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Cities 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.

—Miriam Axel-Lute

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