The book American Apartheid by Douglas S. Massey and Nancy A. Denton is an eye-opening book that throws light on the issues of poverty and seclusion among African Americans. Contrary to many illusions and simplistic assumptions about the economic backwardness of blacks in America, Massey and Denton show that the community’s poverty is directly linked to its ‘segregation’ within the urban landscape. In their comprehensive survey of major American cities, the authors found that the process of black ghetto-making since the start of the twentieth century has significantly contributed to their seclusion from other spheres of civic life. The fact that the Civil War of the nineteenth century and the Civil Rights movement of the subsequent century have won minorities in America many fundamental rights has not greatly contributed to their prosperity and wellbeing.
Even the Fair Housing Act of 1968 has played no effective role in desegregating urban society. The authors suggest that segregation occurs in urban spaces through an interlocking mix of actions by individuals, policies adopted by institutions and practices followed by government agencies. In some cities, the extent of black segregation is so pronounced and affects many aspects of the community’s experience that it is aptly termed as ‘hyper-segregation’.
Massey and Denton point out that during periods of economic slowdown or recession, the segregation process gets accelerated. During such conditions, the acuteness of poverty pushes most black Americans into cheaper real-estate locales, thereby contributing to ghetto-formation. Within the ghetto, the social and economic conditions are markedly inferior compared to suburban locales. The black community, thus marginalized, tries to adapt to the harsh realities by way of evolving attitudes, behaviors, beliefs and customs that further alienate them from mainstream American culture and society. For example, as the wealthier (usually white) residents migrate towards suburbia, they inadvertently also reduce the tax base which directly affects funding for educational institutions in the area. It then becomes a cyclical process, whereby those families that can afford to leave to upscale areas do so further decreasing the tax base and education. Ethnic enclaves are thus created, which disincentives businesses interests due to the economic profile of residents as well as law and order problems in such neighborhoods. Even whites who are interested to buy housing in the neighborhood are put-off for same reasons. Thus the population that is left behind is mostly black (or minorities of some ilk) and inevitably poor.
“Deleterious neighborhood conditions are built into the structure of the black community. They occur because segregation concentrates poverty to build a set of mutually reinforcing and self-feeding spirals of decline into black neighborhoods. When economic dislocations deprive a segregated group of employment and increase its rate of poverty, socioeconomic deprivation inevitably becomes more concentrated in neighborhoods where that group lives. The damaging social consequences that follow from increased poverty are spatially concentrated as well, creating uniquely disadvantaged environments that become progressively isolated – geographically, socially, and economically – from the rest of society.” (Massey & Denton, 1993, p.72)
As I read through the book, I became increasingly convinced of its central thesis, namely that an American version of Apartheid does exist after all. But what took me by surprise was the fact that blacks are particularly more victimized when compared to other minority groups. I realized that while economic and lifestyle motives are at the core of housing segregation, the unspoken presence of racial discrimination (against blacks) too plays a role. In other words black segregation is not comparable to the often limited and temporary segregation experienced by other ethnic and racial communities in America, historically or contemporaneously. That no other minority group in history had to endure ‘sustained high level of residential segregation’ had affected me emotionally. This extreme racial isolation is not accidental at all, but rather