From Plantations to Ghettos: The Plight of the Black Poor

What does the face of racial inequality look like? Rather than list a bunch of boring statistics, this depiction by The Alameda County Public Health Department of the differing life opportunities for black and white children born in Oakland, California, in a report titled, Life and Death from Unnatural Causes: Health and Social Inequity in Alameda County, says it all:

"Compared with a White child in the Oakland Hills, an African American born in West Oakland is 1.5 times more likely to be born premature or low birth weight, seven times more likely to be born into poverty, twice as likely to live in a home that is rented, and four times more likely to have parents with only a high school education or less. As a toddler, this child is 2.5 times more likely to be behind in vaccinations. By fourth grade, this child is four times less likely to read at grade level and is likely to live in a neighborhood with twice the concentration of liquor stores and more fast food outlets. Ultimately, this adolescent is 5.6 times more likely to drop out of school and less likely to attend a four year college than a White adolescent. As an adult, he will be five times more likely to be hospitalized for diabetes, twice as likely to be hospitalized for and to die of heart disease, three times more likely to die of stroke, and twice as likely to die of cancer. Born in West Oakland, this person can expect to die almost 15 years earlier than a White person born in the Oakland Hills."

Over the years, billions of dollars have been invested in trying to eradicate poverty and racial and economic inequality in America, yet, black ghetto communities remain degrading places, characterized by concentrated poverty, high levels of racial and ethnic isolation, joblessness, family dysfunction, exposure to violence, drugs use and crime, stress, poor transportation infrastructure, dilapidated housing, and failing schools.

While many blacks, such as me, have been able to flee the ghetto, many remain trapped, concentrated and increasingly isolated. America's black ghettos did not occur by accident. They are the outcome of decades of intentional actions taken by national, state and local governments along with the private sector.

In 1860s, the vast majority of blacks – 92 percent – lived in the South. Fifty years later, most blacks continued to live south of the Mason-Dixon Line.

That so few black left the South after the abolition of slavery may come as a surprise, especially given the amount of racial terror blacks faced in the South and since the country had experienced rapid industrial growth in the North during the decades that followed the Civil War.

Al least three factors account for the lack of a black exodus from the South. First of all, because both white workers (especially white ethnic immigrants) and their bosses generally opposed hiring blacks, most blacks found it very difficult to find work in the North.

Second, southern leaders also opposed black migration, assuming that cotton would once again boom and that there would be a need for a supply of cheap black laborers.

The power of the government was employed to assure this outcome. For example, many southern cities and states passed laws which made it difficult or impossible for labor agents to recruit local blacks. As another example, blacks waiting to board northbound ships or trains were arrested for vagrancy to halt the outward flow.

The Federal government was even employed to keep blacks as a cheap labor force in the rural South. For instance, the Freedman's Bureau – established in the War Department in 1865 to supervise all relief and educational activities relating to the former slaves – encouraged blacks to sign labor contracts with plantation owners and discouraged them from moving north.

A third factor was that most blacks were poor and lived in isolated rural areas with little contact with the outside world.

Beginning shortly after the start of World War I, millions of blacks left the rural South and moved to urban areas of the South and the industrial areas of the North and West.

Four factors contributed to The Great Black Migration. The first factor was the drop in the flow of white ethnics emigrating from Europe. Because the fighting was largely concentrated in Europe, immigration to the United States dropped sharply at the start of World War I. Later, total annual immigration was reduced significantly after passage of the 1924 National Origins Quota Act – a highly discriminatory act aimed at reducing Eastern and Southern European immigration.

A second factor was changes in the demand for black labor. Starved for labor, for the first time, northern employers turned to the South and the pool of black laborers they had long ignored.

Soil depletion, the collapse of cotton, and the mechanization of Southern agriculture also contributed to the Great Black Migration. Specifically, foreign competition led to crumbling prices, boll weevils destroyed cotton crops, and the mechanization of agriculture (tractors, mechanical harvesters, and similar equipment) decreased the need for black labor in southern agriculture.

Finally, white racism played its part. Increasing racial violence and the expansion of Jim Crow caused millions of rural blacks to move to urban areas of the North and South. Violence and the threat of violence were often used to intimidate blacks and keep them their place. An estimated 2,060 blacks were lynched between 1882 and 1903. Lynchings were routine events not only in the South but also as far north and west as Oklahoma, Indiana, Illinois, Ohio, and even Wyoming.

The North, however, was not the "Promised Land." Black migrants faced discrimination wherever they settled: they were the last hired and the first fired; they were kept in the most menial jobs due to discrimination by both employers and less progressive labor unions; restaurants and stores refused to serve them; banks typically refused them loans; many dentists, doctors, and hospitals refused to take them on as patients and; due to housing discrimination, blacks were forced to live in dilapidated, overcrowded housing

This is how the black ghetto was created. How do we fix the problem?

It is tempting to believe that all one has to do is "fix the ghetto," by, for example, improving the schools, luring jobs back to the ghetto, and strengthening local law enforcement to fight crime.

These strategies have been tried, but, with very limited success.

We may be well beyond simply "fixing the ghetto." It may be the case that the only way to end the vicious cycle that transmits poverty and racial inequality from one generation to the next is to help people move out of the ghetto into neighborhoods with jobs and better educational opportunities.

Putting that plan into action, of course, is when all hell will break out.


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