Gary Younge raises the awkward truth that, on the 60th anniversary of Brown v. Board of Education, the landmark Supreme Court decision that struck down school segregation in the U.S., the country is far from showing progress toward racial equality in education and is in fact going backwards.
As white suburban dwellers secede from the problems of inner city school districts, setting up charter schools or carving out their own academic enclaves, race and class disadvantages are concentrated in systems with dwindling resources. Younge writes in the Nation: “Schools are re-segregating, legislation is being gutted, it’s getting harder to vote, large numbers are being deprived of their basic rights through incarceration, and the economic disparities between black and white are growing. In many areas, America is becoming more separate and less equal.”
Essayist Ta-Nehisi Coates, arguing the case for reparations for slavery in the Atlantic magazine, has described how the physical fact of inner city racial segregation was a result of government policy. He told Democracy Now: “In the 1930’s and the 1940’s, we set up the FHA [Federal Housing Administration], we set up the Home Owners Loan Corporation. We set up specific bureaus to make our communities look the way they look. In 1995, I took a trip to Chicago, my first time as an adult and I was writing down the Dan Ryan Expressway, and at that time there was the longest row of projects, public housing I think in North America along that corridor. And it struck me as a moral disaster. What I did not understand at that time was that this was actually planned, that African-Americans had been cut out of any sort of legitimate housing program during the 1930’s, 1940’s, 1950’s. Instead we got was public housing built on a segregated basis at that point — in that particular case, on the Southside of Chicago. There’s no way to understand housing as it exists today without federal policy. Black people, as was the thinking at the time, could not be responsible home-loaners.”
Coates gives more detail of how African Americans were excluded from the suburbs in his Atlantic article. “It was the Home Owners’ Loan Corporation,” he says, “not a private trade association, that pioneered the practice of redlining, selectively granting loans and insisting that any property it insured be covered by a restrictive covenant—a clause in the deed forbidding the sale of the property to anyone other than whites.” He concludes: “The traditional terminology, white flight, implies a kind of natural expression of preference. In fact, white flight was a triumph of social engineering, orchestrated by the shared racist presumptions of America’s public and private sectors.”
The political consequences of these racist presumptions is spelled out by Paul Kantor of Fordham University: “By the 1970s … the population movement to the suburbs and Sunbelt, together with national partisan electoral realignments, diminished the importance of central city electorates in national party coalitions. This triggered almost continuous political marginalization of the cities during succeeding years. Fueled by a powerful conservative tide and a new Republican political majority, the last decades of the century witnessed almost continuous withdrawal of the federal government from the cities and the elimination or diminution of national urban programs.”
One of the most politically divided states is Wisconsin, where there is an extreme concentration of Democratic voters in urban Milwaukee, and conservative Republican voters in the outer suburbs. White flight has made the city of Milwaukee majority nonwhite, while the surrounding suburbs of Waukesha, Washington and Ozaukee are less than 2% African-American and less than 5% Hispanic. A recent in-depth article in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel notes that distance from urban centers, rather than income or education, is the best barometer of a community’s political orientation: whites in less densely populated outer suburbs are more Republican than whites closer in. In metro areas with concentrated urban poverty and crime, racial and political polarization is high. According to Wisconsin state legislator Mandela Barnes, concentration of poverty in Milwaukee feeds “this perception (outside Milwaukee) that there’s a ‘culture of takers.’ And that can become political fodder.”
Social divisions – between urban and rural, urban and suburban, even different parts of the same city – underlie today’s political polarization, but do not completely explain it. While the Sentinel article argues that racial segregation is driving political segregation, the antagonism is the result of the creation of an ideological myth that state welfare benefits a dependent urban (black) class at the expense of tax-paying suburbanites. White flight gave the myth a social basis, but ideological work had to be done to create the imaginary of the “welfare queen.”
Republicans from the time of Nixon and Reagan have leveraged this social estrangement to justify cutting social spending and to conceal business-subsidizing legislation behind “cultural” diversions. The super-rich have succeeded in pushing the Republican party even further to the right by sharpening the same ideological differences to an extreme through a barrage of propaganda and skewed cable news.
Although partisan polarization has created a political impasse in Congress, the American public is in remarkable agreement on class issues despite their partisan allegiances: preserving the remaining social safety net and the need for a living wage for the low-paid. Seattle city council has already passed a bill mandating a $15 an hour minimum wage, the California Senate passed a bill pushing the state’s minimum wage to $13 by 2017, and in Chicago, nearly half of the city council has signed on to a $15 minimum wage law.
It also was public pressure that took cuts to social security off the table, forced the government to make at least token reforms to the NSA, and forestalled military intervention in Syria.
There needs to be an ideological struggle against neoliberal tea-party ideas that the poor and socially deprived are the “takers” in society. It was because the Occupy movement so effectively dramatized the inequality that gives the top tenth of the top one percent all the increase in social wealth that it was so determinedly stamped out by the Obama administration. The left should change its focus from party political differences to campaign on issues that unite the American public.