Something I often hear when I explain how American cities and metros were consciously designed to segregate, separate and and subsidize the wealth creation of white Americans while minimizing possibilities of upward mobility for people of color is, “how did I not know about this?”
This is typically the perspective of white Americans who have lived a suburban or rural life from birth to now, veiled from the nuances of the urban versus suburban battle that is well over a century old in the U.S. It is a statement that is so often paired with the the nostalgia for a “simpler time,” which is news to people of color who lived during the same time this “simpler time” supposedly existed.
I mean, these happenings aren’t exactly secrets. And while they might not appear in your average 7th grade textbook, legal and economic barriers like redlining, racial covenants, and the war on drugs are well-documented and catalogued. So are other constructs that contradict commonly held narratives, like the fact that cities have always subsidized suburban growth, and that suburban growth is a greater threat to the environment than cities. The data exists. The books have been published. The science has been done. The laws, past and present, have been written.
So why aren’t these realities commonly known? Why aren’t the social effects of redlining regularly discussed on the green of the 12th hole? Why isn’t the fact that more than 60,000 veterans in the New York and New Jersey suburbs were granted low-interest loans as part of the GI Bill but only about 100 of them were black, mentioned in the same breath as Independence Day celebrations?
The easy answer, of course, is two fold… for those who have been unaffected or even unknowingly subsidized to the exclusion of others, there is a very natural human response called Fundamental Attribution Error, which, among other things, explains that people tend to see their successes as self-made and the failure of others as self-induced rather than a product of social, legal and economic constructs. Someone who lives in an expensive suburban home (let’s call him Steve) with a good job might look at a person of color working at a gas station (let’s call him Mike) and say that he has worked harder and that’s why he’s not working at a Speedway. What Steve might be ignoring is that his grandfather was able to take advantage of New Deal family subsidies, which helped grow white family wealth, meaning Steve was able to attend private school and receive an Ivy League education without the burden of student loans. He was raised with the expectation of success, never knowing the rigors of poverty. Sure, Steve worked hard, but he had distinct advantages, both financial and social, that helped propel him to a lucrative lifestyle.
Mike the gas station attendant, on the other hand, might have been working his second job at the gas station. He’s actually a call center attendant, receiving a less than stellar paycheck, but the two-job income is worth it… after all, he has to support his two beautiful children. Mike’s mom was addicted to drugs and his father was in jail for most of his life. Academics were never a priority… instead, daily survival was the focus. Nobody paid for Mike’s education or instilled the value of education upon him. Instead, Mike grew up way too fast, understanding that he would have to piece his income together through a series of low-wage jobs that didn’t require an elevated degree. He didn’t work any less than Steve, but the life he was born into was nowhere near as coddled and supported as that of Steve.
As a Western Culture, we fail to understand that economic success is not as tied to “hard work” as we would like to believe. But that’s only half of the reason that tremendously flawed urban design during the 20th century is rarely understood. The other is that New Deal subsidies, highway creation, the subsidization of the automobile and countless other government-sponsored hand-outs to retail mega-stores also created a culture of “buying things.” Business tycoons from auto makers to home furnishing magnates made money hand over fist, as white wealth creation led to the purchasing of sexier cars and bigger houses… and all the stuff people put inside those McMansions. And by the way, much of this whitewashed suburban explosion was funded by remaining city residents, who were more and more represented by people of color, and who were disallowed to take part in the wealth creation bonanza.
Some people were creating comfortable wealth. Others were amassing fortunes. All while excluding a population who’s tax dollars were also being used to fund a lifestyle they were disallowed to achieve. This story isn’t often told because the truth bastardizes the very fabric of 20th century economic expansion in the United States… one that socially and economically is also proving to be a shortsighted error in the long run.
The reason people don’t know is because knowing might make us think differently about our own financial “success.” It might make us look at leaders from Roosevelt (who’s New Deal policies fueled White Flight and the suburbanization of America, virtually killing livability in our cities) to Eisenhower (who’s Highway system quietly bolstered the most economically and environmentally inefficient form of mobility, furthering sprawl) and Bill Clinton (who’s crime bill perpetuated Nixon and Reagan’s “War On Drugs,” delivering generation-damaging blows to black families) to see the underlying motives, or at least, understand the shortsightedness of these motives. It might challenge us to question those who generated tremendous retail wealth via subsidized white America, which saw the average family size shrink by 17% while the average new home size more than doubled between 1950 and 2000.
You don’t know these things because you’re not supposed to. If what I just told you was popular knowledge it would shake the very foundation of this country, and more importantly, it would call into question path to economic success that so many white Americans have attributed to simply “hard work.” It would present a more nuanced explanation of why minority poverty is so high in our cities, causing people to stop summing it up as “laziness.” It would cause you to question why car companies, oil companies and mega-retailers like Walmart and Amazon continue to make insane profits while the cost of living skyrockets past what so many Americans are able to sustain.
Mayberry was a hoax. Leave it to Beaver never really existed. Things weren’t “simpler back then.” Crime was at its highest in the 70s and 80s. Middle-class white suburbs of the 50s and 60s created countless memories of small town simplicity while civil rights battles raged on across the country, advocating for people of color to simply be equal in the eyes of the law and society. Things were “simpler” because, quite simply, the average American couldn’t possibly conceive of the truth that the growing problems of our country were in large part because of their “simpler” lifestyle.
When people ask “how did I not know about this,” the answer I always give is the true “simple.” A lot of people were elected, made fortunes and maintained power by keeping these realities from you. Only now, when information is beyond repression, are we beginning to peel back the layers of truth that were purposefully hidden from our small town, 20th Century realities. Now you know. Now let’s do something about it, together.