When we look at our metropolitan geographies we see a lot of patterns. One of those patterns is the persistence of pockets of poverty, particularly racialized poverty. Many people know something about America’s history with discriminatory housing policy, like the redlining that kept good loans out of communities of color. But decades after the end of those practices, aren’t most of the poor neighborhoods still left simply accidents? What people really need now are just better jobs to be able to move to opportunity-rich communities… right?
I recently had the privilege to listen to Professor Richard Rothstein of UC Berkeley pose and then debunk this very idea with a case study local to the Bay Area: Richmond, California. Rothstein explained how the existence of continued separation between neighborhoods of opportunity and poorer areas is directly related to wealth generated by white families from the WWII era, and that this segregated wealth generation was deeply supported by the government.
First a little context. Richmond was a boomtown during WWII. The city’s factories and port sprang into action, building ships and goods for the war effort. All of this meant jobs, jobs, jobs, and new jobs usually attract people who want them. According to Rothstein, Richmond grew during the war from having a black population of 270 at the start to 24,000 black people by the end. That’s more than 88 times the original black population! But blacks weren’t the only people moving to Richmond for employment, the factories were full of white people too. Very important to note is that the blacks and whites that moved to Richmond during the war had similar skills, theoretically they were about equally fit for the new employment opportunities coming online.
But all of that changed throughout and after the war. Public housing was built in Richmond en masse throughout WWII to accommodate all the new workers. In fact, Rothstein says that Richmond had the largest public housing system in the country during the war. Yet, while both blacks and whites relied on public housing, the most shoddily built units and the ones closest to environmental hazards were designated for blacks only. When other housing options became available after the war — often heavily subsidized by the government — the federal government actually required that subsidized houses were not sold to blacks. So white families were able to move out of public housing and become homeowners, while black families were stuck in the public housing units and unable to generate wealth.
The impacts of the wealth built through one group being able to access homeownership can’t be overstated. Through these first home purchases and the money those homes generated, post-war whites were able to send their children to college and continue accumulating further wealth and opportunities. Now many of those same white families can afford the half a million dollar mortgages of the Bay Area today, while the blacks historically left out cannot.
The moral of Rothstein’s story is that it’s not just one good job that stands in between poor people of color and access to high-opportunity neighborhoods, the real story is about generations of lost wealth. Even putting aside the massive wealth disparities that slavery and Jim Crow produced, WWII housing practices and policies had an enormous effect on widening the racial wealth gap. We are still dealing with those effects today, and we’ll need a remedy much more serious that one solid-wage job per family of color to get rid of that gap.