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Defying Assassination Day: MLK vs. Apartheid Housing

On this day of resistance against racist murder we remember the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. and we resolve to betray not only the killers but the dreamlessness of the future they kill for.

Some twenty months before he was targeted for that final bullet, King was hit in the head by a common, rock throwing racist. As much as King wanted to believe that his 1966 march through Chicago’s Gage Park neighborhood would affect the structure of residential segregation in America, evidence fifty years later proves that America has done a poor job with the follow-up and follow-through.

We shall overcome racist murder only when we abolish neighborhood segregations that warp our material relations and sustain exclusionary paranoia.

In an amicus brief filed only sixteen months ago, some sixty scholars of American housing reported to the United States Supreme Court that if we measure the “exposure” of African Americans to the majority white population, “segregation is today greater nationwide than it was in 1940, and has remained mostly unchanged since 1950.”

Aided and abetted by federal law and finance, American suburbs have been endowed by their creators with inalienable landscapes of predominant whiteness, homestead wealth, ambitious education, and pursuit of upward mobility for all.

Meanwhile, as amicus scholars report, persistent techniques of systemic “hypersegregation” — in public housing, mortgage guarantees, real estate redlining, financial steering, and city planning — have confined 75 percent of African Americans to sixteen percent of census tracts.

“The executive director of the American Association of State Highway Officials, influential in Congressional highway design” was reported to use the n-word in describing the exploitation and dispossession that transportation planners pursued during the Interstate building heyday of the 1950s.

In Race and Real Estate, published by Oxford University Press in 2016, several more scholars contribute witness and expertise. Kendrick Ian Grandison shows how town geographies that once produced “the other side of the tracks” have since concretized the other side of the so-called freeway, imposing material insults and urban dangers intractably zoned in.

Urban sociologist Patricia Fernandez-Kelly, who released her disquieting study of West Baltimore shortly before the insurrections of April, 2015 rehearses in a chapter of Race and Real Estate her vocabulary for describing American apartheid. On one side policymakers and financiers collaborate to create what Peter Evans has termed “embedded autonomy,” with amply equipped opportunities to work, shop, educate, and enjoy.

On the other side, institutional structures produce “distorted engagement” where babies are likely to meet social workers even before they meet their own mothers. The difference between embedded autonomy and distorted engagement is Fernandez-Kelly’s short answer to why so many immigrant populations have been able to escape from slums to suburbs while significant numbers of African Americans endure (and insurrect against) ghetto confinement.

When King was called away from his August, 1966 Chicago marches to visit the aftermath of the Watts insurrection, he did not fail to point out that housing discrimination was one of the insurrection’s legitimate grievances. Only two years before the Watts insurrection, California had repealed its law banning discrimination in housing. “California by that callous act voted for ghettos,” said King. “The atrociousness of some deeds may be concealed by legal ritual, but the destructiveness is felt with bitter force by its victims.”

On news of King’s assassination in 1968, insurrections broke out across America. As if in recognition of where King’s struggle had stalled out – and where legitimate grievances festered — Congress fast-tracked a Fair Housing Act, the last of the landmark Civil Rights Acts to memorialize the King era.

The Fair Housing Act was but the first of King’s posthumous achievements. He came, he loved, he struggled. He exercised tremendous capacity to wage war on American dreamlessness, and we affirm, especially on this day, that King’s dream of fearless neighborhoods in America is worthy of material affirmation and respect.

Sources in order of appearance:

D.J.R. Bruckner. “Dozens Hurt During March in Chicago,L.A. Times, Aug. 6, 1966.

Brief of Housing Scholars as Amici Curiae Supporting Respondent, Dec. 23, 2014. Texas Dept. of Housing and Community Affairs, et al. v. The Inclusive Communities Project, Inc. Supreme Court of the U.S.

Adrienne Brown and Valerie Smith, Editors. Race and Real Estate. Transgressing Boundaries: Studies in Black Politics and Black Communities. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2016.

Clayborne Carson, Editor. “Chapter 27: Watts,” The Autobiography of Martin Luther King, Jr. King Institute, Stanford University, accessed April 3, 2016.

 

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Greg Moses writes about peace and Texas, but not always at the same time. He is author of Revolution of Conscience: Martin Luther King Jr. and the Philosophy of Nonviolence. As editor of the Texas Civil Rights Review he has written about racism faced by Black agriculturalists in Texas. Moses is a member of the Texas Civil Rights Collaborative. He can be reached at gmosesx@gmail.com

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