In general, life is complicated. So is politics. And so, especially, is politics as it relates to race and class.
However, every so often a big public controversy erupts that would lead any honest person to wonder, “Is there anything here that cannot be explained by good old-fashioned racism?”
That question popped into my head multiple times during the new HBO drama Show Me a Hero, whose final two-hour segment aired this past Sunday.
This spellbinding series—the latest from David Simon, creator of The Wire—recounts the racial powder keg that exploded in the city of Yonkers, New York in the late 1980s—a socioeconomic showdown over desegregation and public housing that might well have stayed buried in the past were it not for its obvious parallels to events in the present.
Certainly, the circumstances that led the good people of Yonkers to very nearly lose their minds spawned from legitimate and complex concerns about the well-being of their neighborhoods. But they were also—on the basis of this show, at least—borne of the fact that a bunch of rich white people really, really didn’t want to live on the same block as a bunch of poor black people.
They insisted it wasn’t about race. Of course it was about race.
Here’s the deal. In 1985, a federal judge ordered Yonkers—a city of 190,000 immediately north of the Bronx—to build 200 units of low-income housing in and around its most affluent neighborhoods. This was essentially a means of desegregating a community in which most of the white folks lived in the nice part of town while most of the black and Hispanic folks lived in slums.
If the city council failed to approve such a plan, the judge continued, then the city would be held in contempt and fined exorbitant sums of money until either a) the council came to its senses, or b) the city went bankrupt.
You’ll never guess what happened.
That’s right (spoiler alert!): Egged on by their raucous, angry constituents, the Yonkers City Council voted to defy the court’s order to build public housing, thereby incurring daily penalties that soon totaled in the millions, resulting in the suspension of basic city services and the closing of several public institutions. While the ensuing outrage ultimately forced the council’s holdouts to change their minds, the damage was done and the point was made.
In short: The white residents of Yonkers were prepared to destroy their own city rather than have a handful of black people living nearby.
It’s almost not enough to call this racism. It’s a psychosis that exists in a realm beyond racism—a pathology that has convinced itself that segregation is the natural order of the universe and must be defended at all costs. And all based on the notion that one group of human beings is superior to all the others.
To be sure, there were other forces at work in this struggle. The fourth-largest city in New York did not almost bring about its own demise solely because of abnormally high levels of white supremacy inside City Hall. Allocating public housing in a big city is a messy and contentious business under any circumstances. Not everyone is going to be treated fairly.
Indeed, the “official” argument against desegregation in Yonkers was economic: If you move a bunch of lower-class families into an upper and middle-class neighborhood, the overall desirability of that neighborhood will decline, and property values will slide right along with it. If you’re a homeowner who plans to sell one day, of course you want to prevent a precipitous decline in your home’s value in whatever way you can.
But in watching Show Me a Hero, you cannot help but suspect that racism is always, finally, at the root of the problem. That if people viewed each other as equal human beings, rather than as members of alien tribes, then most of the other conflicts would either cease to exist or become infinitely easier to resolve.
The most compelling evidence for this is the character of Mary Dorman, played with great subtlety by Catherine Keener. As one such homeowner, Dorman begins as a vehement opponent of the low-income housing plan, publicly carping about property values, et al, while privately confiding to her husband, “These people, they don’t live the way we do. They don’t want what we want.”
But then something unexpected happens: She starts spending time with “these people” as a member of the transition committee—a group that essentially handpicks which families will get to move into the new townhouses—and she discovers that, lo and behold, poor black people do want what “we” want and do live the way “we” do, to the extent that their circumstances allow it.
Now, about those circumstances.
We take it as a statistical truth that poor neighborhoods in big cities are disproportionately non-white and contain disproportionately high levels of crime. That’s to say nothing of how this affects incarceration rates and the chances of success in higher education and employment many years down the trail.
The $64,000 question is: Why might this be? How did it happen that folks with darker skin are—by a huge margin—more likely to find themselves impoverished, unemployed or in jail? Are black and Hispanic people inherently lazier and more violent than white people, or is there something more institutional at work?
Following many decades of study and a little bit of common sense, we find the answer staring us directly in the face. While there are multiple layers, it can essentially be explained in two words: housing discrimination.
As Ta-Nehisi Coates definitively showed in his devastating Atlantic cover story, “The Case for Reparations,” white people and the U.S. government spent a great deal of the 20th century actively preventing black people from ever owning a home—and, consequently, from accumulating real wealth.
Through the process of “redlining,” black house hunters were shut out of entire neighborhoods in most major U.S. cities, and in the places they were allowed to live, they could not obtain regular mortgages and had to depend on loans that were neither guaranteed nor honestly granted. In an interview, Coates described this system as having combined “all the problems of renting with all the problems of buying and none of the rewards of either.”
In other words, housing segregation occurred by design, not by accident. It had nothing to do with the personal behavior of the black folks who were being victimized, and everything to do with an effectively white supremacist government that made it very nearly impossible for African-Americans to achieve the American dream.
After nearly a century of this madness, to turn around and blame it all on black people who wear their pants too low is to portray a spectacular historical ignorance that, in our culture, is more or less par for the course.
Indeed, here is a classic example of where basic knowledge of the past can yield intelligent decisions in the present and future.
Most critically, to know that housing segregation was a plot intended to keep black people out of polite society is to understand that desegregation is a national moral imperative—one small step in our collective reconciliation with America’s broken soul.
Once you grasp that our country’s appalling wealth gap is a direct consequence of that racist system and that narrowing the gap will improve the quality of life for everyone, then it becomes perfectly sensible to expand affluent neighborhoods to include residents who, in an equal society, would have gotten there anyway.
In the process, both groups will get to know each other on a one-to-one basis, which is the surest means, in any society, of reducing prejudice and fear. It was no coincidence that support for same-sex marriage skyrocketed at the same time that gay people made themselves visible to straight people in record numbers, thereby implanting this crazy idea that we are all equally human.
Prejudice is a function of ignorance, which in turn is a function of physical separation among different groups of people. Really, it’s all just a variation on fear of the unknown, and the way to eradicate that is to make the unknown known.
This doesn’t mean we’re not still going to hate each other from time to time. It just makes it far more likely that we’ll hate each other for the right reasons—namely, for the content of our character, rather than the color of our skin.
The people of Yonkers learned this the hard way, but they learned it nonetheless. While housing desegregation might not have solved all of that city’s problems, it nonetheless fostered a more open and integrated community in which a greater number of people had a fair shot at making a better life for themselves.
Call me naïve, but I consider that progress.