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In Conversation with Sheryll Cashin

Prof. Sheryll Cashin from the Georgetown Law Center recently published White Space, Black Hood: Opportunity Hoarding and Segregation in the Age of Inequality (available here). In this interview, GGCI Faculty Director Uwe Brandes and Professor Cashin explore segregation and inequality in US cities.


Uwe Brandes (UB): Your work is an incredibly powerful testament to the fact that neighborhoods and communities within cities do not magically appear; they're intentionally shaped. Can you reflect on how communities are intentionally constructed?


Sheryll Cashin (SC): The central message of my book is that in the United States we have a system of residential caste that's born out of intentionally segregating the African American great migrants. The intentional decisions to construct concentrated black neighborhoods were also intentionally constructing white space; they were done together.


The predominant response -- beginning in the teens of the 20th century to what would turn out to be between 6 to 7 million black people moving from the south, north and west to seek opportunity and escape Jim Crow -- was to contain them in their own neighborhoods.  The Federal Government marked those neighborhoods as hazardous and not worthy of subsidized mortgages and not worthy of traditional credit.  These neighborhoods and the people in them were intentionally cut out of the predominant wealth building program in the country through the use of federal and local policies, racial zoning, racially restrictive covenants, violence, and a lot of White-on-Black violence.


It's not a pretty story, but most of these policies were designed to respond to the desires of white people. The irony is that if you looked at neighborhoods in the dawn of the 20th century, you could find black people living close to white people, you could find poor people living close to titans. The decision to use exclusionary zoning, and other local policies that shape the separate and unequal landscape, was a response to black people; it was anti-black policy.


And then in the post-war decades, the federal government piles on with urban renewal, spending about $3 billion to move black people from strategic neighborhoods to more marginal neighborhoods. Black people used to live near downtown where the jobs were and many of them were moved into public housing intentionally built and assigned on a segregated basis.


What happens when you have a policy that requires 100% of the people in the building to be poor and then you assign it on a racial basis? Instantly, you create concentrated black poverty. Concentrated black poverty is a government constructed institution.  The ghetto, and I use that term as a descriptor not a pejorative, is a government sponsored institution.  The highway program, which was the largest public works program in the history of the world at the time, in most cities mowed right through vital black neighborhoods.  These highways intentionally created a physical wall between the so-called “good side” of town and the so-called “bad side” of town.


Historically segregated black neighborhoods have endured cumulative trauma. We constructed communities of great abundance and communities of great need. Policies to this day tend to over-invest in affluent white spaces and dis-invest, and frankly prey on people, in high poverty black and brown neighborhoods.


That's the intentional system that was constructed and reified, and despite the civil rights revolution and a law that requires fair housing and to affirmatively further fair housing, we haven't dismantled that structure.


The most persistent types of neighborhoods according to demographers and geographers are affluent white space and high-poverty black and brown neighborhoods. The majority of black people no longer live in high-poverty black neighborhoods, but they persist. The boundaries to affluent and poor neighborhoods have hardened. There are different types of neighborhoods in between those polar extremes, showing that there is an appetite on the part of some people for stable diverse integrated neighborhoods. But it's an unsatisfied demand because of the impact of public policies.


UB: If we think of the transformation of cities as being on a long arc of evolving policies and practices, where are we on this arc?


SC: Let me describe very quickly a couple of present policies which show that the past is not past. The largest federal subsidy for affordable housing, the low income tax housing credit, funnels about $10 billion a year into affordable housing built mostly in poor communities. The federal government is investing mightily in concentrated poverty and in the concentration of poverty. Only 17% of housing units that get built from that program are in high-opportunity areas. That's segregation.


For decades, the federal government distributed community development grants with no serious pressure on the recipients to use that money to promote residential integration. Our last president actually bragged about rescinding the Obama administration's regulation to affirmatively distribute fair housing, which was basically putting modest pressure on cities to plan for how they were going to desegregate, disrupt, and start promoting integration. He tweeted essentially: “thank me for protecting your suburbs from invaders”. 


He participated in one of the great political myths that high-opportunity living is earned and that ghetto living is the deserved result of individual bad behavior. This hides the fact that only a small fraction of our population can afford to buy homes in affluent white spaces and we subordinate the others.


We spend a lot of money on predatory policing.  Every four years, the state spends about a million dollars per inner-city block in Chicago to incarcerate people.  That's nearly a billion dollars every four years for incarceration. When looking at a combination of public and private investment in Chicago, three times more money goes into white neighborhoods than into black neighborhoods. But the state invests mightily in policing and incarceration in poor black neighborhoods. Chicago is the textbook example of intentionally constructing the hood.


People remained trapped in high-poverty neighborhoods as descendants of the unbroken continuum spanning from slavery, to Jim Crow, to concentrated poverty, and their reality has not changed. There's very little social mobility for people who are trapped in high-poverty neighborhoods. In some ways they're worse off than they were before the civil rights movement, because they lost the civic bonds and influence of higher-income Black people. Their reality is not good, it's a present situation and in some ways it's worse. It's very easy for people who live apart and have the privilege of living in poverty-free spaces to think that we've come so far.


I’m not going to deny that there hasn't been some progress. We had a Black president, we have representation of Black people in Congress. Our progress is half-full or half-empty. An example of progress along the arc is that the majority of black Americans are not poor and do not live in the hood. That's progress from the experience of black people in the 1940s and 1950s. But the structural arrangements of concentrated poverty, concentrated affluence and concentrated opportunity have not been disrupted and in some ways are getting worse.


UB: Let's talk about agency. Who owns this problem?


SC: There are multiple institutions to blame. I think the largest blame belongs to the federal government, because they taught the lending industry -- and everyone else -- to view black neighborhoods as hazardous and to mark them as hazardous. A recent Federal Reserve study correlates the marking of black neighborhoods as hazardous 80 years ago with present day disinvestment, decline, and segregation. The federal government did that.


With that said, within every single city where a critical mass of great migrants landed, you can find this history of local actors in love with urban renewal. It was a way to take all this federal money in order to demolish these black neighborhoods and repurpose central business districts as a place for white people and white professionals. I use Baltimore in the first chapter of my book as an example.


The city of Evanston, Illinois, adopted a reparations program for people who could prove that they had lived in the city during this era. Black wealth was taken. So cities are culprits.


I'm less clear about the role of states, but cities and suburbs adopted exclusionary zoning rules that privileged single family neighborhoods, insulate single family neighborhoods from duplexes, let alone apartments. In my final chapter, which is titled Abolition and Repair, I write about innovative cities that have a critical majority of citizens who believe that black lives matter and I hold up some examples of recent innovations. Minneapolis repealed their single family zoning ordinance.  Seattle, Baltimore and Minneapolis now require a racial equity analysis in their budgeting. Lawrence, Massachusetts made bus routes from their poorest neighborhoods free.


I focused a lot on cities, because they're more likely to have a progressive polity. They're more likely to have a multi-racial majority that would like something different than separate and unequal, overinvestment and predation. They're more likely, if they don't have a state government that tries to stop them, to be what law professor Robin Lenhardt calls Equality Innovators.


The Federal Government is harder. It's hard to do anything at the federal level, but my sliver of hope is that I think there's a majority consensus now. Nationally, and in a lot of places locally, there is a recognition that we can do better than what we've done in the past, and that we should move forward, promoting inclusion and fairness. There still are a lot of structures in place to limit majority power from actually adopting saner policies.


When I was writing this book, before George Floyd’s assassination, I thought the biggest challenge was to get people to see Black people with a different lens. To see us as fully dimensional human beings worthy of the moniker ‘citizen’.  I drew hope from the non-violent protests all over the country in the summer of 2020.  I think politics are getting better but politics on the right are constantly trying to divide people.  We have a positive dimension in politics, and we have a very ugly dimension.


UB: I'm struck by your references to individual communities seeking a path forward.  Where do you place the grassroots in the challenge of collective action?


SC: There are no shortcuts to reconciliation and reckoning with the past and present.  Minneapolis didn't just instantly repeal its single family zoning because of George Floyd being killed; there were years of work which preceded this.  I can't identify the people behind it, but I saw a presentation that was offered to any groups in Minneapolis that would listen, with maps showing the virulent intentional history and explanations on why it is that Minneapolis is so segregated.


It was constructed with great intention and once people learn that history their reaction is, “Ah, I didn't know this. That's not right. That's not fair”. That process of education is what altered the politics to make it possible and enabled the passage of a radical idea. Your single family neighborhood will now be able to have denser housing, like duplexes or apartments. That's radical, but it took years of education. There's no shortcut for grassroots mobilization and a process by which you gather power and educate as you grow your coalition.


In my book, I talk about what W.E.B. Du Bois called Abolition Democracy.  What abolition required was the tearing down of structures and building up new ones as well as the building and repair of democracy. You need to build new structures as you go, because there are lots of great evidence-based strategies out there.  But you also have to build a constituency to support them.


UB:  Do you have a special message for the students who will read your book?


SC: You give me hope that you're even open to reading this book! That you're interested in reading this book; this gives me hope. I'm convinced that your generation has got to be better than mine on getting these issues right. I see your aspirations for something better than the separate and equal world that the boomers and older people built.


UB:  Thank you for engaging in dialogue and congratulations to you on the occasion of publishing this new book!

Sheryll Cashin is an author and the Carmack Waterhouse Professor of Law, Civil Rights and Social Justice at Georgetown University. Currently she teaches Constitutional Law, Race and American Law, and a writing seminar about American segregation, education and opportunity.

Professor Cashin serves as board member of the Poverty and Race Research Action Council. She is former Vice Chair of the board of Building One America, a network of local, multiracial coalitions that promote social inclusion, racial justice and sustainable economic opportunity, especially in distressed places. She served for a decade on the trustee boards of Vanderbilt University, The Duke Ellington School of the Arts, and the National Portrait Gallery. She worked in the Clinton White House as an advisor on urban and economic policy, particularly concerning community development in inner-city neighborhoods.

Professor Cashin was law clerk to U.S. Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall and Judge Abner Mikva of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit. She graduated summa cum laude from Vanderbilt University with a bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering. As a Marshall Scholar, she received a masters in English Law with honors from Oxford University and received a J.D. with honors from Harvard Law School, where she was a member of the Harvard Law Review. Cashin was born and raised in Huntsville, Alabama, where her parents were political activists. 

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