The book American Apartheid by Douglas S. Massey and Nancy A. Denton is an eye-opening book that throws light on the issues of poverty and seclusion among African Americans. Contrary to many illusions and simplistic assumptions about the economic backwardness of blacks in America, Massey and Denton show that the community’s poverty is directly linked to its ‘segregation’ within the urban landscape. In their comprehensive survey of major American cities, the authors found that the process of black ghetto-making since the start of the twentieth century has significantly contributed to their seclusion from other spheres of civic life. The fact that the Civil War of the nineteenth century and the Civil Rights movement of the subsequent century have won minorities in America many fundamental rights has not greatly contributed to their prosperity and wellbeing.
Even the Fair Housing Act of 1968 has played no effective role in desegregating urban society. The authors suggest that segregation occurs in urban spaces through an interlocking mix of actions by individuals, policies adopted by institutions and practices followed by government agencies. In some cities, the extent of black segregation is so pronounced and affects many aspects of the community’s experience that it is aptly termed as ‘hyper-segregation’.
Massey and Denton point out that during periods of economic slowdown or recession, the segregation process gets accelerated. During such conditions, the acuteness of poverty pushes most black Americans into cheaper real-estate locales, thereby contributing to ghetto-formation. Within the ghetto, the social and economic conditions are markedly inferior compared to suburban locales. The black community, thus marginalized, tries to adapt to the harsh realities by way of evolving attitudes, behaviors, beliefs and customs that further alienate them from mainstream American culture and society. For example, as the wealthier (usually white) residents migrate towards suburbia, they inadvertently also reduce the tax base which directly affects funding for educational institutions in the area. It then becomes a cyclical process, whereby those families that can afford to leave to upscale areas do so further decreasing the tax base and education. Ethnic enclaves are thus created, which disincentives businesses interests due to the economic profile of residents as well as law and order problems in such neighborhoods. Even whites who are interested to buy housing in the neighborhood are put-off for same reasons. Thus the population that is left behind is mostly black (or minorities of some ilk) and inevitably poor.
“Deleterious neighborhood conditions are built into the structure of the black community. They occur because segregation concentrates poverty to build a set of mutually reinforcing and self-feeding spirals of decline into black neighborhoods. When economic dislocations deprive a segregated group of employment and increase its rate of poverty, socioeconomic deprivation inevitably becomes more concentrated in neighborhoods where that group lives. The damaging social consequences that follow from increased poverty are spatially concentrated as well, creating uniquely disadvantaged environments that become progressively isolated – geographically, socially, and economically – from the rest of society.” (Massey & Denton, 1993, p.72)
As I read through the book, I became increasingly convinced of its central thesis, namely that an American version of Apartheid does exist after all. But what took me by surprise was the fact that blacks are particularly more victimized when compared to other minority groups. I realized that while economic and lifestyle motives are at the core of housing segregation, the unspoken presence of racial discrimination (against blacks) too plays a role. In other words black segregation is not comparable to the often limited and temporary segregation experienced by other ethnic and racial communities in America, historically or contemporaneously. That no other minority group in history had to endure ‘sustained high level of residential segregation’ had affected me emotionally. This extreme racial isolation is not accidental at all, but rather
“manufactured by whites through a series of self-conscious actions and purposeful institutional arrangements that continue today. Similar patterns are observed when segregation is examined by education and occupation. No matter how socioeconomic status is measured, therefore, black segregation remains universally high while that of Hispanics and Asians falls progressively as status rises. Only blacks experience a pattern of constant, high segregation that is impervious to socioeconomic influences. The persistence of racial segregation in American cities, therefore, is a matter of race and not class.” (Massey & Denton, 1993, p.65)
Another salient feature of the book that caught my attention is its insight and fresh perspective. When one looks at mainstream American political discourse today, the debaters come from one of two sections of the political divide. On one side are representatives like Newt Gingrich , Mitt Romney, etc, who espouse a vehemently skeptical view of social welfare (of which black Americans are major beneficiaries). Belonging to this conservative side are media personalities like Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity, etc. This group consistently attacks the notion of a welfare state and reckons that the black community has to lift itself out of poverty and its ghettos. On the other hand, liberal commentators argue the role played by the white establishment in bolstering the prospects of whites at the cost of blacks. What Murray and Denton have done is to bring a new perspective to the issue. They effectively show how the process of construction of urban spaces is both a cause and consequence of larger economic currents bearing upon society. Thereby, the authors imply a novel method of creating equitable societies – via the method of fair, equitable and desegregated housing. This suggestion struck me as a creative solution to the problem of poverty among minority communities.
Currently, the process of hyper-segregation is one of the biggest malaises to afflict American society. Hence, the authors sound a warning that despite political rhetoric and the example of a black President, the black community’s fortunes in America are still dismal. Not only is the “depth of black segregation unprecedented and utterly unique compared with that of other groups, but it shows little sign of change with the passage of time or improvements in socioeconomic status.” Hence, policy makers will have to act upon constructive recommendations made by Douglas Massey and Nancy Denton for resolving this pressing problem.
Charles E. Hurst (2007). Social Inequality: Forms, causes, and consequences (6th ed.). Boston: Pearson. ISBN 9780205698295.
Douglas S. Massey; Nancy A. Denton (1993). American Apartheid. Boston: Cambridge: Harvard University Press. ISBN 9780674018204.
Hasday, Judy L. (2007), The Civil Rights Act of 1964: An End to Racial Segregation for High Schools.