In his book Sweet Land of Liberty: The Forgotten Struggle for Civil Rights in the North, Tom Sugrue makes a great point while discussing the erection of Levittowns. The premier suburban developments excluded blacks and became bastions of white supremacy. Here Sugrue looks at Levittown, Pennsylvania:
As was the case in every Levittown, by Levitt's orders, not a single resident was black. It was not for a shortage of potential black buyers. Black housing demand far exceeded supply. In metropolitan Philadelphia, between 1946 and 1953, only 347 of 120,000 new homes built were open to blacks. Racial exclusion had perverse economic effects: It created a vast gap between supply and demand. As a result, blacks paid more for housing on average than did whites. In nearly every northern city, black newcomers crammed into old and run-down housing, mainly in dense central neighborhoods left behind by upwardly mobile whites.
This is really sinister. In rhetoric, at the time, America claimed "separate but equal." In effect, what you see is something more like "separate and serfdom." The policy was to keep black people from moving out of ghettos, and to keep them from marketing their labor in competition with whites, unless absolutely necessary. It is not enough to merely understand segregation as a means to keep the "races" separate. Segregation is about rendering black people a permanent underclass. This is not about an amorphous diversity. This is about power.
Part of keeping power out of black hands is turning the community's aspirational class into a bevy of easy marks. You can only imagine what kind of money was made exploiting the dreams of middle class black people trapped in the ghettos of America. That money represents a transfer of wealth from black hands to white hands. It continued unabated from the early 20th century, through the New Deal (which actually aided this process), well into the 1960s.
We spend a great deal of time talking about the black poor, but less talked about is how America for most of its history has actively punished black ambition. The black middle class has been the field for demonstrations upon the subject of what happens to "niggers with ideas." Any history of race riots in America will note that the targets are invariably institutions of black improvement -- churches, "black wall streets," schools, homes, etc. it's worth considering what message a country sends to a people when it persecutes ambition.
And it's worth thinking about how this country thought about black citizenship. William Levitt pitched homeownership as act of patriotism:
No man who owns his own house and lot can be a Communist. He has too much to do.
When a nation excludes a people from the process of patriotism, what is it saying to them?
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is a national correspondent for The Atlantic
, where he writes about culture, politics, and social issues. He is the author of The Beautiful Struggle
, Between the World and Me,
and We Were Eight Years in Power