The Lasting Legacies of Racial Segregation in Suburbia
It is hard to say whether progress regarding racism has been achieved when the landscapes that surround us continue to hold vestiges of a segregated past. If we examine how people are distributed throughout cities and especially suburbs, we will see that many suburban neighborhoods are predominantly inhabited by privileged Caucasian families. The question of how this came to be is often overlooked, but it is no coincidence that certain suburbs lack any sort of diversity. In fact, in the 1950s and 1960s the United States saw large scale migration of European-Americans from racially mixed urban areas to racially homogenous suburban regions, this was referred to as white flight (Schaefer).
For many Americans, the suburbs represented the epitome of the American Dream, a four bedroom house with a yard and a picket fence. In the 1930s, financial support for housing began under the New Deal, a federal program enacted in the United States in response to the Great Depression. These financial reforms and regulations helped families get loans for homes during the Great Depression (Ruff 42). Suburban developments were being mass produced with the whole package of a fully furnished home including all amenities. These would sell for roughly $7 000, which is equivalent to roughly $100 500 today, cheap for a fully equipped home (Saving.org). The affordability and 30 year mortgages allowed working-class families to escape crowded cities by putting a small down-payment on a house and slowly paying off their bank loans (Ruff 47).
This, however, was a dream that only few families of colour could achieve, due to explicit racial exclusionary policies. The Federal Housing Administration (FHA) introduced a number of redlining policies which refused to provide loans to black people or people living in areas with black people (Madrigal). The FHA subscribed to racial covenants of white homogeneity and devalued racially mixed communities (Ruff 47). Maps were drawn up by the FHA classifying neighborhoods up into grades A, B, C, and so forth (Ruff 43). Grade A areas were considered ‘hot spots’ for good mortgage lenders and recognized as ‘homogeneous’, whereas grade B areas were racially heterogeneous,neighborhoods with an “infiltrating lower grade population”and unstable incomes, where banks may refuse to grant mortgages (Madrigal). These redlining policies destroyed any possibility for black families to get support for housing investment based on where they lived.
Levittown, New York was the first of subsequent suburban developments built by Levitt and Sons across the United States. This company mass produced suburbs with schemes to build inexpensive housing catering to the needs of post-war veterans and their families (Gans 3). Levittown salesmen advertised the communities as “lily-white” and refused to sell houses to African-Americans (Gans 14). All Levittown rental leases and homeowner contracts barred people who were not of Caucasian race (Ruff 47). Levitt’s defense for these racist exclusionary policies was that they were following the social customs of the time, saying “this is [the white customers’] attitude, not ours” (Ruff 47). He once famously said, “we can solve a housing problem, or we can solve a racial problem. But we cannot combine the two” (Ruff 48). Levitt was clearly more interested in making profit off of the housing problem than he was in addressing racial inequalities.
Despite the criminalization of redlining policies, the marks of these discriminatory practices have provided the grounds to build homogenous suburbs and divide neighborhoods (Madrigal). Saying racially segregated neighborhoods are “just the way it is” is equivalent to Levitt’s denial of being racist, and this kind of attitude is exactly what allowed racist policies to persist until the 1970s. Most North American cities and suburbs have lasting legacies of discrimination all over them. For example, black children that grew upin grade C neighborhoods only had access to schools of a lower grade than those of white privileged children who lived in grade A neighbourhoods. White children then got a better education, and in turn better jobs with higher incomes, furthering the disparity between african-americans and whites.
Although the American Dream was conceived as a future of freedom that anyone could achieve, there was an explicit prejudice against families of colour. So it remained a dream for minorities, but the reality of the dominant white upper-middle class. These policies constructed the literal boundaries that continue to divide our societies. The need to challenge the status quo is relevant now more than ever as the fight for equal civil rights is at the forefront of development. It is crucial to analyze the discriminatory policies that have shaped our environment to properly develop new approaches to dismantling white supremacy within our cities. Despite the criticism Levittowns have suffered, the question of housing segregation remains (Shaw). Levittown is still 94.1 percent white and 0.5 percent African American (Shaw). The desegregation of buses and bathrooms were the first to be addressed but our very own neighbourhoods remain to be desegregated.
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Ruff, Joshua. “For Sale: The American Dream.” American History. 42:5, Dec. 2007. 42-49. 14
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Schaefer, Richard T. “White Flight.” The Encyclopedia of Race, Ethnicity and Society. SAGE,
Shaw, Danny. “Red-lining and the Historical Roots of Housing Segregation in New York City.”
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Wheeler, Blake. “Housing Development America.” Unsplash. 5 April 2017, Digital image