To the Editor:
THERE IS NOTHING “good” about growing up in a ghetto, as Howard Husock suggests (“Ben Carson Is Right,” March). I, too, grew up in a ghetto, not in a Jewish one, but in Central Harlem’s black ghetto. I strongly disagree with his and Dr. Carson’s nostalgic pining for racially segregated neighborhoods and residential patterns.
The Husock essay ignores the history, persistence, tenacity, and pervasiveness of racial bias connected with the creation, leasing, selling, and maintenance of America’s dual-housing market, both the urban landscape and suburbia. Mr. Husock says his old Jewish neighborhood is today mostly black—but he does not explain how that came to be. The truth is that it happened less because blacks preferred or chose to live among themselves (their “own kind”) and more because once housing became available to them, blacks flocked there.
Mr. Husock also downplays the role of white flight, at the outset of racial desegregation. Quality housing—so-called good neighborhoods—have long been associated with skin color and not just the class or economic standing of the residents of a community. White flight is what caused dramatic changes in residential patterns across the nation, including New York’s formerly white (Italian, Irish, and Jewish) ghettos. Jews, by the thousands, flocked not just to the suburbs, and to the whiter sections of Queens, but also to Co-Op City, new cooperative housing in the northeast Bronx.
To say, as Mr. Husock does, that racial segregation was good for him, as a Jew, is to engage in a sham proposition. Jews, as whites, could hide their identity, to the point of changing their names; blacks, with the exception of really light-skinned blacks who “passed for white,” simply could not. Mr. Husock’s enjoyment of living in an all-white “Jewish” neighborhood contrasts with how blacks must overcome the disadvantages of racial discrimination and ghetto living. The decline of property values when blacks “move in” once constituted the panic of many homeowners who feared the advancing ghetto and fled into “their” white communities.
Dr. Kenneth B. Clark, the social psychologist whom Mr. Husock quotes liberally, studied and reported on the debilitating negative effects of segregation on the psychological development of inner-city residents and their suburban, mostly white counterparts. A sense of rejection sets in when a society is deliberately separate and unequal, black and white. Blacks, unlike whites, have not enjoyed the blessings and benefits of unencumbered access to America’s housing. It was a very long time before government acted to make amends for its past and extensive enforcement of segregationist practices and policies.
Why would blacks “choose” to live with other blacks, or why would whites insist on living with other whites without the racial coda and demarcation of our society, which explain the instincts to live among “one’s own kind”? That’s not choice but racial impulses and prejudice. Such racial “preferences” are not so subtly communicated to blacks and to others looking for quality neighborhoods, good schools, and decent housing. Clark and other psychologists understood that the victims of racial discrimination might eventually internalize and convert rejection on racial grounds to their own “choice” to live apart from others on the flimsy basis of skin color, to compensate for their feelings of inadequacy, inequality, and inferiority, the feeling that they’re not welcome in all or certain neighborhoods—foisted upon them by those who derive pride and nostalgia from having been reared in gilded ghettos that they think of as ethnocentric refuges and citadels of cultural identity.
Mr. Husock’s argument is not solely with me, but with history and against the weight of the evidence that shows, in study after study, that for blacks there is no such thing as freedom of choice in housing or residential patterns.
New York Civil Rights Coalition
Howard Husock writes:
MICHAEL MEYERS, whose work I admire, makes a number of accurate points about the history of race and its relationship to American housing markets. African Americans were, without doubt, subject to discriminatory laws and practices that did not apply to other groups in nearly as extreme or systematic a manner, although, in the prewar era, Jews were a somewhat close second. Nor would I argue—nor did I—that Jews faced hurdles to upward mobility and wealth accumulation comparable to those of blacks.
All that said, however, I would not agree that there are no virtues to be found in “ghettoes”—which might better be referred to in a more neutral way such as culturally homogeneous communities. Indeed, I am not convinced that African Americans generally would agree with Mr. Meyers that the involuntary nature of black concentration precludes the possibility of predominantly black communities being healthy ones. It’s notable, for instance, that some institutions that date from the pre-integration era, if you will, continue to command high levels of support among African Americans. I think here, for instance, of what are now known as Historically Black Colleges and Universities—institutions that were established when segregation was law, in many of the states in which they were founded.
More broadly, however, there remains the question of what Mr. Meyers would recommend today, in response to the ongoing reality of black residential concentration. First, one must take as a touchstone enforcement of the core fair-housing law: No one who can afford to rent or buy a residence should be turned away on the basis of race. All races must have the choice their resources permit. The approach of the Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing regulation, however, goes much further: It is one of mandated dispersal. There are problems with this approach that are both practical and social. Dispersal cannot help but undermine the development of social capital—the communities of residents support churches, social clubs, local charities, all of which have proud histories in the black community. I had visited a program on scattered-site low-income housing in suburban Washington, D.C.—and found what amounted to small, bleak reservations of homes for the poor in the shadows of much higher-income neighbors; one low-income resident told me that each weekend she took a bus back to the “district” to attend church.
There is also an unfortunate message implied by the emphasis on dispersal: that black neighborhoods are not good, healthy neighborhoods. Just as predominantly minority schools can be effective—see Success Academies in New York—there is no inherent reason that low-income black neighborhoods cannot be safe foundations for further upward mobility—including into racially integrated neighborhoods, where minority newcomers of similar socioeconomic status are likely to be accepted.
It is difficult, moreover, to envision dispersal at such a level as to obviate the need to make the investment in public goods—safe streets, good schools, clean and adequate parks and recreation—that will continue to be needed in low-income areas. Thus, one must ask why an extensive investment in dispersing small numbers of families—who may or may not benefit, according to social-science research such as that of Stanford’s Raj Chetty—is indicated. There is no defense to be offered, nor did I make one, of de jure or even gray-market segregation. But mandated, government-directed dispersal is not the only, or the best, alternative today.