When I was in high school there were no people of African descent in my whole big high school which, at that time, held 4,000 students. It was only about a ten minute trip from our school to the city schools and yet not one family of color lived in our school district. When the Great Society came along and the Civil Rights Act was signed it seemed that we were on the brink of change. The Housing and the Education provisions of the Great Society legislation should have worked. They should have made the promise of the 60’s and 70’s live on into the present.
However, there were forces working against the laws that were written to engender an end to segregation and to insure equal opportunity for all and most of those forces had white skin. It was not really an organized plan to undermine reform, but many of the perpetrators were aware of their burning desire to stick to the status quo and preserve the separation of the races (even though that very racial distinction we used to learn in school rooms can now be discredited by genetics and DNA analysis). White people did not necessarily want to deny opportunity to people of color, they just did not want to live next door to them, go to school with them, or compete with them for jobs.
During the 60’s and 70’s I lived in the central city and neighborhoods there had that diversity that a university town has. I taught in a program intended to offer educationally and economically disadvantaged adults the chance to go to college. It seemed to me from where I sat as if the Great Society was helping somewhat, but it was easy to see that Americans of African descent were still concentrated in a few cramped areas of the central city. Even so, I thought our city had made inroads into desegregation and offered more equality of opportunity.
When my Dad got ill I wanted to be closer to my Mom who does not drive, so I moved back to that old, predominately white, suburb, and I learned that my Mom’s neighborhood had changed very little. The school district embraced a mere handful of black families and a few Hispanic or Latino families. Thinking about this recently I remembered some of the tricky ways used by some realtors to keep neighborhoods white, to direct homebuyers to districts where they would supposedly feel at home. They looked like they were being considerate of everyone’s roots but they were basically undoing a federal law. Around this same time our factories started to leave, taking thousands of good-paying jobs with them. Competition for fewer jobs turned white workers into disaffected people who were ripe for the tirades of the white supremacist talk radio hosts. The Great Society, for the most part, did not happen. It got short circuited.
When I was reading one of the ‘best long reads’ selections in The Daily Beast a few Sundays back I came across an article written by The Century Foundation and entitled Architecture of Segregation and it is literally about architecture (housing) and how it was used to maintain segregation rather than to encourage diverse neighborhoods (and therefore school districts, shopping districts, and work forces). I was shocked to find my small city, Syracuse, NY named as the number one most segregated city in the nation. Every city likes to be number one, but not in this way. How does a city that is famous for being a stop on the Underground Railroad, that is right next door to the town that Harriet Tubman called home, earn such a sad distinction. The Century Foundation cites the ways that housing was used to bolster the racial divide.
What will the city do to change this situation? Actually changes may already be underway, but only because families with children are finding that drive-by shootings have increased to the point where innocent bystanders are not considered by shooters, and people with the best of standards for their families are losing children because they are simply in the wrong place at a bad time. This is hardly the impetus that anyone would have wished for to break up the blockade between the inner city and the suburbs. However culture does not seem to always follow human planning. Here’s a link to the article in order to add it in to our exploration of racism in today’s America and our search for ways to finally free ourselves of the poison of prejudice.
By Nancy Brisson