by Harold C. Ford
It’s been 50 years since Flint became the first municipality in the nation to adopt an open housing ordinance. Led by then-Flint Mayor Floyd McCree, the Flint City Commission adopted the ordinance by a 5-4 vote on Oct. 30, 1967. Four months later, on Feb. 20, 1968. it survived a referendum initiative by a mere 30 votes of the 40,000+ that were cast by the Flint electorate.
The dramatic events of those few months that attracted the interest of the nation included: McCree stepping down as mayor, then reassuming his post; the largest civil rights protest in the city’s history; a sleep-in on the Flint City Hall lawn led by youth activist Woody Etherly Jr.; and public demonstrations by a local Ku Klux Klan chapter and the John Birch Society.
Flint’s Sloan Museum commemorates these events with its most recent exhibit “An Equal Opportunity Lie, The Making of a Segregated City,” open through May 27. [Sloan officials say they plan to extend the exhibit’s run] To augment its exhibit, Sloan hosted a public lecture and discussion titled “Race and Housing” led by Delma Thomas-Jackson, an education coordinator at Wellness Services and a faculty member at the Center for Whole Communities.
Longer historical view:
Rather than focusing on the events of 1967-1968 Flint, Thomas-Jackson chose to explore the broader historical antecedents to race relations that have challenged the United States since its inception. He spoke to 51 people according to Caitie O’Neill, marketing manager for Sloan Museum and Longway Planetarium, an audience that often punctuated the advertised “evening of dialogue” with comments and questions.
“It felt inappropriate to jump all the way to housing policy without doing a little bit of work around how we got there in the first place,” said Thomas-Jackson at the start of his presentation. “I’m going to take some time to go back four or five hundred years.”
Born in 1979, Thomas-Jackson conceded from the start that he lacked the perspective of older audience members in that he did not witness personally the open housing battle some five decades ago. “The bulk of my (formative) memories are 1980s to 1990s,” he said.
The myth of white supremacy & American meritocracy:
Thomas-Jackson’s presentation was largely informed by his master’s thesis work on white supremacy as a myth. “I would argue that without the mythology of white supremacy, you don’t have the creation of the federal housing policies that then led to red-lining, which then led to housing discrimination, the wealth gap, and so on,” he said.
Thomas-Jackson challenged the notion that the United States was/is a meritocracy. “The American dream itself depends upon the notion of meritocracy being a very real and tangible thing,” he said. “No matter where you came from, no matter what you looked like, no matter who you loved or how you loved them, as long as you were willing to put in the work, you can earn your way to power, success, influence.”
Thomas-Jackson suggested that racism and other -isms explode that myth of meritocracy. He quoted James Baldwin as someone who understood the construction of this myth:
“What white people have to do is try to find out in their hearts why it was necessary for them to have a nigger in the first place. Because I am not a nigger. I’m a man. If I’m not the nigger here, and if you…the white people invented him, then you have to find out why. The future of the country depends on that.”
Institutional foundations for racism:
Thomas-Jackson argued that the historical antecedents for racism evolved long ago in the institutions of religion, science, medicine, academia, law, and popular culture.
Thomas-Jackson referenced a quote by American clergyman and publisher Buckner H. Payne from his 1867 book The Negro: What Is His Ethnological Status? as indicative of racial views held by large swaths of the earlier Christian community:
“God destroyed the world by a flood for the crime of amalgamation, or miscegenation of the white race with negroes, mere beasts without souls and without immortality.”
Thomas-Jackson also used an excerpt from Frederick Douglass’ 1845 work Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave as evidence of that author’s understanding of the duplicitous role of religion in American history:
“The slave auctioneer’s bell and the church-going bell chime in with each other, and the bitter cries of the heartbroken slave are drowned in the religious shouts of his pious master. Revivals in religion and revivals in the slave-trade go hand in hand together. The slave prison and the church stand near each other.”
“It was indeed the faith community, and particularly Christianity with its blessing, to go forth and make slaves of these people using Biblical text…,” Thomas-Jackson said.
Science, Medicine, Academia:
Thomas-Jackson highlighted the work of French physician Francois Bernier’s 1684 publication, A New Division of the Earth, According to the Different Species or Races of Men Who Inhabit It, that expanded on the work of others in dividing the human species into categories residually familiar to us today: Caucasian, the white race; Mongolian, the yellow race; Ethiopian, the black race; Malayan, the brown race; and American, the red race.
The problem with these divisions, according to Thomas-Jackson, is the concomitant notion that “certain physical traits automatically lend themselves to certain character traits” and that it is “foundational to the notion of white supremacy…that how you look and how you act are inseparable from one another.”
Later academicians, such as the German philosopher and historian Christoph Meiners (1747-1810), would advocate a polygenist view that each race had a separate origin. Further, Meiners split humankind into two divisions which he labeled the “beautiful White race” and the “ugly Black race.”
James Marion Sims (1813-1883), an American physician and a pioneer in the field of surgery, oft-deemed the “father of modern gynecology,” was also a slaveowner. He developed a surgical technique to repair the complications of obstructed childbirth by using unanesthetized African-American women as experimental subjects.
The unfortunate legacies of institutional racism, according to Thomas-Jackson, is that they are enduring and become personal. “These don’t magically go away because they’re old; they live with us now,” he said. “My children are less likely to receive proper pain management in E.R. than their white counterparts,” Thomas-Jackson said.
“Litigation always comes after the story-telling…propaganda” by religionists, academicians, and writers, according to Thomas-Jackson. “Eventually law is going to get involved,” he said.
Thomas-Jackson provided several examples of America’s legal institutions legitimizing racist practices:
- The Naturalization Act of 1790 was the first U.S. statute to codify naturalization law by restricting citizenship to “any alien, being a free white person” who had lived in the country for two years.
- The 1857 Dred Scott decision by the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that no black persons, free or slave, could claim citizenship and thus were unable to petition the courts for their freedom. “It not only firmly established segregation,” said Thomas-Jackson, “but it followed from everything I’ve already mentioned.”
- In April of 1878, the Ninth Circuit Court of California denied Chinese immigrant Ah Yup the right to naturalize. The post-Civil War court declared In re Ah Yup that Mongolians could not be classified as “white” and that existing law prevented all except “white” and individuals of African descent from naturalizing. “What you have is the first of over 52 court cases of people of color petitioning to the U.S. government to be recognized as ‘white’,” said Thomas-Jackson, “not because they wanted to necessarily be white; they wanted the benefits of full citizenship and they understood that whiteness was key to those benefits.”
- In Korematsu v. U.S., the Supreme Court sanctioned Executive Order 9066 which set in motion the mass transportation and relocation of more than 120,000 persons of Japanese ancestry to 26 relocation sites in seven western states. Two-thirds were U.S. citizens. The court declared it a “military necessity” not based on race. Thomas-Jackson noted that Italian-Americans and German-Americans did not suffer a similar fate. “The largest single European ethnicity represented in the United States is Germans…who happened to be white,” he observed.
- The more recent Shelby County v. Holder decision by the U.S. Supreme Court in 2013 weakened the 1965 Voting Rights Act by reducing the Justice Department’s legal resources when challenging election laws it finds discriminatory. “Let’s trust the southern states, they’ve earned it,” Thomas-Jackson observed with more than a hint of sarcasm.
Thomas-Jackson excoriated the role of science, medicine and academia in the legal system’s ever-shifting decisions about race.
“Race is supposed to be hard science but the courts can’t seem to make up their minds,” he said, “because it’s not hard science; y’all made it up (and) if you make something up it’s kind of hard to keep your facts straight.”
Thomas-Jackson provided multiple examples of the role of popular culture in shaping the country’s racial history.
- 1830-1910: The rise of blackface minstrelsy featured white persons in blackface makeup participating in variety acts that largely denigrated black people. “The first form of uniquely American pop culture is the blackface minstrel…pre-radio, pre-television,” said Thomas-Jackson. “It had a nice run…We still have it right now on some of these college campuses.”
- 1915: The Clansman, later titled Birth of a Nation, was “Hollywood’s first feature length film…a celebration of the rise of the KKK,” observed Thomas-Jackson. It was the first film to be screened inside the White House, viewed there by President Woodrow Wilson.
- 1928-1951: From 1922 to 1929 the radio audience in the U.S. jumped from 60,000 to 10 million. “To this day the most popular program in (radio) broadcast history (was) Amos ’n’ Andy, two white men getting on the microphone, acting like black men,” stated Thomas-Jackson, “basically taking the blackface minstrel into radio.”
- 1951-1966: “Between 1941 to 1955 half of U.S homes get a television” said Thomas-Jackson. “By 1951 Amos ’n’ Andy jumps to television and shuts down in 1966…because things started changing in this country.”
- 1993-1999: Thomas-Jackson noted that use of the internet grew 100 percent annually during the last decade of the 20th century and that ubiquitous racist comments have caused the shutdown of many website discussion platforms.
FHA and housing discrimination:
Thomas-Jackson transitioned to a discussion of the Federal Housing Administration’s complicity in America’s racist past. The FHA was created in 1934 to set standards for housing construction and insuring loans made by lending institutions for home building.
FHA mortgage underwriting policies substantially discriminated against African Americans who received only two percent of all FHA insured loans in the decade following WWII. FHA redlining policies steered mortgage investors away from minority neighborhoods.
The most tragic consequence of housing discrimination for African Americans, according to Thomas-Jackson, is that they were “locked out of the greatest mass-based opportunity for wealth accumulation in American history. Put another way…these FHA policies produced 80 percent of white wealth in the United States through the accumulation of home value over time.”
Thomas-Jackson used the contrasting stories of his grandfather and former Fox News anchor Bill O’Reilly to illustrate this disparity in the opportunity to accumulate wealth.
O’Reilly’s father fought in the Pacific theater during World War II. After his return from the war, the elder O’Reilly used the G.I. Bill to purchase a home. He subsequently took out a second mortgage on that home to help finance the younger O’Reilly’s college education.
On the other hand, Thomas-Jackson’s grandfather, who served militarily in the same theater of war at the same time, was not provided the same access to the benefits of the G.I. Bill.
Historian Ira Katznelson argues in his 2005 book When Affirmative Action Was White: An Untold Story of Racial Inequality in Twentieth-Century America that “the law (creating FHA) was deliberately designed to accommodate Jim Crow.” Of the first 67,000 mortgages provided to WWII vets, fewer than 100 went to African Americans.
“Let’s be very clear,” asserted Thomas-Jackson, “the Federal Housing Administration did two things at the same time. They constructed two very different versions of subsidized housing for two very different versions of the United States. They built the suburbs and they built the projects in the inner cities.”
“(And) You can’t talk about the wealth gap without also talking about the other gap which is education,” argued Thomas-Jackson. “The funding of our schools is rooted in property taxes. If your property values are in the toilet, then your education funding is also in the toilet. The two are inseparable.”
This recurring theme of two Americas, “two societies, one black, one white—separate and unequal” was confirmed by the landmark Kerner Commission report in 1968. The dissonance of “two societies” would play out in the halls of government, the ballot boxes, and the streets of Flint in 1967-1968. A sharper focus on those events will, perhaps, be the premise of a future Sloan lecture.
Demolition Means Progress:
For those curious about the events that “helped make Flint…by the close of the 1930s…the third most segregated city in the nation, surpassed only by Miami, Florida, and Norfolk, Virginia,” Andrew Highsmith’s excellent book Demolition Means Progress is highly recommended by this author. (Robert R. Thomas’s 2016 review for EVM can be found here.)
Flint’s most powerful institutions—local governments, Flint Community Schools, General Motors, the Mott Foundation, local realtors, the business community—and its most prominent citizens aided and abetted federal agencies in the pernicious implantation of segregation throughout the breadth and depth of metropolitan Flint.
A few excerpts from Highsmith’s book:
- “Of all the forms of administrative segregation that emerged during the 20th century, few were as consequential as redlining, the practice of denying or curtailing mortgage insurance, loans, and other goods and services based upon geographic, socio-economic, and often racial considerations.”
- “Across the United States, local lenders and officials from the Federal Housing Administration (FHA) adopted the HOLC’s (Home Owners’ Loan Corporation) racist standards for measuring mortgage risk and systematically redlined neighborhoods occupied by African Americans and other people of color. In metropolitan regions across the nation, including the Flint area, redlining helped to widen economic gaps between cities and suburbs while hardening the color lines surrounding minority neighborhoods.”
- “During this period, FHA officials, often with the support of local builders and lenders, routinely redlined white working-class areas outside the city limits while favoring all-white, middle-, and upper-class neighborhoods in Flint and a small number of well-equipped suburban municipalities.”
Apple pie with razor blades:
“The sins of the past don’t go away,” warned Thomas-Jackson. “We carry them with us into the present. And if we don’t take steps we will continue to carry them with us into the future.”
“America loves race, loves it, as long as they can tightly control the narrative, as long as nobody has the audacity or the power to push back, to talk back,” observed Thomas-Jackson. “America obsesses with race. But that’s so much of what America is; it’s always like apple pie with razor blades.”
Sloan’s O’Neill said readers can connect to the ongoing conversation initiated by Thomas-Jackson’s presentation by visiting Sloan Museum’s Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/SloanMuseum.
EVM Staff Writer Harold C. Ford can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.