Suck Squeeze Bang Blow — How Racism Survives Without Racists
This is Part I of a two-part series.
In the past, cars were built by a single person or a small team of workers. One expert builder constructed every piece of a Rolls-Royce engine. The same engineer tightened each nut, bolt, and gasket. If you could afford a Rolls-Royce, you could open the hood and see the work of the lone builder who built your Rolls-Royce. The engine was a singular work of expertise. If that engineer had called in sick the day your engine was built, no engine would have been built. That’s how a rare luxury such as a Rolls-Royce was constructed. This is how many white Americans believe racism operates in America. Correction: that’s how many white Americans demand it work. Each injustice must be a singular work of ingenuity only replicable by a similarly-ingenious engineer. So, if you do not know how to build a Rolls-Royce engine, there’s no conceivable way you could be a Rolls-Royce engineer.
Racism in the United States is not a Rolls-Royce factory pumping out boutique artisan injustices. Oftentimes, white supremacy is a Ford factory. Ransom Olds, the founder of Oldsmobile, patented the assembly line in 1901. Henry Ford gets all of the credit, though, because he pioneered the moving assembly line in 1913. This was a conveyor belt assembly line. Construction of the Ford Model T was broken down into 45 distinct steps. Before the moving assembly line, workers took 12.5 hours to build one car. The new assembly line reduced the construction time to 93 minutes. A worker didn’t need to know how to build a Model T to build a Model T. He only needed to know his station. He didn’t need to say the N-word. He only needed to say his letter as the group spelled it aloud. Give me an N. Give me an I. Give me a G…
If you were the guy who bolted on the doors, you only needed to know how to bolt on the doors. Lowering the engine into the frame was a different guy. Each employee only needed to know his part and unless he went down to the end of the line, he never even saw what he was building. The entire factory functioned like a machine. Each person was just a gear in a great engine.
With that in mind, let’s examine the fictional city of Southopolis. I chose a fictional city so that you, dear reader, aren’t tempted to think Oh, that’s so terrible how racist they were in Alabama/Louisiana/Oklahoma or wherever. This happened across the entire South and many parts of the North, and it’s still happening. The story of Southopolis is not a story about a single place. It’s a story about damn near every place.
1954 — Suck
The year is 1954. The Supreme Court of the United States has just issued a unanimous ruling in the case of Brown v Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas. Segregation in public schools is unconstitutional even if, despite all odds, the schools are equal in quality. The fictional white residents of Southopolis, a major city in a Deep South state, are told that they have to integrate their schools. For years, they simply resist. They just plain don’t do it. They keep Southopolis High School completely white. The black kids go to Southopolis Colored High School.
The white residents tell themselves that the Black kids prefer to be with Black kids. It’s not racist; it’s what the Black parents want, too. They tell themselves that the Black residents of Southopolis hate the white ones. Racists have long told themselves this lie to justify their own hatred. Eventually, in 1962, the NAACP sues Southopolis. An investigation finds rampant segregation. The case works its way to the Supreme Court. The Supreme Court orders Southopolis to desegregate.
At the beginning of the next school year, the two high schools in town are Southopolis East High School and Southopolis West High School. Black kids get off the bus, and they’re met by crowds of white parents waving signs and shouting. The signs say “Keep Southopolis White” and “No Negroes at Southopolis High.” They spit and snarl, completely confident in the justness of their cause and completely ignorant to the shame history will assign them. Those of you reading this are probably thinking “those are the racists.” You are correct. Each growling, barking segregationist is committing a singular, discrete act of racism. Each one of them holds individualized hatred within themselves. These are the artisans who build Rolls-Royce engines. Each one of them creates a fully-realized racist moment.
1970 — Squeeze
In the decade following the Supreme Court ordering Southopolis to desegregate, the middle class white Southopolitans have begun moving to a group of neighborhoods on the other side of the interstate; these neighborhoods are called Rebel Mountain, honoring the confederate soldiers who had seen a mountain once or won some battle on a mountain or walked up a mountain. The name is unclear.
They’re technically in unincorporated Confederate County now. They start sending their kids to Confederate County Schools instead of Southopolis City Schools. They’ve successfully resegregated by just moving places that most black families can’t afford.
In 1970, a white woman from Arkansas who works for the Children’s Defense Fund travels to the Southopolis area. She meets with the superintendent of Confederate County Schools. She tells him that she’s thinking of moving to Confederate County but she’s worried that her children will be going to school with negroes. The superintendent assures her that no Black kids are allowed to attend Confederate County Schools. Obviously, they can’t say this publicly, but she has nothing to worry about.
Her sting operation is successful. The Children’s Defense Fund sues Confederate County. The Department of Justice orders Confederate County to begin busing Black kids from Southopolis to Confederate County Schools.
By 1972, the white residents of Southopolis have had enough of integration. They’ve waited for ten years for the federal government to get off their backs so they can resegregate but they’ve lost hope. White allies in the US Congress and the White House passed the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act requires that Southopolis and other areas with histories of white supremacy obtain clearance from the Department of Justice before they redraw their congressional districts or write new election laws. The white majority in Southopolis can no longer require literacy tests before allowing someone to register to vote. Congressional districts are redrawn following the 1970 census; newly-enfranchised Black Southopolitans and white allies have elected a Black US congressman for the first time since Reconstruction.
So the white residents of Rebel Mountain incorporate into their own city. They start the Rebel Mountain City Schools. Their property taxes no longer go to Confederate County, where the schools were desegregated via busing. Now, their tax dollars stay in the new city of Rebel Mountain. The only children who go to Rebel Mountain City Schools are the children who live in Rebel Mountain. Keep in mind, this is where the middle class white residents of Southopolis moved to get away from their Black neighborhoods who couldn’t afford to follow them. So, they’ve created an all-white city with all-white schools. This entire process is called white flight. Middle class and wealthy communities all around Southopolis create more and more splinter districts in this same way for the next fifty years and beyond.
These are who we are often taught are the only racists. They’re making conscious, hatred-driven decisions. “I hate Black people. So I will move my children to Rebel Mountain so that they aren’t near Black people.” That thought is a fully-formed and fully-realized racist thought. It’s important to note, these parents are still the original generation. 10 years prior, they were in segregated Southopolis. They’re still the Rolls-Royce racists but Rebel Mountain is their factory. They’re going to set it up to churn out racism with assembly-line efficiency.
1972 — Bang
Rebel Mountain is fewer than 10 miles from Southopolis, which is the economic engine of the entire state. So, the middle-class and upper middle-class men who live in Rebel Mountain still work in Southopolis. They’re doctors, lawyers, judges, and similar professional classes. Alternately, they own restaurants, department stores, and the like. They make their money in Southopolis, but they take it back with them to Rebel Mountain. Their wives buy their groceries at stores in Rebel Mountain. When they pick up fast food on the way home from work, they buy it in Rebel Mountain. When they take their kids to the movie theater, they take them to the one in Rebel Mountain. Money is being drained away from Southopolis, a city that will soon be majority black, and dumped into Rebel Mountain. Also, they pay property taxes in Rebel Mountain. They pay high property taxes so that they can fund their schools. The Rebel Mountain City Schools are soon in the top 100 nationwide; that’s what large investments in education will do.
They need to keep their town as wealthy and white as possible. So, they make a few decisions that are colorblind on their face but racist in their heart.
The Rebel Mountain City Council declares that Rebel Mountain is a family-friendly town. Therefore, they severely limit the number of apartments and multi-family homes that can be built. That means that the only people who can live in Rebel Mountain are ones who can afford to buy a home. The median income for a Black family in 1970 was about $42,000 in 2020 dollars. The median home in 1970 cost about $147,000 in 2020 dollars. Rebel Mountain is about 25% more expensive than the median, so its homes cost about $184,000 in 2020 dollars.
Most mortgage lenders won’t approve a loan if the mortgage payment will cost more than 35% of a borrower’s monthly income. The only way to get a mortgage down under 35% of the median black family’s income would be to pay a hefty down payment. A 20% down payment would be almost $30,000. Saving close to $30,000 is quite the undertaking but it is do-able. Most Black families simply won’t be able to save $30,000 but some will. So, after the Black family does all of that, they might be unable to find a willing mortgage lender due to redlining. In short, redlining is the de facto and de jure practice of dividing cities and towns into Black areas and white areas. A lender could simply refuse to loan a Black family money to move into an area that had been designated white. There’s no official law that designates Rebel Mountain as a white area, but all of the local lenders know. However, some mortgage lenders might get swept up in the new civil rights craze and lend money to black families. So, the Rebel Mountain residents build a few more machines for the factory.
They say they want to keep the community small, so they ban large industries from moving in. Rebel Mountain has doctor’s offices, law firms, dentist’s offices, and other small businesses. It has a few local restaurants and boutique businesses. The rest are chain restaurants and big box stores. The owners of the car dealerships, automotive shops, and professional offices can afford to live in Rebel Hills. The workers at the restaurants and the big box stores likely cannot. Therefore, those jobs are filled by the teenaged Rebel Mountain residents or by workers who live outside of the city limits. In this way, Rebel Mountain remains inaccessible to the working class, including white workers. Working class white Americans also cannot move to Rebel Mountain; they’ve historically been victims of stray fire from the white supremacist aristocracy. This is no exception.
Next, they establish that Rebel Mountain will have no public transit. All of the major industries are still in Southopolis, about 10 miles away. So, a Rebel Hills resident would need a reliable car to drive to work every day. However, there’s no public transit of any kind. That means no school buses either. That means Rebel Mountain residents need two reliable cars. They need one for going to work and one for taking the kids to school. The average price of a new car in 1970 is $25,771 in 2020 dollars. That’s more than half a year’s salary for the average Black family.
They separate residential and commercial areas with strict zoning laws. Residential neighborhoods are kept completely separate from commercial areas. In Southopolis, residents can walk to the corner store and buy snacks, cigarettes, and beer. Restaurants and stores are also within walking distance; if they’re not, the bus stop is. That’s not the case in Rebel Mountain; everything requires a car. Everything.
The Rebel Mountain city council then limits sidewalks to only in areas such as public parks and shopping areas. There are few, if any, sidewalks from residential areas to the commercial areas. This helps ensure that a car is an absolute necessity.
There are middle-class black Americans, though. Lots of black people are entering the middle class every day; many of them live in Southopolis and might want to move. So, the Rebel Mountain residents concoct one final method to keep black people out: simply tell them they’re not welcome. The country is full of sundown towns, but that is overt and unsustainable racism. Sundown towns have official policies that ban black Americans from moving there. Some of them put up signs at the town limits that say some variation of “If you’re a negro, don’t let the sun go down on you in Stonewall City.”
Rebel Mountain has to build something that perpetuates itself. So, they turn to the Confederacy. The Confederacy has long been wrapped up in an idea of Southern pride, even though high percentages of white Southerners remained loyal to the United States and the nearly 40% of the population that were enslaved Americans were, obviously, never Confederates. The conflation with Southern-ness gives them some cover to pretend the Confederacy wasn’t about white supremacy.
They choose “Rebels” as the nickname for the high school athletics teams. They choose a Confederate colonel as the mascot. Every gameday, students drive around with Confederate battle flags flying from their trucks.
Every Black person who sees a pickup truck flying a Confederate flag knows what it means: stay out. It says we liked it better when you were enslaved. Even if a Black family saves up enough money to buy a home in Rebel Mountain, secures a stable job in Southopolis, finds an anti-racist mortgage lender, and owns two reliable cars, they have to contend with the Lost Cause. Wouldn’t it be so much easier just to live in a different suburb of Southopolis?
The year is 1974, twenty years after Brown v Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas. Rebel Mountain is all white. The time of intentional and hate-filled racism has ended; it’s no longer necessary. Now, the assembly line will reduce the required labor considerably. Now, you don’t have to be racist to build racism.
2020 — Blow
The year is now 2020. You have a stable job working in Southopolis. You’ve spent the last few years living with your spouse in a middle-class neighborhood in the city. You’re walking distance from a couple of pretty good bars and restaurants. You’re quick driving distance from the entire city. Your kid is three years old, and she’s going to preschool next year. So, you’ve got to think about school districts for the first time. Proximity to bourbon and pho is less important.
Southopolis City Schools has a few pretty decent schools and a few that are struggling; by this point, the suburbs have been sucking money out of the city for fifty years. Property taxes are kept low so that Southopolitans can afford houses, but that means that the schools are not funded as well as they should. Rebel Mountain, on the other hand, is in the top 100 nationally for schools. They pay their teachers more than Southopolis City Schools, which means that the most experienced teachers head to Rebel Mountain as soon as possible. The schools have more money, which means they have Smart Boards in their classrooms, more extracurriculars, and subject-matter experts. The girls’ soccer coach also runs the Film And Television Club; she has a film degree from USC and played midfielder.
You find a house that you can afford in Rebel Mountain. It’s fifteen minutes from work. The most sensible decision would be to move your family to Rebel Mountain. At no point, have you committed a racist act or even had a racist thought. It is a biological, ethical, and moral imperative that you provide the best life you can for your kids. In Rebel Mountain, your children will have more sports leagues, better-funded public parks, more school programs, more field trips, and more AP classes. A kid from Rebel Mountain will likely make more money in her lifetime than a kid from Southopolis.
You move your family to Rebel Mountain. You’ve now committed the very act that the racist engineers wanted you to commit. You’ve moved a middle-class family out of majority-black Southopolis and into majority-white Rebel Mountain. Due to the ingenious design of the factory, you don’t even need to be white to further the project of segregation. A few Black families and other families of color will choose to move to Rebel Mountain for the opportunities. The factory can run just fine as long as those families remain the exception.
With your family goes your property taxes, weekly grocery trips, stops at the gas station, going to the mechanic, shopping at local stores, eating at local restaurants, and donating to local causes. You might go to Southopolis from time to time because it still has the best restaurants and the local zoo, but your time is going to be limited. You’ll do most of your living in Rebel Mountain. So, you’ve just extracted possibly millions of dollars over your lifetime from the majority-black city and invested it in a majority-white city created by segregationists. That’s exactly what they designed.
So, what can you do about this? How much of this was your fault? Are you now basically a klansman? Not much, not much, and no.
You can’t change the white supremacist past of Rebel Mountain, but you’re going to be faced with a series of choices. You’ll have to decide between white supremacy and equality. There is no neutrality in Rebel Mountain; there is only building white supremacy or dismantling white supremacy.
In Part II, we’ll examine what you should do if you live in Rebel Mountain and want to be an anti-racist.