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No Mistake About It: Historian Dispels the Myth That American Ghettos Are An Accident



When protesters took to the streets of cities like Ferguson and Baltimore, they didn’t just pull back the curtain on the realities of police brutality. With national attention on these cities, the movements also worked to highlight the ugliness of segregation.

For some people in America, it was the first time they realized that segregation was still plaguing cities all across the nation. But what many have still failed to realize is that these communities were not just the unfortunate victims of poorly thought out policies. The impoverished neighborhoods they call home were not solely created by the unfortunate effects of white flight or other societal trends throughout history.

As Richard Rothstein, a research associate at the Economic Policy Institute, explained to Fresh Air’s Terry Gross, the ghettos that many Black people have been trapped in were created intentionally and specifically for Black citizens.

“We have a myth today that the ghettos in metropolitan areas around the country are what the Supreme Court calls ‘de-facto’—just the accident of the fact that people have not enough income to move into middle class neighborhoods or because real estate agents steered black and white families to different neighborhoods or because there was white flight,” Rothstein explained.

Rather than a huge, unintentional blunder, he explains that the creation of ghettos were “explicit” and “purposeful,” which is why America should stop trying to shun the use of the word.

Today, using the term “ghetto” is considered taboo but perhaps the focus should be less on eliminating the word and more on reminding people of its origins.

“One of the ways in which we forget our history is by sanitizing our language and pretending that these problems don’t exist,” he added. “We have always recognized that these were ‘ghettos.’ A ghetto is, as I define it, a neighborhood which is homogenous and from which there are serious barriers to exit.”

Thanks to purposefully racist policies enacted by the Federal Housing Administration and the New Deal’s Public Works Administration, they are now an unfortunate fixture in American culture and proof that the nation isn’t worthy of its self-assigned “post-racial” moniker.

The Federal Housing Administration was perhaps the greatest driver of segregation with a variety of racially charged tactics.

The FHA “gave builders like Levitt concessionary loans through banks because they guaranteed loans at lower interest rates for banks that the developers could use to build these subdivisions on the condition that no homes in those subdivisions be sold to African-Americans.”

This all happened around the same time that the Public Works Administration was essentially creating the problem of segregation where it never existed in the past.

Public housing was created with the policy that only people of the same race could live there but such housing projects were actually cropping up in integrated neighborhoods.

So in communities were Black and white residents were once living together as one, segregated public housing was introduced and started to quickly chip away at the effects of integration.

But perhaps none of these practices were as blatantly deceitful, dishonest and disheartening as the tactics used by real estate agents who purposefully wanted to drive the divide between the white and Black community.

Predominantly Black neighborhoods were often denied “adequate services” like garbage collection or street cleaning. This left the streets in these neighborhoods littered with garbage and filled with a pungent stench.

residential-segregation-in-the-usEven with such deplorable conditions, however, the housing prices in these ghettos were incredibly highly simply because Black residents didn’t have many other options. They couldn’t afford much of the housing in predominantly white neighborhoods and real estate agents kept such communities a secret from Black would-be homebuyers.

As a result, Black people were often perceived as maintaining nasty, unsanitary communities, making the devious task of keeping them away from white residents all the more simple.

“So when African-Americans managed to break out of those slums and buy a home in a neighboring area, whites could be persuaded that slum conditions were going to be brought with them,” Rothstein says. “So the real estate agents would go into these neighborhoods and try to panic white families into selling their homes cheap to the real estate agents.”

Other techniques they used included recruiting Black people from the ghettos to “walk around the neighborhood pushing baby carriages” and calling families in white communities but asking for a name that is typically associated with a Black person. Such tactics convinced white homeowners that their neighborhood was next on the list to become filled with Black residents.

This is how the real estate agents managed to then obtain the homes for cheap prices and sell them to Black homebuyers at exponentially higher prices than they purchased the homes for.

It was literally the facilitation of segregation for the sake of profits while benefiting from the negative perceptions of the Black community.

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