Tag Archives: suburbs

Open Occupancy v Forced Housing — racism and the early rhetoric of the right

contentIt was 1963. The sheer quantity of outspoken and arrogant white legal and housing experts giving away just how racist U.S. society is make this book worth reading. That’s never pleasant reading. However, much as racism has grown more subtle over the past fifty years it is quite extraordinary to see just how much of this rhetoric is being recycled by the tea-party and other freedom-and-rights racist quasi-libertarians. Open Occupancy sounds much nicer than Forced Housing, but these terms were coined to replace what doesn’t sound so nice: The ability to freely discriminate vs. the right of all people to live where they can afford. That hardly sounds completely antithetical to the American dream and the American way, but this entire volume with one exception is arguing that is so.

It opens with some congratulations from Norman P Mason, commissioner of the Federal Housing Administration from 1954-59 and administrator of the US Housing and Home Finance Agency from 1959-61. No need to think too hard about just how racist policies became so enshrined in both policy and day to day practice of government agencies.

1971 Dean Alfred Avins founder of Delaware Law School
1971 Dean Alfred Avins founder of Delaware Law School

The introduction from editor Avins sums it all up nicely:

The short of the matter is that anti-discrimination legislation in practice is a grave infringement on property rights, subject in administration to incurable abuses, and most important, helps only the Negroes who do not need it (26).

I think I heard Sarah Palin going on about that not too long ago. In sadly familiar rhetoric, he argues that discrimination doesn’t exist, but if it does Negroes are to blame given their unreasonable demands and low-class natures. He’s got lots of people to back him up on that.

There is a short, very unexpected piece from Charles Abrams, writer of Forbidden Neighbors and champion of ‘Forced Housing’. He has clearly chosen to try and win support for increased federally funded public housing—allowing the racists around him to connect the dots for themselves that new builds might stem the invading black flow into their pristine white neighborhoods—and doesn’t even engage with the absurdity of most of the arguments made here.

A delightful piece on restrictive covenants claims not to take sides on their public enforcement given the Supreme Court decision, but lauds them as private agreements. Elmer M. Million quotes some delightful stuff from the Burkhardt v Lofton case (63 Cal. App. 2d 230, 146 P.2d 720, 724-25 (1944)) with its arguments for the rights of the majority:

Racial restrictions have been employed in the development of countless residential communities and have very generally been considered essential to the maintenance and stability of property values. Non-Caucasians are and always have been just as free to restrict the use and occupancy of their property to members of their own races as Caucasians have been. The fact that the members of the Caucasian race have freely availed themselves of this right throughout the nation, even though those of non-Caucasian races have not, is most satisfactory proof of the public policy of the nation with respect to this phase of the right to contract. No doubt public policy changes and develops with the times, but these changes must have their sources in the citizenry and not on the decisions of the courts or the pronouncements of publicists and politicians (92-93).

Clauson & Buck in ‘Constitutionality in Illinois’ write ‘antidiscrimination legislation in private housing is at war with our most fundamental notions of property rights’ (123). Joshua A. Fishman in ‘Some Social and Psychological Determinants of Intergroup Relations in Changing Neighborhoods’ (fancy, huh), throws a little anti-Semitism in as well, just in case you were worried this is just about black people:

In many ways modern American suburbs epitomize basic American cultural values and aspirations. The Jewish middle class and the rapidly growing Negro middle class eagerly pursue these values and aspirations, and this pursuit inevitably leads them to suburbia. However, their presence in suburbia is inimical to the status needs and values of many who are (or who can more easily pass as) “old American.” In fact, their presence is often inimical to the very image of what a suburban community should be like. Jews and Negroes represent the city and all of the dirt, grime, haste, sweat, and unloveliness of city life. Thus, their arrival not only lowers the status value of a neighbourhood, but for many it also cancels the suburban image of a suburb. As long as flight to uncontaminated areas is possible and feasible, it will be resorted to (136).

It’s hard to read that kind of bullshit really, though in a way you’re glad that they wrote it down so it’s there, impossible to pretend it didn’t happen. That Fishman has some insight into the more prevalent suburban mind-set is borne out by the violence, the malevolence of local publications and the white flight further and further out that I’ve been studying. This theme is continued by Armstrong et al in ‘Interracial Housing and the Law: A Social Science Assessment’. They begin their assessment by declaring that many previous social science assessments have been unduly influenced by their author’s attempts to promote desegregation, then follow that up with some of the worst pseudo-science I have read in a very long time. They didn’t quite reach the stage where they were measuring cranial capacity and talking about brow ridges and genetics, but very close. They argue both that integration hurts Blacks (in terms of morale, self-esteem and actually procuring housing) as well as for the many good reasons whites have for not wishing to integrate. They write:

the inmigration of lower-class Negroes brings with it the disabilities which attend the increased presence of a group collectively characterized by inordinately high rates of delinquency, crime, sexual immorality and communicable disease…. The deterioration of the standards of local schools, the increased incidence of delinquency and crime, greater public health hazards, regular exposure to a group which, because of conditions prevailing in its subculture, is characterized by lax sexual morality, broken homes and minimal academic aspirations, would seem to provide, in general, sufficient rational motive for white flight (147).

Wait, there’s more! They write ‘Sociologists have long appreciated the fact that men are animated by a disposition to seek out those they fancy similar to themselves’ (147). The old birds of a feather argument, social science at its very finest.

There’s a whole section of transcripts from a debate in the BRITISH HOUSE OF LORDS from May 14, 1962 on how races just shouldn’t mix and legislating such a thing is doomed to failure – very relevant to the American situation. Lord what’s-his-name (several of these) and Viscount pie face (two of these plus a Lord Chancellor) weighing in for British racism and using the American experience to support their arguments. Then lots of short pieces on two court cases currently being argued.

They also include an interesting short article on ‘An Analysis of Possible Impact of Anti-Discrimination Legislation on the Home Building Industry’. Of course they argue it will be mayhem, no builders will want to build if it might be integrated. Given the ways that the industry has changed from a ‘small scale craft operation’ to a very ‘large scale assembly line production’ where ‘90% of new housing construction is being provided by a handful of builders over 250 homes per year’ (sic) (287). Given the scale of their operations, integration could cause a fall in their selling prices making it impossible to recoup the large upfront costs of tract development. Author R.J. Anderson believed that this would cause a downturn in the industry, forcing builders to build on a smaller scale and hedging their bets using smaller, scattered plots so as not to tie up large amounts of cash and risk bankruptcy should a person of colour buy into his subdivision. Of course, in hind sight builders managed to find plenty of ways not to integrate, but this underlines the importance of their finding such ways.

All in all, a quite infuriating but informative glimpse into the 1960s era white racists of real estate.

My Blue Heaven: South Gate and White Working Class Identity

My Blue Heaven - Becky NicolaidesBecky Nicolaides’ My Blue Heaven is a marvelously well researched and incredibly detailed look at the lives of people in South Gate, one which challenges a number of common assumptions about the suburbs while providing evidence for others.

I love how it details the ways that ideas and meanings of home and community were constructed, and their change over time. My Blue Heaven‘s principal argument is that from the 1920s through WWII, home was primarily a survival strategy for the working class. They bought affordable lots and built homes as and when they could, using extensive yards to grow food, thus provisioning themselves against want outside of the cash economy. At this time, residents felt that lower taxes were more important than school segregation for example, highlighting the precariousness of their living situation. This shifted after World War II, as South Gate came to resemble other suburbs such as Lakewood in its infrastructure and tract housing, and as owner salaries rose and situations improved, their homes became principally investments and marks of status. This led to a very strong feeling around taxes. Thus their bitter struggle against school integration, and defensive posture around residential integration to protect home values.

It is an interesting thing to think about, that poverty should make people less inclined to active racism when there were incentives to the contrary. Yet racism was no less virulent for communities made up of so many Southern migrants:

In 1925, the local booster-editor asserted “Home Gardens is a town of, by and for workingmen — and we want hundreds more of them. The only restrictions are racial — the white race only may own property here,” [27]

But this tension isn’t explored as much as I wished it to be, although the racial tensions post WWII are quite well documented. This is also true of the shift in how individuals saw taxes, and the foundations of Prop 13, and the today’s anti-tax conservatism. It is a fundamental dynamic in American politics, and this is some of the best evidence I’ve seen in terms of understanding how American politics has developed, both in the origins of strong-held opinions on the importance of low taxes:

When boom hit bust in the 1930s, their assumptions about the role of individuals and government began to shift. As both the politics of development and education revealed, residents began with the unspoken assumption that the burden of financing municipal services-from streets to schools-should fall on the backs of individual property owners, including the humble working-class home owner. Embracing an ethos of privatism, they believed property ownership conferred the responsibility of municipal stewardship. All property owners- regardless of wealth-became urban stewards. It was thus up to individuals, not government more broadly, to pay for services. In a poorer suburb like South Gate, residents simply chose to limit these services, to create a modest infrastructure that they could reasonably afford. There was no assumption that urban services were a right, and that they should be financed through a redistributive system of taxation. This reflected their deeply held ideals of individualism, self- help, hard work, plain-folk Americanism’ and anticommunism, an outlook asserting that urban fiscal policy ought to be based on a private approach rather than a collective one.

and then the ways in which discussions around taxes have also become coded in terms of race through the civil rights struggles of the 1950s and 1960s

In numerous public statements, “taxes” became a coded reference to civil rights and programs for minorities, an excellent local example of the national trend that saw an overlapping of race and taxes as political issues. “While you work and sweat to protect your earnings and property, the politicians scheme with their minority supporters to put you in a hopeless position to protect yourself against raids of everything you work for…. Today CORE, NAACP, COPE [302] and their like are the only participants who pressure our legislators for the kind of government we have now, while today’s citizen is a drone, quite impotent in local affairs because he stays home, and our taxes continue to go up, up and up,”

It is extraordinary to watch a working class community shift from supporters of EPIC and the New Deal, to supporters of conservative Republicans such as Ronald Reagan. But through this historical view it finally makes some kind of sense…it also contains a lot of more ethnographic and quite fascinating information on daily life, entertainment, and particularly labor. Nicolaides argues that home became the center of people’s lives rather than their work, and explores some of its implications for labor.

Definitely worth checking out if you’re interested in any of these topics, and a beautiful example of an in depth historical view of a single suburb that manages to give insight into key historical forces happening all over the country.

[Nicolaides, Becky M. (2002) My Blue Heaven: Life and Politics in the Working-Class Suburbs of Los Angeles, 1920-1965. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.]

Crabgrass Frontier

745452In understanding how on earth American cities developed as they did, there is probably no better place to start than this book. It is immensely well researched, marshaling a wealth of information that I found jaw-dropping at times. This makes it a bit too detailed on occasions, perhaps a bit harder to get through and I am no fan of reading ad nauseum that old garden city ideal or the building of early havens of wealth and beauty. I could have done with less of that, but so many of the tidbits are delightful, from the horse-car and its effects on the weak-willed:

“It is hardly too much to say that the modern horse-car is among the most indispensable conditions of metropolitan growth. In these days of fashionable effeminacy and flabby feebleness, which never walks when it can possibly ride, the horse-car virtually fixes the ultimate limits of suburban growth.” p 42 (Miller – Fares Please)

to the rise of the automobile:

“There is something uncanny about these newfangled vehicles, They are unutterably ugly and never a one of them has been provided with a good or even an endurable name. The French, who are usually orthodox in their etymology, if in nothing else, have evolved ‘automobile,’ which being half Greek and half Latin is so near indecent that we print it with hesitation.” New York Times January 3, 1899

He has a very broad analysis of suburbia’s rise, and his main argument is that:

The spatial arrangement of cities depends less on ideology than on economics, less on national idiosyncrasies than on industrial development, technological achievement, and racial integration.

I think he does a solid job of showing some of the economics (though I could have wished for more analysis of profits and power, and this is no critique of capitalism itself), industrial development and technological achievement.

But the mention of ‘racial integration’ points up where my main critique lies, because it was not integration that pushed anything at all, it was the immense push to segregation. He does a great job of unearthing and presenting the federal government’s awful role in enforcing and promoting segregation through the FHA and HOLC, but it seems to me he fails to fully engage with the issue of racism, or its manifestation among white Americans themselves. Perhaps that is why he is so hopeful looking into the future…