Chapter One


Racial segregation has been a characteristic of American society for almost four hundred years, but the movement toward residential segregation so familiar to us today began less than a century ago. Before 1910, urban African Americans were far more likely to have whites as neighbors than other blacks. By the beginning of the 1950s, however, African-American urban neighborhoods were highly segregated, often physically isolated, densely concentrated, and fully formed. But these neighborhoods differed significantly from their modern counterparts. Though poorer on average than white neighborhoods, these black ghettos were, by and large, vibrant communities that "worked." They were societies unto themselves that mirrored the larger society.

How did such neighborhoods come to be and what happened to them to create the abysmal conditions we know as the "urban ghetto"?


Though a black elite of freedmen who earned their living as artisans and professionals had already established itself in the industrial cities of the North before the Civil War, African Americans began moving north in modest numbers only in the decades following the abolition of slavery. Former slaves in the South had been given no land upon emancipation, and so were forced into a sharecropping system in which workers "rented" land from white landowners with large holdings, paying their rents out of the year's produce. While sharecropping was an improvement upon slavery, it still left the worker at the mercy of the landowner. Somehow, at the end of the year's reckoning, the sharecropper was still in debt. Persistently poor, former slaves found themselves unable to accumulate enough money to buy land for themselves. In addition, southern agriculture was distinctly seasonal, so there were long periods of idleness, often enforced by contracts with the landowners that prohibited other forms of remunerated work, even during the off-season. With the end of Reconstruction in 1877, African Americans also faced disenfranchisement, lynchings, legal segregation, and the first of a host of Jim Crow laws that ultimately left them with virtually none of the rights of citizenship.

Meanwhile, the industrialization of northern cities was in full swing, creating factory jobs at wages unheard of in the South. Initially, these jobs brought to the cities large numbers of immigrants, mostly European, mostly white. A trickle of largely uneducated African-American workers coming north could still find work, but they faced considerable discrimination in the cities, especially in employment. Their wages were lower than whites, their chances for advancement were poor, and they were rarely allowed to join unions. Nevertheless, pressures in the South pushed and possibilities in the North pulled small numbers of African Americans into northern cities—only about 400,000 between the end of the Civil War and the outbreak of World War I. In 1910, African Americans were no more than 5 percent of the population of any northern industrial city.


The influx of millions of European immigrants in the late 1800s created a patchwork of different ethnic communities in those cities. Since public transportation was virtually nonexistent and most new immigrants could not afford to move away from the places where they worked, the different ethnic enclaves where culture and language were familiar tended to cluster around the factories and sweatshops. Black "immigrants" from the South followed the same pattern.

These early immigrant clusters differed from ghettos in several respects. First, they were never homogeneous: many different nationalities coexisted in the same neighborhoods. Second, as factory workers became more affluent, they or their children moved out of the ghetto and dispersed into the general population. Third, as a result of this dispersion, a majority of any ethnic group almost always lived outside of identifiable clusters. Thus, while new immigrants continued to move into ethnic enclaves, families who had been there longer tended to disperse throughout the city.

By the early 1900s, however, the character of the African-American clusters in the North began to change. Blacks faced increasing discrimination in housing and public accommodations. Resistance to integration hardened, so it became more difficult to move out of the black enclaves. Continuing union opposition to black members and employer reluctance to train them as skilled workers in the factories kept African Americans in jobs that were "heavy, hot, dirty and low-paying." The Northern white press increasingly joined its Southern counterparts in portraying African Americans in stereotypical terms and as inferior to whites. Segregation became more pronounced. By 1910, despite the low numbers of blacks in northern cities and despite the fact that the average African American in those cities still lived in a ward that was less than 10 percent black, the outlines of the future black ghetto were beginning to emerge.

What came to be called "The Great Migration" of African Americans from the rural South began with the outbreak of World War I and a spike in the need for factory workers in the North. Although the United States did not join the war until 1917, American factories sold supplies to the Allied combatants from the beginning. Industry found a source of cheap labor in southern blacks and actively recruited them. Under the impact of the war and in the 1920s, between 1.5 and 2 million largely unskilled African Americans moved north; an additional 400,000 followed during the 1930s.

The Depression, of course, meant poverty for many people, but African-American workers, at the bottom of the pecking order, were the first to be let go and the hardest hit. As the economy gradually picked up during the later thirties, white workers were the first rehired, leaving disproportionate numbers of African Americans on relief or in federal work camps. To make matters worse, African Americans were largely excluded from the most important of President Franklin D. Roosevelt's New Deal programs to alleviate poverty. Social Security and mandatory unemployment insurance, for example, were two of the central elements of social insurance introduced during the Depression, but they both specifically excluded domestics and agricultural workers. Since two-thirds of employed African Americans were then either domestics or agricultural workers, most blacks were not eligible for benefits. While the rest of the country was receiving significant Federal help moving out of poverty, African Americans were generally left out.


The Federal Housing Administration (FHA), another important anti-poverty agency established during the Depression, guaranteed mortgages for up to 90 percent of the purchase price of a house, making down payments of 10 percent the norm, and it also extended the repayment period to twenty-five or thirty years. Previously, lenders had required down payments of up to one-third the cost of a home's purchase price, making home ownership impossible for many. During the waning years of the Depression and again after World War II, FHA guarantees not only allowed families to become homeowners (and thus accumulate wealth), but also created local jobs and provided investment in the community. Between 1934, when the FHA was founded, and 1969, the percentage of families owning their own homes increased from 44 percent to 64 percent. Citing concerns that poorer black neighborhoods were not good financial risks, however, the FHA "redlined" almost all African-American communities, refusing to guarantee mortgages there. Private lenders followed suit. After World War II, the Veterans Administration used the same redlining policies, ensuring that returning African-American servicemen were excluded from the program. These policies excluding African Americans from government largesse lasted well into the 1960s.

Between 1940 and 1960, a staggering 4.5 million blacks left the South, a second Great Migration to northern cities. Because of segregation, however, the geographic area of the already established black ghettos in these cities expanded only slowly, leaving these new immigrants few options for housing. In addition, cities were increasingly turning to zoning in an effort to separate residential from industrial areas. When zoning choices had to be made among neighborhoods, the politically less powerful black communities were usually the losers, tending to be zoned as "industrial," a label that often prohibited not only the construction of new residential construction but even the improvement of old residential buildings. The quality of life in these areas was already lower because of neighboring industry, and what housing stock existed tended to deteriorate easily. Non-blacks, of course, were free to look elsewhere and move out of their impoverished neighborhoods into better housing, but the realities of segregation forced African Americans to remain in these increasingly industrialized urban areas.

As a result, population density in the black ghetto increased steadily. By 1950, the average "isolation index" in northern ghettos was almost 90 percent, meaning that, on average, African Americans lived in neighborhoods that were 90 percent black, a level of segregation never experienced by any European ethnic group in the United States.


Despite the crowding, northern black ghettos in 1950 were viable communities. Poverty created its share of social problems (the average income of African-American families then was only slightly more than half that of white families), and these neighborhoods were segregated racially, but, in spite of some degree of class separation within the black ghetto, neighborhoods were largely "vertically integrated." Affluent, middle-class, working-class, and poor people all lived in relatively close proximity. Social organization was intact. Informal networks kept neighbors in touch with one another, while businesses, schools, churches, fraternal organizations, and volunteer organizations supported viable communities. Most people held jobs. Single-parent families were a distinct minority. Levels of violence were low. Education was valued.


To offer a personal example, my father directed a settlement house in the ghetto of St. Louis, Missouri, from 1946 to 1950. He tells of searching frequently for kids in trouble and—as a white man—having to run up and down the dark staircases of urban tenements late at night. He remembers no feelings of fear. There wasn't, he says, anything to be afraid of.

A series of events over the next three decades, however, changed this situation radically, creating the modern black ghetto. The first of these events was the wholesale destruction of black neighborhoods by the federal Urban Renewal and the federal Interstate Highway programs. Urban renewal (then called "slum removal") was initially meant to revive decaying inner-city neighborhoods by transforming them into new, architecturally interesting cultural, commercial, and residential centers. Again, because African Americans generally held less political power, black ghettos were often the chosen sites for slum removal. Significant parts of black ghettos were razed and rebuilt, often as magnets for business or tourism, such as the Loop in Chicago, the Gateway Arch in St. Louis, or (somewhat later) the Inner Harbor in Baltimore. Not without justice were the slum renewal programs sometimes called "Negro removal."

As part of urban renewal, the federal government provided money for the construction of some new public housing for those displaced by the changes. Reasoning that limited resources should go to the poor, Congress set strict income limits on who could live in these new housing "projects." Functionally, this meant that the poorest members of the black ghetto were moved somewhere else in the city and segregated by class as well as by race, only intensifying their isolation from the larger society. The worst of these projects were high-rise towers that housed many people in small geographic areas. In addition, such public housing provided on average only one unit for every ten units destroyed. The rest of those evicted by urban renewal had to squeeze into whatever already overcrowded ghetto areas remained. One Chicago critic pointed out that since local residents "were already living in coal-bins, out-houses, and other cubbyholes of squalor," there were few places left to squeeze into.

The Interstate Highway program instituted in 1956 by President Dwight D. Eisenhower repeated the process. As a network of superhighways meant to link the country together was blasted through cities, poor black areas were, not surprisingly, the first choices for disruption. Either an area would be razed and its former inhabitants removed, or a highway would be placed so as to create a physical boundary between the black ghetto and other areas of the city, further isolating its inhabitants.


The federally subsidized highway programs also facilitated the suburbanization of the North, contributing to the erosion of its cities. Increasingly affluent whites were eager to leave those cities, and the government subsidized this exodus by building roads that made daily access to urban workplaces from the suburbs far more feasible. FHA and Veterans Administration mortgage guarantees, more easily given for new housing in new neighborhoods and completely unavailable for black or mixed urban neighborhoods, encouraged (white) families with even modest incomes to invest in suburban home ownership. Between 1950 and 1970, seven million whites left center cities.

The effects of this "white flight" were drastic, not only concentrating the population of poor African Americans in center cities, but also drawing jobs away from those same areas, especially jobs that paid a living wage.

By the middle of the twentieth century, the United States had become the overwhelming leader in worldwide manufacturing. Many of its factories were still located in the large cities of the North. They offered good employment, even for workers who entered the job market with little education and few skills. By this time, most unions accepted African Americans—there were also primarily black unions—and high levels of unionization in industry meant that jobs were secure, wages relatively high, and chances for advancement good if one stayed with the company. During the immediate post–World War II period, such blue-collar jobs were the primary way out of poverty for many African Americans.

Major structural changes in the global economy over the last four decades, however, have drastically altered that situation. After the destruction caused by World War II, the Europeans and Japanese gradually rebuilt their manufacturing sectors, which by the 1970s had begun to compete, often quite successfully, with American companies. In the later 1980s and 1990s, less developed countries like Korea and Taiwan expanded their manufacturing, too. By the turn of the millennium, American manufacturing was competing not only with the Chinese manufacturing juggernaut but also the former Eastern Bloc nations, Mexico, and Latin America.

Within the United States, changes in technology and transportation eliminated the need to locate factories in the middle of cities, so industry, too, joined the exodus to the suburbs. Rural areas in the North and the cities and suburbs in the Sun Belt of the Southwest also proved increasingly attractive to industry because land was cheaper, taxes lower, and unions far weaker. More recently, the development of large, transnational corporations able to create "global assembly lines" has led to further loss of manufacturing in the United States as "American" plants move to the Third World, where wages are drastically lower, unions often nonexistent, environmental laws few, and expensive regulations to protect workers from harm seldom on the books, much less enforced.

With the increasing computerization and mechanization of manufacturing worldwide, moreover, many of the better-paying jobs that remain in the United States require higher levels of education. There are jobs for those who analyze data, write computer programs, manage people, administer organizations, or do financial planning. Increasingly, however, the bulk of jobs remaining for poorly trained or educated people are in the service sector—as domestics, janitors, clerks, salespeople, nursing aides, or cashiers—where wages have historically been low and benefits poor or nonexistent. To make matters worse, over the last thirty years, wages in the service sector have declined both in real dollars and relative to other sectors of the economy, so even full-time workers in such jobs now find it difficult to stay out of poverty.


A continuing pattern of residential segregation that is no less rigid for being informal makes it that much more difficult to find well-paying jobs outside of black areas. Yes, poor African Americans can get jobs in the suburbs, but only the most persistent succeed. Not only is discrimination in employment still a problem, but public transportation from the center city to the suburbs is also complicated, unreliable, and, most of all, time-consuming. Owning a car is too expensive for low-wage earners, especially for young men who must pay soaring urban insurance premiums.

Paradoxically, the success of the Civil Rights movement in bringing the end of legal segregation contributed to the devastation of the inner cities. African Americans could for the first time demand housing outside the crowded ghetto. So, beginning in the late 1950s, more affluent African Americans joined the white exodus from the city to the suburbs. Only those who could not afford to move out were left.

The end result of all these changes is the black urban ghetto we know today. As early as the 1970s, what had been poor but vertically integrated neighborhoods had largely been transformed into poverty-stricken, resource-destitute areas where only poor people lived, lacking social networks, institutions of support, or jobs.

In most cases, as more affluent African Americans departed, these ghettos became physical wastelands, too. Business followed the money, leaving behind only a few corner grocery stores, occasional check-cashing places, liquor stores, and lots of boarded up buildings. The "surround of force" that people experienced led to despair, inertia, and increasing anti-social behavior.

The black ghetto had been plundered.


For the majority of Americans, poverty had been a phenomenon of the Great Depression that essentially disappeared from the political radar screen with the economic stimulus of World War II and the consumerism of the post-war years. The 1950s were a time, it seemed, of economic prosperity: a time to move to the suburbs, start a family, and concentrate on one's own standard of living. Rock-and-roll music emerged, echoing the times: bold, impudent, full of hope and energy. The election of the young John F. Kennedy as president in 1960 symbolized the hopefulness with which the country looked toward the future.


There were rumblings, of course. The 1954 Supreme Court Brown v. Board of Education decision and the 1956 Montgomery, Alabama, bus boycott marked the beginning of the Civil Rights movement, which over the next fifteen years turned a spotlight on some of the poorest and most racist parts of the country. Northern whites began to develop a consciousness of segregation and also, to some degree, the poverty it engendered.

In 1962, political activist Michael Harrington published The Other America, a book that pointed to "invisible" poverty in the United States, to an economic underworld comprising nearly one-fifth of the population. Harrington focused graphically on the poverty of white rural areas such as the Appalachian hills, but looked at other groups, too: the uninsured elderly, migrant farm workers, and residents of the black ghettos. The book was published at a propitious moment. It not only symbolized a renewed curiosity about and urge to solve America's domestic problems, but also became itself part of the political process. The United States had won World War II, infused new life through the Marshall Plan into the devastated countries of Europe, and was both admired and feared throughout the world. Kennedy had announced that we would put a man on the moon before the end of the decade. Why, then, couldn't we solve poverty and civil rights—both problems located, for most Americans, far away in the backward South, primitive Appalachia, or the ignored inner-city ghettos? We were, after all, a "can-do" country.

In 1964, during his first months in office after the assassination of President Kennedy, President Lyndon B. Johnson felt the need for a grand theme to characterize his presidency, a program that would both offer him legitimacy in a position he had only inherited and garner the support of the liberals who had backed Kennedy and mistrusted this prototypical southern politician. Influenced by Harrington's book, Johnson declared a "war on poverty" as part of an ambitious attempt to complete the social revolution of the New Deal. Under the rubric of The Great Society, he launched a series of programs that significantly increased public spending on poverty, expanding services for and raising benefits available to the poor, especially to the elderly poor.

Johnson intended to focus the War on Poverty on white rural poverty, but as the Civil Rights movement gathered steam and the nation became increasingly aware of inner-city poverty, the spotlight shifted to the ghetto. Unfortunately, his War on Poverty was soon cut off at the knees by several converging factors, the most important of which was the war in Vietnam. As the war heated up in the mid-1960s, Johnson's energies focused increasingly on Vietnam, while political disagreements about the conduct of the war divided the liberal coalition that supported the reforms of his domestic agenda. Most decisive, money funneled to Vietnam could not be used to fight American poverty. Few of Johnson's poverty programs were ever fully implemented, and funding, never abundant, was curtailed or eliminated for almost all of them.

As our involvement in Vietnam withdrew resources from the war on poverty, the struggle for civil rights moved into northern cities and splintered. To white supporters of integration, the most threatening of the pieces was the Black Power movement. Previously strong supporters of civil rights in the South, northern liberal whites now felt themselves attacked by their former allies. The undertones of violence in Black Power were intimidating. Civil rights, a distant issue that to northern whites had seemed so easy to deal with, had suddenly shown up right in their backyard, morally ambiguous, and amenable to no simple solutions. Whereas 68 percent of northern whites supported Johnson's initiatives in 1964, just two years later 52 percent thought the government was pushing integration too fast. Although the War on Poverty was distinct from the Civil Rights movement, the two began to merge in public perception. As support drained for the latter, it was withdrawn from the former as well.


It was precisely then that the ghettos erupted in violence. The concentration of poverty and the isolation of the poor within American cities now created overwhelming pressures and frustrations amid all the promises of help and hope. Beginning in the Watts neighborhood of Los Angeles in 1965, one city after another boiled over. Television pictures of National Guardsmen occupying the smoldering ruins of the inner city would by 1968 become a dominant image of the black ghetto. Suddenly, poverty was not white, rural, and hardworking, not "the great-great-grandchildren of Daniel Boone", but black, urban, and violent. Media images of the dangerous ghetto were now everywhere.

In 1964, Daniel Patrick Moynihan, then a young advisor to President Johnson. wrote what was supposed to be a confidential memo to the president. Although the report, The Negro Family: The Case for National Action, stressed male unemployment as the primary cause of black poverty, Moynihan also described what he called a "tangle of pathology" that had undermined the black family, another way of describing what Harrington (and others) had more positively, if blandly, called a "culture of poverty." While both Harrington and Moynihan wrote hoping to spur the country to action, in fact, the public began to interpret that "tangle of pathology" as an intractable and intrinsic feature of black urban life. Although Moynihan believed that more and better jobs for black men were a crucial part of the solution to poverty in the inner cities, he left that recommendation out of the final report, reinforcing a sense of the intractability of poverty. There were, it seemed, no solutions.

The Moynihan Report was leaked to the public just prior to the violence in Watts and then sensationalized in the press. It caused a firestorm among liberals and black activists, who interpreted it as humiliating to African Americans at a time when they were trying to support black strength and identity. Radical Black Power advocates condemned the report as another racist attempt to discredit black people and blame them for their plight. What right did this white man have even to write such a report about black people?

To exacerbate negative public perceptions, by the end of the decade the War on Poverty had actually succeeded in signing up nine out of ten eligible single mothers for the Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC) program that Roosevelt had initiated thirty years earlier. Instead of small numbers of widows and their children receiving assistance, the welfare rolls were flooded with divorced and never-married mothers. Although it continued to serve more white than black families, during the 1960s the program came to be associated in the media (and therefore in the public mind) with young, black, urban single mothers. The black ghetto had become very visible -- and very threatening.

Johnson came to office in the fall of 1963. The first of the Great Society programs moved through Congress and into rapid implementation in 1964. But the ghettos began exploding in 1965, and Vietnam was heavily draining the nation's financial resources by late 1966. The War on Poverty ground to a halt before it had begun to take off. According to historian Michael Katz, in the end the Office of Economic Opportunity (the hub of the War on Poverty) received less than 10 percent of the most conservative estimate of what it needed to reach its goals, spending about $70 per poor person per year. It never reached the takeoff point normal in most federal programs.


In reality, then, the War on Poverty proved to be only the briefest of skirmishes. The country gave itself no real chance to do anything about poverty. Of course, it wasn't coincidental that once poverty was defined as an African-American phenomenon, we gave up remarkably quickly.

Worse yet, the perceived failure of the Great Society programs now became associated with a hopelessly flawed "big government" approach to poverty that, in "throwing money" at problems, was believed to worsen them. The shadow of the aborted War on Poverty thus continues to hang over the discussion of poverty and its solutions. It is more than ironic, as well as further evidence of our deep-seated attitudes, that this tiny window of under funded action that lasted barely a few years has become prima face evidence of the government's inability ever to do anything about poverty, as if we had ever tried throwing money at poverty, much less committed ourselves to a program that might stand some chance of working.

Within a few short years we had gone from Harrington's The Other America, identifying a "culture of poverty" passed down from generation to generation and calling us to action, to the Moynihan Report, identifying a "tangle of pathology," almost a call to inaction. What, after all, can be done about a "pathology"? Within a few short years, before we had really tried anything substantive, ghetto poverty had become, we believed, intractable.