How Ghettos Grow

Segregation looks different today than it did in the past. But it is far from having disappeared. That is the result of segregation politics, which have operated for decades.

“‘What do you want wit me, officer?’ I asked. ‘I want you to come with me.’ ‘I’m under arrest?’ ‘No. No, not at all, Mr. Rawlins.’ I knew when he called me mister that the LAPD needed my services again. Every once in a while the law sent over one of their few black representatives to ask me to go into the places where they never could go…” – with the black ghetto leading the list.” (“White Butterfly” by Walter Mosley)

Crime novelist Walter Mosley’s black detective, Easy Rawlins, investigates the black ghetto in the 1950s and 1960s, and Rawlins quite incidentally experiences the prevailing racism that existed before and during the civil rights movement.

What’s distressing about current events in Ferguson is that there is substantial doubt as to whether the situation of blacks in the U.S. has improved over the last 50 years, as Martin Luther King once hoped, despite the fact that segregation and public discrimination were abolished.

Whoever looks at the distribution of wealth and poverty, the number of victims of police violence and disadvantages in education, employment and housing must question whether the civil rights movement achieved its goals. Naturally, discrimination today is not as obvious. Mobs of Ku Klux Klan members no longer lynch black people; instead, the Klan is parodied, as in Quentin Tarantino’s film “Django,” for example. But more subtle forms of discrimination that should no longer exist are still in effect today.

A hearing before the Commission on Civil Rights in 1970 illustrates this very graphically. Adel Allen, a successful engineer who was black described moving into a white neighborhood in St. Louis. He had hardly moved in when he saw “For Sale” signs in yards everywhere. Eight years later, 30 black homeowners and only two white homeowners lived in the neighborhood. Shortly after he moved in, police patrols increased in the district. “I didn’t know if they were protecting me or wanted to protect someone from me,” he said.

Yet that was far from the end. Today, one can see the results of a process, which sociologists have observed in many neighborhoods where, over time, more blacks than whites live.

“Our trash pickups had been regular and handled with dignity. The street lighting was always up to par… But we now had the most inadequate lighting in the city. People from the other sections of town … now left their cars parked on our streets when they want to abandon them… What they were creating was a ghetto in process. The buildings were maintained better by owners than they were when they were white, but the city services were much less.” In addition, schools were more poorly funded; the crime rate rose.

Ferguson is a significant example of such a development. In 1970, blacks represented one percent of the population in a then prosperous city. In 1990, blacks already represented 25 percent of the population, in 2000 blacks represented 53 percent and today, they represent almost 70 percent. The white middle class is fleeing to segregated areas. Integrated communities only exist during periods of transition among populations, according to social scientist Richard Rothstein, who researches this phenomenon.

Breaking Up Ghettoization

Rothstein further points out that city planning policies of previous decades substantially contributed to segregation. These policies have – in part illegally – organized residential neighborhoods so that white people remain together among themselves. City planning did not permit the establishment of unsightly air-polluting industries that would depreciate the value of real estate. In contrast, black residential areas were simply declared industrial or commercial zones. Numerous communities in the U.S. enacted such policies and thereby contributed to the substantially poorer conditions under which blacks still live.

The types of discrimination are manifold. The prejudice-laden behavior of the police in Ferguson and other cities is just one area that President Obama, as well as state and local governments, need to address in order to achieve equal rights for black citizens. However, it is especially important to break up ghettoization and improve the societal integration of minorities – because this impacts today’s city planning, education and the job market, and not just for African Americans. The actual problem in society is segregation. If it is not overcome, many more black youths like Michael Brown will continue to die senselessly.

At the end of Walter Mosely’s novel, Detective Easy Rawlins moves into a nice, middle-class development and, Mosely writes, would live happily ever after “if not one more person in the world ever had to face that fate [death].”

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