie in with the soclexia that results from living in sundown towns and suburbs. In Chain Reaction, their analysis of the GOP’s appeal to racism from 1964 to 1990, Thomas and Mary Edsall pointed to Republicans’ use of the stereotype that whites work and succeed, while blacks don’t work, hence don’t succeed. As former Nixon aide John Ehrlichman put it, Republicans win in the suburbs partly because they present positions on crime, education, and housing in such a way that a voter could “avoid admitting to himself that he was attracted by a racist appeal.”42

“Sundown suburbs are politically independent and usually quash efforts at metropolitan government. Their school systems are separate and usually oppose metro-wide desegregation. They resist mightily what they view as intrusions by people or governments from the larger metropolitan area or the state. In New Jersey, trying to comply with a New Jersey supreme court decision mandating equal educational opportunity, the legislature passed the Quality Education Act, and Governor Jim Florio proposed higher taxes on families earning more than $100,000 to pay for it. Suburbanites responded by voting out of office many of the politicians who supported the equalization bill, including Florio, whom they replaced with Republican Christine Todd Whitman.43

“The Edsalls point out that the principle of self-interest explains what otherwise might seem to be an ideological contradiction: sundown suburbanites usually try to minimize expenditures by the state and federal governments, but locally they favor “increased suburban and county expenditures, guaranteeing the highest possible return to themselves on their tax dollars.” The Edsalls cite Gwinnett County, Georgia, as an example. Gwinnett, east of Atlanta, is “one of the fastest growing suburban jurisdictions in the nation, heavily Republican (75.5% for Bush [senior]), affluent, and white (96.6%).” Its residents “have been willing to tax and spend on their own behalf as liberally as any Democrats.” Such within-county expenditures increase the inequality between white suburbs and interracial cities. They also do nothing to redress or pay for the ways that Gwinnett residents use and rely upon Atlanta and its public services.44

“Meanwhile, white suburbs favor “policies of fiscal conservatism at the federal level.” Interestingly, despite enjoying more than half a century of federal intervention on behalf of whites in suburbia—FHA and Veterans Administration (VA) loan guarantees, FHA and VA policies that shut out blacks, highway subsidies, and all the rest—residents feel they achieved home ownership in their all-white suburb entirely on their own. Since 1968, whenever African Americans have mobilized to try to get the federal government to act on their behalf, suburban Republicans have rejected the idea: “We’ve done so much for them already.” Many white suburbanites identified attempts of the federal government to be fair about housing, such as the 1968 housing act, with the Democratic Party, and considered them outrageous examples of “special interests” and “federal intervention in local affairs.”

“Today the most important national impact of sundown towns and suburbs is through their influence on the Republican Party. The Edsalls conclude, “The suburban vote is becoming the core of the Republican base.” Since elected officials from safe districts develop seniority, suburban Republicans dominate committees in the House of Representatives and in state legislatures when Republicans control those bodies. They also wield much power over their party in most states.45”

Racism Without Racists: Victimization & Silence

Violence, what does it mean? Whose violence against whom? Who gets to decide what is and isn’t violence? The victor? The imprisoner? The ruling powers, whomever they may be?

Who is the real victim and who is the real victimizer in this contest for power, this fight for freedom and justice? In what sense does might make right? Why do we so willingly accept the history written by the victors?

The world is full of violence, the United States most of all. This country, my country, our country (for my fellow Americans) has a long history of ethnic cleansing, slavery, oppression, war, conquest, punishment, exploitation, and imperialism. Violence in all of its forms. The U.S. is the most violent country among affluent nations. We spend more money on our military and we imprison more of our citizens than any country in history. There has never been a more powerful empire.

Living in a society of violence, how do we talk about violence? It isn’t just data like homicide rates. Such data is a small percentage of total violence.

I’m reminded of a quote often attributed to Joseph Stalin:

“A single death is a tragedy; a million deaths is a statistic.”

An earlier version is even more apt, from the Watertown Daily Times citing a “crazy statesman” (1939):

“If you shoot one person you are a murderer. If you kill a couple persons you are a gangster. If you are a crazy statesman and send millions to their deaths you are a hero.”

Violence, at its most basic, is about suffering. It is a matter of who does and doesn’t feel suffering, who inflicts the suffering and who is inflicted. This brings us to the issue of compassion and lack thereof. These are more complex issues than the simplistic data collected by bureaucrats and academics, data-collecting that can at times verge closer to sociopathy than to compassion. The demands of objectivity, as a recent study has shown, often have a deadening effect on our ability to empathize. People are living beings with hopes and fears, not numbers, not statistics. When looking at data as we are wont to do, we must never forget what that data represents, the human reality.

I’ve struggled with understanding the suffering and violence that I see all around me, understanding it on the human level. It can feel overwhelming and senseless. How does one find humanity within inhumanity? How does one find meaning in it all?

I’m not sure about meaning, but I have come across one particular articulation and portrayal that offers a larger context to begin considering it more deeply. I speak of the work of Derrick Jensen, specifically two of his earliest books: A Language Older Than Words and The Culture of Make Believe. For many years, I searched and searched for even a glimpse of understanding. Jensen’s work was the first voice to give voice to my own sense of suffering. It felt like an acknowledgement, a validation of what I knew in my own experience, a breaking through the isolation of silence like a glimmer of light in the dark.

“If the first rule of a dysfunctional system is ‘Don’t talk about it,’ then our primary goal should be to tell the truth, to be as honest as we can manage to be. When I read something truthful, something real, I breathe a deep sigh and say, ‘Fantastic — I wasn’t mad or alone in thinking that, after all!’ So often we are left to our own devices, struggling in the dark with this eternal and internal propaganda system. At that point, for someone to tell us the truth is a gift. In a world where people all around us are lying and confusing us, to be honest is a great kindness.”
~ Derrick Jensen quoting David Edwards, The Culture of Make Believe, pp 141-142

Jensen offers two main explanations: the victimization cycle and dissociation.

The victimization cycle is a framework to make sense of how violence perpetuates itself. The line between victim and victimizer is very thin. This is demonstrated by how victimizers often have histories of victimization, typically in childhood. Jensen makes a good case for putting this into the terms of our collective history, violence endlessly leading to more violence.

Dissociation, however, is the key that unlocks the mechanism of victimization. This is how we are silenced, blinded, numbed.

Jensen uses many examples, but one stands out. In Nazi Germany, there were many doctors who did horrific experiments on children in the concentration camps. Each night, these doctors would go home and many of them had children of their own. They were good fathers, good husbands, good citizens. The two sides of their lives never crossed. It was as if these doctors had two separate selves with an absolute cognitive disconnection between them.

Nazi doctors is an extreme example, but the behavior is completely normal human psychology. Less extreme examples are commonplace. We all do it to varying degrees for our lives are divided in so many ways. It is easy to not feel and understand the connection between our personal lives and our work lives, between the Sunday sermon and the rest of the week, between what we see on the news and the world immediately around us, between what we buy at the store and what is happening in another country, between what we learn in school and in books and how we think about our everyday experience. We know many things in many aspects of our lives, but we don’t quite make the connections. In this way, we know and we don’t know many things.

We know and don’t know about about mass incarceration and racial injustice:

“The claim that we really know where all the black men have gone may inspire considerable doubt. If we know, why do we feign ignorance ? Could it be that most people really don’t know? Is it possible that the roundup, lockdown, and exclusion of black men en masse from the body politic has occurred largely unnoticed? The answer is yes and no.

“Much has been written about the ways in which people manage to deny, even to themselves, that extraordinary atrocities, racial oppression, and other forms of human suffering have occurred or are occurring. Criminologist Stanley Cohen wrote perhaps the most important book on the subject, States of Denial. The book examines how individuals and institutions—victims, perpetrators, and bystanders—know about yet deny the occurrence of oppressive acts. They see only what they want to see and wear blinders to avoid seeing the rest. This has been true about slavery, genocide , torture, and every form of systemic oppression.

“Cohen emphasizes that denial, though deplorable, is complicated. It is not simply a matter of refusing to acknowledge an obvious, though uncomfortable, truth. Many people “know” and “not-know” the truth about human suffering at the same time. In his words, “Denial may be neither a matter of telling the truth nor intentionally telling a lie. There seem to be states of mind, or even whole cultures, in which we know and don’t know at the same time.”

“Today, most Americans know and don’t know the truth about mass incarceration. For more than three decades, images of black men in handcuffs have been a regular staple of the evening news. We know that large numbers of black men have been locked in cages. In fact, it is precisely because we know that black and brown people are far more likely to be imprisoned that we, as a nation, have not cared too much about it. We tell ourselves they “deserve” their fate, even though we know— and don’t know— that whites are just as likely to commit many crimes, especially drug crimes. We know that people released from prison face a lifetime of discrimination, scorn, and exclusion, and yet we claim not to know that an undercaste exists . We know and we don’t know at the same time.”
 ~ Michelle Alexander, The New Jim Crow, pp. 181-182

We know and don’t know about sundown towns:

“White Americans encounter sundown towns every day but rarely think about them or even realize that they’re in one. They look like other towns, especially to most non-black people, who often don’t notice the difference between 95% white and 100% white. Motorists driving through Anna, Illinois, might stop to see its famous library, designed in 1913 by Walter Burley Griffith, the Prairie School architect who went on to design Canberra, Australia. Or they might be visiting a mentally ill relative in the Illinois State Hospital. They don’t notice that Anna is a sundown town unless they know to ask. Most sundown towns and suburbs are like that: invisible, until a black wayfarer appears and the townspeople do something about it.

“At the same time, whites have nicknames for many overwhelmingly white towns: “Colonial Whites” for Colonial Heights, near Richmond, Virginia; “the White Shore” across the Susquehanna River from Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, instead of the West Shore; “Caucasian Falls” for Cuyahoga Falls near Akron, Ohio; “Whiteface Bay” for Whitefish Bay, north of Milwaukee; and so forth across the country to “Lily White Lynwood” outside Los Angeles. Whites make up jokes about the consequences of an African American being found after dark in many sundown towns and suburbs. “Even the squirrels are white in Olney” is a quip about a sundown town in southeastern Illinois known also for its albino squirrels. Such nicknames and jokes show that the whiteness of these towns has registered; whites do understand that the absence of blacks is no accident. Residents of a metropolitan area also know which suburbs are said to be the whitest and which police departments have a reputation for racial profiling. The practice of stopping and questioning African Americans in Darien, Connecticut, for example, was “an open secret in town,” according to Gregory Dorr, who grew up there. Nevertheless, when told that many American towns and suburbs kept out African Americans for decades and some still do, often these same individuals claim to be shocked.

“Perhaps it is more accurate to say that white Americans know and don’t know about sundown towns. This curious combination of knowing and not knowing seems eerily reminiscent of Europe, 1938–45: surely Germans (and Poles, French, Dutch, etc.) knew that Jewish and Romany people were being done away with—their houses and apartments were becoming vacant and available before their very eyes, after all. Yet many professed shock when told about it afterward. I do not claim that America’s rash of sundown towns is a Holocaust. The murdered probably total fewer than 2,000 and the refugees fewer than 100,000, nothing like the fury the Nazis unleashed upon Jewish and Rom people. Yet there is a parallel question: why have so few white Americans ever heard of sundown towns, even when they live in one?

‘“Yvonne Dorset,” for example, grew up in Buffalo, Illinois, near Springfield. In 2002 she replied to a discussion at Classmates.com: “I graduated from Tri-City [the high school in Buffalo] in 1963. There weren’t any African Americans in my graduating class, but I never thought of it as anything but coincidence. We were brought up to respect all races.” As best I can tell, Dorset has lived in Buffalo from 1945 to now. What would we make of a long-term resident of, say, Heidelberg, Germany, who wrote in 2002, “There weren’t any Jews in my graduating class, but I never thought of it as anything but coincidence”? Buffalo drove out its African Americans on August 17, 1908. The absence of African Americans from Buffalo today is no more a “coincidence” than the near-absence of Jewish Germans from Heidelberg.”
~ James W. Loewen, Sundown Towns, Kindle Locations 3829-3856

There seemingly is no end to the things we know and don’t know.

Dissociation protects against suffering that is simply too great to comprehend, protects us against uncomfortable truths. This is a psychological form of plausible deniability that usually goes hand in hand with collective forms of plausible deniability. Like structural racism, there is structural dissociation that can be found in government, in the media, in schools, in churches; it can be found everywhere.

Dissociation is how reality tunnels form, and while in them we see nothing else, know nothing else. It is simply our reality. It is our attempt to make sense of the senseless, our dysfunctional response to a dysfunctional world. It is adaptive behavior to a bad situation and no one can doubt that we humans excel at being adaptable.

Dissociation is how victims become victimizers, how good people do bad things. We judge others as immoral or even evil: Nazis, rapists, child abusers, etc. They are different than the rest of us, we assure ourselves. We are good people. We aren’t racists, we aren’t murderers. It isn’t our fault that racism and violence exists in our society. Yes, there are bad people. But that has nothing to do with us. We are innocent. We aren’t perfect, but we have good intentions.

Ah yes, good intentions. *sigh* The road to hell is well paved.

We are all culpable, all responsible for we are all part of this same society, this same history. The past is never past. We can’t pretend that the world we live in has nothing to do with what came before. The past, as it has been said, is prologue.

Indentured servitude led to slavery. After Reconstruction came the Redeemers with the worst forms of sharecropping, debt peonage, chain gangs and forced labor camps. Then came Jim Crow and now mass incarceration. It never ends. It morphs and each time it becomes more resilient to scrutiny. But at a basic level it remains the same. It is just more injustice and oppression, just more violence and suffering. It is the same old story of justice delayed.

The horror of this has become clear to me as I’ve read more and more about American history. I keep being shocked by the arguments people made in the past. I recognize them as arguments I hear today. It is eery how little changes. Most people who made rationalizations and excuses in the past were good people, whether slaveholders or Nazis. Most people today who make rationalizations and excuses are also good people. The world is full of good people and yet not-so-good things continue on.

There is no evil master plan. It isn’t necessary.

“The unfortunate reality we must face is that racism manifests itself not only in individual attitudes and stereotypes, but also in the basic structure of society. Academics have developed complicated theories and obscure jargon in an effort to describe what is now referred to as Structural racism, yet the concept is fairly straightforward. One theorist, Iris Marion Young, relying on a famous “birdcage” metaphor, explains it this way: If one thinks about racism by examining only one wire of the cage, or one form of disadvantage , it is difficult to understand how and why the bird is trapped. Only a large number of wires arranged in a specific way, and connected to one another, serve to enclose the bird and to ensure that it cannot escape.”
~ Michelle Alexander, The New Jim Crow, p. 184

This makes it all the more frustrating. It is racism without any need for racists, a cognitive prison of our own making.

How does one discuss racial bias with those who don’t see it? When something is unconscious, it simply and seamlessly is part of a person’s sense of reality and a part of the reality shared by nearly everyone around them. There is no conscious intention to be racially prejudiced, but there is an instinctive fear or resistance toward the status quo being challenged. Or else it is simply indifference, a lack of understanding and so a lack of knowing why they should care. It isn’t real at a gut-level in the way it is real to someone who has been the victim of it.

In trying to discuss this, my frustration in part comes from how it too often gets misdirected to side issues, slipping away from the core truth that needs to be spoken and heard. The apparent explanation is that some people literally can’t see the main issue or can’t see it on its own terms, can’t see it for what it is. This is a cultural blindspot. It is as if it doesn’t exist for, in their reality tunnel, it doesn’t exist to them. So, they latch onto side issues that are the only things they can see as relevant. Discussion, such as it is, just goes around and around never getting to the heart of the matter.

This frustration eventually gets to me and gets the better of me, thus bringing out the worse in me. There is this immense injustice in our society, injustice that is cruel beyond belief. It is hard to resist responding with mean-spiritedness, resist falling into bitterness and anger. The excuses and rationalizations for this collective ‘evil’ are soul-crushing, and there is no other word besides ‘evil’ that can capture the depth of moral failure and in some cases outright moral depravity. It is ‘evil’ because it is so much greater than any individual, greater than any generation of individuals, greater even than a single nation. The roots of this shared human sin go back into the distant past. Our entire society is built on it. Simply by being born into this society, we all bear some responsibility, first and foremost the responsibility to become aware and then responsibility to give voice.

It has been with us so long that it is immense. Most people don’t have the time and energy, much less the interest, to study the long and detailed history of oppression and injustice that has continued up to the present. Most people simply don’t comprehend it and, because of the collective shame about it (along with fear and anger), there is little to compel understanding. When confronted with this knowledge, many people complain that you’re trying to make them feel guilty. This seems to be an unconscious acknowledgment that there is something to be guilty about, an acknowledgment that can only be stated through projection for that is always how the unconscious first emerges. The budding awareness of mass suffering isn’t a comfortable experience, to feel it like a raw wound.

The systemic oppression and prejudice truly is immense, beyond any individual. It is actively enforced on the societal level of politics and law. It is pervasive throughout our culture. It is the air we breathe, the ground we walk upon, the world we know. It is just there. As such, on the individual level, it is largely passive and mindless. Most people just go along to get along (I know that I usually do exactly this). Most people don’t ever give much thought to other people’s problems and sufferings, even when or especially when their own continued benefit and comfort is dependent upon it. It is motivated reasoning which is why it must operate to some degree subconsciously.

“Others may wonder how a racial caste system could exist when most Americans— of all colors— oppose race discrimination and endorse colorblindness. Yet […] racial caste systems do not require racial hostility or overt bigotry to thrive. They need only racial indifference, as Martin Luther King Jr. warned more than forty-five years ago.”
 ~ Michelle Alexander, The New Jim Crow, p. 14

It is obvious for anyone who has fully looked at and seriously considered the data that racism is rampant in all aspects and at all levels of American society. But the typical stumbling block is that few have much, if any, familiarity with such data. There is always a reason to deny it and dismiss it, to rationalize it away before even considering it. There is always a reason for those who want a reason to not face what is in front of them. Humans are extremely talented at rationaization.

“There is a strange kind of enigma associated with the problem of racism. No one, or almost no one, wishes to see themselves as racist; still, racism persists, real and tenacious” —Albert Memmi, Racism

“Nowadays, except for members of white supremacist organizations, few whites in the United States claim to be “racist.” Most whites assert they “don’t see any color, just people”; that although the ugly face of discrimination is still with us, it is no longer the central factor determining minorities’ life chances; and, finally, that, like Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., they aspire to live in a society where “people are judged by the content of their character, not by the color of their skin.” More poignantly, most whites insist that minorities (especially blacks) are the ones responsible for whatever “race problem” we have in this country . They publicly denounce blacks for “playing the race card,” for demanding the maintenance of unnecessary and divisive race -based programs, such as affirmative action, and for crying “racism” whenever they are criticized by whites. Most whites believe that if blacks and other minorities would just stop thinking about the past, work hard, and complain less (particularly about racial discrimination), then Americans of all hues could “all get along.”

“But regardless of whites’ “sincere fictions,” racial considerations shade almost everything in America. Blacks and dark-skinned racial minorities lag well behind whites in virtually every area of social life; they are about three times more likely to be poor than whites, earn about 40 percent less than whites, and have about an eighth of the net worth that whites have. They also receive an inferior education compared to whites, even when they attend integrated institutions. In terms of housing, black-owned units comparable to white-owned ones are valued at 35 percent less. Blacks and Latinos also have less access to the entire housing market because whites, through a variety of exclusionary practices by white realtors and homeowners, have been successful in effectively limiting their entrance into many neighborhoods. Blacks receive impolite treatment in stores, in restaurants, and in a host of other commercial transactions. Researchers have also documented that blacks pay more for goods such as cars and houses than do whites. Finally, blacks and dark-skinned Latinos are the targets of racial profiling by the police, which, combined with the highly racialized criminal court system, guarantees their overrepresentation among those arrested, prosecuted, incarcerated , and if charged for a capital crime, executed. Racial profiling on the highways has become such a prevalent phenomenon that a term has emerged to describe it: driving while black. In short, blacks and most minorities are “at the bottom of the well.”

“How is it possible to have this tremendous degree of racial inequality in a country where most whites claim that race is no longer relevant? More important, how do whites explain the apparent contradiction between their professed color blindness and the United States’ color-coded inequality?”
 ~ Eduardo Bonilla-Silva, Racism without Racists: Color-Blind Racism and the Persistence of Racial Inequality in America, Kindle Locations 168-195

I don’t want to get into the details right now, the statistics and research results, the endless examples and anecdotes. There are a lot of details. I’m not exaggerating. The research demonstrating racial prejudice has been discussed in hundreds of books and it really does take a book to do it justice, although it is the type of book that the most racially biased are unlikely to read (yes, that was meant as a challenge; I can offer a list of books for anyone wanting to be challenged). I hope that maybe there are some fence-sitters who can be convinced that sitting on fences is a less-than-comfortable position.

I recognize this is a difficult issue. It isn’t about blame for there is plenty of responsibility to go around. Who here is without sin? I’m certainly not in a position to cast the first stone. My personal life is a mess. I’m no hero or saint. I’m nobody important. I’m just trying to understand. I still don’t know what to make of it all, much less what should be done about it. My only purpose is to be yet another voice. My only hope is that if enough voices are joined maybe we will be heard. And in being heard that the silence will be broken.

Knowledge Doesn’t Matter

Does knowledge matter?

I was having a discussion about that question with a friend. He isn’t an anti-intellectual, but he is one of those post-Enlightenment New Agey liberals who mistrusts rationality. To give you an idea of the type of guy he is, he didn’t cite evidence for his argument, but instead cited a lyric to a song. To give you a further hint, my dear friend in support of his view referred to Jonathan Haidt’s metaphor of the rider and the elephant… don’t even get me started on Haidt.

I, on the other hand, am a fierce defender of truth. Damn it, just give me some red-blooded truth and give it to me raw. It was only my friendship that made me hold my tongue in that discussion. I will never understand any person, whether conservative or liberal, who thinks truth doesn’t matter or who will devalue it in any way.

Truth. Not just information, not just knowledge, but all of that and the insight, the wisdom that goes with it. Truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth. Truth that enflames the senses, pierces the heart and sets the mind ablaze.

Truth isn’t some tiny detail. Truth is reality itself. We breathe truth for if you try to stop breathing, I swear to God, you quickly will know it. Now, that is the force of truth. It ain’t no intellectual game. We have to start getting serious about this reality we all share.

The force of truth can at times hit you like a brick wall. I personally love that sensation. It means I’m awake and still alive. My face smacks up against something that doesn’t move and I start to suspect that there might be something fundamental in front of me. So I reach out into the dark, find a switch, turn it on… and well damn there is a wall right there. What kind of fool tries to walk through a wall? A fool walking in the darkness of ignorance,  I tell ya.

But truth is usually more subtle than that. It creeps up on us. Little bits of info piling up, a comment here and an example there, an observation here and an insight there. Then before ya know it, a new understanding begins to dawn. Usually, though, something finally brings it all together.

I’ll give you two examples, one of each variety: a face-smacking wall and a slow dawning.

The first example is my having learned about sundown towns.

That bit of truth came at me from an angle. I was reading about regional cultures when the author, David Hackett Fischer, made a comment another author’s work (Sundown Towns). So, good truth-seeker that I am, I bought that other book and began reading it. That other author, James W. Loewen, was talking about my particular region. He even mentioned a town I live right next to. Once upon a time, that town had a bunch of black families… and then shortly later all the blacks disappeared. Where did they go? This happened a thousand times over, all across the North.

I knew racism existed in the North, including systemic racism, but I didn’t have a clue that it was so pervasive. I just figured Iowa was naturally a white place where blacks didn’t live in the past. I figured blacks had little interest in living here, until recently that is. I assumed blacks simply went to the big cities because that was where the jobs were. I assumed most blacks wanted to live with blacks in black neighborhoods and ditto for whites with whites, as that has been the basic order of the society I’ve grown up in.

It never occurred to me that after the Civil War large numbers of blacks moved all over this freaking country in every state and in every town, rural and urban, North and South, East and West… but that they soon found they weren’t welcome in many of these places, not welcome in particular neighborhoods or in some cases entire states. Only after this great migration did they all head to the big cities seeking safety in numbers.

I was ignorant of this piece of history. Plain and simple, I was ignorant. Worse still, my white privilege allowed me to remain ignorant for so long. My white skin color and my white Midwestern heritage corresponds with the dominant white culture. Just because I’ve had black friends doesn’t change this condition. My only excuse is that I was ‘educated’ to be ignorant in this way. Sad but true. Ignorance must be learned… and so ignorance must be unlearned.

Reading Loewen’s book on the topic was an educational experience, a brick wall that bluntly forced me to reassess what I thought I knew.

The second example has to do with affirmative action and white privilege.

Over the years, I’ve come across mentions of the relationship of racism to the Populist and Progressive Eras.

For example, I came across the intriguing fact that the KKK supported universal public schooling and the banning of child labor. The reason they took this position was because kids, black and white, were competing for the same jobs that KKK members wanted for themselves. So, if you got the kids out of the factories, you had to justify it by sending them somewhere and public schools made for a good way of keeping the kids occupied, and as any good KKK member knows you particularly want to keep those black kids occupied or else they’ll cause trouble.

Another example I’ve learned about in the past is that black farmers didn’t get the same funding that white farmers received. This was done intentionally, of course. It is no big secret at this point. Just another data point in a long history of racism.

For whatever reason, I didn’t quite fully and coherently think about this in a larger context. It didn’t quite come together, beyond knowing about the general history of racism. I knew many of the details and incidents. And I knew the individual pieces might fit together in various ways. But it took someone else to clearly connect the dots before I saw the picture it formed.

The person in question is another author, Ira Katznelson, and the guilty book is When Affirmative Action Was White. It isn’t a matter of the original intention of many progressive reforms. Racism was rampant, but most people weren’t overtly thinking in terms of racism. Even so, racism was able to trump other concerns by co-opting the policies that were implemented. It became white affirmative action by default. The wording of progressive reform didn’t state it as white affirmative action, but that was the result successfully implemented by the racists in power who wished to maintain their grip on power. Progressivism was just a convenient front for old racial injustices. This is how Jim Crow was rooted in the New Deal.

Framing white privilege as affirmative action helped me to see the profound impact that it has had. It wasn’t just racist policies in the South or even isolated racist incidents in the North. It was a systematic strategy that was nationwide, even if the strongest impetus was in the Jim Crow South. With this new framing, all the pieces of the puzzle came together.

Ignorance is a strange thing. We can’t know we are ignorant for we are ignorant of our being ignorant. We don’t know what we don’t know and we don’t know that there is something we could know, until something forces us to begin to know and then the comfy sweater of our ignorance begins to unravel.

Ignorance upon ignorance, generation after generation. All of this ignorance, individual and collective, took a long while to be learned. It took our entire history, in fact. And so it will take a very long time to unlearn. We should see others in this more forgiving light, especially older generations. But a forgiving attitude can be a hard thing to hold onto when the stakes are so high. Culpability must be accepted, even if the blame game isn’t helpful.

In this regard, my parents are typical of their generation… or I should say they are typical of white Americans of their generation… a generation, by the way, that was born and raised when Jim Crow laws were at their height and were well into adulthood when the Voting Rights Act was passed. If anything, they should personally know of the effects of racism better than I know it for they saw it when it was truly powerful as a blatant political force. But they don’t know what they don’t want to know, don’t know what offers them no personal benefit to know. No surprise to that normal human response toward uncomfortable truths.

My mom doesn’t see white privilege at all, even though she obviously benefited from it. My dad’s thinking is a bit more nuanced. But all my dad can offer, when his good fortune is pointed out, is that God must have been looking out for him. I guess God disproportionately looks out for whites and in particular middle class white males. It never occurs to him to consider the possibility that he is no more worthy of divine intervention than all the poor minorities. I’ve heard that Jesus message is specifically about helping the least among us, but I guess that doesn’t apply to issues like racial oppression and prejudice. God, after all, is a conservative, maybe even a right-winger. There are even rumors that God is white.

Joking aside, my parents are as much the product of their environments as I am of mine. They simply believe what they were raised to believe, speak what they were taught to know. It is their truth, even if it isn’t objective fact. I don’t wish to deny my parents’ sense of truth in their pride in having worked hard or even that God has looked kindly upon them. Those are their truths. But a personal truth becomes an untruth when uprooted from the larger truth of our shared reality. The trick is to begin with the truths you know and from there expand your vision. Attacking someone’s truth, however, creates fear and doesn’t encourage them to expand their vision.

I can feel righteous at times, but it’s hard to maintain righteousness. We are all ignorant to varying degrees and in various ways. Still, I want to be righteous about truth and righteous for the right reasons. It really does matter. For that reason, I want people to see the truth, be it a brick wall to their face or a dawning of the light.

More than anything, I respect not just truth but a passionate zeal for truth. We can’t let ignorance get us down, not even our own. We have to be brutally honest, especially with ourselves. Words must not be minced.

Now, here is the kind of thing that inspires me, that gets my juices going. Tim Wise is a truth-teller about racism, if there ever was one. Listening to him speak, I had to restrain myself from yelling out loud ‘Amen’ and ‘Praise the Lord’. Maybe it isn’t the eloquence of an MLK speech, but it sure does hit the spot. All the MSM BS makes me downright hungry for a healthy heaping plateful of simple straightforward meat-and-potatoes truth-telling.