Can cities desegregate?

Urban centers have been racially divided since Mesopotamia -- but radical, global new measures aim to change that

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Can cities desegregate? (Credit: iStockphoto/AdrianHillman)
This article is an adapted excerpt from "Segregation: A Global History of Divided Cities," available May 29 from University of Chicago Press.

“Segregation,” the preacher paused to let his congregation absorb the full solemnity of his message, “is apparent everywhere.” It was December 4, 1910, in Baltimore, Maryland. Members of the largely African American crowd that had gathered in the sanctuary and overflowed onto the steps of the John Wesley Methodist Episcopal Church were grimly aware of what the Reverend Dr. Ernest Lyon was talking about, at least as far as the United States was concerned. The country’s black slaves had been emancipated less than a half century before. But now white people in Baltimore and elsewhere, even in cities outside the formerly slave-owning South, were clamoring for new ways to assert political supremacy. They had devised a new technique of racial control—segregation.

Since about 1900, whites across the United States had been outdoing each other shouting these four dread syllables from the political rooftops. In the name of segregation, they had passed laws that relegated blacks to inferior Jim Crow schools, train cars, railroad station platforms and waiting rooms, restaurants, theaters, public bathrooms, amusement parks, and even public water fountains. Employers and white workers imposed color bars that kept certain higher-prestige jobs off limits to blacks. Laws that prevented blacks from voting helped to reinforce the system. Earlier that year, on July 5, 1910, a group of angry whites in Baltimore decided it was time to take a step further and extend segregation to the city’s residential neighborhoods. As a result, Lyon reminded his congregation, “the city fathers of Baltimore are having under advisement at this time a measure which seeks to deprive free men … of their right to live and own property anywhere they can.” Two weeks after Lyon’s sermon, on December 20, 1910, Mayor J. Barry Mahool signed the city’s pathbreaking segregation ordinance into law. The ordinance divided every street in Baltimore into “white blocks” and “colored blocks” based on the race of the majority of their inhabitants at the time of the ordinance’s passage.

Segregation may have come to Baltimore, and it was definitely spreading across the United States, but it was also crisscrossing big expanses of the world beyond. It was not by any means limited to America and Africa—nor to the newly dawning twentieth century. Urban segregation designed to enhance elite groups’ power and wealth extends back to the most ancient of cities in Mesopotamia, and it was practiced in most other ancient civilizations as well. European colonial segregation dates at least as far back as the Middle Ages, when English colonists in Ireland and Italian merchants in the eastern Mediterranean reserved separate parts of overseas colonial towns for themselves.



Similar practices went into the ghettos that the Christian rulers of Venice and other Europeans cities established for Jews. The idea of separating a “black town” from a “white town” dates back to 1700, when British officials decided that color designations were crucial to governing their southern Indian colonial city of Madras (today’s Chennai). Race first entered into the conversations about urban segregation in the late 1700s in Calcutta (Kolkata), the capital of British India. British officials coined the phrase “hill station” in the early 1800s to describe dozens of segregated cities they built in the highlands of India, such as Simla—but the Dutch had built a similar place in Java a hundred years earlier. Baltimore’s 1910 segregation ordinance was not the first; experiments with legalized urban color lines arose in the mid-1800s in cities in China and around the Pacific Rim; they were designed to keep Chinese people from living in the white sections of cities like Shanghai, Hong Kong, and San Francisco.

The word “segregation” itself was first used for techniques of racial isolation in Hong Kong and Bombay (today’s Mumbai) in the 1890s. From there it inspired a nearly worldwide spread of what I call “segregation mania” across Asia, Africa, and the Atlantic world. The mania even resonated in Latin American cities like Rio de Janeiro and Buenos Aires, where distinctions between black and white were typically murkier than elsewhere. Monumental segregated colonial capitals went up in places like Rabat, in French Morocco, and New Delhi, in British India, signaling new arrogant ambitions for urban planning based on separate racial zones.

The most radical of all forms of urban segregation arose during these same years in two rapidly industrializing white settler societies. In South African cities like Durban, Cape Town, and Johannesburg, imperial officials and white settlers put in place the precedents for what would be called “apartheid” after 1948. In the United States, Baltimore’s segregation ordinance was soon followed by a subtler and ultimately more durable system of segregation, this one designed in Chicago and based above all on racial dynamics in the real estate market.The tide of urban racial segregationism reached its high-water mark worldwide during the twenty years following Dr. Lyon’s warning in Baltimore. However, members of Dr. Lyon’s congregation took his warning seriously. They helped lead a massive social movement with the goal of stopping whites’ segregationist ambitions. By the 1930s, this African American civil rights movement had created loose alliances with similar movements for national liberation in colonies across Africa and the world.

After World War II these movements succeeded in widely discrediting both racism and segregation, and they also forced whites to give up many of the practices they used to draw urban color lines. Still, the early twentieth-century mania for racial segregation left a terrible legacy for the cities of today’s world—and for the larger human communities in which they are located. Some aspects of the system of residential segregation that operates in the United States can be detected in otherwise quite different cities in the world’s other wealthiest countries, such as London and Paris, the ancestral hometowns of the world’s most influential white segregationists. The cities of Latin America and the colonial cities that Europeans and Americans ruled more recently in Asia and Africa have transformed into massive megacities sharply divided by class. There, new pressures from international financial institutions have enhanced the legacies of colonial-era segregationist urban policy. American Jim Crow fell during the 1960s and South African apartheid finally collapsed in 1994, but settler-led urban segregation continues to play a dispiriting role in some of the world’s most excruciating political conflicts, most notably in Belfast, Northern Ireland, and in Jerusalem and other cities of Israel-Palestine. In many places, the explicitly racial component of segregationism has been supplemented—or disguised— with talk of class, culture, ethnicity, and, most dangerously, religion. But much of the underlying logic and many of the techniques bear unmistakable legacies of the forces Reverend Lyon warned his congregation about in 1910.

Today, more than half of all human beings are city dwellers. We need our cities more than ever. Their comparatively rich economic, political, and cultural opportunities and their potential for a relatively small per capita environmental footprint may well make them crucial to our very survival as a species, as our many billions rapidly multiply and as we just as rapidly diminish our planet’s resources. But segregating our cities diminishes their promise—it makes them less equal, less democratic, less livable, less safe, and less able to sustain us all.

While it is amply true that supporters of white and elite privilege remain in charge of the commanding heights of the world’s urban politics, it is just as fully true that more people than ever before have come together to imagine and begin to create explicitly antisegregationist urban futures.

Many of these new visions would have been inconceivable even during the headiest days of the postwar black and brown racial revolution. To thrive in the otherwise hostile era since, today’s antisegregationist visionaries—who include grassroots activists, academics, public officials, reformers, and planners—have developed cross-oceanic intellectual networks of their own, building upon and refining those left behind by postwar revolutionaries, a process dramatically expanded in the age of the Internet. Though their hemisphere-crossing exchanges have not yet been able to slow the renewed march of segregation, people active within them have been able to acquire real slices of power within governments, the broader universe of intellectual interchange, and even in urban land markets.

The intellectual scope of their endeavor is unprecedented. Elaborating on the thought of such pioneers as W. E. B. DuBois, racial theorists have turned the concept of race on its head, arguing that racial divisions are not a natural phenomenon but a political one, subject both to mystifying rhetorical camouflage and hardened institutional inequalities that must be continually exposed and critiqued. Urban historians have dissected the dynamics of segregation, more fully uncovering some of the most highly camouflaged practices involved. At their best, social scientists who debate the spread of ghettos and slums on all continents have identified and dissected the complex and multidimensional political dramas that underlie color and class lines in cities. Planners and environmental justice activists have soundly rejected old theories that segregation wards off natural threats like disease. Instead, their work shows conclusively that urban division only increases the exposure of cities’ most vulnerable residents to environmental perils. More importantly, they point out that the kinds of segregation that depend on sprawl— and thus also upon enormous amounts of habitat destruction and automobile usage—dangerously increase cities’ environmental footprints, threatening our survival as a species. Urban activists and theorists, most notably those organized under the United Nations’ World Urban Forum, have called upon governments to recognize that all people have a fundamental “right to the city”—that is, freedom from all obstacles to urban opportunities, including freedom from residential segregation.

For these activists and thinkers, there are many ways to fight against urban divides in the interest of all people’s rights to the city. In some places, residents persuade real estate agents and local banks that integration and local public housing creates a more stable community than segregation, raising property values. Even where the actual creation of integrated communities is a long-term prospect, residents can revive their own slums and ghettos, attracting job opportunities to locate in closer proximity so that spatial disadvantages are minimized. Transport systems can make color and class lines more porous, thus giving excluded urban residents easier access to opportunities that remain distant while lowering the environmental footprint of the city. Growth boundaries around cities can slow sprawl, thus making white or elite flight more difficult and creating denser cities that also offer environmental benefits while again bringing urban opportunities closer to all. And, even in the absence of major spatial changes, the fight for more just workplaces and for government policies that redistribute wealth more fairly across racial and class lines can create more equality between all urban neighborhoods.

It is in Europe, perhaps not surprisingly, that such antisegregationist political forces have the most sway within governments. There, the strong base of support for social democracy and for centralized and relatively egalitarian urban planning has most successfully weathered attacks from New Right politicians, anti-immigrant racists, and international financial speculators. France is probably the best example, since its cities are arguably the most segregated of any wealthy society outside the United States. There, conservative leaders like Jacques Chirac and Nicholas Sarkozy, both of them well known for their hostility to immigrants, have nevertheless felt compelled to join the call for mixite sociale first enunciated by the Socialists in the 1990s.

Since 2003, their center-right administrations have pushed a massive, forty-billion Euro urban revitalization campaign to replace French cities’ ghastly postwar public housing towers with new estates and to expand the stock of public housing so that even wealthy municipalities reach the 20 percent quota envisioned by the Socialists’ anti-ghetto laws. Skeptics have rightly noted that these pharaonic new grands travaux have not yet had much effect on youth unemployment rates, which hover around 40 percent in the most “sensitive” banlieues, nor have they had much effect on Paris’s larger east-west pattern of segregation. Some suspect the housing program to be a flashy stalking horse for reductions in other social expenditures. But under questioning, Sarkozy’s housing minister piously declared that Paris’s “ghettos of the rich,” as its most conservative Western arrondissements are called, will not be exempt from their public housing quotas. He even endorsed Paris’s Socialist mayor’s recent moves to buy some of Baron Haussmann’s bourgeois apartment buildings in the swank districts near the Eiffel Tower and convert them to public housing. So far, white flight and resistance from wealthy residents and conservative mayors— including in the richest suburban municipality in the country, Sarkozy’s own Neuilly-sur-Seine—has slowed progress toward increased mixite. Still, in the dog days of late 2010, as financiers’ speculative attacks on the Euro resounded across the continent and as Islamophobic appeals redoubled, Sarkozy’s party voted robustly to refund a program of urban “territorial solidarity” that would be unimaginable, even under a “liberal” administration, in the United States.

Elsewhere in Europe, Canada, and Australasia anti-immigrant forces are just as strong as they are in France, and evidence of creeping race and class segregation can be found in many places. That said, earlier policies of building extensive but generally small-scale and dispersed public housing estates have ensured that color lines are generally less stark. It is true that public housing is an imperfect tool of urban integration: white tenants of public estates do not necessarily want to have neighbors of color any more than middle-class white homeowners, and worries about property values in the private market diminish government’s ability to build public estates where they might break up color lines. Still, even in places like post-Thatcher Britain, where governments have sold off many council estates—and even in such a historical heartland of segregation as London’s West End—it is still possible to find pockets of municipally owned affordable housing, often filled with immigrants of color, across the street from newly gentrified luxury apartments. Such patterns, which one observer labeled “microsegregation,” might actually be among the most successful attempts by any government in modern world history to use residential integration as a tool to at least begin reducing spatial disadvantages. In London and elsewhere on the continent, relatively extensive, cheap, and efficient public transport systems also help diminish some of the harms of segregation. So does London’s Greenbelt plan and other efforts to constrain sprawl, most notably in Sweden, the Netherlands, Canada, and New Zealand.

For these reasons, some European, Canadian, and Australasian cities have justly earned their reputation as the most egalitarian, integrated, and environmentally sustainable on earth. But heavy reliance on top-down government policies—no matter how successful—has some critics justifiably concerned. For all the public support that welfare states and egalitarian urban-planning policies enjoy in Europe, many governments’ actual implementation of programs too often occurs without much input from racially marginalized and low-income people themselves. The alienation many people feel from mainstream institutions— especially young people—diminishes the work of egalitarian policies. Worse, an important source of creativity and political influence lies relatively untapped.

The potential of excluded peoples’ creativity and power, paradoxically, may be easiest to see in places where governments have either given up on the fight for urban inclusiveness or where segregationist forces have most mercilessly outflanked egalitarian public agencies and policies. Such is the case in the United States, where decades of white retrenchment and free-market policies have helped to sustain many of the archsegregationist patterns set in place in the early twentieth century. These have left the country with the least egalitarian, most devastated, and most environmentally damaged excluded urban zones in the wealthy world.

Despite that history, some European antisegregationists have waxed enthusiastically about evidence of “community empowerment” they perceive in some of the least favored zones of American cities. This enthusiasm needs to be tempered, to be sure: In the United States, “empowerment” has just as often served as a cynical rhetorical cover for the weakening of even the most meager of countersegregationist public policies. Conversely, while many of the most creative initiatives in US urban politics have arisen from grassroots organizations that keep the spirit of the civil rights movement alive by mobilizing the residents of segregated ghettos, most have repeatedly demanded that American governments funnel more money into neglected urban areas.

Whatever their methods, it is undeniably true that these scrappy and courageous community-based organizations have done much of the work of desegregation that has occurred in the United States during the New Right era: they shoulder the greatest burden of enforcing fair housing laws, cajoling real estate agents and banks to help preserve the country’s few integrated neighborhoods, building affordable housing, passing inclusionary zoning ordinances, pushing for government action under the Community Reinvestment Act, advocating for expanded government support of underfunded schools, combating police brutality and the expansion of carceral ghettos, and drawing attention to urban environmental injustices linked to segregation. Some have been able to make significant inroads into inner-city land markets and finance as well, either by founding community development corporations, or by “banking” vacant urban land for socially responsible reuse, or, as in the case of Boston’s Dudley Street Initiative, by acquiring the power of eminent domain from the city government and going into business as nonprofit developers beholden to the community’s residents.

Though the scale of their operations is often limited, they have not been afraid to take comprehensive approaches to neighborhood revitalization. In Buffalo, New York, for example, People United for Sustainable Housing (PUSH Buffalo) and other allied organizations have linked affordable housing development with green rehabilitation techniques that lower residents’ heating and other costs. They strategically acquire some of the city’s multiplying vacant lots, resulting in an expansion of urban parkland, an urban farm, small-scale renewable-energy projects, and rainwater-management infrastructure. In direct action campaigns, the community’s residents have leveraged the victories of the global environmental movement and forced open the taps of “green” government and corporate funds. Using those funds, they hope to transform the business of neighborhood revival into a community-managed industry that creates local jobs and small businesses.

As this example suggests, the United States—despite its status as the historic cradle of suburban white-flight and automobile-enabled sprawl—has also recently become home to some of the most extensive discussions of the connections between desegregation, city planning, and the fight against global warming. Inner-city-based movement for environmental and transportation justice helped propel these debates, which have also involved growing numbers of antisprawl activists in the suburbs as well as professional planners attracted to the international New Urbanist and Eco Cities movements. Urban planning built around public transport and walkable spaces has enormous potential to make urban color and class lines more porous and thus create cities that are at once more just and sustainable. It is true that in housing markets where race and class exclusivity determines property values, privileged residents often strongly resist boundary-crossing mass-transit lines. Conversely, successful transit schemes can accelerate gentrification by forcing those who rely the most on the system to live furthest away from stations. In an unusually promising development, the Obama administration opened an exploratory Office of Sustainable Housing and Communities whose mission is to encourage urban transport that is connected to the development of nearby affordable housing.

The movement that perhaps has the greatest chance of erasing color lines in the United States, though, is the movement of millions of people from the Global South to American cities. Recent studies have confirmed that Latino Americans, whose numbers now far outpace those of blacks, are almost as likely to live in segregated neighborhoods and that darker-skinned Latinos are more segregated than their lighter-skinned counterparts. But many new multiracial neighborhoods have also come into being as a result of immigration, not only from Latin America, but from Asia and Africa as well. Immigrants have been an important source of reinvestment capital for many cities and inner suburbs. Their numbers have also transformed many cities—and even entire states—into majority brown and black societies, anticipating a demographic change that will encompass the entire United States later in the twenty-first century. Some bring community-organizing skills honed in opposition to repression in their countries of origin. Already these experienced organizers have helped build the most extensive grassroots protest organizations since the black civil rights movement; these have focused on reversing the militarization of the color line along the United States’ southern border. As immigrants’ numbers and their disproportionate support for egalitarian, government-led urban policies increase, they may provide the biggest political challenge to suburban strongholds of the New Right and its segregationist legacies.

Reprinted with permission from “Segregation: A Global History,” published by the University of Chicago Press. © 2012 Carl H. Nightingale. All rights reserved.

Carl H. Nightingale is professor of urban and world history in the Department of Transnational Studies at the University of Buffalo, State University of New York. He is the author of "On the Edge: Poor Black Children and Their American Dreams."

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