Making the Ghetto Part 3 – Perceptions and responses to the “invasion” of Blacks in cities

Racial zoning and other tactics devised to exclude Blacks stem from the same cause: White superiority. Whites viewed Blacks as inferior and unfit to live together in the same community. Douglas S. Massey & Nancy A Denton explain in American Apartheid, “Middle-class whites were repelled by what they saw as uncouth manners, unclean habits, slothful appearance, and illicit behaviors of poorly educated, poverty-stricken migrants who had only recently been sharecroppers.”[1] Whites who were already influenced by predetermined fears were mortified at the invasion of this new group that they deemed subordinate and lacking adherence to their cultural standards. In 1970, surveys of White residents in San Francisco revealed that, “41% believed that blacks were less likely to take care of their homes than whites; 24% said that blacks were more likely to cheat or steal; and 14% said that blacks were prone to commit sex crimes.”[2] A similar survey in Detroit at the time revealed that almost half of Whites in that city viewed Blacks as immoral.[3] Civil Rights Attorney Vernon Jordan describes his family’s experience as the first homeowners to integrate Hartsdale, New York in 1970. As Whites curiously peered through his window, one woman who couldn’t contain her dismay, approached his wife in a drugstore and remarked, “I saw you and your husband and your daughter in the house, sitting down to the table having dinner. I did not know black people did that.”[4]

W.E.B. DuBois observed of Philadelphia at the turn of the 20th century, “[Whites] regard color prejudice as the easily explicable feeling that intimate social intercourse with a lower race is not only undesirable but impractical if our present standards of culture are to be maintained.”[5] In Sundown Towns, historian James Loewen suggests that the psychology behind excluding blacks can be traced to America’s very foundation.  He reasons “`If the founding fathers…thought African Americans were `altogether unfit to associate with the white race,’ then let’s stop associating with them.  And let’s do this, not by altering our behavior, but by limiting their choices – by excluding them.[6] 

Fear of romantic race-mixing was also a major justification for excluding Blacks from White communities. As George Frederickson writes in The Black Race in the White Mind, “In the United States the racial ideal was of course lily-white, and legal barriers to intermarriage certified black exclusion from the ‘real’ community.”[7] In White on Black, Sociology Professor Jan Pieterse traces the fear of rape as justification for exclusion to Black Codes of the 17th Century that prohibited sexual relations between Black slaves and White women. To justify these restrictions, certain myths were propagated, such as that of the Black male as being hypersexed and of the white woman on the pedestal – the idolization of the white female in the American south. Black men were said to have an exceptionally large penis, as well as an insatiable animal sexuality. ‘The black male was variously described as a “walking phallus”; an animalistic satyr possessed with insatiable appetites…a sexually uninhibited man preoccupied with sex.’[8] This may be partly why public castrations were such a central feature during lynchings. Such incendiary imagery had been the justification for numerous lynchings of Black men in the South and influenced racial exclusion in the North. 

Local lore has it the letters in “Anna”, a town in Southern Illinois, stand for “Ain’t-No-Niggers-Allowed.[9] The town justified having virtually no Black residents for over a century on an urban legend involving the rape of a White woman by a Black man, William James, in 1909. This incident led to a spectacular carnival-style public lynching of Mr. James attended by thousands of White families in nearby Cairo, IL. Cairo’s reputation for mass public lynching festivals succeeded in keeping Blacks away from their community for generations. I personally recall the tension in my family’s car when our route along Interstate 57 unavoidably took us through there on our yearly Labor Day trip to Arkansas to visit relatives in the 1990s. Although my parents never shared the lynching stories with me, I knew that stopping for gas or food or going the least bit over the speed limit here was strictly prohibited. By the time I made the journey through the South from Chicago, incidents of mass public lynchings had already made their way into popular culture for my generation. Hip Hop group Public Enemy included an image of a mass lynching on the cover of their 1992 single “Hazy Shade of Criminal”, depicting a white mob casually lynching two Black men in Indiana while smiling couples and seniors pose for the camera.

Lynching of William James in Cairo, IL in 1909
Public Enemy 1992 album cover for “Hazy Shade of Criminal” depicting two Black men being hanged from a tree in Indiana in 1930

James Loewen in his book Sundown Towns explains that reference to a singular incident, rather true or fictive, involving an uncivilized Black “beast” figure who misbehaved in some fashion has been a common justification for excluding Blacks. He explains that many all-White communities explain their, “all-white status by invoking incidents that embody the familiar ‘African American as problem’ ideology, but with specific local details about what blacks did wrong here…to justify the continued vigilance and sometimes brutal actions required to maintain a town or suburb as an all-white community.”[10]

Because of these perceptions mixed with superiority ideology, Whites viewed their resistance to Black advancement in cities as legitimate warfare and often used the language of combat to describe their opposition.  One real estate trade journal of the 1950’s depicts the movement of black families as the invasion of an army.  When “the infiltration of the antipathetic racial group begins to gnaw at the edge, it will not be long until direct access will be had to the very core of the neighborhood itself.”[40] Considering White fear of sexual race-mixing; references to protecting a neighborhood’s “core” would have had multiple interpretations and profoundly amplified already stoked fears. As to the military-like response by Whites, Robert Weaver explains in The Negro Ghetto, “This strategy…has been taken over into the thinking of white Americans who speak and think of the ‘invasion’ of a neighborhood by Negros, the ‘infiltration’ of an area by colored people, or the ‘loss’ of a neighborhood.”[11] Stephen Meyer offers the Black perspective on the hyperbole surrounding their perceived attack on White communities, in As Long As They Don’t Move Next Door.  He explains, “Most blacks did not intend to lead assaults on white areas; they only sought better housing, but many whites interpreted the rhetoric literally. They blocked the penetration as if defending against a foreign enemy, using any means at their disposal to deter the migration.”[12]

[1] Douglas S. Massey & Nancy A Denton. American Apartheid (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1993), 29.

[2] Ibid., 94.

[3] Ibid., 94.

[4] Vernon Jordan and Annette Gordon-Reed. Vernon Can Read! A Memoir (New York: Basic Civitas Books, 2001), 220.

[5] W.E.B. DuBois, “The Negro Problems of Philadelphia,” from The Philadelphia Negro (1899). In Richard T. LeGates and Frederic Stout, editors.  The City Reader (London: Routledge, 1996), 57.

[6] James W. Loewen.  Sundown Towns. (New York, NY: The New Press, 2005), 20-21.

[7] George M. Fredrickson. The Black Image in the White Mind: The Debate on Afro-American Character and Destiny, 1817-1914. (Hanover, NH: Wesleyan University Press, 1987). page unknown

[8] Jan Nederveen Pieterse. White on Black: Images of Africa and Blacks in Western Popular Culture. (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1992), 175.

[9] James W. Loewen.  Sundown Towns. (New York, NY: The New Press, 2005), 3.

[10] Ibid., 175.

[11] Robert C. Weaver. The Negro Ghetto. (Russell & Russell: New York). 32.

[12] Stephen Grant Meyer.  As Long As They Don’t Move Next Door: Segregation and racial Conflict in American Neighborhoods. (Janham, Maryland: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc.). 6.

Published by Kelwin Harris

Kelwin Harris is a public speaker, city planner and public engagement professional who focuses on creating equitable communities, empowering people that have been historically excluded from connectivity, and dismantling inequity in Chicago.

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