Alabama is such an easy target for behind-the-times punchlines. Even when it attempts progressiveness, it seems like a joke. The Central Alabama Fair Housing Center, an anti-discrimination agency, hosted a community forum on continued residential segregation that frequently cued up the curse of the “two Montgomerys” – one black, one white.
Just two? Try one of these cities that have about six or seven identities: the black one, the white one, the Mexican one, the gay one, the Goth one, and so on. Of course, the point with Montgomery was that the black version also happened to be the poor, or low- to no-income version, while the white version of the city was the opposite. This is the case in many cities across America – and even if you factor in, say, the Latino versions, poverty will be in the genes as well. But for Montgomery’s case, the point was that this is the city of Rev. Martin Luther King, whose murder led to Congress’ passing of the Fair Housing Act a week after his assassination.
For Central Alabama Fair Housing Center’s (CAFHC) panel discussion on housing segregation, they produced the correct lineup: Rev. Thomas Jordan, a progeny of Montgomery’s civil rights era, and pastor of the Lilly Baptist Church that hosted the event; Brad Moody, an Auburn University professor who specializes in southern politics; David Barley, a local realtor; city councilwoman Martha Roby – a rare city delegate who didn’t seem confused about who benefited from city growth projects and who didn’t – and the grand architect himself, Ken Groves, head of the city’s Department of Planning and Development.
The question was simple: Is residential segregation having a negative impact on Montgomery? The answer was obvious, as exhibited on a city map CAFHC displayed highlighting areas where over 80 percent of the homes are occupied by African Americans, and areas where homes are over 80 percent white occupied. The black sections – relegated to historically impoverished west and south Montgomery — were colored in blue, while the white sections were colored yellow. Perhaps just shading them in the obvious colors would have made the segregation issue seem too black and white, which some panel members argued it wasn’t.
David Barley, an African-American real estate agent, made the argument that many of the new suburban subdivisions built in east Montgomery (or yellow Montgomery) included homes that by minimum standard were at least 2,000 square feet and $200,000 starting price. Since those standards exclude “certain segments of the population,” argued Barley, “there are [segregation] cases that are purely economic and have nothing to do with race.”
Even if that was allowed as logical, economic inequality cannot be safely separated from race, said Moody … I think. His voice was often muffled; as was the very sentiment he expressed.
To head city planner Groves, looking at fair housing failures was a glass-half-segregated approach. The city did an impediment to integration analysis five years ago, he explained, and from that, the city put together a number of programs to help educate low-income and minority home buyers on what discrimination is.
That kind of education is valuable, make no mistake. A working-class, unmarried African-American family should know the clues of when they’re being steered to “blue” Montgomery, as opposed to the more “yellow” parts. But Groves got his own education out of it saying, “It was amazing to me to see how people don’t know the ways discrimination occurs.”
Right, it seems the onus should not be on the buyer, rather, on the government to protect from that kind of abuse, no? It was almost like hearing an NBA referee say, “Geez, maybe I wouldn’t have to call so many fouls, if only those guys knew they were being fouled in the first place.” And the award for this education? $1.5 million from HUD, “exclusively dedicated to affordable housing,” said Groves. With that kind of endowment the city could help about two whole families – three if one was a household of undocumented immigrants.
City councilwoman Martha Roby, while a bit coy, if not reserved, wasn’t moved by the planning department’s gospels. There is no equitable distribution of funds among the city’s districts she noted plainly, but kindly, suggesting she understood the political consequences of raging too much about that very fact. Her District 7, with just over 50 percent African Americans, is one of the more racially and economically diverse. Any new housing and development going on in Montgomery that Groves was sure to plug, was not happening in her district – mostly instead taking place in the yellow suburbs.
Curiously, it wasn’t until an hour and thirty minutes in, that the discussion invoked the name of Martin Luther King, without whom they’d not be seriously discussing segregation, racial nor economic. The bipartisan and bipolar commemorations of the 40th anniversary of King’s assassination earlier this month, showed America continuing to skirt around the radical ideas King pushed in the days leading to his death – the very radical ideas of reparations for African Americans and a push for democratic socialism that may very well have played a role in his murder.
In a 1967 address to Stanford University, King said, “It’s much easier to guarantee the right to vote than it is to guarantee the right to live in sanitary, decent housing conditions.” – it was a mantra he subsequently repeated and expanded upon. His enemies must have agreed. Knowing King wouldn’t let up on these demands, someone figured killing him was a less expensive, one-time cost to cancel his increasing advocacy for wealth redistribution. The U.S.’s failure to redress the problems facing Negro slaves as they attempted integration into free society led to the kinds of structural inequalities existing today, which still can not be explained away in pure economic terms.
Black ex-slaves weren’t denied housing in the late 19th and early 20th century because of low Equifax credit scores. Sharecroppers weren’t victims of sub-prime lending. These people were denied because they were black, end of history.
When CAFHC attorney John Pollock finally inserted this into the discussion – that entrenched racist attitudes remain an untreated illness – it was as if a chorus of angels had chimed in. Actually, it was the Lilly Baptist Church choir – Rev. Jordan apparently forgot to mention the forum to his choir director, so a gospel soundtrack filled in just after Pollock punched up the long overdue race card. The panel at this point must have felt they were literally preaching to the choir. And given none of them could actually answer the question of “white flight,” except to say it was a reality, suggested that they were used to this kind of preaching. Councilwoman Roby did her best pledging huge investments in public schools and the re-writing of current hamstringing zoning and infrastructure policies. Groves was more resigned – more fuck-it about it: “Wealth takes care of itself. It’s a typical human phenomenon.”
What’s typically human, though, all depends on perspective.
Integration, like the United States of America itself, is an experiment. Segregation is just a theory, kinda like intelligent design, but if accepted as fact, it would grant the U.S. no unique identity – since separation by belief, ethnicity, sex, etc. is the domain of too many other countries across the globe – hence, America: a failed experiment. And here Montgomery was still debating about racial and economic segregation. It’s been 40 years and they’re just getting to this? God forbid the low-income Goths have a town hall about this.