Josh Heath | When You See Suburbia, Think of Jim Crow

SCV Voices: Guest Commentary
SCV Voices: Guest Commentary

Suburbia is commonly seen as a great achievement in our country, an idyllic place where core cultural values like individualism, hard work and the nuclear family can thrive. While there is some truth to that perception, it is not the full story, for the same neighborhoods celebrated in “The Brady Bunch” and “Father Knows Best” have also been tremendous drivers of racial inequality.

For proof of this, one must turn back to the key New Deal agency that started it all — the Federal Housing Administration. Launched in 1934, this bureau had a singular purpose: to encourage homeownership as a means of stimulating the economy during the Great Depression.

In order to achieve this worthy goal, government officials insured home loans, a revolutionary policy that allowed banks to offer mortgages for little money down over 30-year terms.

As a consequence, broad swaths of the public could afford property for the first time and the real estate industry, sensing a pristine business opportunity, responded by building modern suburbia. Hundreds of neighborhoods shot up, designed to attract homebuyers looking to take advantage of the new, progressive credit market.

Crucially, however, black families were excluded from this program, as FHA bureaucrats believed insuring their mortgages was a risky financial decision.

The government’s thinking was that any area that contained minorities would have unstable property values, making it a poor location for investment. The ideal neighborhood, therefore, was all white.

Key private actors quickly followed this reasoning: Developers built their Santa Clarita-style communities just for white people, Realtors would not integrate these areas, and banks largely refused to offer loans to African Americans.

That last development — getting cut off from the mortgage market — devastated black communities, for it ensured a low property tax base, underfunded schools, mediocre public services and few local jobs. Our nation’s residential geography was effectively Jim Crow-ed, with the suburbs marked off for whites and African Americans forced into underserved neighborhoods.

This nation built, as the 1968 Kerner Commission reported, a two-tiered society, separate and unequal, one full of opportunity, the other rife with oppression.

As a country, we never reversed this creation. Sure the FHA eventually eliminated the racism in its housing policy — and banks started offering services to African Americans, though certain forms of discrimination persisted. But segregating the children and grandchildren of slaves — and locking them out of affluent areas like our own — created vast amounts of generational poverty.

A black father in the 1950s, trapped in a neighborhood bereft of opportunity, will struggle to help his children escape, too. And those young people when they start their own families will experience the same difficulty, thus ensuring a profound cycle of oppression. That’s one of the key reasons, in the present day, the black community continues to experience higher rates of unemployment, poverty and single-parent homes.

Now there have been inspiring exceptions to this dynamic — millions of African Americans have, despite these burdens, lived lives of achievement and purpose. However most of us, no matter our skin color, achieve about as much as our parents do, according to reams of empirical research. So when you place an entire race in communities sated with oppression, that’s a legacy they will pass on for decades.

Or, as civil rights scholar Randall Robinson put it, parallel lines never meet. White people, placed on one track full of opportunity, will, broadly speaking, continue to experience more success than African Americans, forced onto a lower track filled with barriers to advancement — unless the government takes drastic action to undo the structural racism it caused.

When we created the suburbs, we also built a tragedy: the sentencing of millions of our fellow Americans to decades of struggle. Let us remember that as we enjoy the many pleasures of Santa Clarita: safe roads, a thriving economy and great schools. There is a world beyond our borders, one where millions of children suffer because of the bigotry of our ancestors.

Recognizing this truth should not be a Republican or Democratic notion. Nor does it make you a hero worth celebrating. It just means you’re decent — and who among us doesn’t want to be known as that?

Joshua Heath is a Valencia resident and a political science student at UCLA. He has served two terms as a delegate to the California Democratic Party. Democratic Voices runs every Tuesday in The Signal and rotates among several local Democrats.

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