On America’s residential caste system—and how to abolish it

Are segregated U.S. cities organized as a residential caste system?

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SOURCEYES! Magazine

U.S. cities are deeply segregated, often with streets or highways separating higher-income predominantly White neighborhoods from lower-income predominantly Black ones. This is not an accident of history, but rather a geographical modern-day manifestation of age-old institutions such as slavery and Jim Crow segregation.

In her new book, White Space, Black Hood: Opportunity Hoarding and Segregation in the Age of Inequality, author Sheryll Cashin explores the deliberate design elements of racial segregation within cities like Baltimore, Chicago, Louisville, Cleveland, and St. Louis, where predominantly Black neighborhoods are marked by lower income levels, poorer quality education, lower access to employment, greater violence, and more racist policing. 

“American caste now exists at the intersection of race, economic status, and geography,” writes Cashin, who teaches Constitutional Law, Race and American Law at the Georgetown University School of Law. Furthermore, “It thrives on certain cultural assumptions—that affluent space is earned and hood living is the deserved consequence of individual behavior.” 

Cashin’s analysis of what she calls a system of “residential caste,” includes how educational disparities arise between White and Black neighborhoods and are reproduced across generations via “opportunity hoarding.” She also shows how disparate policing in neighborhoods is a product of “stereotype-driven surveillance” of Black people in the United States. And, she explains that “the truly disadvantaged descendants of slaves are Black Americans stuck in neighborhoods that higher-income Blacks have fled.”

Once the deliberate design elements of racially divided neighborhoods are clearly identified, the solutions to abolishing residential caste also become apparent, Cashin says. For example, to counter disinvestment in predominantly Black areas, cities need to undertake reinvestment, and Cashin shares examples of cities where such approaches have been applied and found success. 

Cashin recently spoke with YES! about her book White Space, Black Hood and how historical patterns that emerged from slavery persist in the geographies of modern American cities.  

This interview has been edited for length and clarity. 

Sonali Kolhatkar: In examining the history of racial segregation in housing, why do you begin your book in Baltimore?

Sheryll Cashin: Baltimore had one of the largest populations of free Black people in the antebellum period, and not surprisingly the descendants of those folks stayed around. In the book, I go through all of the historical eras in Baltimore from the turn of the 20th century right through to today. 

In the beginning, African Americans weren’t segregated in the city. In the late 1800s up until 1905 or 1910, Black women could go to stores and try on clothes, try on hats, they could eat where they wanted to. And, with the onset of the 1910s as the Great Migration began, about 6 million African Americans left the South for places farther north and west. 

The primary response to the “great migrants,” wherever they landed in large numbers, was to attempt to residentially contain them in their own neighborhoods and then redline those neighborhoods—cut them off from the largest wealth building programs sponsored by the federal government—and cut them off from financing. Baltimore endured all of these things. 

Moving forward to today, Baltimore endured urban renewal, so-called “Negro removal.” It endured the federal policy of separate but equal public housing, disinvestment, and the tearing up of neighborhoods through the interstate highway program. There were multiple decades of trauma and disinvestment and also over-investment in majority White neighborhoods. More recently, Baltimore had been in the news with the Black Lives Matter uprisings after the tragic death of Freddie Gray

The overall argument of my book is that we have a system of residential caste where we over-invest in affluent White space and disinvest in, contain, and prey on people in poor, Black neighborhoods. And Baltimore is a very good example of that. 

Watch an excerpt of Sheryll Cashin’s interview here.

Maryland had a long-planned light rail line called the Red Line that was going to connect historically defunded and marginalized Black neighborhoods in East and West Baltimore to job-rich centers. As soon as Republican Gov. Larry Hogan took office, he canceled the Red Line. But he didn’t cancel the Purple Line for the affluent suburbs of Baltimore and Washington. So, Baltimore had all the markers of residential caste. 

The living patterns for everyone in this country have been shaped by the decision in the first half of the 20th century to contain then “Negroes” and to construct White space apart from them. We live with those structures to this day. 

Kolhatkar: The word “caste” as a descriptor for racial discrimination in the United States became more popular after Isabel Wilkerson published her bestselling book Caste: The Origins of our Discontents. Why do you also use that term to describe residential segregation in your book?

Cashin: I say “residential caste.” Isabel Wilkerson, as you know, writes about a social caste system and compares the United States to India and to Nazi Germany. I intentionally use the word because so many people have been reading her book.

In pre-civil rights America, we had a caste system based on race. Large numbers of African Americans were trapped in the system of Jim Crow where if you were Black you were excluded from a lot of opportunities and a lot of public and private amenities. 

Today, we have a system of residential caste. In the metropolitan regions, where large numbers of “great migrants” landed, we have affluent White space and high-poverty Black neighborhoods. Those types of neighborhoods have persisted and their boundaries have hardened. 

The chief mechanism for producing racial inequality in the United States today is geography. Everybody who gets in their car and drives in this country is aware that we have communities of abundance and communities of great need often in the very same metropolitan area or city, sometimes right across a dividing line from each other. People know about this, and they make decisions about where to live based on this. One stark example is Delmar Boulevard in St. Louis.

So, geography is central to ideas about who is worthy and deserving of public and private investment and who is not. It’s the chief mechanism both of social distancing but also for making decisions about where public and private investment is focused. 

Kolhatkar: On the issue of education, because public schooling is funded by neighborhood-based taxation, has the residential caste system reproduced educational segregation?

Cashin: Schools are actually even more segregated than neighborhoods, and now we’ve largely returned to neighborhood school assignment. The Supreme Court and the Judiciary have given up on policing and mandating school desegregation. So, the country has rapidly resegregated its schools since the late 1980s, and if schools largely are based on neighborhoods where you live, it just replicates the segregation on the ground. 

The average existence for a White child in public school today is one where most of her peers are White and middle class. It’s the same with Asian students. Meanwhile the average existence for a Black or Latinx public school child is the opposite—one where the majority of their peers are minority and more than half of their peers are poor. 

The No. 1 predictor of the performance of a school is the socioeconomic background of the kids in the school. That’s not a reflection on them as individuals. It’s a reflection on the mean truth that in this country we invest less in the public schools that Black and Latinx kids are assigned to. 

I cite a study in the book showing that we spend $23 billion more in majority-White school districts annually than in other school districts with the same numbers of children that are majority non-White. This is partly because we have chosen to finance public education based on property taxes. For children of color who lose the neighborhood lottery, it’s not fair to them. 

Only a small percentage of people in any given metropolitan area can afford to buy their way into affluent White space. And affluent White space is actually cross-subsidized through gas taxes, income taxes, and other fees by all the people who live elsewhere. So schooling is very much tied to neighborhood segregation. 

In this country, we put more resources and excellent teachers into affluent schools, and we put fewer resources and less experienced teachers in disadvantaged spaces. Our competitors in OECD [Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development] countries do the exact opposite. 

Kolhatkar: Let’s talk about policing. How has the system of residential caste been linked to racist policing and lower income neighborhoods of color being viewed as “high crime areas?” 

Cashin: Social science research shows—and I cite it ad nauseum in the book in my chapter called “Surveillance”—that people who live in poor and majority-Black neighborhoods are much more subject to arrest, detention, violence by police, and excessive use of force by police. And often it can be for nonviolent, fairly ordinary behavior. 

The practice of “Stop and Frisk” ensnared a lot of young Black people, particularly Black men, who could be standing on the street with their bike and be detained just because they were there. 

I also cite the example of George Floyd and his awful slow execution in Minneapolis because people are so familiar with it, and I include a map which shows where the Black people are concentrated in the city. Floyd died in a neighborhood that was due south of some of the Blackest and poorest neighborhoods on the southside.

The New York Times published data where they geographically mapped police use of force in Minneapolis and—surprise, surprise—the use of tasers and chokeholds was found to be concentrated in the majority-Black, poor neighborhoods on the southside. Meanwhile, people living in the White affluent southwest quadrant and the White working-class northeast quadrant, don’t receive this kind of excessive force. 

Police use force against Black people in Minneapolis at seven times the rate of Whites. It’s a very common disparity replicated in almost every city where there’s a critical mass of Black people.

I call the people who are trapped in high poverty hoods, the true descendants of American slavery. 

Kolhatkar: You have a chapter in your book on undoing the damage of the residential caste system entitled “Abolition and Repair.” The word “abolition,” outside of its historical context has more recently been used to discuss abolishing the carceral system and policing in general. What do you mean when you use the term abolition?

Cashin:  The beauty of acknowledging and understanding the system of residential caste is that once you understand it, you have a logical mechanism for repair. So, abolition means dismantling processes but it also means building up new, humane processes. I take pains to identify three pillars that we have to dismantle: boundary maintenance, stereotype-driven surveillance, and opportunity hoarding. 

On the first pillar, we have to invest in Black neighborhoods rather than disinvesting. We have to engage in inclusion rather than boundary maintenance. 

One example of this is Minneapolis. What the city did to atone for its sins of constructing with great intention very separate and unequal neighborhoods, was to become one of the first cities in the country to abandon its single families zoning laws. This means no longer insulating single-family neighborhoods from multifamily housing, apartments, duplexes, four-plexes, and denser living. This is an example of inclusion rather than boundary maintenance.

On the second pillar of stereotype-driven surveillance, when you change the lens by which you see Black people, free yourself from your own bias and see them as potential assets, it frees you up to innovate. And rather than be tugged in the direction of harmful policies based on dog-whistling racist politics, you might find solutions that cost less and actually work. 

One example is Richmond, California’s peacemaker fellowships as a solution to gun violence. In Richmond, troubled young men who were getting involved in gun violence or at risk of doing so, were seen through a lens of love and as the most powerful potential change agents to disrupt and break the cycle of gun violence.  They were given an 18-month fellowship that offered them a lot of the resources and care that affluent kids get every day from their parents.  

Another example is Chicago, which spent $851 million over four years to incarcerate people in inner cities.  Meanwhile, the Crime Lab at the University of Chicago found that you can reduce gun violence arrests by 43% just by pairing teens in the most violent poor neighborhoods with a mentor and giving them a summer job. 

The third pillar, on dismantling opportunity hoarding, is to transfer assets to support descendants and respected community institutions. If you really want to see transformation in high poverty Black neighborhoods, ask them what they need to prosper, and really listen to their answers. You might be surprised at what you find. 

I am a big believer in instituting regular neighborhood analysis: Seattle, Minneapolis, and Baltimore are three cities I know of that have started paying attention to where city dollars—particularly city development dollars—are going. In Chicago, they found that they were spending three times as much money in majority-White neighborhoods than in majority-Black ones. So, you have to regularly engage in a racial equity analysis and use that to influence your budgeting.

Milwaukee is going through a budgeting process like that and not surprisingly, where do you get the money? It’s by channeling some, but not all, money from law enforcement. We’ve over-invested in police, and it’s not working. You have to improve your politics by allowing citizens, particularly in historically marginalized neighborhoods, to be part of a citizen budgeting process where they can identify what they really need. That’s what transformation and abolition reconstruction would look like.

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