Because They Had No Choice

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Because They Had No Choice

Published in the Maryland Daily Record January 3, 2011

            The history of white and black in this country has largely been marked by separateness.  Whites in the manse, blacks in the slave quarters; whites on the paved streets, blacks on the dirt roads; whites in the pleasant neighborhoods, blacks in the ghettos.  My recent reading has given me new insight into how this all happened – and what the future may hold.

            The law had a lot to do with it.  Last year’s book, The Warmth of Other Suns, by Isabel Wilkerson, retells the history of the great African American migration from South to North and West in the early-to-mid-20th Century, and brings back to vivid life the realities of the South, where the majority of the nation’s African-American citizenry lived after slavery.  Through thousands of decisions not to investigate or prosecute, for instance, the justice system there ratified the lynching and violence[1] employed to prevent blacks from intruding on whatever was viewed as white turf, which of course included neighborhoods.  Blacks were systematically frustrated in efforts to obtain education, jobs, and the economic leverage these might have bestowed, which might in turn have enabled (among other things) choices to live where whites did.  Many blacks felt they had no choice but to leave, but that was hard and risky.  In fact, as Wilkerson recounts with many examples, it generally had to be done in clandestine fashion, telling almost no one.  And, unsurprisingly, the refugees had to ride in segregated trains.

            The North and the West were better in lots of ways, but not in terms of separateness, and this was directly enforced by the laws.  Wilkerson describes how the places where the internal immigrants had to settle would inevitably be nonwhite neighborhoods.  Another recent book, Not in My Neighborhood, by journalist Antero Pietila, focuses on the mechanisms that created these segregated outcomes, by examining just one city, Baltimore.  There were two great stages in residential segregation in Baltimore.  First, local ordinances explicitly created residential segregation, by forbidding owners of homes occupied by white people to rent or sell to black purchasers.  Baltimore was a pioneer in this regard, and its ordinances were copied in Northern and Southern cities alike.[2]  Then, after such ordinances were struck down, genteeler means were used: restrictive covenants to forbid the residential mingling of the races as a matter of private contract, mortgage redlining (largely brought about by federal agencies charged with stimulating home loans), and blatant racial segregation in public housing.

            Baltimore’s staunch defense of its geographical color bar produced unimaginable inconvenience, not to say suffering, for the black residents who flooded in during the Great Migration, as they were cooped up in portions of the city that were far too small reasonably to accommodate them.  Overcrowding was endemic, yet there was nowhere else to turn.  As Pietila carefully reconstructs, generations of politicians tried in vain to alleviate the pressure of too much humanity in the ghettos, but with every area, old or new, they tried to open up, they were checkmated by intransigent white interests.  Hence when barriers eventually fell despite the intransigence, they fell in the worst, least planned way, to blockbusters and shoddy landlords and financiers who engineered abusive mortgages that only African Americans, desperate enough to settle for such terms, would be offered or pay.  As a result, while racial boundaries moved, racial boundaries persisted.  Blacks had, again, no choice but to continue living in black neighborhoods.

            Times have changed.  The old segregationist residential boundaries now grow more blurred with each year.  And society has likewise made some concerted efforts to achieve integration in some of our schools.  In many of them, the races now rub shoulders.  One might expect that nonwhites, who have been the disadvantaged parties in most earlier arrangements, would welcome the opportunity to mingle freely.  But it proves not to be that simple.  And here I refer to an older book: “Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria?” by Beverly Tatum now president of Spelman College (1997, second edition 2003).  Her topic remains current (I understand the “black table” is a still fixture at most integrated schools), and she has important things to say about it.

            We should recall that the original desegregation decision, Brown v. Board of Education, was premised on the notion that black students benefit from contact with white ones.  The “black table” discounts that notion, at least to some extent.  Tatum, a developmental psychologist, says that adolescents need to forge an identity, which has to include race.  And in a world where white is the unexamined norm, in diction, in style, and in cultural institutions, and where white individuals reap, often unthinkingly, the benefits of earlier legally-sanctioned privilege, adolescents of color have no choice but to do a lot of extra work.  The “black table” becomes a clearing-house of information relevant to that task and a source of support in facing a difficult situation.  At later stages of development, Tatum suggests, identity gels, and the need for this self-segregation passes to some degree.

            But not entirely.  Tatum posits that black space and white space may remain desirable even after adolescence; the process of placing oneself relative to the racial checkerboard takes less work later on, but never entirely ends.

            This is discouraging.  It would be more in keeping with the policy of Brown if everyone would school and work and live side-by-side and not think about race anymore.   Shouldn’t we be insisting on that right now?  For another thing, as Tatum acknowledges, the “black table” often tends to foster “an oppositional identity that disdains academic achievement.”  Moreover, the whole notion of forming an identity around race is strange, given that race, which has zero biological significance, imparts no traits that are more profound than skin deep.

            Must we go on this way?

            I think the question comes down, in part, to whether human nature can progress.  Face it: humans always have forged their sense of self by the tribes they belong to and live among.  Tribes, whether we call them nations or races or faiths, share the just-mentioned lack of biological significance.  Now that people can mingle without legal interference – now that they do have a choice – will tribalism keep them apart anyway?

            To me, proof exists that the future can be different.  The Emancipation Proclamation, Brown, the Civil Rights Acts, and the creation of a society that could elect a mixed-race president are not just American achievements; they are major human achievements.  They themselves embody but also point further down the path we as a species are following: gradually reconfiguring our psyches to recognize but one race and one tribe: human.  And in this reconfiguration, we Americans lead the world.

            There is a long way to go, however.

            Changing our very nature is hard, and only a work in progress.  Key to continuing that progress, too, will be ending white privilege without passing it on to some other group.  In that regard, the changing demographics ahead, in which no race predominates numerically, pose both promise and threat.  Let us therefore embrace the one and defeat the other.

            We do have and must take that choice.


[1].         Wilkerson quotes a 1933 book, The Tragedy of Lynching, for the statement that “someone was hanged or burned alive every four days from 1889 to 1929.” 

[2].         Pietila at 22-23.

Copyright (c) Jack L. B. Gohn

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