In a popular U.S. high school history textbook, The Americans, there is only one sentence—in passive voice—on housing discrimination among more than 1200 pages of text: “African-Americans found themselves forced into segregated neighborhoods.”
So noted researcher Richard Rothstein, who cited this fact as an exemplar of American “collective amnesia” when it comes to how we discuss segregation. Such disingenuousness, he told the City Club of Cleveland, keeps our nation from righting past wrongs.
In October, the Economic Policy Institute published Rothstein’s latest scholarship: “The Making of Ferguson: Public Policy at Root of its Troubles.” This work, praised for its incisive analysis by Ta-Nehisi Coates, synthesized the cumulative effects of decades of discriminatory policies on black citizens in the St. Louis, Missouri region.
With minimal use of his notes, Rothstein drew a precise and powerful link between the current achievement gap among the races and our country’s legacy of inequality. “We do not have de facto segregation in this country,” he maintained, to murmurs of agreement in the audience. “We have explicit racial apartheid and we have forgotten the history of how this came about.”
Rothstein devoted the bulk of his City Club presentation to revisiting this history, beginning with the public policies in the 1940s that restricted black families to crowded public housing units and prevented black veterans from taking full advantage of the housing benefits in the G.I. Bill after World War II. Those national policy decisions stripped black families of the opportunity to generate the generational wealth enjoyed by whites.
Levittown, a Long Island, N.Y. suburb that boomed in the 1940s, makes a poignant example. Rothstein estimates that white homeowners who purchased their residences in the 1950s saw a 200% increase in equity in the following decades, which often sent children to college or enhanced businesses.
Simply outlawing discrimination doesn’t remedy years of injury, Rothstein argued, particularly as the effect of housing inequity still plagues American schools today: “We have a constitutional obligation to undo this history. It was not an accident. It was created under public policy. We have an obligation to reverse it.”
Rothstein also recommends reforms in the labor market, including the end of unpredictable scheduling for many low-wage occupations, overwhelmingly held by parents of color. Fifty percent of all black hourly workers receive their weekly schedules less than one week in advance, he noted, making it difficult to find consistent childcare or set mealtimes. “Giving parents stable work lives would do more to close the achievement gap than any education reform we can talk about.”
Questions from the audience were measured, including two from local high school students. Anthony Price from Shaw High School asked if Rothstein had suggestions for young people in eradicating inequality, in light of a recent City Club forum that placed youth at the center of the conversation, which he moderated. Rothstein circled back to his textbook example. “Educate yourselves about this history and insist that it become part of the curriculum,” he said to applause.
Will Congress or the Supreme Court address modern segregation? Rothstein insisted on the long view: “It’s going to take a long process of reeducating the American public. The Supreme Court is not going to go where we fear to go.”
by Jasmine Banks
My friend Kelly mentioned on Facebook she was headed to the Ferguson Municipal Library to help them process some donations they’d received. I quickly Googled the distance and upon seeing it was a five-hour drive, I volunteered to help.
I didn’t feel prepared because I didn’t know how to prepare to enter into a space that has been so charged by both hate and hope. How do you prepare for the starkest parts of the reality of our humanity to be reflected back at you? Reading that line back feels trite or an attempt to be poetic, but it isn’t.
The aftermath of Ferguson is a testimony. You can see both hate and hope scrawled in spray paint on damaged and demolished buildings. Ferguson, and other places that have experienced similar unrest and upheaval, bring the covert out of hiding and make it overt.
Continue reading this post at JustJasmineBlog.com.
Jasmine is a freelance writer with a B.S. in psychology and an M.A. in community counseling who writes about everything and nothing at all. You can follow her on Twitter as @Djazzo
The veteran Civil Rights leader, survivor of a concussion and beating from Alabama State Troopers on Bloody Sunday, asks in a new essay: “If Bloody Sunday took place in Ferguson today, would Americans be shocked enough to do anything about it?”
Lewis, winner of an Anisfield-Wolf Book Award for his memoir “Walking With the Wind,” sees the recent police killings of unarmed black people as representing “a glimpse of a different America most Americans have found it inconvenient to confront.”
Writing in the Atlantic, Lewis’ words are tinged with weariness. In his essay, he draws on a 1967 speech by Martin Luther King Jr., in which King tells of the “other America,” one in which justice doesn’t come easy, if at all. Black Americans have been continually “swept up like rubbish by the hard, unforgiving hand of the law,” the Georgia Congressman writes.
“Ever since black men first came to these shores we have been targets of wanton aggression,” writes Lewis, 79. “We have been maimed, drugged, lynched, burned, jailed, enslaved, chained, disfigured, dismembered, drowned, shot, and killed. As a black man, I have to ask why. What is it that drives this carnage? Is it fear? Fear of what? Why is this nation still so willing to suspend the compassion it gives freely to others when the victims are men who are black or brown?”
Lewis is still marching toward a society where African-Americans might enjoy equal protection under the law: “One recent study reports that one black man is killed by police or vigilantes in our country every 28 hours, almost one a day. Doesn’t that bother you?”
Read the full post at The Atlantic.
Hours after authorities announced that the grand jury in Ferguson, Mo., would not indict police officer Darren Wilson for killing unarmed teenager Michael Brown, The Strivers Row – a performance collective in New York City — began posting poems to its Facebook page.
One was “Sing It As The Spirit Leads,” Joshua Bennett’s forceful ode to black excellence written after George Zimmerman was acquitted in 2013 of killing Florida teen Trayvon Martin. Bennett begins by echoing the last stanza of a Lucille Clifton poem: “Come, celebrate with me. Every day something has tried to kill me and failed.”
Bennett performed the poem a year ago at Kent State University, where he told the audience that he writes to dig at the truth and help listeners and readers shed shame. “Poems should be archeology,” he said. “Write the things that cost you. Every poem has to cost you something if it’s going to be good.”
Here is a snippet of his poem, “Sing It As the Spirit Leads“:
I exist in excess of my anguish.
I am not invisible. I am a beam of light
too brilliant for untrained vision.
I am not target practice. I am not a bullseye with rhythm.
This breath is no illegal substance.
A ballad for the youngest son
How he survives beat cops that
see Caesars and seize up
scream “Freeze! Hands up!”
Watch Joshua Bennett perform “Sing It As The Spirit Leads” in full above.
When Atlantic Monthly correspondent Ta-Nehisi Coates’ spoke in Cleveland in August about reparations, he touched only briefly on the killing of Michael Brown, an unarmed black teenager, in Ferguson, Mo., earlier that month.
“All I want to see is some history of the housing there,” he said. “We can begin with Mike Brown laying on the ground and folks rioting. But there’s just a whole host of questions behind that. How did his family get to live there? What are the conditions like? What’s going on there?”
Researcher Richard Rothstein at the Economic Policy Institute has dug up some of the answers in his new report, “The Making of Ferguson: Public Policy at the Root of its Troubles.” On Twitter, Coates called it the “best researched piece I’ve seen to come out of all this.”
Policies on zoning, segregated public housing, bank redlining and federal subsidies diverted from black communities all did cumulative harm, Rothstein argues.
“Government policies turned black neighborhoods into overcrowded slums and white families came to associate African Americans with slum characteristics,” Rothstein writes. “White homeowners then fled when African Americans moved nearby, fearing their new neighbors would bring slum conditions with them.”
In his own column covering Rothstein’s report, Coates reiterates: “The geography of America would be unrecognizable today without the racist social engineering of the mid-20th century.”
Rothstein calls for a more systemic lens to address decades of discrimination: “When we blame private prejudice, suburban snobbishness, and black poverty for contemporary segregation, we not only whitewash our own history but avoid considering whether new policies might instead promote an integrated community.”
The full report is available on the Institute’s website. Rothstein will speak at the City Club of Cleveland on February 13, 2015. Tickets will be available at a later date.
Journalist Ta-Nehisi Coates, national correspondent for The Atlantic magazine, walked to the lectern at the City Club of Cleveland and managed to distill two years of work on “The Case for Reparations” into an eight-word thesis: “What you have taken should be given back.” It’s time, he argues, for America’s moral reckoning with the legacy of slavery.
For Coates, 38, the spotlight has never been brighter. His 15,000-word article in The Atlantic, buttressed by original research, an extensive bibliography and film clips, broke the record for single-day traffic on the magazine’s website when it was published May 21.
Coates took comic Stephen Colbert’s jabs on “The Colbert Report.” At MSNBC, Melissa Harris-Perry invited Coates onto her eponymous show, while Bill Moyers provided an argument-expounding forum on PBS. But Coates, who brought to the City Club both father, William Paul Coates, and an iPad full of notes, was humble. He defined patriotism as “love of country” and pointed out that—just as his father loves him and his wife loves him—love rarely involves telling him what he wants to hear. Mature love, mature patriotism, means facing the things that do not credit the beloved.
Asked by an audience member what reparations would look like, Coates suggested that they could resemble the reparations the U.S. government provided the Japanese-Americans wrongly interned during World War II and the financial compensation made to Jews by the German nation after the same war. He stressed that housing and educational policies of discrimination and racism harm African-Americans to this day and that the same policies undergird white supremacy.
The Baltimore native arrived at the Atlantic in 2008 after stints at Time magazine and the Village Voice. Coates’ regular column at The Atlantic has become a hub of intellectual discourse on the web, where he has held court on everything from the NFL banning the N-word to President Obama’s reproach of young black men in a commencement speech at Morehouse College. Asked about the state of investigative journalism, Coates stressed that his magazine editors put substantial resources into richly documenting “The Case for Reparations” and creating a full multimedia narrative as well.
Coates insists on history. “You have to imagine a society where owning people is not just legal but our greatest intellectuals are arguing that it’s morally correct,” Coates told a silent crowd. “We have to learn to consider enslavement, in that time, as legit an institution as home-ownership is, in this time.” He called out Natchez, Miss., not New York City, as home to the largest concentration of multimillionaires in 1860’s America. This is because it was the major hub for slave trading.
One of Coates’ admirable traits is his quick acknowledgment of his limitations. He told the audience that he had dropped out of college; he demurred from answering a question that he didn’t feel well-read enough to take on. He said that in June he started a seven-week French immersion class at Vermont’s Middleburg College. “I just wanted to go someplace where I was the dumbest person there. I was just bumbling around; I was making mistakes. Because it’s good to be reminded that it’s not about you.”
The best thing to come out of writing the reparations article was that “now I know,” Coates said. “And I can’t be lied to.”
Briefly, he mentioned protests in Ferguson, Missouri, aching to use historical context to uncover an accurate picture. He asked what police—who have used toxic language and intimidating displays of force on protesters and journalists—might have done before the eyes of the nation were upon them. He suggested that those in the audience with white bodies need not worry about a day when they would be shot dead in the afternoon and left in the street for four hours, as happened August 9 when Ferguson Policeman Darren Wilson shot and killed Michael Brown, an unarmed teenager. “All I want to see is some history of the housing there. We can begin with Mike Brown laying on the ground and folks rioting. But there’s just a whole host of questions behind that. How did his family get to live there? What are the conditions like? What’s going on there?”
Twice during his talk, Coates spoke of the mental and spiritual strain that accompanies being black in America, and his wonder at the continuing optimism of African Americans. He prescribed international travel. “Because this thing will consume you,” he said. “It will eat you. It will eat your soul. It will make you forget you’re a human being with particular likes and dislikes and things that make you different…You are more than a problem that needs to be fixed. It’s important, for our own mental health, to get out every once in a while.”