Unearthing of Silences: An Excerpt from ‘City of Segregation

Nonfiction by Andrea Gibbons

Coming from the southwest side of Tucson, Arizona, and reasonably familiar with a degree of segregation and quite an ugly amount of racism, I still remember the shock of moving to LA with its greater and more toxic intensity of segregation — not just between white people and everyone else (which I recognized), but between everyone. Organizing and fighting alongside fragmented Latino, African American, and Asian communities to improve our neighborhoods and working on environmental justice campaigns around slum housing, we found we also had to fight for people’s rights to remain in their homes and on their streets as they improved. My colleague Tafarai Bayne coined the campaign slogan “Better Neighborhoods, Same Neighbors,” because it seemed that as soon as residents succeeded in improving an area they were forced out of it. We fought every eviction we could, but still the complexion of neighborhoods changed as long-term residents left after losing legal battles or being worn down by long campaigns of harassment and intimidation by their landlords.

Image: Verso Books. (Purchase)

That race marked this process as deeply as income was highly visible, a truth observed from spending time on city streets, despite academic arguments separating gentrification from racial cleansing, and the fact that census data remained too distant, too faulty to prove these changes over the short term. Working in central LA, nothing could be more obvious than that race and racism were not only key to the displacement that we experienced, but also to understanding why we had to fight to improve a physical and social infrastructure that was failing all of its residents. In turn we needed to understand how those dynamics connected us to the city and county of LA as a whole and our place within it.

Grappling with the spatially experienced fact of a continuing deep and death dealing segregation — one of the most visible, universal, and heartbreaking aspects of all US cities — is no small task, and City of Segregation is just one contribution to the attempt to understand how it emerged through a racist past, how it still exists even after a “victorious” civil rights struggle, and what it means for the present despite being treated as peripheral in so many accounts of the city. Thus, this book has engaged in an “unearthing of silences,” a return to the archives and a recovering not just of the retrospective significance of the past, but its bearing on the struggles of the present. It seeks to understand the current resurgence of white anger and violence embodied in reactions to the many converging groups and networks simply fighting to save Black lives.

Its contribution lies in showing how this history reveals the continuing centrality of race in the creation of the use and exchange values of land and how this has cemented white privilege into material place, allowing openly racist praxis to yield to the discourses of a “color-blind” or “post-racial” society without endangering white privilege itself. Thus, white privilege has been preserved through white space, despite the changes that victorious civil rights movements have forced in ideologies, policies, and racial geographies. We continue to see physically segregated white communities that map onto similarly segregated social understandings of community as being made up of whites only. Peoples of color have never been fully accepted into either these physical or social communities despite some gains in the 1960s. Those who are not white have thus always been, and continue to be, subject to violence and a regime more geared toward domination. Segregated space remains one physical, visible monument to this continued exclusion, another the still-rising numbers of our dead, murdered by police and vigilantes.

In bringing the significance of this history, and this narrative itself, into the present, my book argues that despite struggle, white privilege and its spatiality remain central to the construction of our cities, and that the links between race and land’s use and exchange values forged during the period of open white supremacy continue through to the present. Struggle against segregation has not yet broken the hegemony of social forces united by race for white domination, in spite of winning enough ground to shift ideologies, practices, and policies. Thus, white supremacy remains as cemented into the economics of real estate as the materiality of the segregated and unequal spaces it produces; however, it may be recast and recoded into more neoliberal discourses and practices of rights and individual responsibilities. This explains the massive resources that have been employed in keeping peoples of color out of newly built privileged neighborhoods as much as it does their attempted erasure from those older, more central neighborhoods chosen for redevelopment as part of capitalist cycles of uneven development and global restructuring.

Race remains as central to the urban form and dominant ideologies as it always has been, even though it has been marginal to so many accounts of the city. Running throughout the Black struggles studied here is the constant, though not always fully articulated, acknowledgment of the centrality of white hegemony as the driving force in the formation of both the physical city and ideological understandings of community. The constant and powerful struggle by African Americans and other communities of color for their place in the city has forced political and legal changes, and lip service to equality and rights for all. In practice, however, rather than fully recognizing the justice of these struggles, whites have responded through new forms of ideology and practice labeled as neoliberal, and have mobilized in defense of white space and privilege.

This can be seen through changes in development strategies, the growth of increasingly privatized residential communities able to maintain exclusivity and resources for social reproduction through gates, security, design, regulations, and succession to the extent possible from the larger region. It can be seen in state repression, with ever more methods of criminalizing the poor and peoples of color, increased police brutality, and skyrocketing rates of incarceration. It can be seen in discourse, in the neoliberal rhetoric of market over government, color-blindness, individual responsibility, and property rights. For intellectuals of color as for activists, the centrality of race to the historical development of capitalism and neoliberalism as we find it at the current conjuncture is clear. Yet it remains peripheral to so many theorizations of both neoliberalism and struggle, indicating that the veil described so eloquently by Du Bois is as real as ever. While hope lies in a grassroots, polycultural resistance against all forms of oppression, the problem of the twenty-first century remains the color line.

ANDREA GIBBONS, a former tenant organizer in LA, is a researcher for the Sustainable Housing and Urban Studies Unit (SHUSU) at the University of Salford, Manchester. She is a writer, editor, and educator and serves on the editorial board of City.