in Black and White
When I was in college, I spent a lot of time on issues of
racial justice. I spent a nerve-wracking evening standing
on a Cleveland corner with a small group of fellow students
shouting “Win the game, lose the name!” as hordes of Indians
fans surged past me, annoyed that anything might disrupt their
enjoyment of a long-in-coming winning season. I trailed along
with a group of students who barged into the dining area of
one of the crunchiest vegan co-ops on campus to call them
on a racist stereotype they’d drawn in a party invitation.
I beat my head against a wall trying to get the environmental-studies
department to take environmental justice seriously. Race relations
were a constant minefield.
When I took a summer internship at a community group in Trenton,
N.J., that had a thoroughly integrated staff, I remember feeling
relieved to just work alongside people of different races
on a common goal. It was amazingly easy after all the tense
discussions about privilege, safe-spaces, and appropriate
terminology. “I finally get a chance to live it instead of
being tested on it,” I remember explaining to friends.
I sometimes have a tendency to think of that time in college
as one where all of us, of all colors, were hypersensitive
in a way that college students can be to any part of their
lives, focusing in on tiny details because they can afford
the brain space. It can feel like my internship experience
was much more like the real world, and much more relevant
to it. In many ways that’s true.
But one part I didn’t have then though, is an understanding
of how the physical legacies of racism are linked with the
very personal prejudices in an ugly little reinforcing cycle.
While doing some research on Flint, Mich., recently, I had
a little refresher course in how all of our older regions
are still explicitly shaped by the legacy of a time when blatant
racism and segregation was part of federal policy. After the
Depression, first the Home Owners Loan Corporation, then the
Federal Housing Administration, and then loans through the
GI Bill provided huge numbers of families an affordable route
into homeownership. Since the middle class’s wealth has largely
been built from their home values, you can say these programs
created the current middle class.
But they all “redlined.” They wouldn’t lend to African Americans,
nor would they lend in neighborhoods where African Americans
lived. This wasn’t stamped out until 1970. These programs,
and the highway construction that followed, caused white flight
by offering homeownership—but only to whites and only in the
suburbs. The remaining city neighborhoods got more segregated
and, without access to capital, more rundown. African American
families on average are still trying to play catch-up based
on the home equity their grandparents and parents were not
allowed to build. In terms of generational wealth-building,
this just wasn’t that long ago.
This is not a new story. Any student of American urban history
or urban planning knows it. But what isn’t so often acknowledged
is how hard the cycle it started is to break, even though
we now have laws and all sorts of programs intended to level
the playing field in terms of access to capital.
Rolf Pendall, a professor at Cornell University who recently
did a series of reports on upstate cities for the Brookings
Institution, explained it this way in an e-mail message to
me: “Upstate’s small cities—and even more so their school
districts—are to a very great extent ‘branded’ by the average
(suburban) white non-Hispanic resident of their own metro
areas as being ‘where African Americans live.’ ” (All of upstate’s
cities are actually still majority white, but they all have
a much higher concentration of other races than their surrounding
metros.) Pendall adds, “When they (we) observe an unusually
high concentration of people with dark skin, they infer that
there are problems in that place and avoid it.”
Or, put the other way around, white suburbanites observe the
various problems cities are struggling with and the higher
concentration of people of color living in those cities, and
decide that the two are causally related. This keeps them
from identifying with, visiting, or wanting to support their
region’s cities, and it keeps white flight happening in integrating
neighborhoods, even without preferential government loans.
Case in point: The fabulous book Natural Areas of Albany
County, put out by ECOS: The Environmental Clearinghouse,
describes all the parks and wilderness areas open to the public
throughout the county. Each entry has a section for “cautions.”
Usually this line says something about either poison ivy or
eroded slopes on the trail, but for Albany’s Washington Park
it says this: “This is an urban environment so always plan
to enjoy the park with a friend.” Oh good. Hike alone along
eroded trails in the middle of nowhere where your cell phone
may not work, but if you’re going to join the lunchtime crowd
in Washington Park, bring backup.
They don’t say anything about race, but it is telling that
the Cohoes Falls Overlook Park is also in a distinctly urban
environment, just one that is whiter, and it merits no such
warning. This stuff is insidious.
I don’t have a quick fix. But I do know that pretending the
ripple effects of racism are not still affecting our regional
growth and city health is a good way to keep us on the path
to never-ending sprawl and urban blight. Not to mention fewer
people enjoying places like Washington Park.