Economic Disparity or: How the Automobile Destroyed Inner City America.

There are few issues more pressing today that that of the ever-widening gap in education and income between inner city and suburban America.  The difference between being born in one of these areas versus another is, despite in some cases being just a few miles apart, often the economic difference between a first and third world nation.  Urban decay has left an entire population to fend for themselves within the confines of a concrete jungle, as their wealthier counterparts flee to the outlying, suburban regions of the country.

Although education level is certainly a factor in this issue, the economic gap between inner city and suburban Americans has considerably more to do with skin color and how we as a society have viewed our pigmented differences throughout history.  Inner city minorities, even in the worst of schools, have been proven to succeed on the same level as white, suburban children with comparable backgrounds in many cases.  It can certainly be stated that, despite educational conditions, inner city minorities are just as likely to graduate from high school as their white counterparts if both parties invest themselves in education with equal enthusiasm.

With that being said, one must question why it is that the inner cities have consistently failed to provide a consistent intellectual environment.  The traditional measures of school quality, i.e. teacher-student ratio, student-computer ratio and teacher education level, are largely the same in both schools.  To isolate both institutions and examine their statistics independent of societal variables would show a strong similarity, in many cases making it impossible to determine which school was located in an affluent suburb and which in your typical American slum.

If the schools are so similar, if their differences in quality are at best negligible, then the only rational explanation must be outside factors interfering in the education process.  Minority children are just as capable of learning and positively influencing the world as white children, but why is the makeup of society so disproportionately slanted to one side?  It is here that the differences between the inner cities and suburbs become painfully apparent.

To understand how we reached this point in urban America, we must first look to the past.  Conditions such as those in many of our country’s most notorious ghettos simply did not occur overnight, but rather as a slow drip bleeding a community dry.  In reconstruction-era America, attempts were made by many in government to atone for the sins of the past by granting full rights to the black community.  The Freedmen’s Bureau was established as a body to promote black rights, address poverty issues, train former slaves and create black educational institutions throughout the country.

Unfortunately, under funding and lack of support brought The Freedmen’s Bureau to its knees, leading to the eventual passage of Jim Crow Laws throughout the country in 1876.  These instances of segregation intentionally relegated the black population to the worst schools, denied them higher-paying jobs and left entire generations behind.  After centuries of slavery, American blacks found themselves in a situation only slightly better than where they began, after being promised the moon.

At this time in American history, the majority of the country’s population lived within the confines of major urban areas, or what we now call the inner city.  Cities of great size sprung up along major waterways in the United States, using aquatic transport to move goods created by the industrial centers to various other locations.  With centuries of networking, education and fair-play at their backs, whites in America found great wealth as pioneers in all aspects of industry, while legally sanctioned racial discrimination prevented members of the black community from reaching such heights.  The American racial bias not only kept blacks from obtaining many high-profile jobs in these industries, but often from obtaining work at all.

The brief (and largely superficial) racial harmony of the WWII era was shattered as the war wound down, sending thousands of white Americans back to their day jobs and away from the front lines.  However, one major invention, now gaining immense popularity, stood to change the entire makeup of the United States.  The personal automobile now gave Americans, with the means to afford one, the ability to travel great distances without the aid of mass transit.  As the popularity of the automobile grew, so did government funding for new roads… roads leading out of the city and into undeveloped outlying areas.

In a matter of years, wealthy whites began to relocate to these outlying areas of the community.  The draw of open space and quiet neighborhoods proved tempting not only for the wealthiest of inner city whites, but as time progressed, the middle class.  It would be irresponsible to suggest that all of these families left the suburbs in search of an “all-white neighborhood,” as is often suggested.  It is more likely that the appeal of the suburbs, paired with a better education system and lower crime rates, actually led to the great “white flight” in post-war America.

Whichever theory you subscribe to, the end result is the same.  Wealthy, privileged, better educated white Americans moved out of the city, leaving the rest behind.  As decades progressed, personal automobiles and suburban housing became more affordable and life outside of the city became a reality for even the American lower-middle class.  As many skilled workers moved greater distances from the city, industry soon followed.  Retail and industrial parks sprung up throughout the countryside, and the great urban sprawl began to take shape.

It is important to take note, for those that have suggested that the playing field is now equal despite race, that segregation in the United States is not a legend from distant history.  In fact, segregation remained a day-to-day and legal aspect of American life until 1954.  To put it in perspective, as Bill Haley’s “Rock Around the Clock” was gaining airplay, America was legally segregated.  Had you gone to see Alfred Hitchcock’s classic, “Rear Window,” Marlon Brando in “On the Waterfront,” or even “White Christmas,” you would have done so in a segregated theater.  The lack of black cast members on “Happy Days” could even be interpreted as historically accurate, as black Americans could have been barred from entering Arnold’s.

This shocking discrepancy was addressed in 1954 as Jim Crow Laws were struck down throughout the country, leveling the playing field for all races… at least in the eyes of the law.  Of course, as you well know, signing these laws and actually putting them into practice was not only an arduous task, but one that often required enforcement from the National Guard.  After several additional versions of the Civil Rights Act, the 1965 Voting Rights Act and countless marches, protests and lynchings, American segregation was made a thing of the past.

By this point, the demographic makeup of the American city had changed dramatically from what we would have seen only a few years earlier.  The inner cities were now made up predominantly of poor minorities with few exceptions.  The crippling effect of legally sanctioned discrimination had prevented blacks in America from gaining higher education or in many cases even keeping low-level employment.  This had led to an epidemic of crime and hopelessness in the inner city community, as suburban America continued to flourish.

Efforts by inner city minorities to move out of their situation were stymied by redlining efforts, wherein loans were routinely denied to anyone from a certain part of the city, despite their ability to pay.  The remaining housing market within the city was gobbled up by enterprising realtors, quick to convert apartments into section 8 public housing and feed at the ample trough eagerly provided by their wealthy cohorts at the highest levels of government.  Declining housing conditions, paired with redline restrictions, worked to imprison inner city residents… effectively preventing them from ever escaping their situation.

With industry now all but vanished from the urban landscape, inner city residents (without vehicles, relying only on mass transit and foot traffic) were forced to take service jobs.  Bussing allowed inner city workers to commute, sometimes for hours, across town to work in hotels, restaurants and retail.  100 years later, many black Americans found themselves serving the family members of the same whites that had enslaved their elders… only this time for minimum wage.

The 1980’s brought about the influx of crack cocaine into inner city America, and with it a seemingly insurmountable scourge of addiction and crime.  The cyclical nature of crack dealing in inner city America is remarkable, but the equation is rather simple.  A young black man living in an American ghetto in 1985 has likely never seen prosperity first hand.  This is certainly not because his parents never wanted better, but due to the imposed restrictions placed on them by their own government, were denied the ability to reach those goals.  Looking around, he doesn’t see successful business people or community leaders.  In fact, the only successful people in his neighborhood are largely members of a criminal underground, profiting from the misery of those around them.

In an effort to better provide for himself, the young man begins to deal drugs on the street corner, making a life for himself in the underground.  Subsequently, his drugs addict a young man eager to try something that he’s heard so much about.  This addiction forces him to commit more crime in order to make more money to fuel his habit.  Thus, a lack of resources brought on by centuries of inequality leads to criminal behavior, which then leads to more criminal behavior, eventually crippling a neighborhood.

By the time any genuine effort has been made to make positive change in the inner city community, the damage has been done.  The process has repeated time and again in cities throughout the country, and enterprising young men have turned to criminal behavior to provide for themselves even the basic lifestyle that many of us take for granted.  In fact, the sophistication of many inner city drug operations rivals that of several Fortune 500 companies.  One can only wonder what these minds could have accomplished had they been raised in a different environment.

I began this entry by asking exactly why it was that inner city students faced what, at least on the surface, appears to be an uphill battle on the road to prosperity.  How can there be such discrepancy between two children with the same intellectual capacity, attending similarly staffed schools?  History has certainly played an overwhelming role in this equation, undermining black America at nearly every turn.  However, we can’t simply focus on the past.  The current relevance of racism in America is undoubtedly a factor in these very same issues.  To simply disregard all of the above as “mistakes from the past” and demand that the affected parties simply “move on” is a remarkable over simplification of the situation.

Since the very day that the Emancipation Proclamation was signed into law, blacks in America have been routinely undermined in their efforts to seek a better life for themselves and their children, whether intentional or unintentional.  Current day racism certainly exists, whether we choose to accept its relevance or not.  Whether it’s the denial of a loan application or the subtle passing over of a qualified black candidate for an upper-level position, stops are still in place at every turn.  This perpetual glass ceiling not only directly affects the economic aspects of life in black America, but undoubtedly has a damning psychological effect to those wishing to rise above inner city turmoil.

Quite simply, education is the answer.  Not classroom education as we traditionally view it, but a national campaign to educate all members of all communities and to bring members of minority and majority Americans together.  Many in the white community attempt to dismiss modern racism, suggesting that minorities in America have equal rights, and thus should be currently achieving on the same level.  This is a convenient way of overlooking the fact that the American white community has built their success over a span of hundreds of years (thousands, if you take into account wealth and prestige brought over from their countries of origin) of equality, while black America has been expected to catch up in less than fifty, after being intentionally held back for centuries.  To suggest that black Americans should simply “get over it,” as racism was in the past and no longer exists, may be one of the most stunning examples of irony I could imagine.

This isn’t to suggest that we haven’t made positive strides in the last few years toward equality in our country.  We’ve certainly accomplished more in the last fifty years than in the entire history of our country, and that’s something to be proud of.  But America works best when Americans work together.  Building a stronger country doesn’t mean firing rockets at mountain sides in the Middle East or walling out our neighbors to the south.  Building a stronger America means building stronger Americans, and despite what you have been told, the ever-widening gap in education and income levels in our country is our single greatest threat to national security.

Unfortunately, that’s entirely too long to fit on a magnetic ribbon.

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3 Responses to “Economic Disparity or: How the Automobile Destroyed Inner City America.”

  1. Kevin Says:

    You could probably fit it on a ribbon for a stretch Humvee.

    But in reality, you post a good look at the problem, but be that as it may, James, the question is, what steps can we do to fix it? Of course, if either of us knew that, we’d probably be doing just that instead of writing blogs about The Go Team! and Lost…

  2. Cory Says:

    Amen. I wish I had an idea as to how we could actually fix the problem. I’m very aware that by simply saying, “education is the answer” i’m simplifying the issue in much the same way that angers me. Unfortunately, outside of that blanket statement I just don’t have many answers. It’s hard to right hundreds of years of wrongs in one blog post… or, dare I say, even TWO blog posts.

    I guess we can hope that someone happens by here, reads my call to arms and solves the problem. I’m betting on either Sam Brownback, the ghost of Jerry Falwell or one of those cute MySpace girls that encourages me to “check out her web cam site” on a daily basis.

  3. Kevin Says:

    One blog post.
    Two…two blog posts.
    Three…three blog posts. Vah, vah, vah.

    I’d write more, but I’m on my way to check out those MySpace girls of which you speak.

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