Urban poverty, racism, and US segregation
A recent Urban Journal column argued that despite decades of efforts, Rochester is losing its fight against poverty. In response, reader Patrick Stundtner noted that poverty exists in the suburbs and rural areas as well and he objected to the column's insistence that the US has practiced deliberate segregation since the Civil War. Stundtner's letter drew responses that included the following:
Reading Patrick Stundtner's comments in last week's Feedback section, I was saddened, but unfortunately not surprised. Here is yet another white person telling the rest of us that racism no longer exists.
Many of us affected by the lasting effects of the transatlantic slave trade, Jim Crow, and civil rights abuses continue to live in a city that – despite being the home of freedom fighters Susan B. Anthony and Frederick Douglass – remains one of the poorest and most racially segregated regions in the state.
I suppose I get it. When racism, sexism, misogyny, and classism don't affect your everyday existence, it's easy to think that the election of the first black president after 43 consecutive white male presidents is enough to deride over 600 years of systemic slavery, oppression, and genocide that quite literally were the building blocks of America.
When the color of your skin or the zip code you are born in can determine your level of education, earning potential, and health outcomes, how can anyone scoff at efforts by local grassroots organizations and City Newspaper to demand equal access to affordable and quality housing for everyone, whether you live in downtown Rochester, Palmyra, or are being evicted from the Cadillac Hotel after your elected officials have failed you in more ways than you can count?
It's easy to overlook the decades of research, public policy language, and first-person narratives that tell us, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that race, class, sexual orientation, and other factors inform and create disparity. I've learned that it is easy to talk and difficult to be quiet and listen. I've also learned that it can be even harder to listen to understand instead of just listening to respond.
I implore readers to take off their rose-tinted glasses and instead of trying to reject sound logic and unwavering truth, to listen with a goal of, at the least, trying to understand.
Among several major differences between poverty in the inner city and in the "suburbs and out in the country" are the degree of poverty, the high concentration of poverty, and, within this concentration, the abhorrent rate of child poverty. (Refer to the Act Rochester Poverty Report.)
The reader's comment that "people of different color moved out to the suburbs" refers virtually 100 percent to whites, who had easier ability to pay for vehicles and were allowed easy access to mortgages in the suburbs. People of color were left behind in red-lined sections of the city – people who could not afford cars or were unable to get mortgages in more favorable sections. That resulted in the creation of concentrated poverty and the horrible conditions in the city school district.
I'm not sure where the writer lives, but the city is the core of the county and is central to the entire region. Being "responsible for nothing that happens in the inner city" is a head-in-the-sand approach that unfortunately is too common in the primarily white suburbs. And, I submit, it is irresponsible.
This isn't a simplistic blame game. It's a matter of privileged citizens becoming more aware of this country's and community's racist past and stepping up to help their neighbors, especially the children, who are our future no matter what color.
Institutional racism is alive and well throughout this country, and it's naive to say it's "idiocy" for City to assert that there is deliberate segregation in light of Brown vs. Board of Education and the Civil Rights Act. One has only to look at the data in the Poverty Report or at the recent incidents at Starbucks. Even Starbucks has stepped up to the plate on this.
Pointing to the election of Obama again illustrates the "post-racial" perspective of many whites. One has only to consider the current resident in the White House to know otherwise.
The letter writer states: "You say America's post-Civil War history is one of deliberate segregation. What idiocy." He bolsters his statement by citing Brown v Board of Education and the Civil Rights Act of 1964. In citing such actions, he unwittingly provides strong affirmation of our long history of official segregation and discrimination, for without such history these corrective actions would not have been necessary.
Highlights (lowlights to be sure) of that post-Civil War history include the Supreme Court's Plessy v Ferguson decision, bedrock of widespread segregationist Jim Crow laws; President Woodrow Wilson's segregationist policies respecting African-American employment in the federal government, well-documented in the recent book, "Racism in the Nation's Service" by Eric Yellin; Ku Klux Klan white supremacist rallies and racially restrictive real estate covenants in the Rochester area well into the 20th century; and current persistent, pervasive failure of county school boards, legislators, and business leaders to seriously tackle structural racism in Monroe County.