Monday, October 01, 2007

Profile: Black Ghettos

In historical terms, the rise of the black ghetto--a massive, geographically continuous, isolated place of almost exclusively black residence and institutional life--is a recent phenomenon. Scattered enclaves of free blacks, fugitives, and slaves existed in the less desirable sections of antebellum southern towns, and refugees uprooted by the Civil War hastened their growth. But nowhere in the United States could anything resembling the modern black ghetto be found in 1880. Its emergence occurred in stages; the first occupied the half century between 1880 and 1930, and the second--after a brief respite early in the Great Depression--extended from 1935 to at least 1970.

This pattern stemmed from a series of dramatic demographic shifts. The movement of black populations from rural to urban areas and from the South to the North and West, and the evolution of American cities and the rise of the suburbs each played an instrumental role. The coming of World War I, the subsequent cutoff of European immigration, and the northern cities' demand for unskilled labor spurred a heavy black migration that continued through the 1920s. The United States' mobilization for World War II and the postwar economic boom later provided an even stronger impetus for movement, and the largest decennial black migration from the South occurred between 1940 and 1950. Overall, between 1940 and 1970, more than 4 million blacks left the region; where 77 percent of all American blacks lived in the South on the eve of World War II, only 53 percent did so thirty years later.

This movement was part of a larger phenomenon that encompassed the South as well--the urbanization of African-Americans. In 1880 only 12.9 percent of the blacks in the United States lived in urban areas, and it was not until 1950 that a majority did (whites had reached that benchmark a generation earlier). Ten years later, blacks were more highly urbanized than whites. The twentieth-century movement of blacks into American cities coincided, moreover, with a white exodus out of the city and into the suburbs.

The century following 1880 thus witnessed the emergence and maturation of the modern urban ghetto in the United States. The march toward stringent residential segregation began in the postbellum South where blacks frequently represented 40 percent or more of urban populations. No southern city possessed a single, all-encompassing ghetto, but many towns had several clusters of black residents, frequently located on the urban periphery, surrounding a largely white core. Antebellum black neighborhoods that contained institutional supports (particularly churches and schools) and the camps established for freed slaves during the Civil War often served as the bases for black territorial expansion. Southern ghettoization in the nineteenth century was limited, however, by economic, technological, and spatial constraints. Despite the hostility of the dominant white population, these compact southern towns lacked the capacity to disperse and sort out their populations by either class or race. Moreover, southern race relations during the slave era and its immediate aftermath demanded close contact within a hierarchical system. Social--not spatial--distance governed relationships across the color line.

The vast expanses of almost exclusively black settlement that exploded on the national scene during the riotous 1960s were twentieth-century northern creations. On the eve of the great migration of southern blacks, northern cities, proportionately, held infinitesimal black populations. As was the case in the South, they lived in scattered clusters. With the rapid increase in black population, however, larger, more densely settled black neighborhoods developed. The blacks' disproportionate poverty and cultural affinities, and even the actions of some progressive reformers who tried to serve them on a segregated basis, contributed to their residential isolation. But there is no question that white hostility, vented as rapidly industrializing metropolises obliterated their old, compact "walking cities," radically altered the use of urban space and tangibly expressed the desire to subordinate and control the new black presence.

Racial zoning ordinances, appearing first in the South, were declared unconstitutional by the Supreme Court in 1917 (Buchanan v. Warley). They were quickly supplanted, however, by the widespread use of racially restrictive covenants, which proved popular between the wars and were upheld by the Supreme Court in 1926 (Corrigan v. Buckley). Day-to-day business practices further buttressed such legalistic restrictions and were even more instrumental in creating the pattern of residential segregation. Local real estate interests, lending institutions, and "improvement" associations acted as so many gatekeepers, steering blacks into all-black areas and preserving the homogeneity of white neighborhoods. Violence remained the ultimate sanction that prevented blacks from enjoying unfettered residential mobility. An early twentieth-century wave of urban racial rioting that became particularly severe during the "red summer" of 1919 heralded the emergence of the modern ghetto.

It was the second era of ghetto formation, however, that produced the vast concentrations of urban blacks that generated the "long, hot summers" of the 1960s. During this period, the federal government facilitated the persistence of high levels of residential segregation. Between 1935 and 1950, it displayed an intense color consciousness and insisted upon discriminatory practices as a prerequisite for support from such new agencies as the Federal Housing Administration (fha). Combined with the slum clearance, urban renewal, public housing, and highway construction programs of the 1950s and 1960s, such initiatives encouraged and subsidized white flight to the suburbs, helped strip older towns of their middle classes, and practically ensured that blacks would remain locked in economically weakened central cities.

Beginning in 1948, the federal government moved haltingly toward a color-blind stance on housing issues. First came the Supreme Court decision (Shelley v. Kraemer) that rendered restrictive covenants unenforceable. That was followed by John F. Kennedy's 1962 executive order that placed a partial ban on discrimination in federal housing programs, the 1964 Civil Rights Act, and the 1968 Fair Housing Act that extended the prohibition of discrimination to include virtually all housing. The real estate industry, lenders, and advertisers all fell under the sweep of the law, although enforcement remained problematic and the legacy of earlier policies could not be easily overcome.

The 1980 census, consequently, counted fourteen cities with black populations of at least 200,000. Geographically, they spread across the North (New York, Chicago, Detroit, Philadelphia, and Cleveland), the South (Houston, New Orleans, Memphis, Atlanta, and Dallas), the border states (Washington, D.C., Baltimore, and St. Louis), and the West (Los Angeles). Together, these metropolitan giants contained nearly 10.4 million blacks, or approximately 40 percent of all black Americans in 1980. Every measurement for these major population centers reveals consistently high levels of segregation that remained fiercely resistant to change down to 1970. Most striking was the rising level of segregation found in each of the southern cities as they became more like their northern counterparts. The economic modernization of the South and the dismantling of the Jim Crow system by the civil rights movement were accompanied by a rapid separation of urban blacks and whites, although there has been some moderation in these trends since 1970, particularly in smaller cities.

The establishment of substantial, segregated urban black communities gave rise to new economic, social, political, and intellectual forces within those communities. The intensive concentration of a host of urban ills was most immediately apparent. Although not all ghetto residents shared such experiences or characteristics, these environments limited access to quality education and health services while fostering endemic poverty, poor housing, high rates of crime, and behavioral patterns often detrimental to self-improvement. In recent years, a so-called underclass distinguished by chronic dependence, a disproportionate number of female-headed households, and high rates of teenage pregnancy has emerged. Increasingly isolated from a deindustrializing economy that demands skills they do not possess in jobs they cannot reach from the central city, the underclass is finding itself distanced as well from a growing black middle class that has fled the poorest neighborhoods for more comfortable, if still largely segregated, quarters. Such spatial separation has traditionally reflected social, ideological, and political differences in American urban history, but the implications of this movement have yet to be seen. If the dismal material circumstances of the ghetto have been improved for some and escaped by others, it shows no signs of disappearing and may now present the dual problems of race and poverty in more concentrated form than ever before.

But the ghetto produced more than the "tangle of pathology" that has often been associated with it. It was also a self-sustaining institutional and cultural entity that nourished the social and intellectual networks that made the flowering of a Harlem Renaissance possible, and it provided the personal freedom that permitted blacks to pursue their own strategies in coping with modern America. Ideologically, the movements for self-help, race pride, and black nationalism found a natural home there.

The initial era of ghetto formation subsequently gave rise to the militant "New Negro" and to the literary and artistic outpouring that placed New York's Harlem in the vanguard of African-American cultural expression. The ghetto provided a mass base that sustained Marcus Garvey's Universal Negro Improvement Association (unia), an organization of racial protest and assertion that, along with such new institutions as the Chicago Defender, gave prideful voice to those now able to rally on their own turf. The move into the industrial economy also produced leaders such as the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters' A. Philip Randolph, whose March on Washington movement helped initiate a new era of black-led protest in the 1940s. The civil rights revolution itself gained important momentum from urban black concentrations in Montgomery and Birmingham, Alabama, where the numbers, resources, leaders, and key institutions (especially churches) could be marshaled against the Jim Crow system. And a wave of "ghetto rebellions" in the 1960s dramatized the failure to extend the gains of the civil rights era to the urban North.

Perhaps most significantly, concentrations of urban blacks have provided political bases for an increasing number of black officeholders. Beginning with the election of Oscar DePriest from Chicago's Black Belt in 1928, and continuing with the elevation of Chicago's William L. Dawson, New York's Adam Clayton Powell, Jr., and Detroit's Charles Diggs, Jr., in the 1940s and 1950s, a growing post-Reconstruction black presence was reestablished in the Congress of the United States. More recent advances have come on the state and local levels, with black mayors--beginning with Gary, Indiana's, Richard Hatcher and Cleveland's Carl Stokes in 1967--occupying center stage. These successes, however, have reified black consciousness without demonstrably altering the conditions that called forth protest and political mobilization. Whether politicians shepherding their voters, black businesses catering to a concentrated black clientele, ministers tending their flocks, or ordinary citizens occupying a zone of social familiarity, the ghetto has produced a class that could view its dispersal only with grave misgivings. There was thus irony in the freedom born of restriction. Alone, the forces emanating from within these increasingly complex black settlements could not determine the future development of the ghetto; there were larger economic, social, and political forces at work. And they rendered less clear, and perhaps more painful, the choices confronting urban blacks after World War II.

The ghetto concept has also been used to describe the experience of European ethnics when they crowded the industrial centers of the Northeast and Midwest in the era of mass immigration (1880-1920). But though ethnic clustering was unmistakable, the black and immigrant experiences remained different. Even if black communities could, perhaps, approximate the high transiency rates detected in the foreign quarters, such appellations as "Little Italy," "Polonia," and "Jewtown" described geographic areas more accurately viewed as ethnic amalgams than monoliths. None of the European-based communities displayed the homogeneity that was imposed upon black neighborhoods by the mid-twentieth century. Moreover, the European nationalities began their tenure in urban America in ethnic enclaves and dispersed with time--a communal trajectory literally the opposite of that traveled by blacks. And though a welter of inner-city pathologies stalked whites as well as blacks, the immigrant "ghetto" was surrounded by permeable membranes rather than virtually impenetrable race-based barriers.

Indeed, as late as 1910, recently arrived southern and eastern European immigrants (such as Russian Jews, Poles, and Italians) did display measurably higher degrees of residential segregation from native whites than did blacks. By 1930, however, with the trends of migration, assimilation, and isolation running in opposite directions for white ethnics and African-Americans, their situations were reversed. Continued improvements in the social and economic status of whites and the rush of suburbanization that followed World War II further depressed the degree of white ethnic segregation even as black isolation reached peak levels. White ethnic communal and kinship networks survived, moreover, in the age of the automobile and the telephone, without the benefit of intense geographical concentration. Sources of comfort and preparation for life in America--and advantageously located in an age when unskilled industrial jobs crowded the city core--the early ethnic communities hardly seem to have been "ghettos" in the sense that most blacks would understand that term.

The most recent immigrants to urban America, Asians and Hispanics, also entered host cultures where their limited economic resources and minority status evoked more suspicion than empathy. Yet, segregation studies reveal that the separation of blacks and whites remains much more severe than that distancing the newest ethnics from the majority population. Arriving in large numbers during the United States' stunning era of post-World War II economic expansion and rapid urban decentralization, Hispanics and Asians never became as segregated as African-Americans and, more importantly, their communal paths now seem to be following those of the European ethnics more closely than that of the blacks. Nationally, in 1980, calculations of "average black isolation" remained 2.5 times that of Hispanics and ten times that of Asians. Indeed, at present rates of decline, it would take more than a half century for blacks to reach the level of segregation presently experienced by Hispanics and Asians. The degree of racial isolation, the historical record of restriction, and the relative permanence of the barriers all argue that the "ghettos" encompassing white ethnics, Hispanics, and Asians remain fundamentally different from that which is associated with urban black America.

Nowhere are these differences more apparent than in the emerging anomalous position of the growing black middle class. The most mobile segments of that class have been denied the role played by their earlier white ethnic counterparts. As the older immigrant communities dispersed, those who enjoyed some measure of economic success led the movement and eased the transition into the American mainstream for those who trailed them. Economically advantaged blacks, however, have undertaken that outward push with different results. Unlike other groups, indicators of social and economic status for blacks bear no clear relation to levels of suburbanization or segregation. Black economic achievement and material well-being have not heralded the disappearance of those "assimilated" blacks as was the case with their ethnic competitors; and the plight of those left in the poorest neighborhoods seems hardly advantaged by such successes. The relative weights assigned to continued discrimination, the legacy of past practices, and the centripetal pull of African-American cultural communities in sustaining this pattern remain open questions. The uniqueness of the African-American experience, however, is clear.


Arnold R. Hirsch, Making the Second Ghetto: Race and Housing in Chicago, 1940 to 1960 (1983); Kenneth L. Kusmer, A Ghetto Takes Shape: Black Cleveland, 1870-1930 (1976).


Arnold R. Hirsch

See also Black Migration; Civil Rights Movement; Garvey, Marcus; Harlem Renaissance; Housing; Internal Migration Segregation; Suburbanization; Urban Bosses and Machine Politics; Urbanization.
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