By Sherrilyn Ifill (Click here to view the entire P&R issue)
People think: everybody has a race, and so everybody knows about race. But civil rights is actually an incredibly complex discipline. To do this work, certainly to do this work as a litigator, requires that you understand history, that you understand sociology, that you understand economics, that you understand political science, that you understand demography. It’s incredibly complicated and it’s kind of what I love about it. Because it is incredibly intellectually stimulating. But it’s also intellectually challenging. And so you have to be constantly reading. If you’re doing this work and you’re not reading some book right now that’s helping you think about how you understand equality and equity and race, you’re not doing it right. This is a lifelong process and a lifelong discipline of study. In 2007, my book, and the culmination of five years of research was published, called On the Courthouse Lawn: Confronting the Legacy of Lynching in the 21st Century. It centered on the last two recorded lynchings in Maryland, which I learned about while I was litigating with my students as a professor at University of Maryland Law School. We were challenging the siting of a highway next to a historic African-American community on the Eastern Shore of Maryland, and our research revealed that this was the third time in 60 years that the state had run a highway either directly through or next to this particular African-American community.
And I learned about the lynchings through digging through the history of discrimination in the jurisdiction where we were working in. I learned that these two lynchings were grotesque and horrifying physical acts that were powerfully situated in the history of this community. That what I was seeing then in 1997 was inextricably tied to these events that happened in 1931 and 1933. That the relationship between blacks and whites had almost frozen in place after those events happened. And that they were very much relevant to the work I was doing.
I had been taught as a New Yorker to believe when I was growing up that lynchings were things that occurred in the woods. But these occurred on the courthouse lawn. And so I named the book On the Courthouse Lawn to expose this idea that right in the public space is this history that is hiding in plain sight. One of the lynchings took place in front of a crowd of 500. These are very small towns. And the other in front of nearly 2,000 people. So the horror of these events could not be seen in the kind of bucolic and quaint setting of the county courthouse lawn. But they powerfully shaped the landscape of those communities. And once you knew what had happened, the location of the black part of town and the white part of town made sense. And the motivation for the white community’s decision even to run that first highway through the black community not too many years after the last lynching seemed clear as well.
Racism, one of the country’s origi- nal sins, and here I mean specifically anti-black racism, is real. It’s so per- sistent. It’s so part of the fabric of this country that we may be ignoring the fact that it has a physical shape and form that sustains it. And that feelings of bias and hostility coupled with federal, state, and local government policies produced racism that exists as a physical entity in our world. We used to know this. We used to know this history of housing policies at the federal government level that created segregation. And we used to know it sim- ply because of the way segregation manifested itself in the physical landscape. You know, Thurgood Marshall in his oral argument to the Supreme Court in Brown v. Board of Education described for the Court white kids and black kids in Baltimore playing together and then walking their separate ways to go to segregated schools. We had signs on water fountains, and in waiting rooms at bus stations that told us that racism had a physical dimension. Being compelled to sit in the back of the bus as a black person, even the social code that once existed of stepping off the street to allow a white person to pass made clear the raw physical reality of racism and its evils. We used to understand the black community’s being located on the other side of the tracks was not just a geographic marker, but was a physical manifestation of racism itself. But one of the consequences of the end of the most egregious forms of racism and signage in some of its more explicit de jure forms, and as we get further and further from the history that baked racism into our physical landscape, whether it’s violent acts of terrorism like lynching, or the FHA decisions that demanded segregation in the insurance of home loans, or the tax sup- port provided to assist racially exclusionary developments like Levittown. Or the black communities that once existed in places where they no longer exist, like the black community that existed on the place where the St. Louis Arch now welcomes visitors to the Gateway to the Midwest. Those things were real and tangible.
It may be that our distance from them had made us lose sight of this history. And we may even have convinced ourselves that it’s a thing of the past. I fear that we’ve come to accept the physical landscape as inevitable: as simply our city, our town, our sub-urb instead of recognizing that the removal of racism and segregation’s manifestations in our physical land- scape was among the massive projects called for by the civil rights efforts of the 1950s and 1960s. It’s the project that should have been undertaken with the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1968. It’s the project called for, in many ways, in the recommendations of the Kerner Commission Report. And I think we know from our discussions over the past few days that we have failed in this project. And thus the policies and decisions that we make or allow today, any decision that affects housing, zoning, development, infrastructure, unless they are expressly and explicitly and deliberately focused in some measure on ameliorating, responding to, or providing reparation, or for pre-existing discrimination in the physical landscape, those policies and decisions are either perpetuating pre-existing manifestations of discrimination or contributing to new dimensions of a discriminatory landscape.
This is important because I fear that we miss opportunities to do the kind of relentless upending and interruption of segregation and racism in our physical landscape that is required if we are to get to a place not only of integration but of equity, reparation and fair- ness. If cities, major urban centers, or suburban cities had ordinances that required every development project over a certain amount of money to include a detailed plan for how that development would foster or promote racial and socioeconomic integration, then developers would have to regularize this as part of their thinking and planning. Not a bar to development. No particular requirement for the kind of integration plan, but to just put the onus, the responsibility, the requirement on every development plan that it include some aspect that focuses on racial and socioeconomic integration.
You can do this today. No tax breaks or support should be going to major development projects in your community unless those developers have as a part of their plan identified how they will address and confront and play a part in promoting dismantling racial and socioeconomic segregation in your town, city, or county. Nobody needs to wait to do that. Understanding that nearly every decision that affects development or infrastructure has an implication for segregation. It is key to recognize that.
It’s not just about segregated housing. It’s about your ability to move throughout your community. It’s about your ability to get to the jobs that may be in the suburbs, your teenagers to get to the mall where the jobs are for them in the summer. And what we don’t recognize once we get out of the big cities in this country is that second tier cities in this country do not have effective rapid transit systems for working class people. And that contributes to entrenched segregation in which people who live on one side of town never even go to the other side of town. Our thinking about segregation and equity has to open up and understand that almost every decision that touches the physical space of your community is a decision that either is perpetuating or working against entrenched segregation. And once you have that in your head, then you’re paying attention to every single one of those decisions and the dollars that go behind them.
Water is an issue that we’re looking at very closely because, of course, we know about Flint and the issue of the lack of potable water. Before Flint, you probably remember that Detroit was involved in massive turnoffs, water turnoffs because of people who owed water bills and because of water tax liens. And when Detroit was in the midst of its bankruptcy negotiations four years ago, there were planned tens of thousands of water turnoffs to homeowners during the summer of 2013. And we did some work around that issue, even got the Special Rapporteur from the UN on Water to come in and declare it a human rights crisis. So we know about Detroit and we know about Flint, but do we also know that water tax liens are becoming one of the leading means by which African Americans are losing their homes? That unpaid water bills result in water tax liens that end up putting houses up for auction? Last year in Baltimore, 1,500 homes were slated to be sold at foreclosure because of water tax liens. The city of Flint, which didn’t even have portable water, was planning to foreclose on 7,000 homes last year. And we worked with individuals and activists and groups and the ACLU and others to get a moratorium over the water turnoffs there. A Michigan state study is estimating that 41 million American families may not have access to affordable water by 2022. Do you know how soon 2022 is? And this is in large part because of the decisions that we have made to not invest in the infrastructure that carries our water. So it has resulted in the increased water rates that have grown exponentially over the past 15 years and that people simply can’t afford. We’re talking about millions of Americans who will be unable to afford water, and also who stand the risk of losing their homes because of water tax liens.
There are still other ways to con- front racism in our physical landscape. I think even the demand, especially most recently by young people, for the removal of statues and monuments that glorify the Confederacy is part of that project. That’s why I’m so thrilled with it. And I salute Mayor Landrieu who was here this morning for his courage in removing the statues in New Orleans, but moreover for his extraordinary and powerful speech about why those monuments needed to be removed. In my book on lynching, I suggested that public spaces where lynchings occurred should be marked, that people should know what happened in these places. And Bryan Stevenson, the brilliant and visionary Executive Director at the Equal Justice Institute has taken up that call and is set to open an extraordinary museum in Alabama later this year that includes a public marker project. All of these are efforts to uncover the secrets that exist in our physical space about how the world that we live in was constructed out of racism.
I must disclose a little bit that’s personal for me about what it means to be 50 years from 1968, 50 years after the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King and of Robert Kennedy. It’s a year burned into my memory. Of course, I was very young in 1968. But I had a sense early that year of the unease and despair that was caused by those very public events. It’s led me to think about the way in which the time we’re facing now is even more challenging than 1968. My entire early life was supported by public goods and policy decisions designed to promote the public good. I was one of the first of that generation in our neighborhood to go to Head Start. Saturdays for me were spent at the public library at the Baisley Park branch. It was the only place that my father would allow me to go on my own.I would take out 10 books every Saturday and come back the next Saturday and take out another 10 books. I had siblings who attended City College, and at the time that the registration fee for City College was $85 a semester. And with borrowed books, my sister, my brother could go to City College. Public transportation was a huge part of our life. I can remember the job I had in high school in Harlem even though I lived in Queens. And I was able to get to that job with my 35 cent token taking three trains. And we didn’t go on vacations but we were in state parks every holiday with our picnic baskets. So it was the paying forward of the participation in the public goods. And the difference between 1968 and 2018 is the dismantling of that whole vision of the importance of public life. And something even more sinister: the deliberate effort to denigrate public life and goods by associating them with race.
Public housing was originally built for white people. When you think about public housing, if an image came into your head, you would be think- ing about black people in a black community. Public transportation, mass transit is thought of as something that is for black people. Public education has become racialized to the point that people think of it as being associated with black people. And once it’s associated with black people, it becomes denigrated. It becomes something that you don’t want. The private becomes better: private education and your private car and your own big Mc-Mansion. These are the things that we value. And we have now decided that that which is public, that which unites us, that which we all participate in, that which forms the platform of our society now has become racialized in a way that now justifies why there is not the investment and support for it that there used to be. This racial brand, now associated with public life, has made the project of denigrating and dismantling public goods a successful project. But until we are able to reinvigorate a commitment to public life, we cannot address the issue of jobs and housing and education and all of the issues that were discussed in the Kerner Report and have been part of this conference.
In addition to specific policy and litigation and enforcement measures that we have to undertake, we also have to reclaim the narrative about the value of public life and public goods, especially at this moment in our country. We are being destroyed by the idea that we are not interdependent. We have abandoned an understanding of citizenship being at its core about not only our rights but our shared sense of responsibility to one another. We’ve abandoned the idea that public education is vitally important to the project of democracy. Let’s be clear. We didn’t have a problem understanding the importance of public education in this country until 1954. Until the Supreme Court said that you would have to share it equally, we had no problem understanding the centrality of public education to our democracy. And I fear that even we perhaps forget what the Supreme Court actually said about public education in Brown. Of course we remember that they said that separate cannot be equal. Of course we remember that. But we forget that the Supreme Court also called public education, and I’m quoting, “the single most important function of state and local government.” We forget that the Court in Brown called public education “the very foundation of citizenship.” The citizenship formulation of public education has been lost and we have acquiesced to the idea that education is critical only to help you pass certain tests and get a job. And thus a good education is something you get for yourself or your child in the game of competition. You have no concern about whether your neighbor is receiving a good education.
If we recognize that public education is developing us to serve as good and productive citizens in a pluralistic democracy, then it does matter to me whether my neighbor is also getting a good education. And it matters to me whether children in Jefferson County in Alabama and Hinds County in Mississippi are getting a good education even if I don’t live there. What we’re seeing in our country today: the rhetoric, the hate, the ignorance, the coarseness, the vulgarity, the cruelty, the greed, the fear is the result of decades of poor citizenship development. It is a reflection of the fully privatized notion of citizenship, a feral conflict for the scraps left by oligarchs. And if we don’t recognize the signs of it, it will only continue.
I view this 50th anniversary of the Kerner Commission Report as a kind of emergency alarm. This may be our last chance. I don’t think we have another 50 years. Our democracy will be so downgraded in the next 10 years if we don’t turn this thing around. And a key aspect of this is recognizing that our society, our communities are literally physically hardwired against democracy. Segregation and inequality is fundamentally anti-democratic. And if most of the communities in our country are segregated and reflect socio-economic and racial inequality, then they are anti-democratic. Our project must be premised on the understanding that ending our segregated lives is a matter of national democratic survival. Because equity is a matter of national democratic survival. The unmasking of the architecture of racism in the public space and the demand that every decision and policy that affects our public spaces address and confront this reality is key to this project and you hold the power to do this. We hold the power to do this.
Sherriln Ifill is the President and Director-Counsel of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund. The article is an abridged version of the remarks delivered at the Kerner @ 50 conference.