Saturday, September 2, 2017

The Ongoing Force of History

Two years ago, I first heard a reference to the Brooklyn neighborhood of Jacksonville where a series of restaurants, apartments, and an upscale grocery store were being built. Unfamiliar, I joked about it at the time, "Is that a real place or just some developer's ploy to attract white people who wish they lived in New York?"

It wasn't until recently that I learned that the neighborhood wasn't named as a marketing gimmick, but was actually a historically-black neighborhood that in 1950 numbered 5,000 residents, but had shrunk to 60 by 2010.

And its depopulation was no accident.

In my own neighborhood there's a series of streets that are tucked away and almost invisible unless you are looking for them. These streets are poorly lit, abandoned by city maintenance, and all dead-end after a block or two when they run into overgrown chain-link fences that back up to I-95.

That, too, is no accident.

In Jacksonville, and many other cities all across the country, the development of the interstate highway system wasn't taken on merely as a public works project, but also as "blight removal". And oftentimes, the charted course was designed to wind and weave roads through predominantly black neighborhoods, scattering the populace and cutting communities into pieces.

In 1954, the Fuller Warren Bridge was opened, which connects I-95 across the banks of the St John's River. The location of the bridge sent a message. The north bank construction traced directly through the Brooklyn neighborhood, not only displacing a significant portion of the population, but also providing an eight lane barrier to separate what remained of Brooklyn from wealthy, white Riverside to the west.

But, why does this matter?

The past is the past. I wasn't on City Council. I didn't work for the DOT. It's not my problem.

It matters because folks who were raised and look like me have the ability to whitewash history. Folks like me can make jokes about where the name Brooklyn came from without having to know the real history or the real people who lived there. It matters because history is an ongoing force of cause and effect. It matters because history has explanatory power, but if we don't know history, we rely on false narratives.

Let me give some examples.

This is the famous Norman Rockwell painting "The Problem We All Live With" depicting Ruby Bridges, the young girl who desegregated New Orleans' public school system.

This painting and the story it tells feel old to me. It feels distant. It is from another era altogether.
But, today Ruby Bridges is only 62 years old. My parents are older than her. She was only 31 when I was born! To her, I promise you, it doesn't feel like a vignette out of a history book.

This is not history as an abstract concept. This isn't ancient legends told around a campfire or tales recounted in a college lecture hall. Many of the "histories" that are happening all around us are much more recent than we would like to admit. And many of them are invisible to us if we don't go out of our way to learn them.

Further, these historical impacts and deficits are passed down to each generation. Their effects carry on to the present. In the 1940s, the federal government participated in two blatantly racist housing programs. First, the Federal Housing Authority created a system called "red-lining" and successfully pitched it to the mortgage industry. Under this concept, literal red lines were drawn around black neighborhood on maps and companies would refuse to approve mortgages within them. As a result or this policy and ongoing forces of housing segregation, home ownership became basically impossible for most African Americans.

Later, the GI Bill was passed for soldiers returning from World War II and gave disparate benefits to black and white soldiers. Many of these benefits were related to the ability to purchase homes or land. Over time, this meant hundreds of thousands of white soldiers were able to purchase property from which black soldiers were excluded.

Those laws and policies have long since been repealed, changed, and disavowed, but their impact remains. Today, the average white family has 16 times more wealth than the average black family, and the most substantial way wealth is passed down a family line is property ownership. So, while these policies are no longer the law of the land, their consequence is and has been etched into our modern reality.

Finally, the ability to avoid this history is not only a prime example of white privilege, but will lead us down false paths. If I do not know history, including how that history impacts the present, I will come up with alternate (and false) explanations for the reality around me. History helps explain how Brentwood, my neighborhood, became the hood. It's a story influenced by Jim Crow and highways and medical incinerators built next door and government policies and economic suppression and educational disinterest on the part of the city, but if my knowledge is divorced from all that history, I might just assume there is something faulty about "those people". And recent opinion polls will tell us, this is the explanation favored by many Americans.

Racism and prejudice thrive when we don't know history. Ignorance reigns victorious when we don't know history. Empathy is hindered when we don't know history. And true unity and justice (more on this next time) are impossible if we don't acknowledge and learn from history.

So, if we are to be a people who are about the truth, it is essential that we be a people who know our history.