The Urbanist Musings of Pete Saunders

Thoughts on Boston and Northern Exclusion

A view of downtown Boston, and more.  Source: bu.edu

The Boston Globe’s Spotlight investigative team recently touched a lot of nerves with its seven-part series about Boston’s perception and reputation as a racist city.  The Spotlight team should be commended for asking — and seeking answers to — a lot of very tough questions regarding Boston.  Is Boston racist?  How did it gain that reputation?  Why does the reputation persist to this day, particularly among blacks?

Let me say this right off the bat.  I’ve never been to Boston.  My only venture into any part of New England is New Haven, CT, very briefly more than 20 years ago.  That’s it.  But as a black man from the Rust Belt, I was keenly aware of Boston’s reputation, as is probably a large part of the nation’s black community, even if the vast majority of us have never been there.  There’s been enough anecdotal evidence for blacks to digest over the years to justify our uneasiness about the city.  The Red Sox’ place as the last team in Major League Baseball (in 1959, a full 12 years after Jackie Robinson appeared with the Brooklyn Dodgers) to employ a black ballplayer?  Bill Russell’s fraught relationship with the city, even as he led the NBA’s Boston Celtics to a championship dynasty in the ’50s and ’60s?  The tumultuous battles over school busing in the ’70s?  The Charles Stuart murder case, in which a man concocted a story of his wife and unborn child being killed by a black assailant, setting off a widespead manhunt, only to be found to be guilty of the murder himself?  The recent taunting  of Baltimore Orioles baseball player Adam Jones, at the hand of Red Sox fans?  Yes, blacks are familiar with these, and much more.

In the process of seeking answers, the Spotlight team found some interesting pieces of data and revealing facts from recent history that could help explain the city’s enduring reputation.  Within the city, Boston’s black population comprises about 23 percent of its 673,000 residents, or about 155,000 people.  That’s generally on par with what’s seen in other large cities.  But that figure obscures the actual presence of blacks in Greater Boston, where the core city is actually a relatively small component of the entire metro area.  Blacks make up about seven percent of metro Boston’s 4.8 million people, or just about 335,000 people, making it one of the nation’s whitest metro areas.  In addition, a full 36 percent of blacks in metro Boston are Caribbean and African immigrants, one of the highest such figures for any American metro area, further differentiating Boston’s black population from other metros.  
Here’s some context: metro Milwaukee, just one-third the size of metro Boston, has about the same number of black residents.  There are as many blacks in Manhattan as in all of metro Boston.  
So the first thing to understand is the relative whiteness of Boston compared to most major U.S. cities.

Of course I can’t say this with absolute certainty, but my guess is that Boston maintained its overall whiteness through unintentional and intentional means.  Unintentionally because Boston largely missed the Great Migration that brought blacks from the rural South to the urban North throughout much of the 20th century.  Check this out from Wikipedia’s entry on the Great Migration:

“The Great Migration was the movement of 6 million African-Americans out of the rural Southern United States to the urban Northeast, Midwest, and West that occurred between 1916 and 1970.[1] Until 1910, more than 90 percent of the African-American population lived in the American South.[2] In 1900, only one-fifth of African-Americans living in the South were living in urban areas.[3] By the end of the Great Migration, 53 percent of the African-American population remained in the South, while 40 percent lived in the North, and 7 percent in the West,[4] and the African-American population had become highly urbanized…

Big cities were the principal destinations of southerners throughout the two phases of the Great Migration. In the first phase (1910-1930), eight major cities attracted two-thirds of the migrants: New York and Chicago, followed in order by Philadelphia, St. Louis, Detroit, Pittsburgh, and Indianapolis. The Second great black migration (1940-1970) increased the populations of these cities while adding others as destinations, especially on the West Coast. Cities such as Los Angeles, San Francisco, Oakland, Phoenix, Seattle, and Portland attracted African Americans in large numbers.[11]

Boston’s black population did grow substantially during the 20th century.  However, it simply didn’t factor into the primary migration patterns of blacks moving from the rural South at the time.

More deeply, though, I think Boston is among a group of cities that was intentional in maintaining a level of whiteness.  I think most all Northeastern and Midwestern cities — from Boston to Washington, and westward to the Twin Cities and St. Louis — patented a policy of exclusion toward blacks for much of its history.    The Great Migration was the first and greatest threat to the policy of exclusion, prompting legal, extralegal, and violent battles in virtually all of the cities within this area at some point in the 20th century. 

Whereas southern states were explicit in their exploitation of slave labor to fuel the plantation economy from the settlement of this country, I think morally ambivalent northern states and their largest cities chose to avoid the thorny idea of slavery and black people in their midst.  They first sought to exclude blacks, and when they no longer could do that, they sought to marginalize them.

Southern exploitation.  Source: pbs.org

Beware — here’s where I venture into deep conjecture that may or may not have any basis in reality.  I see Boston and all of New England as being founded as “shining cities on a hill”, or idealistic communities that conformed to the religious and social mores of its pious founders.  In the 1600s, those moving to the South came here to get rich; those moving to the North were seeking enlightenment.

New Englanders certainly weren’t unaware of what was happening in the South.  They may have even shared some of the views that many Southerners had about blacks at the time as inferior.  But their piety prevented them from the type of exploitation that developed in the South.  Their response?  Build a society that doesn’t include blacks.  Let black people be an issue that Southerners must confront.  If blacks do enter our society, keep them at the margins.

Just as the desire of Southern planters to enrich themselves via cash crops like tobacco and cotton led to the establishment of the plantation economy and slavery, the desire of New Englanders to develop religiously and socially “pure” communities led to implicitly exclusive places in the North.

I believe this was intentional, and became the prevailing way of organizing the American community and social structure in all places not Southern.  Northern exclusion became the dominant influence as it moved into the Midwest, the Plains, the Rockies, the Pacific Northwest, and the Southwest.

Northern exclusion, seen through a redlining map of Chicago from the 1930’s.  It’s amazing how much the assessment of mortgage risk then mimics the lack of investment now, even after almost 90 years.  Source: inclusion.uwex.uwc.edu

Up until the period after the Civil War, the North didn’t have to develop any explicitly exclusive policies to keep blacks out; simply having very few blacks meant few were attracted there, and all Northern cities had to do was imply that blacks could move there, but weren’t welcome.  But recently freed people in the South now saw a new world of opportunity and began to take advantage by seeking jobs in the rapidly industrializing Northern cities.  By the end of the 19th and start of the 20th century, Northern cities began codifying the exclusionary strategies they employed for generations to exert control on blacks moving north.  What are those, you ask?  Here’s a quick list, generally in the chronological order they were first implemented:

  • Restrictive housing covenants.  Covenants were put in property deeds that prevented the sale of property to blacks.
  • Explicitly exclusionary zoning.  Zoning ordinances were developed that relegated blacks to certain parts of cities.
  • Implicitly exclusionary zoning.  Once explicitly exclusionary zoning was overturned in courts, cities sought to exclude by approving zoning ordinances that promoted large-lot, single-family home development that would effectively exclude those who could not afford that lifestyle.
  • Redlining.  Discriminatory lending practices that starve certain areas of a city, often those with large numbers of black residents, of financing and investment.
  • Public housing construction.  The local implementation of public housing construction led to its concentration in largely low-income black communities, and the stigmatization of both public housing and low-income black communities.
  • Urban renewal.  Federal funding for urban renewal projects that cleared “slums” for universities, hospitals and other uses led to the destruction of black neighborhoods.
  • Interstate highway construction.  Similar to public housing and urban renewal, low-income black communities were cleared for highways that were believed to serve a broader public good.
  • Underfunded city services.  As cities faced population decline and a dwindling tax base, many cut costs by directing fewer resources toward lower income parts of their city.  That led to disinvested schools, parks and other city services, disproportionately affecting black communities.
  • Protectionist policing strategy.  Cities began intensely concentrating crime-fighting resources in black communities, leading to wider perceptions about both black communities (in need of aggressive policing tactics) and white communities (in need of protection).  

You know, the differences between the South’s legacy of black exploitation and the North’s legacy of black exclusion aren’t something that have been recently discovered.  Among blacks it’s been known at least since the Great Migration brought many north in the early parts of the 20th century, and likely much earlier.  During the Civil Rights Movement 60-plus years ago, movement strategists debated what exactly should be challenged in the name of civil rights.  Would it be the “separate but equal” Jim Crow policies that created separate public facilities, relegated blacks to the backs of buses, and subjected blacks to voting tests and taxes to suppress voting?  Or would it be the mix of policies cited above, each of which have disparate impacts on blacks, but could be reasonably defended as race-neutral?  Movement strategists chose the former, hoping that success in one arena would eventually form the foundation for success in another. 

That decision came with mixed success.  It indirectly led to the emergence of leaders such as Malcolm X — a black man born in Omaha, NE, raised in Milwaukee and Lansing, MI, and who spent many of his formative years in Boston  and the growth of the broader Black Power MovementBy the early ’60s Malcolm X was challenging the Civil Rights Movement for its integrationist focus — removing Jim Crow’s barriers — and not focusing enough on other factors that limited black economic growth. 

That forced an alteration in strategy among the Southern civil rights activists, leading to the Chicago Freedom Campaign that focused on open housing, greater transportation and job access, improved education and criminal justice system reform.  Success in this campaign was far more difficult to achieve.  The shift in focus did lead to national legislation like the 1968 Fair Housing Act and an expanded role for the recently-created U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, but enforcement was often lacking because the determination of intent to discriminate was difficult.

We’re now left with cities where blacks are free to drink from any water fountain, sit wherever they like on a bus, but are increasingly left out of tangible economic gains.  Why?  Because our society’s acceptance of Northern exclusion has strengthened the correlation between location and economic mobility and success.  Where you live has become one of the primary indicators of one’s economic success; it determines the jobs your parents have, what schools you’ll attend, the networks you establish, the opportunities you’re exposed to — creating a gap that grows even wider once colleges are chosen, young adults graduate and new careers are started.

The gap is continually perpetuated, simply by not acknowledging it.

Let me finish by going back to Boston.  I honestly don’t believe Boston is any more “racist” than any other American city.  I do believe its overall whiteness, and the presence of elite universities that have a disproportionate influence on public policy nationwide, gave it a greater hand in establishing many of the strategies listed above. 

It’s conceivable that many of the policies of Northern exclusion were first discussed and debated in the elite universities that Boston, and New England, are known for, emanating outward and adopted nationally. 

2 Responses to “Thoughts on Boston and Northern Exclusion”

  1. Unknown

    I am a great fan of The Corner Side Yard and Pete Saunders' commentary. However, while this piece makes some good points, its lack of historical fact is misleading. No one would dispute that Boston has a well-deserved reputation for racial discrimination, racist incidents, and bad practices by whites. It is also a place that generated significant challenges to the racial order. It was before the Civil War a center of abolitionist activity, for example, and during the civil rights movement days produced numerous leaders as well as a pursuit of equality in education that generated its controversial school bussing program. If its baseball team was owned by a white racist, its pro basketball team, the Celtics, was the first team to draft an African-American player and the first NBA team to have a starting lineup comprised of all African Americans. But mainly Boston did not pioneer nor spread the exclusionary practices listed in the piece. Exclusionary zoning, for example, arose in border and Southern cities, such as Baltimore, Louisville, and Richmond. Racial covenants were rare in Boston (probably because of the relatively small black population) but plentiful in large cities such as Chicago and Los Angeles. Yes, Boston built public housing for blacks and knocked down homes of African Americans in the name of urban renewal. But some of it's worst public housing projects were occupied by whites, and the city tore down an entire neighborhood, the West End, where mainly Italians and eastern European Jews lived. So in this case, it was an equal opportunity destroyer of homes.I offer these points not to let Boston off the hook, but to show that the racist practices Pete correctly points out were and are widespread and varied from place to place.

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