The Lies That Divide Us: Memphis

“If you inquire into the history of the metropolitan area in which you live, you will probably find ample evidence of how the federal, state, and local governments unconstitutionally used housing policy to create or reinforce segregation in ways that still survive.” ― Richard Rothstein, The Color of Law: A Forgotten History of How Our Government Segregated America

Self-segregation is the biggest lie in the United States narrative. The idea perpetuates itself as a myth insisting that there is some truth behind the color lines. Let me be clear, there is not. Segregation, even the group segregation we see in school-age-children, is a direct result of government planning, racist ideas, and capitalist interest. And while uncovering the truth is not a hard task, the policies and documents are available, recovering from centuries of segregation will take time, money, repentance, and direct action. 

The United States government is directly to blame for past and present racial segregation. Post-reconstruction, the policies and practices of the federal government have supported the separation of black and white citizens. “Practices such as redlining, restrictive covenants, and discrimination in the rental and sale of housing not only led to residential segregation by race but also continue to shape Whiteness and frame narratives about what constitutes Blackness.” These practices do not accuse but outright convict the US government of creating a racially stratified society in lieu of its promise of democracy and free-market capitalism. The actions of which have led to generational poverty for some and wealth for others. Furthermore, such actions have negatively impacted the “educational opportunities and life outcomes” of people of color. 

No group aware of such consequences, would intentionally separate itself from the very lifeline of freedom, justice, and the pursuit of happiness. The government’s segregation policies did more than just keep the status quo; it created an even wider chasm between the two races. “The isolation of communities of color from members of the dominant group often means that communities of color [were] subject to more environmental hazards, aggressive policing tactics, under resourced schools, greater stressors that lead to lower life expectancies, as well as the exacerbation of existing chronic health issues, limited life chances and opportunities, and ultimately even greater premature death, relative to Whites.” Hence, while self-segregation was the narrative of myth the government used to enact its policies, federal segregation was the arm that guided some away from the American dream and others closer to it. 

To fully understand the ramifications of the US policies and laws, clarity between defacto and dejure segregation must take place within the American consciousness. Black Americans did not practice tribalism, choosing to separate themselves from white society; white Americans did. In The Color of Law: A Forgotten History of How Our Government Segregated America, author Richard Rothstein writes that it is, “A common explanation for de facto [natural] segregation is that most black families could not afford to live in predominantly white middle-class communities and still are unable to do so. African American isolation, the argument goes, reflects their low incomes, not de jure [legal] segregation.” However, de facto segregation is a lie, even in incidences where African Americans could afford homes, they were not allowed to purchase them due to racial contract clauses on housing deeds. Rothstein goes on to write, “But we cannot understand the income and wealth gap that persists between African Americans and whites without examining governmental policies that purposely kept black incomes low throughout most of the twentieth century. Once [the] government implemented these policies, economic differences became self-perpetuating.” 

The directions of that economic difference led to an income gap that continues to plague minority communities. Since income from one generation to another rarely jumps substantially, the government policies of the past continue to plague the future. Rothstein continues his argument by stating, “So an account of de jure residential segregation has to include not only how public policy geographically separated African Americans from whites but also how federal and state labor market policies, with undisguised racial intent, depressed African American wages”. Thus de facto arguments such as tribalism and wealth were and are still not valid in any discussion where the segregation seen today was a result of choice. One again, self-segregation among black and whites in the United States is a lie that allows the United States government not to repent and take responsibility for the psychological, economical, and physical depression of black people and other minority people. 

Memphis, Tennessee breaks through the lie of self-segregation. The color lines are apparent in every road made wide and every valley laid low, especially in the area of housing. Seeing Red, A special report by High Grown News in 2019, expounded on how, in Memphis, “housing has been a tool to suppress Black wealth, not grow it.” Housing in Memphis, Tennessee remains deeply rooted in de jure segregation. In Memphis, “the poverty rate for Black Memphians is an estimated 24.5 percent compared to 8.1 for white Memphians. Despite an estimated 13,000 to 15,000 vacant houses in the city, Black homeownership dropped 18 percent from 2005 to 2017, putting Memphis in the top third of declining cities in the U.S.” As stated above, home ownership and generational wealth are tied together. However, the trend declines when government lending practices and bank-issued-mortgages terrorize rathan than assist one the basis of race. This practice of terror was known as redlining. 

Redlining in Memphis created maps where “federal and local governments worked with banking and insurance industries to develop practices and policies that undermined Black wealth at the neighborhood level by gutting investments and concentrating poverty in redlined communities.” To be clear, this practice combined the racist sentiments of private institutions with the power and might of the United States government. The lie is that segregation happened naturally, the truth is that the U.S. government and those in power designed it as such. In the years to come, “Residents in “undesirable” neighborhoods like South and North Memphis saw home values plummet. Builders, developers, business owners and residents with means followed the money to greener neighborhoods. The exodus was used as further evidence redlined neighborhoods were dangerous for investment. It was the beginning of a 90 year cycle meant to maintain white wealth and social superiority.” This cycle created food deserts, opportunity gaps, and poverty maps which still align to past redlined communities. We can say that individuals have choices but what we also have to say is that for some, those choices have been taken away. 

While the majority of white America still believes in the lie, there are great organizations spouting from communities of color and allies directing society towards the truth. MICAH (Memphis Interfaith Coalition for Action and Hope) is a collection of congregations, organizations, and individuals focused on education, economic, race, and class equity in the city. Memphis Area Legal Services provides civil legal representation to low income families facing mortgage foreclosure, eviction or homelessness. Agape Child and Family Services address the spiritual needs of Memphis families, in addition to their physical needs such as housing. There are many more truths being told in Memphis. Self-segregation may be the lie but questions we must all ask ourselves is, why did we need the lie in the first place. 

 

 

Chris Williams is Mission Immersion Director for Memphis Youth Mission

 

 

 

 

Resources and Citations

Notes:

  • Explaining the lie
    • Source: Race, Residential Segregation, and the Death of Democracy Education and Myth of Postracialism
      • “Since the 1930s, federal housing policies and individual practices increased the spatial separation of whites and blacks. Practices such as redlining, restrictive covenants, and discrimination in the rental and sale of housing not only led to residential segregation by race but also continue to shape Whiteness and frame narratives about what constitutes Blackness.” – 1
      • “Residential segregation is no accident but is one of a host of expected outcomes of a racially stratified social system that was in place concurrent with the founding of the “democracy” of the United States.” – 1
      • “The consequences of this segregation have lasting impacts not only on the financial state of peoples of color but on educational opportunities and life outcomes.”
      • “The isolation of communities of color from members of the dominant group often means that communities of color are subject to more environmental hazards, aggressive policing tactics, underresourced schools, greater stressors that lead to lower life expectancies as well as the exacerbation of existing chronic health issues, limited life chances and opportunities, and ultimately even greater premature death, relative to Whites. Where Black and Brown people and Whites live does not occur by happenstance, nor is it primarily the result of personal or group preferences. “ – 9

 

  • Defacto vs Dejure segregation 
    • Source: The Color of Law: A Forgotten History of How Our Government Segregated America
      • A common explanation for de facto segregation is that most black families could not afford to live in predominantly white middle-class communities and still are unable to do so. African American isolation, the argument goes, reflects their low incomes, not de jure segregation. Racial segregation will persist until more African Americans improve their educations and then are able to earn enough to move out of high-poverty neighborhoods. The explanation at first seems valid. But we cannot understand the income and wealth gap that persists between African Americans and whites without examining governmental policies that purposely kept black incomes low throughout most of the twentieth century. Once government implemented these policies, economic differences became self-perpetuating. It is not impossible, but it is rare for Americans, black or white, to have a higher rank in the national income distribution than their parents. Everyone’s standard of living may grow from generation to generation, but an individual’s relative income—how it compares to the incomes of others in the present generation—is remarkably similar to how his or her parents’ incomes compared to others in their generation. So an account of de jure residential segregation has to include not only how public policy geographically separated African Americans from whites but also how federal and state labor market policies, with undisguised racial intent, depressed African American wages. In addition, some and perhaps many local governments taxed African Americans more heavily than whites. The effects of these government actions were compounded because neighborhood segregation itself imposed higher expenses on African American than on white families, even if their wages and tax rates had been identical. The result: smaller disposable incomes and fewer savings for black families, denying them the opportunity to accumulate wealth and contributing to make housing in middle-class communities unaffordable. If government purposely depressed the incomes of African Americans, with the result that they were priced out of mainstream housing markets, then these economic policies are also important parts of the architecture of de jure segregation. – 153-155

 

  • Exploration of Segregation in Memphis
    • Source: https://www.highgroundnews.com/features/SeeingRedlining.aspx
      • “housing has been a tool to suppress Black wealth, not grow it.”
      • “Across the Memphis metro area, the poverty rate for Black Memphians is an estimated 24.5 percent compared to 8.1 for white Memphians. Despite an estimated 13,000 to 15,000 vacant houses in the city, Black homeownership dropped 18 percent from 2005 to 2017, putting Memphis in the top third of declining cities in the U.S.”
      • “Most wealth is built by owning and inheriting property, but centuries of slavery, racism and racist policies have limited Black wealth, incomes and the credit and collateral necessary to access home ownership and the middle class.”
      • “With the maps as a guide, federal and local governments worked with banking and insurance industries to develop practices and policies that undermined Black wealth at the neighborhood level by gutting investments and concentrating poverty in redlined communities.”
      • ““We’ve got to put that on the table and agree that this was not accidental,” said Harrison. “It wasn’t by accident, it wasn’t a byproduct of hodgepodge development. It was intentional, an intentional policy that was implemented holistically.””:
      • “Residents in “undesirable” neighborhoods like South and North Memphis saw home values plummet. Builders, developers, business owners and residents with means followed the money to greener neighborhoods. The exodus was used as further evidence redlined neighborhoods were dangerous for investment. It was the beginning of a 90 year cycle meant to maintain white wealth and social superiority. “The program — the housing program, the urban programs — that this was a part of were very much about making sure white families had access to both public and private sources of capital and cutting neighborhoods of color off from those,”
      • “Anyone can see how these neighborhoods that were redlined corresponds to current poverty rates, corresponds to vacant and abandoned properties, unbanked households, mortgage originations, health determinants, life expectancy,” said Harrison. “Name the social determinant, you’ll see that these areas were denied investment and capital and have been for decades and how that is playing out currently in the social environment of those neighborhoods.”
      • For the remaining 20th century, redlining spread in waves as wealthy and middle class Memphians — most white but many Black — pushed further and further from the center city and lower income families followed, moving north, south and east along Poplar.
      • ““These are evidence of the federal government’s role in this,” said Nelson. “It’s not just the marketplace that causes these great variances in wealth, it’s federal policy that does that.”

 

  • Examples of Resilient organizations
    • Source: 
      • MICHA Memphis
      • Memphis Area Legal Services
      • Agape Child and Family Services

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