Thursday, September 17, 2009



Two weeks ago, I visited St. Louis. I had never been there before. I grew up in Connecticut and I've spent most of my adult life in New York City. I lived and worked in Chicago for several years; I did not find people's attitudes all that different from people's attitudes in New York. For the most part, I liked Chicago. But before moving there, I had heard stories that it was "segregated" and "had a race problem." These stories gave me a preconception that everyone in Chicago was a racist and that it was "very white and conservative."

My experience contradicted all these preconceptions. Chicago is an extraordinarily Democratic city. Although it is 800 miles from the Atlantic, it is surprisingly cosmopolitan and progressive. New Yorkers are wrong to think it is a "sleepy, backward Midwestern town." Much to the contrary, it is as vibrant a place as you will find anywhere outside the Five Boroughs. And most Chicagoans are ferociously liberal: Republicans don't stand a chance in city government. True, the city is unashamedly corrupt. But benignly so. Sometimes people just like things the way they are, as long as everyone gets a nice paycheck. "Hey, who cares as long as no one gets hurt and everybody wins?" That's how it is in Chicago.

Does Chicago have a "race problem?" To answer that question, I don't think it's fair to single out Chicago. Every American city has a "race problem." Black people do not generally live in wealthy neighborhoods in any American city, and black people commit proportionately more poverty-related crime than whites in all urban areas. This is a "national issue." It holds true in Chicago. The city is economically segregated, and that means it is also racially segregated. Blacks live on the South and West Sides because it is cheaper than the North Side, where most whites live. Blacks do not live on the South and West Sides because government ordered blacks to live there; they live there because they are too poor to live in the white areas. Contrary to Justice Thomas' outrageous assertion, blacks do not live in ghettoes because they made "innocent private decisions including voluntary housing choices." See Parents Involved in Community Schools v. Seattle School District No. 1, 551 U.S 701 (slip. op. at p. 51)(Thomas, J., concurring)(2007). For the most part, they have no choice.

New Yorkers mistake these economic realities for official racial discrimination. But the same thing happens in New York. New York is just as segregated as Chicago; white New Yorkers just see more black people on the street. Economic reality makes it impossible for blacks to live on the Upper East Side and downtown Manhattan, not governmental racism. While blacks might walk the streets in "white areas," they likely do not live there: They just took the subway. The same thing is true in Chicago's "white areas" : They just took the El.

In short, "race problems" exist in every American city, not just Chicago. Economic realities translate into racial realities. Government might not legislatively discriminate against blacks as it did a century ago. But private actors can achieve the same result simply by competing in the free market. Blacks stand at a material economic disadvantage in the United States. They cannot compete for housing, goods and services at the same level as whites. Thus, it is possible for cities to become "segregated" simply by action of "everyday commerce." This is generally what happens in northern cities like New York and Chicago.

I had all this in mind when I landed in St. Louis. I thought St. Louis would be like Chicago; after all, they are cities at opposite ends of the same State: Illinois. But this was no northern city. St. Louis was different. Whites lived in sprawling, palatial, mansion-like structures with gates and lush lawns. Just blocks away, blacks lived in dilapidated row houses with boarded windows. I stayed in a hotel with a steel fence and guards. All the servants were black. All the guests were white. White folk frolicked by the pool. Black folk trudged around outside the fence.

This was more than just economic segregation. This was real, social segregation. The great, unspoken reality in St. Louis was that black folk knew their place and white folk lorded over them. Unlike New York and Chicago, blacks did not even show up in places reserved for whites. They stayed home. They did not have a subway to get around, anyway.

Then it dawned on me: St. Louis was a southern city. I had never really seen a southern city. I did not like it at all. While New York and Chicago might guiltily acknowledge their "race problems," St. Louis had a "race problem" and didn't seem to mind it at all. After all, this was just the "way things were supposed to be." In New York and Chicago, everyone knows racism exists. But very few people acknowledge it publicly; they just let private commerce do its work. In St. Louis, by contrast, racism is just assumed. That jarred me.

Why did this jar me? After all, I routinely write about America's continuing racial woes. I am usually the first to point out that we do not live in a postracial society, and that racial problems in America encapsulate everything wrong with American civilization. But it is one thing to theorize and read about these problems; it is quite another to see them up close. Put simply, race problems exist in the United States because they are the poisonous legacy of slavery and State-sponsored discrimination. Not that many generations have passed since the law called black men "chattel property," and even fewer have passed since it was considered "good and legal" in the South to murder black men without trials for perceived offenses against "the social order." No matter how much we learn to be "politically correct" about these issues--and even to rue the conduct of our ancestors--this evil legacy lives on. And it undermines any claim that we live in a Nation of principle.

Racial problems in the North and the Midwest are relatively recent phenomena. They are essentially the "third chapter" in the history of racial intolerance in America after slavery and Reconstruction in the South. I did some reading and discovered that St. Louis was the first "northern" city to which southern blacks migrated in the early 20th Century. At that time, State-sponsored discrimination made life in the South virtually intolerable for blacks. While they might have been "legally equal" on paper, white mobs (some included judges and prosecutors) lynched hundreds every year. To escape life in southern society, many blacks looked north. St. Louis was right up the Mississippi River from the Deep South.

But their problems did not disappear once they arrived in St. Louis. They did not receive a warm welcome from ostensibly "progressive" northern whites. To the contrary, European immigrants and their descendants in St. Louis resented the idea that these "black interlopers" were stealing their jobs and "fraternizing with white women." After America entered World War I in 1917, tensions reached a boiling point. After factory owners began hiring blacks to replace white workers called off to war, white mobs marched on black neighborhoods. The Governor called in the National Guard, but in many cases the troops joined the mob and helped terrorize the black population. Over a three-day period, white mobs killed several dozen blacks and burned down their whole neighborhood. The police basically stood by and let the violence happen, tacitly supporting the white mob's position.

Something similar happened in Chicago two years later. As was true in St. Louis, thousands of blacks settled in Chicago in the early 20th Century. After World War I, thousands more returned from Europe to compete for jobs in the city. Whites and blacks informally agreed to "live in their own neighborhoods." They even respectively agreed not to use parts of the Lake Michigan beachfront reserved for the other race. But in 1919, a black boy dared to go swimming in "white waters." Several white boys threw rocks at him and he drowned. A dispute broke out between blacks and whites on the beach. When the police arrived, they arrested angry blacks rather than the white boys who threw the rocks. This led to rioting. As was the case in St. Louis, white mobs did the damage. They marched into black neighborhoods and burned almost everything in their path. They were just waiting for the opportunity to vent their anger about losing jobs to blacks. And as was true in St. Louis, the police tacitly supported the rioters by refusing to intervene against them.

I use these two examples to illustrate why we still have a "race problem" in the United States. Although they both took place 90 years ago, I think they have genuine relevance to modern urban issues involving race. For one, I find it perversely interesting that we call these disturbances--and others like them--"race riots." Who is the aggressor in a "race riot?" Who is the victim? In both St. Louis and Chicago, blacks were undeniably the victims, while the whites were the aggressors. Yet the term "race riot" implies that a "race" starts a riot. In American discourse, the word "race" generally implies "African-American." For deeply troublesome reasons, the word "race" conjures black men in the white mind. It conjures the perennial, uncomfortable, uneasy racial legacy that has remained with us since the Civil War and before. But in these "race riots," blacks did not cause disturbances to protest their inferior social standing. Unrest may well have been justified in the circumstances. Yet it was whites who caused the disturbances. And why? For economic reasons, and for "pride:" They did not like the idea that blacks threatened their jobs, swam "on their beaches" and "mixed with their women." These are not very noble reasons to riot.

This is not to say that blacks have not begun racial disturbances in our history. In 1992, for instance, black mobs rose up to protest the Rodney King police brutality verdict. But in that case, they did not severely damage white neighborhoods. They likely wanted to, but in the end they wound up burning their own property and some Asian-owned property. No matter who suffered injury, however, blacks rioted because they perceived a serious injustice, namely: that a supposedly "neutral" justice system failed to deliver justice against white police officers who visibly brutalized a black man on videotape. In this sense, "black-launched" race riots differ from "white-launched" race riots. Blacks riot to protest manifest injustice and betrayed principle. Whites riot to protect their jobs and bloodlines.

Race riots offer a revealing glimpse into the reasons why we still contend with smoldering "racial problems" in the United States. There is always tension between blacks and whites, not least because blacks know they stand a much lower chance to succeed in the free market system than their white counterparts. This resignation to failure has everything to do with the same destructive legacy that supported slavery and motivated the northern race riots. These are institutional problems that persevere over the generations, no matter what "legal adjustments" government makes. The fact that authorities generally stand by and let race riots occur--or, worse, join them--only reinforces black cynicism about their place in American society. If the police and courts tacitly condone lawlessness against blacks, how can we blame blacks for believing that the law does not stand for them?

Racism lives on in America because the law cannot touch it. It lives in men's minds. It finds expression in intrinsic social values that resist generational change. Law cannot change minds; it can only plunder pocket books and imprison bodies. Nor can law excise deeply-entrenched values. Racism smolders every day in every American city. Serious pressures--whether economic or ideological--bring the smolder into a flame: Race riots.

Throughout American history, we have seen the same pattern. Race riots honestly tell us what each race thinks and assumes about the other without subterfuge or pretense. Unlike language, violence is never subtle.

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