Monday, December 08, 2008

George W. Bush and those whites-only Texas suburbs

Sundown Sign_557e3.jpg

-- by Dave

At a cursory glance, the news about George W. Bush moving into a former whites-only enclave in Texas called Preston Hollow looks to be one of those minor, one-day stories. After all, it's not as if these kinds of covenants are still in existence or are being enforced, right?

But there's a lot more to this story, because it tells us a lot about not just George W. Bush, but about the conservative worldview and how it plays out as governance, and moreover, about the real reasons for the nation's lingering racial divide.

For starters, it's worth remembering that this isn't the first former "sundown suburb" that the Bushes have lived in. When Bush returned to Texas in 1989, he moved to the Dallas suburb of Highland Park, where he lived until becoming governor in 1994.

James Loewen -- who has written the definitive text on the subject, Sundown Towns: A Hidden Dimension of American Racism -- has compiled a Sundown Town database that includes a number of Texas towns, (though not Preston Hollow, an apparent omission; Loewen is adding to this database as evidence comes in). The database describes Highland Park thus:

Highland Park is one of Dallas's most exclusive suburbs. President George W. Bush lived there at one time, and Dick Cheney still maintains a home in Highland Park. When it was developed in 1913, restrictive covenants applied to every home. After Brown v. Board of Education in 1954, Highland Park sent its few black students to school in Dallas rather than allow them to attend Highland Park schools. Eventually this was overturned on the basis of Texas's desegregation laws, to which an alderman suggested that the city ask homeowners to fire their live-in servants (the parents of those black schoolchildren). In 1961, the city of Dallas stopped accepting children from the suburbs, and at least one white employer paid rent for a Dallas address for her black servant's children.

In 1981, 104 people filed a class-action lawsuit against the town, alleging discrimination and racial profiling by police against African Americans and Hispanics. The police often charged people of color with being "drunk in car", a crime which the plaintiff's lawyers pointed out was not actually on the books. Although the police denied the allegations, the Justice Department became involved, and reached an agreement with the town to halt the practice.

A black couple who purchased a house in Highland Park in 2003 are believed to be the first black homeowners in the city. According to a June 2003 Newsweek web article, the local paper ran a story about the couple on the front page, with the lead "Guess who's coming to dinner? and staying for a while?" The article also referred to the female of the couple as "girl". The woman, Karen Watson, told Newsweek she was "disappointed" with the lead but happy that race and racial discrimination in housing were being discussed. Watson is a mortgage officer and reported that she had seen racial discrimination in her work.

The city has a reputation for exclusivity applied any outsiders, not just people of color. Eating lunch and picnicing is forbidden the local parks. The city also required fishing permits to fish in any waters within Highland Park, which violates Texas law as a state fishing permit is good for all public waters in Texas and all of the waters within Highland Park are public. Usage of tennis courts in the public parks is forbidden to Dallas residents. Two white graduate students were arrested for violating this ordinance and offered the choice of a $5 fine or a night in jail. The students chose jail.

When it comes to race in America, we've always thought of the persistent poverty and concomitant crime of the inner city as "the problem," or at least its chief embodiment. But as Loewen notes [pp. 374-75], the problem, or at least its source, is embodied in the all-white communities that have a history of, if not eliminating them outright, at least making nonwhites unwelcome:

Most people, looking around their metropolitan area, perceive inner-city African American neighborhoods as "the problem." It then follows all too easily that African Americans themselves get perceived as the source of the problem. ... So whites generalize: blacks can't do anything right, can't even keep up their own neighborhoods. All African Americans get tarred by the obvious social problems of the inner city. For that matter, some ghetto residents themselves buy into the notion that they are the problem and act accordingly.

... It takes an exercise of the sociological imagination to problematize the sundown suburb. As one drives west from Chicago Avenue toward Oak Park, the problems of the Near Northwest neighborhood in Chicago are plain. Oak Park then presents its own problem: can it stay interracial, having gone from 0.2% African American in 1970 to 22.4% in 2000? The source of both problems lies not in Chicago Avenue in either city, however, but elsewhere -- in neighborhoods miles away that look great, such as Kenilworth, which in 2000 had not one black household among its 2,494 total population. Once one knows its manifestations, white supremacy is visible in Kenilworth, the sundown suburb, and in Near Northwest Chicago, and it is inferable in Oak Park as well. Lovely white enclaves such as Kenilworth withdraw resources disproportionately from the city. They encourage the people who run our corporations, many of whom live in them, not to see race as their problem. The prestige of these suburbs invites governmental officials to respond more rapidly to concerns of their residents, who are likely to be viewed as more important people than black inner-city inhabitants. And they make interracial suburbs such as Oak Park difficult to keep as interracial oases.

Towns like Highland Park and Preston Hollow, as Loewen explains in his book, represent one of the important ways "defended" white communities export their social problems to the urban centers many of their residents are hoping to flee:

Once they get into the NIMBY mind-set, they try to keep out any problem or "problem group," pawning off their own social problems of central cities and multiracial, multiclass inner suburbs. Consider those members of society who are dramatically downward mobile -- some alcoholics and drug addicts; some Downs syndrome children; many schizophrenics; elderly people whose illness and incapacity have exhausted their resources and their relatives; employees fired when an industry downsizes and no one wants their skills. Every social class -- even the most affluent -- generates some of these people. Elite sundown suburbs offer no facilities to house, treat, or comfort such people -- no halfway houses for the mentally ill or ex-criminals, no residential drug treatment facilities, no public housing, often not even assisted-living complexes for the elderly or persons with disabilities. This is no accident. Elite white suburbanites don't want such facilities in their neighborhoods and have the prestige, money, and knowledge to make their objections count. "Without such homes, people with mental illnesses often wind up homeless, especially in wealthy areas," according to an AP article telling how an elite white neighborhood in Greenwich, Connecticut, blocked a halfway house for years.

When sundown suburbanites do become homeless, they simply have to leave. Most sundown suburbs do not allow homeless people to spend the night on their streets, and of course they provide no shelters for them. "In suburban jurisdictions," said Nan Roman, of the National Alliance to End Homelessness, in 2000, "there is no sense that these are our people." Community leaders worry that if their suburb provides services, that will only bring more homeless people to their town because no other suburb does. The result, nationally, is that cities provide 49% of all homeless assistance programs, suburbs 19%, and rural areas 32%. Yet suburbs have more people than cities and rural areas combined. Less affluent inner suburbs and central cities must cope with the downwardly mobile people that more affluent sundown suburbs produce, as well as with their own. These social problems burden cities twice. ...

[Thomas and Mary Edsall, in Chain Reaction] point out that the principle of self-interest explains what otherwise might seem to be an ideological contradiction: sundown suburbanites usually try to minimize expenditures by the state and federal governments, but locally they favor "increased suburban and county expenditures, guaranteeing the highest possible return to themselves on their tax dollars." The Edsalls cite Gwinnett County, Georgia, as an example. Gwinnett, east of Atlanta, is "one of the fastest growing suburban jurisdictions in the nation, heavily Republican (75.5% for Bush [senior]), affluent, and white (96.6%)." Its residents "have been willing to tax and spend on their own behalf as liberally as any Democrats." Such within-county expenditures increase the inequality between white suburbs and interracial cities. They do nothing to redress or pay for the ways that Gwinnett residents use and rely upon Atlanta and its public services.

As I've observed previously:

The chief dynamic driving this is a certain dishonesty on the part of many whites on the issue of race. Most people understand that racism is deeply stigmatized in our society -- "racist" is a negative, ugly word, and no one likes being accused of being one. But privately -- being the products of mostly white enclaves where the stereotypes on race, both negative for blacks and nonwhites, and contrastingly positive for whites, persist -- they cling to views that are most charitably explained as the end result of generations of ignorance.

... The impulse to defend "white culture" by residential segregation has come surging to the forefront of the national consciousness with the immigration debate, which has proven, more than anything, to be a conduit for extremist thought into the mainstream of the national discourse. Probably the most prominent, and high-level, example of this is Patrick Buchanan and his race-baiting screed, State of Emergency: The Third World Invasion and Conquest of America, which at its core is about reviving old eugenicist myths about race and whiteness, all couched in such terms as "defending white culture." This mindset, in fact, is infecting all levels of conservative discourse.

This is one of the important long-term reasons for repudiating conservative governance, the kind embodied by the denizens of all-white enclaves: Until we do so, we'll never be able to find long-term solutions to festering racial issues we've never properly addressed. It's long overdue.

[Cross-posted at Crooks and Liars.]