The North is just as racist as the South

Ex­cis­ing the old Con­fed­er­ate states won’t make Amer­ica more equal, writes his­to­rian Thomas J. Su­grue

The Washington Post Sunday - - OUTLOOK - Twit­ter: @TomSu­grue Thomas J. Su­grue is a pro­fes­sor of so­cial and cul­tural anal­y­sis and history at New York Univer­sity. He is au­thor of “Sweet Land of Lib­erty: The For­got­ten Strug­gle for Civil Rights in the North.”

The tragic Charleston, S.C., church shoot­ing, in which nine black wor­shipers were killed, al­legedly by a Con­fed­er­ate-flag-sup­port­ing white su­prem­a­cist, has un­leashed a new bat­tle over South­ern cul­ture. Con­fed­er­ate mon­u­ments have been de­faced; lead­ers have de­manded that em­blems of the Con­fed­er­acy be erased from li­cense plates and public parks; schools in Texas, Louisiana and Alabama are strug­gling to de­fend their “rebel” mas­cots. Most pre­dictably, pun­dits have re­newed their char­ac­ter­i­za­tion of South­ern states as the ball and chain of Amer­ica. If all those back­ward red­necks weren’t pulling us down, the story goes, the United States would be a pro­gres­sive utopia, a bas­tion of eco­nomic and racial equal­ity. “Much of what sets the United States apart from other coun­tries to­day is ac­tu­ally South­ern ex­cep­tion­al­ism,” Politico con­trib­u­tor Michael Lind wrote this month in an es­say called “Howthe South Skews Amer­ica.” “I don’t mean this in a good way.”

This ar­gu­ment re­ca­pit­u­lates an old, tired mo­tif in Amer­i­can jour­nal­ism that the South is the source of our na­tion’s so­cial ills. It has been blamed for our obe­sity prob­lem (“Why Are South­ern­ers So Fat?” Time asked in 2009), per­sis­tent poverty (“The South Is Es­sen­tially A Solid, Grim Block Of Poverty,” the Huff­in­g­ton Post as­serted in 2014) and gen­eral stu­pid­ity (“What’s Wrong with the South?” the At­lantic scoffed in 2009). This time, in the wake of the church shoot­ing, the states of the old Con­fed­er­acy have be­come ana­tional scape­goat for the racism that un­der­pinned the mas­sacre. If only they would se­cede again, Lind and oth­ers sug­gest, the na­tion would largely be free from en­demic prej­u­dice, zealotry and racist vi­o­lence.

Not even close. These crude re­gional

stereo­types ig­nore the deep roots such so­cial ills have in our shared na­tional history and cul­ture. If, some­how, the South be­came its own coun­try, the North­east would still be a hub of racially seg­re­gated hous­ing and school­ing, the West would still be a bas­tion of prej­u­di­cial laws that put im­mi­grants and black res­i­dents be­hind bars at higher rates than their white neigh­bors and the Mid­west would still be full of ur­ban neigh­bor­hoods dev­as­tated by un­em­ploy­ment, poverty and crime. How our so­cial prob­lems man­i­fest re­gion­ally is a mat­ter of de­gree, not kind — they in­fect ev­ery re­gion of the coun­try.

In fact, many of the racial in­jus­tices we as­so­ciate with the South are ac­tu­ally worse in the North. Hous­ing seg­re­ga­tion be­tween black and white res­i­dents, for in­stance, is most per­va­sive above the Ma­son-Dixon line. Of Amer­ica’s 25 most racially seg­re­gated metropoli­tan ar­eas, just five are in the South; North­ern cities— Detroit, Mil­wau­kee and New York — top the list. Seg­re­ga­tion in North­ern metro ar­eas has de­clined a bit since 1990, but an anal­y­sis of 2010 cen­sus data found that Detroit’s level of seg­re­ga­tion, for in­stance, is nearly twice as high as Charleston’s.

The di­vi­sion be­tween black and white neigh­bor­hoods in the North is a re­sult of a poi­sonous mix of racist public poli­cies and real es­tate prac­tices that reigned unchecked for decades. Un­til the mid-20th cen­tury, fed­eral home­own­er­ship pro­grams made it dif­fi­cult for black Amer­i­cans to get mort­gages and fu­eled the mas­sive growth of whites-only sub­urbs. Real es­tate agents openly dis­crim­i­nated against black as­pir­ing home­own­ers, re­fus­ing to show them houses in pre­dom­i­nately white com­mu­ni­ties.

When all else failed, white North­ern­ers at­tacked blacks who at­tempted to cross the color line, us­ing tac­tics we typ­i­cally as­so­ciate with the Jim Crow South. They threw bricks through the win­dows of their black neigh­bors’ homes, fire­bombed an in­te­grated apart­ment build­ing and beat black res­i­dents in the streets. In Detroit, to name one ex­am­ple, whites launched more than 200 at­tacks on black home­own­ers be­tween 1945 and 1965. In Le­vit­town, Pa., hun­dreds of an­gry whites gath- ered in front of the home of the first black fam­ily to move there and threw rocks through the win­dows. Racists burned crosses in the yards of the few white neigh­bors who wel­comed the new fam­ily. That vi­o­lence oc­curred in 1957, the same year whites in Lit­tle Rock at­tacked black stu­dents in­te­grat­ing Cen­tral High School, yet it’s that story — of racial bias in the South— that dom­i­nates our nar­ra­tive of Amer­ica’s civil rights strug­gle.

Pas­sage of the Fair Hous­ing Act in 1968 didn’t elim­i­nate racist real es­tate prac­tices. A re­cent Na­tional Fair Hous­ing Al­liance in­ves­ti­ga­tion found that in 87 per­cent of test cases, agents steered cus­tomers to neigh­bor­hoods where ex­ist­ing home­own­ers were pre­dom­i­nantly of the cus­tomers’ own race. And while South­ern states are home to a larger por­tion of the na­tion’s mi­nor­ity res­i­dents, nearly half of all fair-hous­ing com­plaints dur­ing the 20122013 fis­cal year were filed in the North­east and the Mid­west.

Eco­nomic seg­re­ga­tion is most se­vere in Amer­ica’s North­ern metropoli­tan ar­eas, as well, with Mil­wau­kee; Hart­ford, Conn.; Philadelphia; and Detroit lead­ing large cities na­tion­wide, ac­cord­ing to an anal­y­sis of 2010 cen­sus data by the At­lantic. White sub­ur­ban­ites across the North— even in Bill and Hil­lary Clin­ton’s adopted home­town, Chap­paqua, N.Y. — have fought the con­struc­tion of af­ford­able hous­ing in their neigh­bor­hoods, try­ing to keep out “un­de­sir­ables” who might threaten their chil­dren and un­der­mine their prop­erty val­ues. The ef­fects of that seg­re­ga­tion are dev­as­tat­ing. Where you live in mod­ern Amer­ica de­ter­mines your ac­cess to high-qual­ity jobs (which are mostly in sub­ur­ban places), healthy food (many ur­ban ar­eas are food deserts) and, per­haps most im­por­tant, ed­u­ca­tional op­por­tu­ni­ties.

Ed­u­ca­tion re­mains sep­a­rate and un­equal nearly ev­ery­where in the United States, but Con­fed­er­ate-flag-wav­ing South­ern­ers aren’t re­spon­si­ble for the most racially di­vided schools. That ti­tle goes to New York, where 64 per­cent of black stu­dents at­tend schools with few, if any, white stu­dents, ac­cord­ing to a re­cent re­port by the Civil Rights Pro­ject. In fact, the North­east is the only re­gion where the per­cent­age of black stu­dents in ex­tremely seg­re­gated schools — those where at least 90 per­cent of stu­dents are mi­nori­ties — is higher than it was in the 1960s. Schools in the South, on the other hand, sawthe seg­re­ga­tion of black stu­dents drop 56 per­cent be­tween 1968 and 2011.

White South­ern­ers fought tooth and nail to pre­vent de­seg­re­ga­tion, us­ing protests and vi­o­lence to keep black chil­dren out of all-white schools. But fed­eral courts came down hard on dis­tricts that had a history of man­dated seg­re­ga­tion, and fed­eral troops and law en­force­ment of­fi­cers es­corted Lit­tle Rock and New Or­leans stu­dents through an­gry white mobs in front of their new schools.

White par­ents in the North also fought de­seg­re­gated schools but used weapons that seemed race-neu­tral. Black and white stu­dents above the Ma­son-Dixon line at­tended dif­fer­ent schools not by law but sim­ply by na­ture of where they lived. This de facto school seg­re­ga­tion ap­peared un­tainted by racist in­tent, but, as noted ear­lier, hous­ing prac­tices in the North were fraught with con­scious racial in­jus­tice. Fur­ther, metropoli­tan ar­eas like Philadelphia and Detroit con­tained dozens of sub­ur­ban school dis­tricts, mak­ing it easy for white fam­i­lies to jump across dis­trict bound­aries when black neigh­bors moved in. (Of­ten, South­ern dis­tricts, as in Char­lotte, en­com­passed the in­ner city, out­ly­ing sub­urbs and even some ru­ral ar­eas, mak­ing it more dif­fi­cult to flee de­seg­re­ga­tion. As a re­sult, Char­lotte be­came one of the most racially in­te­grated school dis­tricts in coun­try.) Un­like in the South, it was nearly im­pos­si­ble for civil rights lit­i­ga­tors to prove that all-white schools in the North were a re­sult of in­ten­tional dis­crim­i­na­tory poli­cies.

None of this de­nies that the South is, in many ways, shaped by its unique history. It broke from the union over slav­ery, and its econ­omy was in­deli­bly shaped by that pe­cu­liar in­sti­tu­tion. Af­ter eman­ci­pa­tion, it took a cen­tury of grass-roots ac­tivism and public pol­icy to break down the le­gal bar­ri­ers that lim­ited South­ern blacks’ eco­nomic op­por­tu­ni­ties. But the South is not time­less and un­chang­ing. The re­gion’s per capita in­come be­gan to con­verge with the rest of the na­tion’s dur­ing World War II and ac­cel­er­ated in the decades af­ter the pas­sage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, ac­cord­ing to Stan­ford economist Gavin Wright. The South is still at the bot­tom eco­nom­i­cally, but the re­gional gaps have nar­rowed con­sid­er­ably, es­pe­cially for African Amer­i­cans. By the 1990s, South­ern black men earned as much as their coun­ter­parts in other re­gions. Now, North­ern blacks are mi­grat­ing South in search of bet­ter eco­nomic op­por­tu­ni­ties, re­vers­ing his­toric trends.

The South has be­come an in­creas­ingly het­ero­ge­neous place, home to the fastest­grow­ing im­mi­grant pop­u­la­tions in the coun­try, led by North Carolina, Ge­or­gia, Arkansas and Ten­nessee. Immigration has re­made South­ern big cities and small towns alike: North Carolina chicken-pro­cess­ing cen­ters have at­tracted Gu­atemalan im­mi­grants. Sub­ur­ban At­lanta is dot­ted with panade­rias and taco shops cater­ing to the rapidly grow­ing Mex­i­can pop­u­la­tion. And Viet­namese-born shrimpers are work­ing the Gulf of Mexico’s shores in Texas and Louisiana. In the past decade, im­mi­grants have ac­counted for half of the growth of coun­try-mu­sic cap­i­tal Nashville, with large num­bers of Lati­nos as well as Kurds, Bos­ni­ans and So­ma­lis.

It’s re­as­sur­ing for North­ern­ers to think that the coun­try’s prob­lems are rooted down South. But point­ing our fin­gers at Dixie — and, by im­pli­ca­tion, re­in­forc­ing the­myth of North­ern in­no­cence— comes at a cost. As fed­eral troops and Supreme Court de­ci­sions forced so­cial change in the states of the old Con­fed­er­acy dur­ing the 20th cen­tury, in­jus­tices in the North were al­lowed to fes­ter. That trend con­tin­ues, as North­ern­ers seek to ab­solve them­selves of re­spon­si­bil­ity for their own sins by hold­ing aloft an out­dated and in­ac­cu­rate car­i­ca­ture of a so­cially stunted South. In 1960, Martin Luther King Jr. said: “Another group with a vi­tal role to play inthe strug­gle for racial jus­tice and equal­ity is the white north­ern lib­er­als. The racial is­sue that we con­front in Amer­ica is not a sec­tional but a na­tional prob­lem.” That holds true for most of Amer­ica’s trou­bles to­day. Enough fin­ger-wag­ging at Dixie. Change be­gins at home.

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