March 3, 2015
Divided We Stand:
An Overview of the Origins of American Apartheid
Although people oftentimes believe segregation is synonymous with the Civil Rights movement, some people might be surprised to learn that racial residential segregation was not always the status quo. Prior to the turn of the 20th century, racially and economically diverse neighborhoods were the norm across the country. Urban “ghettoization” came about after the Great Migration of southern blacks to the North during industrialization. The influx of black residents coincided with the blossoming real estate industry nationwide, which used discriminatory practices to reshape the urban (and suburban) diorama. The rise of the modern real estate industry during industrialization and its discriminatory practices contributed to the inception of racial residential segregation in the United States. Residential segregation in the United States developed slowly and deliberately. In fact, prior to the turn of the century, blacks were interspersed throughout white neighborhoods. For instance, in the South, black laborers often lived side-by-side with their white employers, a vestige from times of slavery when workers lived on or adjoining their master’s property. In northern cities, blacks were much more likely to share a neighborhood with whites than to live in racially homogenous communities. The two racial groups interacted regularly in a common social circle, despite the continuance of racial discrimination after the abolition of slavery. However, the housing landscape began to shift in the early 20th century.
Although its studies were limited to population samples within the city, the Kansas City Board of Public Welfare’s 1913 Social prospectus of Kansas City played a significant role in the inception of racial housing segregation by singling out race as a cause for the social problems a number of blacks faced in their neighborhoods. The report was the first to racialize housing by equating the black race with dilapidated neighborhoods and low property values. It focused on “linking…place, race, and behavior”, pointing to black culture as “the cause of urban problems” (Social prospectus). Before Social prospectus, whites did not normally associate the condition of neighborhoods with the race or culture of its inhabitants. Over time, real estate players like the Federal Housing Authority, would use the perceived connection between color, conduct, and environment in this widely-circulated study as justification for moving away from biracial mixed-income neighborhoods to racially homogeneous zones in Missouri and beyond. By the onset of World War I, real estate and land development boards in Chicago, Detroit, and other cities had begun to implement measures to maintain property values and preserve the security and permanence of neighborhoods through the institution of racial segregation of city zones. Meanwhile, millions of blacks in the South were drawn north (where the starting wage for a manufacturing job was often triple what they could expect to earn sharecropping) by manufacturers desperate for cheap labor to keep up with the production demands of the war. Life in the North was not without its drawbacks, however, as so many new migrants soon found out. A great number of black migrants struggled with prejudice and discrimination regularly in their new residences. New York, Chicago, and Detroit’s black populations, for instance, increased by 300%, 500%, and 600% respectively, and as a result, migrant workers frequently had to compete for available housing, which sparked racial tension and animosity, leading to harassment, cross burnings, and race riots (Weaver; Spear). They also had to deal with poor working conditions along with the pressing issue of finding living arrangements. The inner city housing crisis was further compounded by the Federal Housing Authority’s efforts to funnel blacks into...
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