Forced Segregation: A Neighborhood Story
(This article originally appeared in Revolutionary Worker #895, February 23, 1997)
During the 1950s and 1960s, millions of Black people moved from southern plantations to the urban areas, particularly of the North but also in the South. And as we pointed out in Cold Truth Liberating Truth, the very system which first held Black people in literal enslavement, and then held them in serf-like exploitation in sharecropping and other forms--the same ruling class for whom this was profitable because of the particularities of the bourgeois mode of production in the U.S.--this same system and ruling class turned around after World War 2 and drove the Black people off their land, with no consideration for all the labor that they'd put into this land, and everything they'd produced out of it.
Now we hear ignorant people who say: "My family came to the U.S. from Poland (or wherever), and we had to live in a poor neighborhood, but we all worked hard, went to church on Sundays and my parents worked and gave us a good home, and after a while my parents worked their way into better jobs and we moved out, into better housing. How come these Black people can't do this?" Or they say: "What's wrong with these immigrants from Latin America who don't even speak the right language. We spoke English when we got to the U.S. Sure we spoke Polish in our home, but we learned how to speak English. What's wrong with these people?"
Again I'll go back to the PBS series, "The Promised Land"--which brought out very powerfully the experience of Black people in this migration to the North after World War 2--and to some reality that is brought out in a book called "The Land of Opportunity." This is a very interesting book about the Chambers brothers--not the musicians who were from Mississippi but the drug dealers who came up from Lee County, Arkansas to Detroit in the 1970s and '80s and became very big-time drug dealers for a while, then got busted down by the Feds. This is a very well-written book--it has a certain social democratic outlook but it has a lot of good exposure and analysis--the author sort of weaves the narrative back and forth between the descriptions of the conditions of oppression and exploitation in this plantation area of Lee County, Arkansas, and what's happening to Black people as they came into the cities during the '60s, '70s and '80s, as they left places like Lee County, Arkansas, whenever they could.
And he describes this phenomenon, which was gone into in "The Promised Land" series, about how when Black people would come into the city, they'd move into certain neighborhoods. Some of the white people would move out and the Black people would be concentrated in these neighborhoods, and the population density would go way up. This was not because the Black families were having a whole lot more children than anybody else, but because they were contained in these areas by actual real estate policies and by the overall policy and action of the ruling class. They were not allowed to move on up and out. They were forced to stay overwhelmingly in these areas. They were contained in these areas, and so the population density went up tremendously.
And the same thing happened in Chicago. Families moved to Chicago and then they tried to move to some of these places like Berwyn and Cicero, which are sort of reactionary white enclaves around Chicago, and they were literally attacked by mobs in which the police (on and off duty) often played a major role.
Here again, Black people were forced out of these areas. When they bought houses in these areas, their houses were burned, and so on. They were maneuvered and they were terrorized out of moving into those areas then, because the system could not allow this without throwing the whole structure of society, the base and the superstructure, into the air, and basically ripping apart the very fabric of the whole society.
Seeing Reality Upside Down
When I was living in the Chicago area in the '70s, I saw this myself. You'd hear some of these white people that had moved out to the suburbs, then they'd move again further out to other suburbs, or whatever, and they'd come back to their old neighborhoods. (I was living in one of them at the time). And you'd hear them start talking about the Black people, and Latinos and other immigrants who lived there now. They would say (with that certain attitude that calls to mind Mark Twain's comment that what you need to get along in America is the perfect combination of ignorance and arrogance): "Well, you know, when we lived here it was a really nice neighborhood, but now it's a dump. All these people came in and the whole thing became a dump."
You'd have to try to explain to them, that they got cause and effect reversed. The place became a dump, and then the Black people, and others who were previously kept out, were brought in to the neighborhood, or allowed to come in there. And it was systematically turned into a dump, not by the new residents but by the banks, insurance companies, real estate concerns, and others who speculated in the land and housing, along with the government. The new residents not only were not the cause of this, but they were not able, not allowed, to do anything about it.
What would happen--and this happened in neighborhood after neighborhood in Chicago--is that Black people would buy a house in one of these neighborhoods, they'd get a loan to buy the house. But then the houses needed repair. Often the houses that people could afford, with the income they earned, would be a house that needed some work on it--that's what they could get a down payment for. But to do work on a house you've got to get another loan. But no, they found they couldn't get a loan to fix up the house, because the bank didn't think it was profitable. It's much more profitable for the bank to let you buy the house, default on your mortgage, then buy it up and sell it again--make a big profit and do this three or four times.
But in discussing it with these white former residents--themselves often recent immigrants from Europe--I found it took a long time to get through the density that their minds had been filled with to try to get them to understand what the actual process was, how the actual underlying dynamics of the system and the operation of economic forces as well as conscious policy, on the part of the government and other institutions, worked in this way. Sometimes when you would try to explain this, people would accuse you of being paranoid, of indulging in conspiracy theories.
But, when people talk about conspiracies, I just have to say, well you know, we are talking about the ruling class that took blankets and deliberately infested them with smallpox and sold them to the Indians! This is the same ruling class that killed off the Buffalo to make the Indians' way of life impossible and to steal their land! This is the same ruling class that infected Black men with syphilis and then didn't treat them, in order to "study" the results! And on, and on. So, don't tell me about "paranoid conspiracy theories" when I'm trying to talk about what this ruling class is doing now. And, in fact, while there are some conspiracy theories that are real lunacy--especially some of those spouted by these right-wing militia people and similar types--the fact is that, overall, the worst conspiracies that we attribute to the ruling class probably don't come near to capturing the depth and extent of the evil they have conspired--and are continuing to conspire--to do.
And the running down of neighborhoods in connection with Black people and other oppressed peoples moving into these neighborhoods, has been a matter of very conscious and systematic policy on the part of the ruling class as well as the more "blind" operation of the dynamics of capitalist economics.
Another dimension to this, besides home ownership, is rental housing. For example, I knew of a number of neighborhoods, including some in Chicago where I lived, where the apartments that people lived in had once been single-family rather than multiple-family dwellings (as they say), or an apartment building maybe originally only had two apartments, maybe an upper flat and a lower flat, and that'd be it.
But then when one group of people moved out, the landlord--and various lending institutions, and so on--would find it very profitable to basically redo the apartments so there'd be six apartments in the same building, which would mean you'd have to rewire it, and re-do all the plumbing. Well, this building and its wiring and its plumbing were not made to have that many people in it, to have that many separate units, each with their own electricity and plumbing--they weren't able to take that kind of strain on the wiring and plumbing. So the wiring begins to break down, the plumbing begins to break down, and the landlord's not going to invest any money to make these repairs. So the place deteriorates.
And segregation, which for a long time kept Black people out of these neighborhoods, now keeps them in--prevents them from moving out to other neighborhoods, keeps them trapped in these places after they're collapsing around them. And, again, that's why the population density goes up--because of the enforced segregation--enforced not only through real estate policy, banking policy, and the policy of other institutions, but by outright legal and extra-legal terror.
So, when the Civil Rights Movement challenged all these kinds of things, this was another crucial turning point where the system was faced with the decisive question: Will there really and finally be an end to all this discrimination and oppression. Will there really and finally be full equality for the masses of Black people in particular? And the answer came back a resounding NO! There will not be and there cannot be. Segregation and discrimination will be upheld by this system--with force and brutality. Masses of Black people will be contained and suppressed in the inner cities. And even while the power structure allows certain concessions to favor the growth of "the Black middle class," with the aim of using this to defuse outrage, even those in this "Black middle class" will not be able to escape the discrimination and a kind of "resegregation," in their neighborhoods and on their jobs, along with the continual racist insults, big and small, that mark daily life.
Segregation and discrimination--and all the various oppressive and repressive conditions that make up daily life for Black people, and other oppressed peoples--these are not a "choice" they have made. These are conditions that have been imposed on them, by the system and its enforcers.
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