Inequalities in American Cities

The Inequality of American Cities

        America was founded with the understanding that it would be the land of the free and the home of the brave. The founders of this country sought to separate themselves from the oppression that they had faced under the rule of the British and King George III. America was meant to be a country where everyone was created equal, that is what it says in our constitution. What happens though, when this identity does not come true, and instead the oppression is just transferred to a different group or groups? In reality American identity is not a universal truth; it unfortunately applies only to certain people. The oppression that some people feel is especially evident when looking at the history of cities. American cities have evolved over the centuries and now represent a melting pot of the American people. A unique quality of cities is that they represent an accumulation of different racial groups. Although this melting pot should allow for different groups, people, ideas and beliefs to interact with one another, instead the laws and social practices in cities promote the opposite. Many cities have long histories of inequality, and rather than fix them, the separation gap in American cities is growing even larger and the inherent problems are becoming more severe. The social interaction of a city and its elements vary entirely on the individual’s experience (Lynch 50-55). One may be able to turn a blind eye to inequality that others see on a daily basis, purely based on their individual perspective. These individualized experiences have allowed for exclusionary practices to flourish. These qualities are not unique to just one American city but are reproduced in every city across the country. There are many issues that are seen within cities but the biggest issue that cities are facing is the growing inequality in racial groups. Cities are seeing a large increase in tensions between black communities and police officers, specifically. This is a long-standing issue and these tensions are coming to a head through the Black Lives Matter campaign.

        It is important to understand that the inequality present in cities did not just appear in one day. Black Americans have faced issues of inequality going all the way back to our country’s roots. Racial discrimination is something that has been embedded in the American identity since its creation. The white elite mindset was present from the moment the first explorers arrived in America and unfortunately does not only apply to Black Americans. Before slaves from Africa were brought to America, the Native Americans faced a fate that would be all too familiar to many throughout the country’s history. When the white male settlers came to America and met the Native Americans they had a goal of assimilating them. The men viewed the Native’s lifestyle as inferior to the European way and determined that it was their duty to change their way of life. While the American colonies grew, the Natives faced a growing amount of inequality. This is the first time that people on American soil faced inequality and unfortunately this foreshadowed future discrimination. The Native American homes were taken from them and they were forced off of their ancestral homeland. As the white population grew and the Natives’ stake on the land was decreasing, the importation of slaves from Africa began. In 1619, a Dutch man in Chesapeake ordered the first African slaves to arrive in America (Berlin, 29). These slaves were immediately viewed as inferior to the Americans based on their skin color. Much of what the Native Americans went through was now happening to the slaves and the few free blacks. This visual difference would dictate the way that history would unfold going forward. This importation of African slaves forever altered the way of life in America.

        Over the next 2 and half centuries, as the country grew, so did slavery thus creating an inequality that would become deep seeded in American life. This ultimately led to the divide within the country and the succession of the Southern states to create the Confederacy (Bates 2010). Much of the Southern identity and economy was generated from the slave trade, so the potential of losing this was a threat to the fundamental ideas of the Southern American. The South was fighting to keep the establishment of slavery embedded in the American government. Little did the Southerners that they had put in place a system of oppression of Black Americans that would remain in place long after slavery was abolished.  The conditions that black slaves faced were incredibly harsh and demeaning. This diminished way of thinking about human life as lesser and not equal, created a certain view of people of different skin colors that permeated society. This viewpoint also influenced the way people of all races interacted with their cities and surroundings. Individual experiences of both whites and blacks influenced the way they viewed themselves and how they projected themselves to the world. Certain ways of living were created out of these experiences and the image of city and self developed around these practices. After the Civil War and the victory of the Union, African Americans thought that they would finally have their chance at freedom and equality. They thought that the affordances that had always been given to the white elite, would finally be given to them (Gibson 56-60).

        At the abolishment of slavery, many laws were passed with the intention of giving African Americans the same rights as the white Americans. Even though laws were passed, social practices remained deeply rooted in the American structure. With the ending of slavery, many Southern cities had to find a new source of income that was not surrounded around free labor. Southern cities attempted to create a new identity they called the “New South” (Link 2015). One of the American cities aiming to grow out of the Civil War was Atlanta. Atlanta attempted to embrace this Reconstruction period positively. This southern city wanted to show that it would integrate the people smoothly and effortlessly. The city created 5 African American Colleges in the immediate years following the Civil War. To the elite white class, this seemed like a positive step in the right direction. Even though the city created these colleges it was simultaneously sending the message that it did not want the white and black students to integrate (Link 2015). As the city grew and areas began to become designated black and white places, racial tensions began to increase rapidly (Link 2015). There was a growing amount of violence against black Atlantans. This was a new form of oppression in a more social sphere. The people of the city began to create their own sense of “city image” and the image varied depending on your race (Lynch 50). Atlanta was not the only American city dealing with oppression but while other cities went through integration smoother than the South, it was a trend that socially structured inequalities were still present.

        The violence that black Americans faced was running rampant across the country and especially in cities in the years following the Civil War. The Ku Klux Klan gained a lot of traction in southern cities and used their increasing numbers to violently attack blacks (Dixon 2004). Many blacks were lynched by white KKK members veiled in white cone top robes (Dixon 2004). This was meant to show that whites had all the power and that blacks were continuously inferior (Dixon 2004). Along with the lynches by the KKK, race riots were common and often resulted in huge amounts of violence. The Atlanta Race Riot of 1906 showed the country that the inequalities from before The Civil War were still present. On the night of September 22, 1906, the news reported that there were 4 separate acts of black men sexually assaulting white women (Burns 2009). Immediately after hearing the reports, thousands of white Atlanta residents headed to the streets and senselessly attacked any black in sight (Burns 2009). The race riot lasted 3 days and at the end of it 25 blacks were murdered with many others injured (Burns 2009). This riot gained global attention and was a shock to the world. The country that claimed all men were created equal was still practicing inequality. These acts of violence at the hands of white men went unpunished and continued throughout much of the 20th century. Unfortunately, the violence did not stop at physical violence, structural violence was also practiced on a day to day basis.

        Structurally, the city dynamic was becoming increasingly hostile. Certain spaces and jobs were off limits because of your skin color. The police force became a center of controversy over the years. After blacks were freed many of them attempted to get jobs in the police force. It would make sense to join the police force in the hopes that it would alter the way the system operated. As black men began to apply for jobs at the city police stations across the country, they were met with much resistance. The overwhelming issue was that white men who worked in the force did not want to have a colored man as their boss. The white citizens also took issue in the idea of being policed by black police officers (Watts 1973). This caused a growing tension between the blacks and police officers that is very much so present in our political climate today.

        The extreme policing practices also had to do with the growing city populations. The transition from agricultural life to an industrial lifestyle occurred after the Civil War. This transition caused a huge influx of people to move to the city. The requirement for more space and buildings in cities was important. Apartments seemed to pop up overnight in an attempt to suit the needs of the growing population. Cities were a cheaper alternative for blacks. Apartments also allowed for the concentration of blacks in one place or neighborhood. This sort of congregation became a sort of paradox. Whites feared living in the proximity of blacks while at the same time feared the congregation of blacks in one place. This fear led to the demand of more regulated neighborhoods. This regulation lead to the creation of two new government policies that were masked as a way to help the poor. The only thing these laws did not mention was that the laws were primarily for racially diverse groups (Carter, Schill, & Wachter 1998).

        The first of the two laws went into place in 1933 as a part of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal. One was the creation of the Federal Housing Administration which was intended to help alleviate the housing crisis that was occurring in America. In reality, and in practice, the laws actually promoted segregation on a new government level (Gross 2017). The new government policies made it nearly impossible to secure mortgages in or around African-American neighborhoods. This practice became known as “redlining”. At the same time that the government was prohibiting African-Americans to housing, the government was also incentivizing builders to “mass produce entire subdivisions for white” (Gross 2017). There was no requirement that any of these houses be sold to African-Americans. The colored Americans were being excluded from the picture. They were not given any opportunity to benefit from these new housing developments which of course were in the best parts of the city. Richard Rothstein explores in depth this practice of redlining and believes that “the segregation of our metropolitan areas today leads… to stagnant inequality, because families are much less able to be upwardly mobile when they’re living in segregated neighborhoods where opportunity is absent” (Gross 2017). Because African-Americans were pushed out, they moved in to areas that were underdeveloped. These underdeveloped areas became associated with African-American identity and because they were viewed as inferior no one ever developed property in the area. This housing inequality developed all over the country leaving blacks with few places to live and therefore fewer opportunities.

Alongside with the Federal Housing Administration, the government began to create public housing. There was a large demand for more regulated housing and so in response, cities began to create public housing. Public housing was meant to be a development that cities could be proud of and would show their desire to give people who could not afford houses the opportunity for housing. Many viewed public housing as a positive opportunity for those who could not normally afford housing. Atlanta was the first city to create public housing. In 1936, the city would build the Techwood Villages. This was an impressive development and gave housing opportunities to 600 families. This seemed like a huge step in the right direction for not only the city of Atlanta but also any city that followed suit. The downside though, is that as lower income families began to move in to the neighborhood, middle and upper class white families moved out. The more lower income housing there was in the city, the further wealthy whites pushed out into the suburbs. With the lack of investment from wealthy whites or the government, the neighborhoods remained in despair and fell apart. It became very hard for cities to help public housing developments stay afloat and in good shape (Goetz 2013).

As the 1900’s raged on, the racial injustice in cities did not come to an end and instead, continued to have a grip on American society. Rising tensions, especially in the South, led to the Civil Rights Movement in the 1960’s. This movement presented a chance for the wrongs of the past to finally be righted and for equality to be reached. During the Civil Rights Movement, people of all races came together in hopes of fixing the racial injustice of the past. Through the Civil Rights movement, some sought for equality that had been denied to them, while others fought against it. There were strong showings of police brutality throughout this movement. On many occasions, the peaceful marches were met with force from police departments. The police showed their full force and their desire to only protect a select few. This use of force added to the deep seeded distrust that some Americans already felt towards police. After the Civil Rights Movement, many of the injustices still remained only now they were hidden deeper in the system. Cities still created inequality (Harmon 87-88).

With all the struggles the black Americans had faced since their arrival in America, they still held onto the hope that justice would be served, and equality would be reached. Unfortunately, the injustice still raged on. Cops continue to be at the forefront of the injustice or perhaps it appears so because they are the most visible. Many crimes still rage on in cities and blacks seem to be the focus of many of the cases. In 1979, and for two years following, Atlanta was riddled with one of the most horrific serial killers in the country. This killer ended up being a black man named Wayne Williams and even though the evidence points to him as the killer, many question the conviction. They believe that his conviction is just a repeat of the injustice from the police and government (Atlanta Monster). In New York City in 1989, a woman went running around Central Park a little after dusk. While on her run, she was brutally raped, beaten up, and left to die (Burns 2012). Also, in the park that night was a group of about 15 Black and Hispanic boys who lived in Harlem (Burns 2012). 5 of these boys were brought in for questioning that would last for multiple hours and in some cases, they were prohibited from seeing their parents even though they were minors. After hours of interrogation with no food or sleep, many falsely confessed to being at the scene of the crime and the rape. Even with these confessions, the evidence did not point to the boys as being potentially involved. However, they still went to trial and were convicted. These boys became known as the Central Park 5 and served time in jails all across New York State. Years after the convictions and time in jail, the true serial rapist stepped forward (Burns 2012). These boys were wrongfully convicted primaril based off of their race and the assumption that they were hoodlums in a gang (Burns 2012). The tales of wrongful arrests and convictions could go on forever and are still happening today. The force that police use against blacks is an ongoing problem in spite of public outcry. Even more recently, cities have started to tear down public housing because the belief is that crime rates are higher when there is public housing. In 2011 Atlanta, which was the first city to build public housing, torn down all of its public housing (Goetz 2013). Public housing that was built is being left uncared for and in a state of disrepair and as a result the area around it begins to fail. This is not the fault of the people who live there, rather because of the failure to invest in the area.

When it is all said and done America regrettably is not actually the land of the free. It may be the home of the brave; the brave people who stand up against injustice every day, but not everyone is free. Cities are a place in this country where everything is concentrated in to a small area. The close quarters and lifestyles allow for many people of different walks of life to be in one place at one time. The downside to this concentration is that people are living different lives. The paths and edges that mark my understanding of a city could be completely different for someone else. This uniqueness is part of what makes a city great but it also a pitfall. It allows for people to stay in their own bubble and ignore the issues that are not directly in front of them. The issues that the modern day Black Lives Matter movement addresses are not new issues. They are issues that have been growing quietly for some and more loudly for others since the creation of the country. The inequalities inherent in our country still stand strong and are felt by many every day. Police brutality has not ended and if anything, it is getting worse. It is more visible now and harder to ignore. In order to  resolve the injustices we need to start by changing our cities. Policies need to be made to once and for all provide for equal education, equal living, and equal job opportunities. It is also important to educate people that expecting everyone to fit in the box that white elites have created is neither realistic nor positive. Clearly the mindset and American identity we have lived with until this point is not inclusive. We need to foster a new generation that understands the importance of inclusion and working together to eliminate the remnants of the slave state that persist even today in order to actually be a land of the free.


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