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City of Segregation

100 years of struggle for housing in Los Angeles

(Verso 2018), by Andrea Gibbons

[Ed note:  Covenants preventing African-Americans, Native Americans, Filipinos and other “colored” persons from buying a home in certain areas existed in Olympia deeds until at least 1947.  In the SW neighborhood, there were deeds that specified that no colored person could live in the property—with an exception for domestic servants.]

Los Angeles is a vast, sprawling, fragmented American metropolis, which has been etched into the consciousness of the modern world with the glamorous veneer of Hollywood stars alongside the stylized mean streets of South Central depicted in Straight Outta Compton (2015). It is a ‘checkerboard of desperate poverty and immense wealth’ with segregation as the linchpin of racial stratification.

Some people don’t get to choose where to live

The segregation is not natural; it is not down to individual choice as to where to live, as Milton Friedman argued, but is rather a product of a ‘combination of regulation, discrimination, structural inequality and violence’. Only white Americans have the freedom to use their wealth to buy a home wherever they like, and they use that freedom to isolate themselves from others. This has led to life defining levels of inequality with more than half of black families living in the poorest quarter of neighbourhoods in consecutive generations, whilst that figure is only 7% for white families (p.2).

The nature of this book is to explore how ideology, economics, politics and space have come together in LA to ‘create this kind of segregation, to think about how these dynamics continue in new forms to the present, and above all to think about how we might do better.’ LA, despite differences from other cities, is an excellent subject for study as it is connected to other US cities through the patterns of the flow of capital and deindustrialisation at the centre with reindustrialisation in the suburbs. In the outer areas, unionised, higher skilled and higher paid work was available alongside a ‘shared history of white discrimination and violence.’ Andrea Gibbons, as a former tenant organiser in LA, is well placed to map both the history of discrimination and struggle along lines of race, class and gender.

Capital, ideology and space

Andrea Gibbons draws upon two distinct academic traditions in the writing of this book. On the one hand, there is the theory developed by authors such as Mike Davis and David Harvey that seeks to understand the ‘connections between capital, ideology and space.’ Whilst the author believes that these studies start to see where class and race intersect, she perceives them as taking capital as the starting point for analysis rather than understanding ‘that capital has been structured by race.’ This challenge to class based analysis is one that the author argues strongly throughout by drawing on the tradition of racialized geographies of poverty, power and privilege such as W. E. B. Du Bois’ The Philadelphia Negro (1899).

Gated communities, exclusive suburbs, gentrification

This approach throws up some deep insights such as the application of W.E.B. Du Bois’ concept of the veil. The veil is a clear physical line of difference from whiteness and includes the idea that the veil obscures white America’s view of African Americans; this prevents them from really understanding the colour line or accepting African Americans as true Americans. This is reflected in modern America’s gated communities, exclusive suburbs and more recently the social cleansing of downtown in the waves of gentrification to create social spaces reserved for whites and white privilege. These spaces physically demarcate white America from black America and shield the wealthier white eyes from ‘any disturbing views into poverty, as well as their own complicity in its existence’.

Imagining a new future

While this intellectual challenge throws great light onto the historical oppression that shapes American cities, the arguments in the book are at their most cogent where race, gender and class are understood as interlocking oppressions. These interlocking oppressions have placed African Americans as a marginalised community, which suffers ‘brutal displacement, tragedy and death’  as a result. And the answer is one that Andrea Gibbons clearly outlines in her conclusion: ‘we need to work together to cross the color lines, imagine a new future, and theorise how we can get there as we walk.’

Adam Tomes teaches politics at York College in the UK. This is an excerpt from a review that appeared on the website of Counterfire, a socialist organisation committed to building the biggest possible movements against war, austerity and racism. Learn more at counterfire.org

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