American Apartheid

A Digest

American Apartheid By: Douglas Massey & Nancy Denton


American Apartheid tells the story of how Black Americans were systematically discriminated against in the housing process, and how this discrimination led to the creation of ghettos and a racial underclass. What Massey and Denton argue is that social scientists have failed to take into account the role of racism and residential segregation in the income gap between Blacks and Whites. They analyze how housing segregation is still continued to this day and how it is compounded by disinvestment and racism. The book also explores the failure of U.S. policy to ameliorate these issues. Lastly, American Apartheid discusses how the elimination of residential segregation will only occur if the federal government, backed by the American people, guarantees open house markets and eliminates discrimination from public life.

In the late 1960s, President Lyndon B. Johnson appointed a commission chaired by Governor Otto Kerner of Illinois to identify the causes of violence and to propose policies to prevent its recurrence. The Kerner commission was released in March 1968 and identified the prominent cause for growing violence to be growing racial inequality, which was caused by residential segregation. In response to The Kerner Commission, the Fair Housing Act was passed that same year. The Fair Housing Act was created in order to prohibit discrimination in housing sales. However, this act wasn’t as effective as it could have been because the laws were set in place to make sure that it was followed through by local commissions. The federal government believed the problem of housing discrimination solved and “residential segregation [was] dropped off the national agenda”.

In American Apartheid: Segregation and the Making of the Underclass, Douglass S. Massey and Nancy A. Denton argue that “racial segregation is crucial to explaining the emergence of the urban underclass during the 1970s”. In the absence of racial segregation, the economic dislocations of the 1970s (the exodus of middle-class minority members from the ghetto and 2) industrial restructuring) that William Julius Wilson, a sociologist who stressed the importance of class over race in understanding the social and economic problems facing blacks, argues were the root cause of the creation of the urban underclass, would not have produced concentrated poverty or led to the emergence of a socially and spatially isolated underclass.

Much of Massey and Denton’s data show a strong interaction between rising rates of poverty and high levels of residential segregation. For example: a simple increase in the rate of minority poverty leads to a dramatic rise in the concentration of poverty when it occurs within a racially segregated city. A major consequence of reduction of black income is a reduction of buying power in neighborhoods where poor blacks live.

What Massey and Denton begin to focus on with residential segregation are the differences evident in black and white neighborhoods. During periods of rising minority poverty, racial and class segregation brought housing deterioration into the residential environment of poor blacks by concentrating the loss of income in poor black neighborhoods. As total neighborhood income fell, homeowners were less able to repair and maintain their property, landlords were less able to recover the costs of building maintenance from their rents, and housing dilapidation spread. Moreover, even homeowners and landlords with money to maintain their properties had less incentive to do so because of the spreading deterioration around them.

Before the 1920s, violence was popular against blacks moving into white neighborhoods. However, upper and middle class whites realized that they were doing more “damage” than good physically to their neighborhood by bombing homes, therefore they turned to “civilized” neighborhood associations, relying heavily on restrictive covenants, which were contractual agreements among property owners stating that “they would not permit a black to own, occupy, or lease their property”.

A few other examples of how blacks were discriminated against in housing were blockbusting, redlining, and steering. Blockbusting was a business process of real estate agents and building developers to convince white property owners to sell their house at low prices out of fear of ghetto expansion into their neighborhood. Once “white flight” occurred, the agents would bring in black buyers into the newly deserted area then sell at higher prices to them in order to benefit from profit. The Home Owners’ Loan Corporation (HOLC) was a program launched by the federal government in the 1930s designed to make home ownership widely available to the American public. However, “the HOLC also initiated and institutionalized the practice of ‘redlining’ “. So in reality, HOLC only benefited white communities. Lastly, steering occurs when white and black clients are guided to neighborhoods that differ systematically with respect to social and economic characteristics, especially racial composition.

Discrimination against blacks is widespread! Discrimination came in the forms of banks, federal government, the United States Department of Housing and Urban Development, realtors, and white neighbors. The “cards [were] stacked against them”, as Massey states. All of these forms of discrimination had a strong effect in discouraging blacks in buying a house and in turn stops blacks from entering the middle class and accumulating wealth.