Tag Archives: race

Massey & Denton on American Apartheid

American ApartheidAmerican Apartheid set my teeth on edge, and it was hard for a while to figure out why as I agree with many of the findings, and their research into changing levels of segregation over decades in cities across America is vital and well carried out. They describe segregation as one of, if not the, principal ills of American society, and one far too long and too often ignored. Like Stephen Meyer, and writing long before him, they see white racism as a principal factor in this and have worked to document it, but do not fail to note the institutionalised forms it has taken through real estate practices and government regulation and policy. You know I liked all of that.

I think it’s firstly the use of the term ‘underclass’. This is my first foray into the literature and I know it has been a common term even among well-meaning people, but frankly if you called someone underclass to their face it would be considered an insult. How then can you label thousands of inner-city residents as such en masse just because you do so in books you think they will never read? It’s a basic question of respect, the most basic demand of all inner city residents who have to fight for it every day, unlike academics. And to me it is emblematic of where you stand, and the perspective from which you write.

They quote a few rap lyrics, and god knows enough of those are problematic. But there is nothing about the brilliant and long-standing tradition of political commentary and consciousness emerging from the ‘underclass’ in rap and R&B. They go on to quote Skogan and essentially use the broken-windows theory as part (not the principal part to be sure, but it makes the hackles rise) of their argument about the ghetto’s impacts, blaming unkempt properties for rising crime without properly fixing blame. They don’t seem to really see the massive struggles of local homeowners to get funding to fix up their properties (the difficulties are noted elsewhere to be fair, but not in this context) and just how much they achieve (and maintain) in the face of all odds, or the struggles of tenants and local organisations to improve slum housing. Having spent years of my life on this issue, I believe the real problem is an absence of credit for those who live there (except in the case of predatory lenders), and the incredibly high density of absentee landlords milking properties for maximum profit until they are literally falling down (and killing tenants when they do so), burning them down when that makes business sense. How can anyone be more or less offhand about the impunity of such a thing? As fundamental as the question of how people are contained within the ghetto is the very real problem of who owns it, and what they are allowed to do with it and to it. The ‘downward spiral’ they describe corresponds to profits extracted and resources withdrawn.

But of course such a criticism is not really to the point, as this book is entirely about getting people out of the ghetto, seeing it as backward and possibly harmful to try and improve conditions within it. My principal issue is that such an objective of ‘dismantling’, whatever that means exactly, might well have to be carried out in spite of many ghetto residents themselves. Massey & Denton criticise Stokely Carmichael and Charles Hamilton when they problematise integration, blames black politicans and business owners for their material interests in maintaining areas of concentrated blackness. In South Central there may be plenty of people who want to get out, but there are plenty who call it home, who love it as much as they hate aspects of it, who are working hard to make it a better place. Gentrification is making this a particularly poignant issue, as some neighborhoods are becoming integrated again for the first time in decades–often due to the successes of local groups in improving their neighborhood conditions–but only for a fleeting moment before the people of colour are pushed out into the hinterlands where they may arguably be worse off than they were in the inner cities.

I understand the practicalities of a ‘sensible’ and easily applied policy solution, the idea that fixing housing discrimination (without major changes to current law even, through simple enforcement!) fixes the problems of race relations and the poverty of the ghetto might have appealed to politicians (though it clearly didn’t). But this data, this narrative to me points to the fact that we need to rethink housing and land use all together, that the housing market itself might be a problem in a country where working for minimum wage keeps you below the poverty line and thus safe, secure, and healthy housing is never affordable without immense (and almost nonexistant) subsidies. There are deeper issues, and looking to successes in other countries shows we need to escape our current definitions of liberal and conservative. Why can we not reimagine public housing?

But on their own terms, I simply don’t think litigation alone ever solves problems, however heroic such efforts are. That those living in the ghetto have been victimised by society none can deny, but even if you don’t believe that they are capable of understanding or fighting these dynamics, at the end of the day political will to tackle issues of poverty and race only comes through greater struggle.

As Long as They Don’t Move Next Door: Segregation and Racial Conflict in American Neighborhoods

2906999Stephen Grant Meyer (1999) Rowman & Littlefield Publishers

This is a great book on the subject, impeccably researched as you can tell with even a cursory glance at the copious notes. Its conclusions are not at all pleasant nor hopeful, but chime directly with my own experience in LA. They are that racism is the fundamental factor explaining segregation, and that this racism in the general white population is what drove discriminatory legislation and institutional practices, rather than the other way around. As he says, “Realty companies, lending institutions, and governments have engaged in activities that sustain the community’s segregationist wishes. In so doing, however, they represent the will of their constituencies.” This certainly counters other arguments, like those found in Kenneth Jackson’s Crabgrass Frontier, explaining segregation primarily through the action of such external forces on individuals who may wish to do the right thing really.

The evidence is there, and it is a strong argument because Meyer does not ignore external forces, there is a great deal in here about racially restrictive zoning and covenants, discriminatory practices in real estate, the role of the FHA and etc. But he marshals a massive amount of everyday evidence of the extremely violent reactions of everyday white folks to a black face moving into their neighborhood in cities across the nation. The South may be special, but his argument is that racism exists alive and well across the rest of the country, and the South just might be distracting us from that. There have been thousands of bombings, death threats, mobs demanding that people get out. In Los Angeles. In Berkeley. In Cincinatti. In Chicago. And while the NAACP and others have fought immensely hard (it took the assassination of Martin Luther King to get the Fair Housing Act passed in its third year of deliberation, only a week after his death) to enact legislation and establish legal precedents that make official policies of segregation illegal and prosecutable (if barely), the truth remains that America continues to be a highly segregated country. In fact, many studies show higher levels of segregation now than in the 1960s.

This is a terrible catalog of injustice, though it also charts the courage and inspiration of those who stood against it. But more importantly than reclaiming a deeper and truer sense of our history, its importance lies in how we struggle for the rights of all people to live wherever they may choose without threat, harassment, or discomfort. If this is true, the struggle for this right cannot be solely, or even primarily based on legal or policy strategies, it has to tackle something deeper and uglier than mere laws on paper. That is left to the imagination I am afraid.

I think in many ways Meyer is absolutely right. I found it particularly poignant when he looks at the 1960s Civil Rights Movement, and the way that Northern whites were in full support of campaigns against Jim Crow in the South, yet dropped away from the movement or even opposed it when blacks attempted to achieve fair housing in their own cities. That hasn’t changed at all, just ask anyone working in the inner cities. But I feel that there is something else going on, something that is not more fundamental than race but that articulates with it, to use the words of Stuart Hall, whose work I’m still trying to wrap my head around. And to carry on the struggle, it’s important to understand how capitalism or neoliberalism intersects with this fundamental reality of racism. But I haven’t the answers to that yet.

Santa Teresita and Clifton, AZ

Santa Teresita de Cabora…that is how she was known to the thousands who loved her, and believed she could cure the sick, the blind and the lame. So we went on a quest to find Teresa Urrea today,  one of the more extraordinary figure of the Southwest borderlands. It was inspired by reading Ringside to the Revolution by David Romo (which you should read, without a doubt)…but when we started looking we found so much more.

Santa_de_cabora

Her life defies summary, but I shall try. In 1873 she was born in Culiacan, Mexico, the illegitimate daughter of a Yaqui woman named Cayetana Chavez and the local landowner, Tomas Urrea. She worked with the local curandera…known alternatively as Huila (a Yaqui name) or Maria Sonora (a Yori name, we shall disregard it). While an adolescent she went into a coma, her father ordered a coffin, and the story goes that the night before her burial she suddenly sat up. She said that they should keep the coffin as someone else would die within 3 (or possibly 5 days). She was right, and they buried Huila.

From that time on she was famed for her healing powers, powers both of traditional medicine and faith. She never charged for her service. And the thousands came…so many that Porfirio Diaz feared her powers in leading an insurrection and expelled her from the country…revolution was already boiling along the borders among the Yaqui, the Mayo, the Tomochic. And they revolted up and down down the border in her name, they carried her photograph cut out from the papers next to their hearts. Federales saw her mounted on a white horse leading them, even though she was hundreds of miles away. They were called the Teresista Rebellions, and although I grew up an hour from Nogales, I never knew the Teresistas had risen there.

Diaz said that El Paso was too close, so she moved to Clifton…she traveled, always attracting thousands seeking healing. And she returned to Clifton when she was diagnosed with tuberculosis, she built a house there, and died in 1906, peacefully, she was only 33. 400 people attended her body from the church to the grave.

And yet today no one is sure where she is buried. And that is quite a story.

Apparently in the Clifton area there were three cemeteries. There was the whites only cemetery (known simply as the Clifton cemetery, though now it is officially called the Ward’s Canyon cemetery.) There was the Mexican cemetery. And there was the Catholic cemetery. Clifton is a mining town, only a few miles from Morenci, and the largest pit mine in the country. At some point Phelps Dodge decided that there was copper under the Mexican cemetery, and they wanted it. And so they dug it up and dumped all of the bodies from there into…an unmarked place. Supposedly in the whites only cemetery, though that puzzles me really, it would have made much more sense to have put them in the Catholic cemetery, especially as apparently that now belongs to PD as well. And since it was unmarked…it is hard to say.

It’s unimaginable really, especially given the relationship Mexican families have with their dead. It fills me with a kind of fury. But segregation even in death is enough to do that. And there’s the lovely story in the Roadside History of Arizona (full of interesting facts, though nothing about such things as strikes, civil unrest, Mexican saints or etc etc)… in 1904, 40 orphans were brought to the town by New York nuns, happy that they had found good Catholic families willing to adopt them. Sadly, the children were white, the families Mexican, and the good whitefolk of Clifton couldn’t have that. Vigilantes took custody of the kids, and every court up to the Supreme Court supported them in their efforts. Vigilantes are nothing new around here, nor is government support for them.

And so here is the cemetery that was once whites only

You can see Morenci’s open pit in the background. We thought that Teresa’s grave had been (provisionally) identified and marked, we wandered up and down, and found nothing. The graveyard is on a steep hillside, with many of the graves themselves forming the terracing, and the ultimate disposition of bones over years of torrential summer rains an interesting thought. Below is one of the spots I thought they might have dumped a load of calcium and dream rich dirt.

It contrasts with the more worthy sections…

Even Mr. Greenlee for whom the county is named is buried here. Under a small pyramid of rock. I don’t think he would have appreciated PD’s idea, it makes me doubt that they managed to bury an unnamed load of Mexicans here. But perhaps they did, and the outrage was great enough from both communities (united if only in this), that that is what forced them to relocate graves properly when the towns of Morenci and Metcalf were claimed by the pit as well.

We navigated at temperatures of 103 or so…and even hating the idea of a white’s only cemetery (though it isn’t quite at this point…), it was still haunting and some things were impossibly sad, like this, hid amidst great marble headstones

6 years old, chiseled by unskilled hand…and then I found this one a few steps away

Born and died the same day. And you realize how hard and bleak and terrible life could be, for everyone. But heartbreaking as they are, the Chapmans got to keep their headstones. Teresa Urrea has been erased.

So we headed into town to ask where the grave could be found. We started at the courthouse, moved to the recorder’s office, and there met Berta who was amazing and took us to the library over her lunch break, where she had started a file on Teresa. And all of a sudden I started liking Clifton again. I have photocopies now of the original article from The Copper Era (nice title, no?) from January 18, 1906, announcing her death. And a handful of others published in local papers, and one with a picture of a grave they think just might be Teresa’s.  We returned to the cemetery, to the grave we thought just might be the grave in the picture of what just might be the grave of Teresa Urrea. It was missing the wooden cross though….And we left our flowers, red plastic roses, and fresh white calla lilies, deciding that she would be understanding if we hadn’t found her, and anyone else who might be buried there would be happy.

And then we headed into downtown Clifton, up to Morenci…but more on that later. Another stirring tale of racism, labor strikes, evil mining companies…exciting stuff!

And last thing, a brilliant fictionalized book about Teresa is by Luis Alberto Urrea, The Hummingbird’s Daughter.

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Colour and Invisibility

A man came up to me today while I was waiting for the blue train, leaning against my bike and reading. He nodded towards the handful of people who shunned the shade, and launched into friendly conversation – some people just really love the sun, huh? They’re crazy, the sun makes you blind, they’re going to go blind…I thought about skin cancer and freckles and wrinkles and the way I love the Arizona summer where the world is all white light and heat that wraps around you so heavy on the air you can feel its comforting weight. Of course, the only thing I like to do through the Arizona summer is read while drinking long cool glasses of anything with ice, it’s been a hell of a long time since I was able to do that. Amazing how much can go through your mind in a split second. I love the sun.

I was lucky. He required no response to continue: the sun makes you disappear. My mom was upset when I moved out here, I’m from the East coast and when I went home they thought I was ugly, I was light skinned there but here you stand in the sun and you turn the colour of charcoal, no one can see you at night, you become invisible. He lifted his arms and they were a dark dark brown, and the wiry hair on them a very bright white.

I thought about this means of becoming invisible. You become the colour of darkness, you walk along unperceived and hidden against the backdrop of night, I thought about what it means to disappear. An arcane power of sorts, the ability to become one with the dark, to travel unseen…who has never dreamed of that? With the power of flight, invisibility is pretty high on my list of unfulfilled desires. The train came then and I shall probably never see him again. I wanted to ask him if he had read Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison, I wanted to ask him if invisibility were really a function of colour and camouflage, or of politics. I wanted to ask him about the invisibility of South Central and all the people in it, the invisibility of the poor to those with wealth, the invisibility that comes with a skin colour approaching the night. The invisibility you endure when you wear an apron or a janitor’s uniform or a name tag proclaiming your willingness to serve. The way that so many people I have known and loved have disappeared. It was not the sun that disappeared them, and I rage that they could have left this world with so small of a ripple. I wanted to reconcile the challenge, and the promise, of the gulf between invisibility in the world of my imagination, and invisibility in the imagination of the world.

I have lost much of my substance behind the name tag and pinned smile of the service employee, the painfully unfashionable clothes and bad haircut of that embarassingly poor kid who really wants nothing more than to disappear (luckily I’ve grown and fought my way out of both for the most part)…but my experience is limited as someone who will only find camouflage if the night becomes the colour of pale sand. I yet sit uncomfortably poised between several worlds none of which seem to be visible to the others, and I could not imagine myself anywhere else…and so this problem of how and what people can see seems to be one of the keys to resolving the injustices that have pushed these worlds apart. And so a blessing on the old charcoal gentleman who disturbed my reading today and set my mind spinning, may he find beauty in his skin…