Segregation: Not as 1896 as You’re Told

Posted: October 11, 2011 in police brutality, protest, Racism, Socialist Worker, Uncategorized, US

On the days I have work, I leave my apartment at 5:45 AM and ride my bike 4.9 miles to the nearest bus stop–the corner of Willow and McConnell, a block from the site of the Greensboro Massacre in 1979.  Here I wait for the Number 5 bus to turn off of English Street, usually with about fifteen other people.  This stop is always busy since it’s located right near the Morningside Hills Housing Project and it’s the most accessible stop to the people who live in the southeastern-most neighborhoods of the city that do not receive bus service (like mine).

When I first began my new job which required catching an early bus, I got a lot of stares at that bus stop.  Sometimes, people would momentarily stop talking mid-conversation when I pulled up and dismounted.  I was even asked once, by an older Black man wearing a postal service uniform, what I was doing in this part of town.


Because here, I’m classified as white.  Because every day, without exception, I am the only white person waiting at the Willow and McConnell bus station. People who identify as Black account for approximately 38% of Greensboro’s population, but more than 90% of the people who use city buses are people of African descent.

If you’ve ever had the chance to take a bus early in the morning in a Southern city, you might have experienced something like this: when the buses roll into the depot and the transfer process begins, you can witness something very telling based on where people are coming from and where they are going.

Without fail, by the time the Number 5 bus for Gorrell Street, which serves two housing projects and several low-income housing neighborhoods arrives at the depot in the morning, the bus is full, often with no standing room left.  When it leaves for the Outbound trip, the bus is usually empty, with the exception being after 7:30 AM, when the night shift workers are making their way home.  Six other routes serving the south and east sides of Greensboro have similar patterns.

By contrast, the bus I transfer to, the Number 1 for West Wendover Avenue, usually arrives to the depot empty.  I’ve never seen it arrive early in the morning with more than 3 passengers on it.  It leaves the depot crammed full.  Same goes for the West Market Street bus, the Lawndale bus, the West Friendly bus, or the North Elm Street route.

You can extrapolate a lot from who uses the buses and when.  Essentially, the process I’ve just described is this: people of color board the bus in their neighborhood and go to work.  Most of the people–taken anecdotally and from uniform observation–work in low paying jobs in manual labor or customer service.  These jobs do not exist where working people–who are disproportionately people of color–live, but instead are located in the wealthy–and whitewashed–areas of Greensboro.  Friendly, Wendover, and New Garden shopping districts, for example.

Anyone familiar with patterns of racial segregation won’t be surprised by this dynamic.  After all, it exists in all cities to a greater or lesser extent.  In Greensboro, which is one of the most segregated cities in the country, it is to a very great extent.  Winston-Salem, NC where I used to live, is even more starkly divided, with the highest segregation rate in the country–a whopping 95%.  In that city, a highway was designed to split the white and Black sides of town, and to this day, East Winston–the “Black side”–has no hospitals, few services, doctors, dentists, lawyers, grocery stores, or restaurants.

Greensboro lacks the clear delineation, but the toll of segregation is still quite clear.  Travel across the city through Market Street, and the road quality deteriorates the further east you travel.  Power outages in Friendly Avenue neighborhoods are quickly resolved, but travel south and east to English street and they occur more frequently and last longer.  The University of North Carolina–Greensboro, when considering an expansion plan, pursued a plan of gentrification of the Glenwood neighborhood to the south of campus.  Glenwood is a historic working class neighborhood, and is the most diverse in the city.  It is a center of community organizing and local grassroots arts.  People were evicted from their homes, and police presence in a neighborhood already terrorized by constant police brutality is on the increase.  At the same time cuts were being made to education and services, a new jail was being erected (and is slated to open in December this year–but not if we have anything to say about it) by Guilty Guilford County right across from the wonderfully diverse Bryan YMCA.

Jim Crow doesn’t need to be explicitly in the law books for it to be real.  The racially based economic disparities that exist in services and education are just another way of hanging a “whites only” sign on the door.

White racism is the underpinning of our whole city, and of the whole capitalist system.  Everything can be drawn back to the question of racism, from the way our cities are planned to when police fire their guns.

The reason I study history is so I can understand the world specifically in order to fight capitalism, to fight racism, to fight all oppression.  If history, both collectively based and that of personal experience, has taught me anything, it is that in order to get rid of something, you must face it head on, right at the root of the problem.  Capitalism is not contaminated by cronyism or corporatism.  It is set up to function exactly as it does, to exploit most of us in order to make a small minority incredibly wealthy.  In the same way, racism is not just a problem of a few crazy white people with racism spewing from their mouths at every turn.  No, racism was built, consciously, into this system at every turn.  As Lance Selfa wrote in a 2010 article tracking the roots of racism:

Racism and capitalism have been intertwined since the beginning of capitalism. You can’t have capitalism without racism. Therefore, the final triumph over racism will only come when we abolish racism’s chief source–capitalism–and build a new socialist society.

And this is what I think every day when I board the bus.

Colorblindness is a lie.  Only through conscious efforts at antiracist organizing can we make real gains in the fight to end oppression, and as David Roediger recalled in his book The Wages of Whiteness, the first step toward building an antiracist movement is systematically pointing out racism in every way it manifests, exposing all the racist myths as the vicious lies against working people that they are.

  1. Carrie says:

    Where did you get that Winston-Salem has a rate of 95%? I just checked the US census data from 2000 (I know this is 11 years old but I can’t find the new one) and it found the entire trad to only have a dissimilarity index of 64.5%. In fact, other then this blog, I can’t find anything that states Winston-Salem’s ratio. Everything lists either Milwaukee or Detroit as having the highest dissimilarity ration.

    • Trish Kahle says:

      The statistic was taken a couple of years ago from a study that included cities slightly smaller than the cities usually examined in these studies. It was in print when I read it, so it may take me a while to pull it up, but I’ll do my best to have a link or citation to you ASAP! (I know it’s an insane sounding statistic. The first time I saw it, I found it incredulous myself. But when I questioned other academics, none seemed to find this one unreasonable. I’m going to look back into how confined of a space the stats were taken from.)

      Certainly the dissimilarity index for the overall Triad would be lower, and not all studies looking at segregation take into account the same criteria.

  2. Trish Kahle says:

    Okay, here’s why it’s weird–the citation refers to school segregation after the regression of the 1990s, not city-wide residential/service segregation (which is still higher than cities like Milwaukee, but not quite 95%). I think it’s still a telling statement, and I’ll amend the original post to make it less confusing. When mid-size cities are considered though, Winston-Salem is cited as the most segregated in the country.

    Thanks for pointing this out, Carrie!

  3. Friend says:

    The real reason that 90% of the people using the bus stop for Bus 5 is because 90+% of the people who live around that bus stop are African American, not because Jim Crow lives. It is clear that public transportation users are disproportionately lower income members of society, and that African Americans represent a much greater proportion of that group. That debate is worth having, I suppose, but to attribute the Bus5 route to Jim Crow is clearly misguided.

  4. dave says:

    Capitalism technically does not rely on racism. I think it was Howard Zinn’s book People’s History of the US that mentioned historically businesses force one group to compete with another group, whether the group is split by color or ethnicity, like the prejudice against the Irish when so many migrated over. Businesses can take advantage of illegal immigrants as they can be paid much less, driving down the wage base, while politically they can be blamed for taking jobs. Divide and conquer applies to so many situations, including capitalism taking advantage of certain groups of society. It is to a business and political advantage to find an ‘other’ group to somehow blame for various problems rather than the system itself.
    I won’t deny the problem of racism but capitalism would still find a way to separate a community of all whites, to get a small group of wealthy and the rest not.
    Conversely, getting rid of capitalism will not get rid of racism unless the political system becomes truly diverse and democratic (with a very flat structure), not where those in power set the rules and keeping the electorate divided maintains a need for political control.

  5. Billy Jones says:

    As another white resident of East Greensboro who has been in east Greensboro for 55 years, I can tell you exactly how our city’s neighborhoods became so segregated. It was intentional.

    As the city was rapidly expanding in the 1960s and 1970s and on into the ’80s (perhaps longer) the real estate agents and developers who were themselves racist, didn’t want blacks or other people of color living nearby so they intentionally only sold homes on the East Side to minorities. If a white person expressed interest in a home on the East Side they did their best to talk them out of it. If a person of color tried to buy a home in the West they refused to show them the home or jacked up the price to push the buyer out.

    Not to mention that at one time, all government subsidized housing was intentionally built on the East Side. Only after the 1980s was any low income housing built in the West and that was only after the City was caught for doing so intentionally.

    Add to that over a decade of white flight and over 2 decades of intentional, non existent law enforcement on the East Side and it’s easy to see why anyone who could afford to get out, got out ASAP.

    Of course, there’s also a crony capitalistic side to this as well. The lack of law enforcement meant that the criminals had free reign so East Side property values plummeted as scared residents fled. (My property value is less now than it was in 1980) Then, the houses were bought up by slum lords who failed to maintain the homes and pushed property values down even lower. All the while, property values in the West continued to rise as buyers actually competed to buy homes in safe, white neighborhoods. And lest we forget that the higher the sale price the higher the fees collected by the realtors, which, in-turn, pushes up prices even higher making new development on the West side even more profitable for developers like our newly elected mayor and many mayors before him.

    Then, for the straw that breaks the camel’s back, when the homes become near worthless and their tax values have crashed, the slum lords sell the dilapidated properties to developers who lobby the Feds for grants and tax breaks in the name of urban renewal so that the entire process can begin again.

    Rinse, later, repeat…

    Jim Crow, maybe, maybe not, but the intention and the result is the same now as it was then. Racism is the greatest tool in the toolbox of crony capitalism but any sort of division can also be used. Like has been said so many times before, “It’s only class warfare when we fight back.”

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