“We have to talk about liberating minds as well as liberating society”-Angela Davis
If I told you about a group of people who have been disenfranchised, marginalized, and consciously barred from the same opportunity as an historically privileged group, would you begin to discuss this condition by condemning values which are sometimes erroneously perceived to be inherent within that oppressed group? Or would you begin with the system that created this space in the first place?
The purpose of this article is to provide historical context for people who may be deluded by essentially racist ideas. More specifically, people who believe or often allude to the idea that serious issues within our community are mainly due to the pathology of the people who live there (predominantly people of color). This article argues that while I do think the way to initially deal with the problems that prevail today is through honest conversation, we cannot ignore history as a foundation. Moreover, I argue we cannot make significant progress by falsely reducing the racialization of urban communities to the failure of the people who reside in these spaces, but rather it was created through physical isolation from oppurtunity, unscrupulous programs, and the US media
Creating the Urban Space
The physical isolation of urban communities dates back as far as the 1930s with the Federal Housing Act. In 1934, the Federal Housing Act intended to stimulate homeownership by providing government support to private lenders for people trying to buy homes. The Federal Housing Agency grew out of this, and with overtly racist policies, channeled loan money away from communities of color to the whites who lived in suburban areas. In the 1940s, the FHA made efforts to prevent foreclosure as a result of the Great Depression. The discrimination of non whites was apparent not only in their exclusion from tax exemptions or underwritten mortgages, but these policies enabled the whites who lived in the inner cities at the time to join the other whites who lived in the suburbs. This movement of white people out of communities of color is a significant foundation of what was yet to come. Suburbs began establishing “zoning” regulations, land-use policies, that made it virtually impossible for non whites to enter that space. From 1934 to 1962, the FHA financed more than $120 billion for new housing and less than 2 percent of this real estate was available to non whites. As a result, the whites who remained in urban space that wanted to reside in close proximity to their place of employment could do so. Highway systems were simultaneously built for the whites who now lived in the suburbs and who still worked in the cities. These highways, however, acted as a barrier between communities of color and white suburbia, reinforcing segregation.
The migration of black people from the south to northern cities as refugees from the American terrorism known as Jim Crow moved to these cities as well. Black people moved to these cities not only as refugess, but for employment oppurtunities. This effort, however, only expanded the Urban community while black people from the south faced the same discrimination and denial of access to these jobs. Following World War II in the 1950s, a trend arose where manufacturing jobs were becoming available to blacks residing in urban areas. By 1968, these jobs began to diminish partly due to a transition to a service economy instead of a goods- producing economy. Secondary service jobs left the community as well and did not return and believed to be because of the riots that took place. But even New York, where riots did not occur, manufacturing jobs in inner cities declined by 520,000.
As a result, Middle class black people were migrating out of these low income communities into the suburbs. These better-educated, younger residents often qualified for the higher paying service jobs that existed among white people in their communities. Moreover, these middle class residents were trying to escape an environment that was becoming unsafe. In the early 1970s, there were pressures to integrate which allowed black people to reside there, but the suburban communities maintained their zoning policies, and only extended entry to educated or to the “affluent” black people. Problems still persisted for urban residents who still lived in the inner cities who aspired for employment in suburbs where the jobs were. Most residents relied on public transportation and did not own a car (public transportation would not sync with times for work). Many urban residents feared racial harassment and would have to prepare three hours or more prior to work, rendering the aspiration somewhat unrealistic. Meanwhile, immigrants who were often other nonwhite minorities subjected to the same social status, were beginning to move in the Urban community. However, poor immigrant residents depressed wages available by accepting lower wages.
Characterizing the urban space
The more isolated urban residents were becoming from oppurtunity from the non-poor, the more businesses were leaving, the more deterioration in the community was taking place. Schools in urban neighborhoods became characterized by out-of-date textbooks, crowded classrooms, curricula that was not stimulating, and teachers with little faith in students to succeed. As a result, drop out rates ranged from 30 to 50 percent among black males in the 1970s and 1980s. Health services lost interest in providing these communities as well as residents lacked insurance. The quality of other basic services were bottoming out as well, such as garbage pick up, public lighting, and fire and ambulance services, due to a lack of tax base to support them.
Unscrupulous lenders and programs perpetuated social deteriorarion in the Urban community. The dishonest housing programs of the 1930s, 1940s, and 1950s made it very easy for whites to get loans and virtually unaffordable for inner city non whites. The realtors, predominantly white, could then overcharge black people for increasingly substandard homes to rent. While taxes were simultaneously raised on inner city residents due to a lack of tax revenue as a result of tax abatements given to the Auto industries. The Housing and Urban Development Act of 1968 was supposed to end discrimination of previous policies by providing more public housing to the poor, through loans and by subsidizing interest. This program led, however, to many of these already substandard houses to be foreclosed on, providing great profit to the lenders. Inflation of the housing costs ensued to continue this profit to the predominately white lenders. Banks were starting to foreclose on the mortgage loans of these uninspected substandard homes, ruining the neighborhood. The Department of HUD began to red-line urban communities ( make ineligible for future loans) which led to many landlords’ abandonment of these spaces. This ultimately turned this space into empty buildings for illegal activity to take place. This neglect also made these areas susceptible to be chosen for sewage sites, landfills, and children being exposed to lead or radon in the water with no accountability to the people responsible for essentially poisoning communities.
Racialization in the US media
The US media played a significant role in shaping public perception of poverty. According to a 2003 study conducted by Martin Gleins, black people have been over represented in newspapers and television. More specifically, these media outlets have used a disproportionate amount of pictures including black people when delivering stories on poverty in a way that obscures the truth. For example, in the period of 1967 to 1992, Black people averaged 57 percent of the poor people depicted in the three most prominent magazines (Time, Newsweek, and US News and World Report) covering topics concerning the poor. When in reality, African people only represented 29.3 percent of poor people in America during this period.
In addition to this over representation in images alone, black people became associated with a negative image as well. Coverage of programs in the 1960s such as the Job Corps, one of the first War on Poverty programs to earn recognition became associated with irresponsible members. Stories focused on inadequate facilities and high drop out rates. Although the stories were not explicitly talking about black Job Corp participants, black people represented 55 percent of the people pictured. This percentage of pictures of black people was not nearly as high as the more neutral stories on poverty.
Gleins also uses the term sympathetic when talking about the differing images potrayed amongst black and white people in poverty. In News magazine coverage from 1950-1992, pictures of black people in poverty represented 100 percent of the pictures when covering topics of urban underclass. Urban underclass has come to be defined as the “unsympathetic” topics of poverty, such as not working, having children out-of -wedlock, crimes, drugs, and “welfare dependency as a way of life.” While black people do make up a large proportion of the underclass, considering this definition of the underclass, this would include 40 percent nonblacks, as opposed to 100 percent represented in the news. One of the most sympathetic topics of welfare, Old age assistance, include pictures exclusively with poor white people. While another very sympathetic topic, hunger, only shows 25 percent of black people coping with this.
This misrepresentation inevitably leads to a negative perception about black people living in poverty. According to the same study mentioned above, if the media does not shape this negative opinion about poor black people, then belief can be shaped through conversation with friends or acquaintances, or through personal encounter with the poor. If your belief is molded through conversation with people, then one must inquire where they learned of their beliefs. If your belief is shaped through encounter with the poor, then the belief should correspond to the mix of poor people in the area in which you live. But this does not seem to be case. For example, in Oregon and Washington, where black people only make up 6 percent of the poor, residents of these states believe black people make up 47 percent of the poor people in America. This is quite a perception given the reality that black people only represent 6 percent of poor people in America living in urban ghettos.
All of these conditions can easily be seen as the foundation of a system set out to collectively punish poor people of African decent for being poor. Urban city residents have been left without the same oppurtunity, along with being barred from substantial employment. Additionally, members of the Urban community have been taken advantage of by dishonest, usually white, lenders and realtors. The fact that these historical realities exist today is why honest conversation is necessary. People often cannot see where people who deal with oppression are coming from because they do not come from the same walk of life. I challenge people to empathize with others and not to let delusions grown out of white supremacy totally guide your conversation. Because there are many things you will find in the community. You will find upward mobility, community involvment, and people who reside there by choice to create a better way for others. As someone who will continue to bring attention to the injustices of my people, I remind people of a quote from Desmond Tutu that will always ring true: “If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor.” In this case, however, it is not just being neutral that leaves you on the side of the opressor, but also being deluded to a system created by the oppressor as well.