Sausalito, California, 1943. Joseph James (front, at table, second from the right) organized the refusal of black shipyard workers to pay dues to a segregated and powerless union auxiliary.
A COMMON EXPLANATION FOR de facto segregation is that most black families could not afford to live in predominantly white middle-class communities and still are unable to do so. African American isolation, the argument goes, reflects their low incomes, not de jure segregation. Racial segregation will persist until more African Americans improve their educations and then are able to earn enough to move out of high-poverty neighborhoods.
The explanation at first seems valid. But we cannot understand the income and wealth gap that persists between African Americans and whites without examining governmental policies that purposely kept black incomes low throughout most of the twentieth century. Once government implemented these policies, economic differences became self-perpetuating. It is not impossible, but it is rare for Americans, black or white, to have a higher rank in the national income distribution than their parents. Everyone’s standard of living may grow from generation to generation, but an individual’s relative income—how it compares to the incomes of others in the present generation—is remarkably similar to how his or her parents’ incomes compared to others in their generation.
So an account of de jure residential segregation has to include not only how public policy geographically separated African Americans from whites but also how federal and state labor market policies, with undisguised racial intent, depressed African American wages. In addition, some and perhaps many local governments taxed African Americans more heavily than whites. The effects of these government actions were compounded because neighborhood segregation itself imposed higher expenses on African American than on white families, even if their wages and tax rates had been identical. The result: smaller disposable incomes and fewer savings for black families, denying them the opportunity to accumulate wealth and contributing to make housing in middle-class communities unaffordable.
If government purposely depressed the incomes of African Americans, with the result that they were priced out of mainstream housing markets, then these economic policies are also important parts of the architecture of de jure segregation.
UNTIL LONG after emancipation from slavery, most African Americans were denied access to free labor markets and were unable to save from wages. This denial of access was another badge of slavery that Congress was duty bound to eliminate, not to perpetuate.
Following the Civil War, and intensifying after Reconstruction, a sharecropping system of indentured servitude perpetuated aspects of the slave system. After food and other living costs were deducted from their earnings, sharecroppers typically owed plantation owners more than their wages due. Local sheriffs enforced this peonage, preventing sharecroppers from seeking work elsewhere, by arresting, assaulting, or murdering those who attempted to leave, or by condoning violence perpetrated by owners.
In many instances, African Americans were arrested for petty and phony offenses (like vagrancy if they came to town when off work), and when they were unable to pay fines and court fees, wardens sometimes sold prisoners to plantations, mines, and factories. Douglas Blackmon, in his book Slavery by Another Name, estimates that from the end of Reconstruction until World War II, the number enslaved in this way exceeded 100,000. Mines operated by U.S. Steel alone used tens of thousands of imprisoned African Americans. The practice ebbed during World War II, but it wasn’t until 1951 that Congress fulfilled its Thirteenth Amendment obligation and explicitly outlawed the practice.
Some African Americans managed to escape to the North early in the twentieth century, yet others were forcibly prevented or intimidated from doing so. But during World War I, when immigration of unskilled Europeans was sharply curtailed, northern manufacturers sent recruiters south. They frequently traveled in disguise, pretending, for example, to be insurance salesmen, to avoid capture by sheriffs. During this time, more than 600,000 African Americans left the South, mostly to seek work in the North and Midwest. Historians call this the First Great Migration.
World War II then spurred the Second Great Migration, from 1940 to 1970, when more than four million African Americans made the journey. Thus most African Americans could not begin to accumulate capital for home purchases until fairly recently, well after European immigrant groups were able to participate in the wage economy. And when African Americans who left the South entered a northern labor market, federal, state, and local governments collaborated with private employers to ensure that they were paid less and treated worse than whites.
IN THE 1930s, President Franklin D. Roosevelt could assemble the congressional majorities he needed to adopt New Deal legislation only by including southern Democrats, who were fiercely committed to white supremacy. In consequence, Social Security, minimum wage protection, and the recognition of labor unions all excluded from coverage occupations in which African Americans predominated: agriculture and domestic service. State and local governments behaved similarly. When, for example, in the mid-1930s St. Louis constructed a segregated hospital for African American patients, a contractor hired a single black tile setter; white union members protested, and the city fired the contractor and announced it would no longer use any firm that employed African American labor.
The Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) segregated its workers on the job as well as in housing. At construction projects, African Americans were assigned to work separately, but only if enough were needed at particular sites to make up full crews. If not, then African Americans were denied work entirely. No African Americans were permitted to be promoted to foreman or other supervisory roles in the TVA. The first national New Deal program, the Federal Emergency Relief Administration, adopted in 1933, disproportionately spent its funds on unemployed whites, frequently refused to permit African Americans to take any but the least skilled jobs, and even in those, paid them less than the officially stipulated wage.
Similar policies later prevailed under the National Recovery Administration (NRA), another New Deal agency established in Roosevelt’s first year. It established industry-by-industry minimum wages, maximum hours, and product prices. Codes routinely withheld benefits from African Americans that white workers enjoyed. In addition to agriculture and domestic service, the NRA did not cover subindustries and even individual factory types in which African Americans predominated. Canning, citrus packing, and cotton ginning were industrial, not agricultural jobs, but workers were usually African American, and so they were denied the NRA’s wage and hours standards. The NRA took account of the lower cost of living in the South by setting lower wages in that region. In Delaware, 90 percent of fertilizer manufacturing workers were African American; thus fertilizer plants were classified as “southern,” while other factories in the state that hired whites were classified as “northern,” so higher minimum wages applied.
The first industrial code that the administration negotiated with business leaders in 1933 increased minimum wages in the cotton textile industry, resulting in price increases through the production chain, including retail clothing. But the agreement bypassed jobs in which African Americans predominated: cleaners, outside crews, and yardmen. Of the 14,000 African Americans in the industry, 10,000 held one of these job classifications. The NAACP complained, “For these workers the NRA meant increases of from 10 to 40 per cent in the cost of everything they had to buy, without a single penny in increased wages.”
The Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) not only segregated residential camps but allowed local policies that did not permit African Americans to enroll or restricted them to menial jobs in which they could not develop the higher skills that the corps was meant to provide. Florida announced that it would not accept African Americans, while Texas officials declared that “this work is for whites only.” Many other states had long waiting lists of eligible African Americans because localities refused to allow the CCC to establish camps to lodge them. Where the army set up segregated camps, it did not permit African Americans to lead the units, assigning white commanders instead. CCC sites usually had educational programs, but army officers often refused to hire black teachers, leaving “educational adviser” positions vacant.
African American corps members were also rarely allowed to upgrade to better-paying jobs like machine operators or clerks, even if they’d had experience as civilians. The painter Jacob Lawrence worked as a youth at Breeze Hill, a segregated camp for African Americans about seventy miles northwest of New York City, where 1,400 young men shoveled mud for a flood control project. Not one could be promoted to a higher classification.
My father-in-law told how, in a white CCC camp, he claimed to know how to type (although his skills were minimal), then quickly learned to do so after persuading a supervisor to give him a clerk’s job. He was then able to send a few dollars back to his parents, helping to keep them and his younger brothers and sister from losing their home. African American youths who already knew how to type (or were equally capable of faking it) had no such opportunities. Anecdotes like these, multiplied tens of thousands of times, help to explain the different African American and white economic conditions during the Depression and afterward.
IN 1935, President Roosevelt signed the National Labor Relations Act, granting unions at construction sites and factories the right to bargain with management if the unions were supported by a majority of workers. Labor organizations that gained this official certification could negotiate contracts that covered all of a firm’s employees. The original bill, proposed by Senator Robert Wagner of New York, had prohibited government certification of unions that did not grant African Americans membership and workplace rights. The American Federation of Labor (AFL) lobbied Wagner to remove the clause, and he did so. The enactment of the Wagner Act was accomplished with the knowledge that it sanctioned an unconstitutional policy of legally empowering unions that refused to admit African Americans. For at least the next thirty years, the government protected the bargaining rights of unions that denied African Americans the privileges of membership or that segregated them into janitorial and other lower-paid jobs.
In some cases, newly certified unions used their collective bargaining rights to force companies to fire African Americans who had been employed before unionization, and the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB), the agency delegated to administer the act, did nothing in response. In New York, for example, the NLRB-certified Building Service Employees Union forced Manhattan hotels, restaurants, and offices to fire African American elevator operators and restaurant workers and then give the jobs to whites.
THE GOVERNMENT’S participation in blocking African Americans’ wage-earning opportunities had its most devastating effect during World War II, when black workers migrated to centers of war production in search of jobs. The Roosevelt administration required factories to convert from civilian to military production. The army and navy effectively operated shipbuilding yards, munitions makers, and aircraft and tank manufacturers. Yet federal agencies both tolerated and supported joint management-union policies that kept African Americans from doing any but the most poorly paid tasks in defense plants.
Events in the San Francisco Bay Area, where Allen and Frank Stevenson sought work during the war, were typical. The region was the largest center of war-related shipbuilding in the nation. The Marine Laborers Union, which had seven members in 1941, grew to more than 30,000 during the next few years. The Steamfitters union membership soared from 400 to 17,000. Unions like these had NLRB-certified agreements that companies could not hire without a union referral, and the unions would not refer African Americans.
From 1941 to 1943, the Henry J. Kaiser Company built four shipyards in Richmond with a capacity for 115,000 jobs. It could not recruit enough white men for all of them, so it began to take on white women. By 1944, women made up 27 percent of Kaiser’s Richmond workforce. Then, with the supply of white women also exhausted, Kaiser sent agents to the South to seek African American men. By war’s end, still short of workers, defense industries opened some industrial jobs to African American women, who were previously employed only as janitors, cafeteria workers, and restroom attendants.
After four years of fierce conflict with union activists, Ford Motor finally recognized the UAW as its workers’ representative in 1941. Faced with a labor shortage that threatened its military contracts, the company hired African Americans like Frank Stevenson. Initially, Ford would not permit them to work in the higher-paid paint department, or as foremen, electricians, or in other skilled crafts, but as the union got stronger, activists like Ben Gross pressed Ford to open more classifications to African Americans.
The UAW was part of the new, more egalitarian Congress of Industrial Organizations. Shipyard workers, however, were mostly represented by the more conservative AFL. So while the Stevenson brothers became full-fledged union members, AFL unions mostly would not permit African Americans to join. There were a few exceptions—90 percent of the Shipyard Laborers union was African American because it represented workers in the lowest-paid occupations, like unskilled maintenance, in which whites were rarely found. But the largest union in the industry, the International Brotherhood of Boilermakers, Iron Shipbuilders and Helpers of America (representing about 70 percent of all shipyard workers) had signed a 1940 contract with Kaiser and other shipbuilders providing that only union members could work. The Boilermakers’ constitution prohibited African Americans from enrolling. Under its NLRB-certified contract, the Kaiser Company could recruit nonmembers only if the union lists had been exhausted. But before going on the job, these hires had to join the union.
Unable to supply enough white workers, but unwilling to admit African Americans, the Boilermakers established segregated auxiliary union chapters. In 1943, their first year of operation, the auxiliaries placed 10,000 African Americans in shipyards and other industries where the Boilermakers controlled jobs. Auxiliary members had to pay dues to the white local but were not permitted to file grievances or vote in union elections. They received fringe benefits worth about half what white members received. The union did not assist black workers in advancing to better-paid jobs, and African Americans could not promote to foreman if the role involved supervising whites. Even if fully qualified African Americans performed skilled work, the shipyards classified and paid them as trainees. One Kaiser worker went to a civil rights meeting in protest of these policies; the company fired him for attending.
The NAACP filed an NLRB complaint regarding these practices; the agency criticized the Boilermakers’ policy but maintained its certification of the whites-only union. At least twenty-nine other national unions either excluded African Americans entirely or restricted them to second-class auxiliaries.
In the postwar years, some unions began to desegregate voluntarily, but federal agencies continued to recognize segregated unions within the government itself until 1962, when President Kennedy banned the practice. Nonetheless, the Post Office’s National Association of Letter Carriers did not permit African Americans to join in some areas until the 1970s. African American mailmen could not file grievances to protest mistreatment and instead had to join a catchall organization for African Americans, the National Alliance of Postal Employees, a union mostly serving truck drivers, sorters, and miscellaneous lower-paid job categories. The alliance, one member later recalled, “didn’t have the clout with the [local] postmaster the way the Letter Carriers did,” so African Americans were less likely to receive promotions, consideration of vacation time preferences, and other job rights.
The construction trades continued to exclude African Americans during the home and highway construction booms of the postwar years, so black workers did not share with whites the substantial income gains that blue collar workers realized in the two big wage growth periods of the mid-twentieth century—war production and subsequent suburbanization. African Americans were neither permitted to live in the new suburbs nor, for the most part, to boost their incomes by participating in suburban construction.
In 1964 the NLRB finally refused to certify whites-only unions. Although the policy was now changed, the agency offered African Americans no remedy for decades of income suppression that flowed from its unconstitutional embrace of segregation. Still another decade passed before African Americans were admitted to most AFL craft unions, but seniority rules meant it would take many more years for them to achieve incomes in these trades that were comparable to whites’. Racial income inequality by then was firmly established, and suburban segregation was mostly complete.
IN 1941, A. Philip Randolph, national president of the Pullman car porters’ union, organized a civil rights march on Washington to demand that President Roosevelt ban the segregation and exclusion of African Americans in defense industries. The president stalled for months, trying to convince civil rights leaders to call off the march, but less than a week before it was scheduled, he persuaded Randolph to cancel the demonstration in return for an executive order prohibiting racial discrimination by unions and management in government-controlled war industries. While some firms complied, the new policy was toothless.
First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt supported civil rights leader A. Philip Randolph’s demand that war industries be required to hire black workers. She was his emissary to her husband, but also her husband’s emissary to Randolph, urging him to call off the threatened June 1941 march on Washington.
The order created a Fair Employment Practices Committee (FEPC) that could recommend cancellation of defense contracts in cases of persistent discrimination, but at the West Coast FEPC office, for example, no such recommendation was ever made. The FEPC had jurisdiction over any firm that was related to the war effort, such as nonmilitary hospitals that might be called upon to treat wounded soldiers. Yet the San Francisco FEPC director was unable to get San Francisco’s medical centers to admit African American physicians.
President Roosevelt ensured the agency’s weakness by naming Mark Ethridge, publisher of the Louisville Courier-Journal, as the committee’s first chairman. In a speech following his appointment, Ethridge praised segregation in defense plants. A public uproar forced his resignation, but he remained as an FEPC member, stating that nondiscrimination was a federal order “in the Nazi dictator pattern,” and not even “the mechanized armies of the earth, Allied or Axis . . . could now force the Southern white people to give up the principle of social segregation” in war industries.*
FEPC accomplishments were small. On one occasion, two skilled African American steamfitters in the Richmond shipyards filed a complaint with the committee over their relegation to the auxiliary local; the union agreed to create an exception for these two, provided that its policy covering all others would be unchanged. On another occasion, an African American was refused work at the Bethlehem Shipbuilding Company in San Francisco because the Machinists Union would not admit African Americans to membership; the FEPC called the union leaders to a hearing, but they ignored the invitation and no further action was taken.
Like cities nationwide, San Francisco practiced discrimination in public employment and in its public utilities, such as telephone companies, which at the time were very heavily regulated because they had local monopolies. Pacific Telephone and Telegraph, one of the region’s largest firms, did not have a single black operator; it hired African Americans only as janitors or for similar low-level work, and it even refused an FEPC request that it issue a statement saying it would comply with the president’s nondiscrimination order. The city’s streetcar system refused to hire African Americans until 1942. Maya Angelou, who lied about her age to get a conductor’s job as a teenager, was one of the first. Indicating the considerable availability of qualified African American workers in the Bay Area, within two years of the new policy there were 700 black platform operators when there had been none at the beginning of the war.
Joseph James, leader of African American shipyard workers in the San Francisco Bay Area, singing the national anthem at a launching in 1943. Yet his union denied him the chance for promotion, and he received few fringe benefits.
In 1943 at the Marinship yard in Sausalito, where workers’ dormitories had been unintentionally integrated after recruits arrived too rapidly to be separated by race, half of the African American workers refused to pay dues to the segregated branch of the Boilermakers. The union then demanded that Marinship dismiss the delinquent African Americans, and the shipyard complied. The California attorney general and the navy admiral in charge of the area’s shipbuilding pressed the workers to abandon their protest and rejoin the segregated auxiliary, but when they refused, the officials urged Marinship, without success, to cancel the layoffs.
At an FEPC hearing, the union argued that it was in full compliance with the president’s order because no African American was denied work if he paid his dues, the same requirement that applied to whites. The FEPC rejected this claim but suspended the ruling pending a company appeal. The black Marinship workers then sued, but a federal judge concluded that the workers had no relevant rights under the “federal constitution or any federal statutes.”
The African Americans then took their case to California state courts, where a judge suspended the firings, pending a company appeal. Eventually, in 1945, the California Supreme Court upheld the order, stating in unprecedented language that racial discrimination is “contrary to the public policy of the United States and this state.” The Boilermakers complied with the decisions, but they had come too late. At the time of the California Supreme Court ruling, 25,000 African Americans worked in area shipyards, but the war was ending. Eight months later, the number had dropped to 12,000, and in another nine months, the shipyards shut down and virtually all its employees were laid off.
The FEPC was similarly ineffective elsewhere. Lockheed and North American Aviation in Los Angeles and Boeing in Seattle only hired African Americans as janitors; when labor shortages forced these defense contractors to open other categories, the companies denied equal compensation and job rights to the black workers. In Kansas City, Standard Steel responded to the FEPC by saying, “We have not had a Negro working in twenty-five years and do not plan to start now.” In St. Louis, the Small Arms Ammunition Plant employed 40,000 workers at the height of World War II and initially refused to hire African Americans. It responded to civil rights demonstrations by setting up a segregated production line for black workers and agreed to include them on an integrated line only when the war was winding down and most workers were laid off.
“We Fight for the Right to Work as well as Die for Victory for the United Nations.” In 1942, demonstrators protest the refusal of the St. Louis Small Arms Ammunition Plant to hire black workers.
Noncompliance with the president’s nondiscrimination order did not affect companies’ federal contracts, partly because the Roosevelt administration’s enthusiasm for racial equality, while genuine, was lukewarm. More important was the president’s conviction, hard to dispute, that every other objective had to be subordinated to winning the war. But even granting this premise, the unconstitutional treatment of African Americans called for remediation, if not during the war, then afterward, yet the federal government’s complicity in the suppression of African American labor rights and opportunities was never addressed, not then and not since.
A government-backed dual labor market continued after the war’s end. In 1944, the G.I. Bill was adopted to support returning servicemen. The VA not only denied African Americans the mortgage subsidies to which they were entitled but frequently restricted education and training to lower-level jobs for African Americans who were qualified to acquire greater skills. In some cases, local benefit administrators refused to process applications to four-year colleges for African Americans, directing them to vocational schools instead. Servicemen with dishonorable discharges were ineligible for benefits under the G.I. Bill, and African American soldiers disproportionately received dishonorable discharges—some for protesting segregation in army towns.†
IN THE mid-twentieth century, job seekers depended on state employment offices for referrals to vacancies and training programs. As a war measure in 1942, these agencies were put under the control of a federal organization, the U.S. Employment Service, which generally refused to enroll African Americans in training for skilled work. Its instructions to local offices advised that if a company failed to specify a racial exclusion in its request for workers, the office should solicit one, assuming that the firm might have overlooked the opportunity to state it.
These practices continued after the war, when placement and training services were returned to state control. In 1948, for example, 45 percent of all job orders placed with the Michigan State Employment Service were for whites only, despite a severe labor shortage during much of the postwar period; although African Americans were available, many jobs went unfilled. Michigan did not adopt a Fair Employment Practices law until 1955, and even then it was poorly enforced.
A 1960s executive order covering contractors on federally funded construction projects prohibited racial discrimination and required affirmative action to recruit African Americans. Yet when a new central post office was authorized for Oakland, California (on land cleared by displacing more than 300 families, mostly African American), not a single black plumber, operating engineer, sheet metal worker, ironworker, electrician, or steamfitter was hired for its construction. When the Bay Area Rapid Transit subway system (BART) was built in 1967, not a single African American skilled worker was hired to work on it. The Office of Federal Contract Compliance blamed the unions, all certified by the NLRB, for not admitting black members. The BART general manager allowed that although BART was “committed to equal opportunity,” it was unwilling to insist on nondiscrimination because that might provoke a union work stoppage and “[o]ur prime responsibility to the public . . . is to deliver the system . . . as nearly on time as we possibly can.” Although federal regulations provided for termination of a contractor for failing to comply with the nondiscrimination order, no penalty was imposed.
Even today African Americans continue to have lesser rights in NLRB-certified unions. In 2015, New York City’s sheet metal workers union began paying thirteen million dollars in compensation to African Americans who, although union members, received fewer job assignments than whites from 1991 to 2006. Ongoing litigation over similar discrimination by NLRB-certified unions that also participate in government contracts involves Chicago pipefitters, Philadelphia operating engineers, and New York City ironworkers. For many African American workers, the discrimination meant that, unlike white unionists, they were never able to afford housing in integrated middle-class communities.
AFRICAN AMERICANS could save less from their wages because in some (perhaps many) cities, discriminatory property assessments left them with less disposable income than whites with similar earnings. A homeowner’s property tax is calculated by taking the property’s assessed value, usually set by a county tax assessor, and multiplying it by the tax rate set by a municipal government agency (city, county, school district, water district, fire district, etc.). The total tax rate is the sum of rates set by each of these public entities. Each one sets its property tax rate by dividing its total budgeted expenditures—how much it expects to spend in the coming year—by the total assessed value of all properties in its jurisdiction.
Assessed values do not have to be the same as market values, but a fair and nondiscriminatory system requires that all properties be assessed at the same percentage of their market values. Whether a tax assessor says that assessed values should be 20 percent of market values, or 200 percent of market values, homeowners pay the same dollar amount of tax after the calculations are completed. If the city’s total assessed value is high, dividing it into the budget will yield a low rate. If the city’s total assessed value is low, dividing it into the same budget will yield a high rate. A low rate multiplied by a high value will yield the same tax revenue as a high rate multiplied by a low value.
But an assessor can undermine tax fairness by using different percentages of market value in different communities. By doing this in the mid-twentieth century, city and county governments extracted excessive taxes from African Americans. These governments did so by overassessing properties in black neighborhoods and underassessing them in white ones. Although assessors may have had a bias that led them to assess houses of lower-income families of any race at a higher percentage of their market values than houses of affluent families of any race, this alone cannot explain the differences. A 1979 study of Chicago assessments, for example, included a statistical analysis demonstrating that the chances of these differences being attributable to social-class bias alone were less than one in a hundred.
Homeowners have no way of knowing about the underassessments in other neighborhoods. African Americans felt that their property taxes were excessive but typically could not identify the cause. This made racial discrimination by assessors especially pernicious.
Taxpayers have a natural tendency to be pleased when the assessor gives a high value to their property. It makes them feel wealthier, increasing their equity on paper. But what an assessor says about property value can’t affect the potential sale price of a home; higher assessed values only mean that tax payments will be higher if other properties are not overassessed in the same way. Whether some neighborhoods are overassessed and others underassessed is difficult to study. It requires painstaking property-by-property comparisons of assessed value and market value. Since it is impossible to know with certainty what the market value might be of a property that has not recently been sold, studies can’t be terribly precise. Nonetheless, studies of Albany, Boston, Buffalo, Chicago, Fort Worth, and Norfolk have documented the higher effective property tax burdens borne by African Americans.
An investigation of 1962 assessment practices in Boston, for example, found that assessed values in the African American community of Roxbury were 68 percent of market values, while assessed values in the nearby white middle-class community of West Roxbury were 41 percent of market values. The researchers could not find a nonracial explanation for the difference.
Seventeen years later, an analysis of Chicago assessments found the most underassessed neighborhood to be Bridgeport, the all-white home of Mayor Richard J. Daley, where resistance to African Americans was among the most violent in the nation. Bridgeport assessed values were about 50 percent lower than the legally prescribed ratio of assessed-to-market value; in the nearby African American North Lawndale neighborhood, they were about 200 percent higher than the legally prescribed ratio.
In a 1973 study of ten large U.S. cities, the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) found a systematic pattern of overassessment in low-income African American neighborhoods, with corresponding underassessment in white middle-class neighborhoods. The study revealed that in Baltimore, the property tax burden in the white middle-class community of Guilford, near Johns Hopkins University, was one-ninth that of African American East Baltimore. In Philadelphia the burden in white middle-class South Philadelphia was one-sixth that of African American Lower North Philadelphia. In Chicago the burden in white middle-class Norwood was one-half that of African American Woodlawn. The report provoked no action by the U.S. Department of Justice. Considering all these studies, the differences are too stark and consistent to make benign explanations likely.
The higher property taxes paid by African American owners—and through their landlords, by African American renters—contributed to the deterioration of their neighborhoods. After taxes, families had fewer funds left for maintenance, and some were forced to take in boarders or extended family members to pay their property taxes.
In Chicago, excessive taxation also led to loss of homes by African Americans because speculators were permitted to pay off delinquent tax liabilities and then seize the properties, evict the owners, and then resell the houses at enormous profit. Because African Americans’ property taxes were often higher relative to market value, black families were more likely to be delinquent in tax payments and more likely to be prey for speculators who could seize their houses after paying off the taxes due. There are no contemporary studies of assessed-to-market value ratios by community and by race, so we cannot say whether discriminatory tax assessments persist to the present time, and if so, in which communities. In cities like Baltimore and Cleveland, however, African Americans are still more likely than whites to lose homes through tax-lien repossessions.
Costs of segregation attributable to discriminatory assessment practices, suffered by an unknown number of African Americans, are not trivial. This was not simply a result of vague and ill-defined “structural racism” but a direct consequence of county assessors’ contempt for their Fourteenth Amendment responsibilities, another expression of de jure segregation.
THE CREATION of racial ghettos was self-perpetuating: residence in a community where economic disadvantage is concentrated itself depresses disposable income, which makes departure more difficult. Restricting African Americans’ housing supply led to higher rents and home prices in black neighborhoods than for similar accommodations in predominantly white ones. If African Americans had access to housing throughout metropolitan areas, supply and demand balances would have kept their rents and home prices at reasonable levels. Without access, landlords and sellers were free to take advantage of the greater demand, relative to supply, for African American housing.
This exploitation persisted throughout the twentieth century and was well understood by economists and social welfare experts. African Americans, of course, understood it as well. In his autobiography Langston Hughes described how, when his family lived in Cleveland in the 1910s, landlords could get as much as three times the rent from African Americans that they could get from whites, because so few homes were available to black families outside a few integrated urban neighborhoods. Landlords, Hughes remembered, subdivided apartments designed for a single family into five or six units, and still African Americans’ incomes had to be disproportionately devoted to rent. Four decades later little had changed. In its 1947 brief to the Supreme Court in Shelley v. Kraemer, the U.S. government cited half a dozen studies, each of which demonstrated that “[c]olored people are forced to pay higher rents and housing costs by the semi-monopoly which segregation fosters.” In 1954, the FHA estimated that African Americans were overcrowded at more than four times the rate of whites and were doubled up at three times the rate of whites because of the excessive rents they were forced to pay.
A Chicago Department of Public Welfare report in the mid-1920s stated that African Americans were charged about 20 percent more in rent than whites for similar dwellings. It also observed that in neighborhoods undergoing racial change, rents increased by 50 to 225 percent when African Americans occupied apartments that formerly housed whites. The limited supply of housing open to African Americans gave property owners in black neighborhoods the opportunity to make exorbitant profits.
A 1946 national magazine article described a Chicago building where the landlord had divided a 540-square-foot storefront into six cubicles, each housing a family. He had similarly subdivided the second story. Total monthly rent was as great as that generated by a luxury apartment on Chicago’s “Gold Coast” along Lake Michigan. The article recounted another case where rents were so high that thirty-eight people lived in a six-room apartment, sleeping in three shifts. In 1947, after a Chicago landlord converted his property from white to black tenancy, a fire killed ten African American tenants. The inquest revealed that a white tenant who had been paying fifteen dollars a month was evicted so that the landlord could charge a black family sixty dollars for the same apartment. Such exploitation was possible only because public policy denied African Americans opportunities to participate in the city’s white housing market.
Other urban housing markets were similarly distorted. A 1923 Philadelphia survey found that as the First Great Migration proceeded, nearly twice as many African American as white tenants had faced rent hikes the previous year; the average increase for African Americans was 18 percent, for whites 12 percent. In 1938, African Americans’ median rent in Manhattan was as much as 50 percent greater than the median for whites, although African Americans had lower incomes.
These inequities were exacerbated during World War II and its aftermath, when the Office of Price Administration froze rents nationwide. Without violating regulations, landlords subdivided apartments in already-crowded urban areas and then charged more. These higher costs accumulated throughout the twentieth century, making it more difficult for African Americans, even with stable employment, to save. Reduced savings made it less likely they could afford even modest down payments for houses in middle-class neighborhoods—were such homes made available to them.
THE RICHMOND, California, Ford plant had a sister facility in Edgewater, New Jersey, on the Hudson River just south of the George Washington Bridge. The same technological factors that made the Richmond plant obsolete in the 1950s affected the Edgewater plant. Locked in by the river on one side and the Palisades cliffs on the other, the facility had no room to expand to serve a growing customer base in the postwar boom. New highways made it no longer necessary for the plant to have its own deepwater port, so its inefficient elevator system was a needless burden.
When Ford shifted the Richmond plant to Milpitas in 1955, it also moved the Edgewater plant to the suburb of Mahwah, about twenty-five miles to the northwest. The Edgewater workforce, older and mostly white, was able to commute to the new plant without great difficulty from homes in the Edgewater area. But as these workers retired, their jobs were taken by younger African Americans who lived in Newark and New York City. With zoning ordinances that, like many in the country, may well have had a racial intent, Mahwah and surrounding towns prohibited the construction of housing that would be affordable to working-class families. In Mahwah, for example, the minimum lot size for house construction was a full acre. Because many of the new African American workers were unable to find housing for sale near the Mahwah plant, they drove sixty to seventy miles each way or depended on carpools and lengthy bus rides. Some rented single small apartments in nearby towns, returning to their families on weekends.
African American autoworkers who commuted from distant urban neighborhoods incurred annual costs attributable to the travel of $1,000 to $1,500 each in 1970, or about 10 percent of their annual gross incomes, far more than if they had lived in Mahwah or its vicinity. The African American autoworkers’ incomes were also depressed because the excessive travel contributed to job losses when workers were fired for absenteeism that was partly attributable to transportation obstacles. Ford executives complained of high turnover, and later, when they closed the Mahwah plant and reopened it in Mexico, high absenteeism was a factor executives cited in explaining the decision. This was not a problem unique to workers in Mahwah. Nationwide, African Americans had disposable incomes that were lower than those of the whites with whom they worked, because of higher commuting costs from segregated neighborhoods to jobs that were now found in the suburbs.
It is certainly true that one cause of segregation today is the inability of many African Americans to afford to live in middle-class communities. But segregation itself has had a high cost for African Americans, exacerbating their inability to save to purchase suburban homes. Income differences are only a superficial way to understand why we remain segregated. Racial policy in which government was inextricably involved created income disparities that ensure residential segregation, continuing to this day.
* Thirteen years later, Mark Ethridge was still publisher of his Louisville newspaper when Andrew Wade attempted to occupy the home he had bought from Carl and Anne Braden. As violence flared at the Wade residence, the Courier-Journal published an editorial urging the mob to use “proper legal procedures” to evict the Wades, even though these events occurred six years after the Supreme Court had found that no such legal procedures were permissible. Ethridge’s editorial stated, “The real fault of judgment, in our opinion, lies with Mr. and Mrs. Carl Braden. . . . [Their white neighbors] are entirely within their rights . . . in protesting the purchase of property in their subdivision by Negroes . . . [and] there is no use denying that the value of their property will decrease as a result of the sale.”
† At the end of World War II, dishonorable discharges were issued to African American soldiers at nearly twice the rate of white soldiers. In 1944 Jackie Robinson was arrested and tried in a general court-martial when he was an army lieutenant stationed at Fort Hood, Texas. His crime was refusing to move to the segregated section of a bus. Robinson, who three years later would be the first African American to play major league baseball, was already nationally known as an athlete, and the army might have feared arousing unrest in the African American community if he were convicted. Also, during his trial, the army finally prohibited segregation on buses that transported soldiers. Probably for both of these reasons, he was not convicted. Had Robinson been dishonorably discharged, the Brooklyn Dodgers would undoubtedly have refused to hire him, and the trajectory of civil rights in the twentieth century would have been retarded, at least.