In writing that last post I was reminded of another statement that has become an element in my talks... but that begs for delving more deeply:
There's a place where I'm describing my introduction to the planning team of our park back in 2003, and learning about the importance of the Albert Kahn-designed Ford Assembly Plant which had been built between the years of 1929-1931 on state-owned land. It was built on air rights, a concept only recently adopted at that time. It was an important piece of the Home Front story because it had been constructed to assemble Model A Fords but was converted to outfitting thousands of tanks and jeeps for the war in the Pacific theater during WWII.
In my talk I speak of that PowerPoint presentation being the first time I was able to see the scattered sites that define the park, and instantly recognize them as sites of racial segregation. I state clearly that, "I was the only person in that room who could see that, because what gets remembered is determined by who is in the room doing the remembering. I was the only person who had any reason to know that. There was no grand conspiracy to leave our history out, the real history was simply forgotten over time."
This morning as I slowly awakened -- just before opening my eyes to test the degree of still-darkness before sun-up -- it dawned on me that there must be many truths that only people of color are in a position to recall, and many more -- both black and newly-enlightened whites -- who care but are too young to have ever known. There are important reasons why there are two Americas; if not more.
For instance, might there be less of a separation between black and white America if white America knew that when the Social Security System was created, two classes of workers were omitted; laborers and domestic servants? It was the elimination of African Americans from that groundbreaking enabling system that brought stability to so many American lives and that created a permanent injustice that made the creation of wealth virtually impossible. We were locked out from the beginning by being forced to remain at the service worker level due to a lack of opportunity to rise above it. Discrimination in the work place would continue to be a barrier for decades, and in many places it still persists.
The second was the GI Bill which guaranteed every returning veteran of WWII an education and a mortgage. But the bill was administered locally instead of federally which enabled the local banker to control just who received mortgages and where. The bill made possible the construction of the nationwide suburbs which were created for "whites only". They were off-limits to non-whites through covenants written into the deeds of all new housing construction.
Nor could a returning black veteran use the Bill to enter college or graduate school unless said institutions were open to people of color. At that time such institutions were few and far between and often involving traveling great distances from black population centers. Have we forgotten that the illustrious Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall financed his law school education by working as a Pullman porter?
It was then that older properties within city limits were made available to blacks as white flight took effect. The inner cores of the cities became home to non-whites as more and more such properties were abandoned by white owners who could now rent out those homes as absentee landlords to renters without the financial means nor the stability to purchase property; a known pathway toward the building of personal wealth. Instead, the payment of those rents provided mortgage payments for absentee white landlords who were already receiving government subsidies through the G.I. bill. Only those black veterans who bought homes in red-lined districts could benefit by the bill because bankers sat in smug approval. The practice would insure that housing would remain racially segregated, as would the schools in such districts.; and we all know how well that worked out.
Over time, commercial interests and services followed them out of the cities into the more affluent suburbs until today there are few banks, fewer food markets, other service agencies within lower-income neighborhoods. There are far fewer job opportunities with the disappearance of local retail businesses. Low-skilled low-paying jobs that had always served as the first steps on the economic ladder for the young have all but disappeared. Remember when there were paper routes and gas-pumping to do?
Are those the kids we see on city street corners, kids who have had to create their own underground economy fueled by the drug trade in order to survive? This has proven to be one of the few alternatives to a minimum wage job at MacDonalds or Burger King, with little if any hope upon which to build a future.
Today there are fewer overt forms of racial restrictions on properties, but they still exist, informally. The messages are encoded and the suburbs where Mel and I raised our children are still only about l% non-white, though that's gradually changing in some areas due to the gradual upward mobility of non-whites, but it's still minimal.
For those well-meaning and more enlightened folks (and Bill Cosby) who find themselves wondering just why those black folks can't get their act together, these now-forgotten truths may provide some understanding. The problems are structural. The effects of those errors in judgment have been costly, and by now there are few leaders who have lived long enough to see how damaging they've been, not only to black Americans who have been tragically under-served, but to society as a whole. Tell that to those who see black America as over-advantaged and seduced into laziness by an undeserved sense of entitlements!
I was reminded yesterday as I watched the CSPAN coverage of the president's town meeting with folks in West Virginia -- worrying through some answers to the national drug abuse problem ... and the fact that, only now that the scourge of deaths by heroin overdoses has penetrated into White America, can we begin to entertain the notion that it may not be a problem of criminality after all, but an issue that must be addressed as a public health crisis.
... and how many young black and brown males had to idle their lives away behind bars or die violently in the drug wars before this could become visible to the powerful?
Is it because we've forgotten these critical truths, or, that we've never known that such problems would bleed into all of America unless dealt with where they were most clearly visible?
Is this the ultimate effect of Daniel Moynihan's ill-conceived concept of Benign Neglect in practice?
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