Wednesday, September 14, 2016

Segregation and Portland and Socialists, Oh My!

I have been reading long-form articles in the Atlantic Monthly lately, because they tend to be such good, in-depth explorations of very important themes.

Of these, I particularly enjoyed an article that looks at the brief dismantling of segregation under Brown vs. Board, and the resurgence of segregation since the 80s, using the city of Tuscaloosa, Alabama as a case study.  The impression one gets from the article is that most states (both Southern and Northern) had long put up legal, social, economic, and other barriers to school integration, were forced by Brown vs. Board to integrate, dragged their feet on this for a few decades, finding new ways to segregate without outright Jim Crow laws, and are now dismantling the legal obligations set out by Brown vs. Board in the first place, since it's been 60 years already and the Justice Department should just give them a break.  This amounts to states' and municipalities' finding every possible way to maintain and even deepen segregation before, during, and after the 1954 decision, and then claiming two marginally contradictory things to finally effectively overturn the decision, namely that A) ending segregation is difficult because it's an intractable problem, and B) segregation isn't that big of a deal anyway, and should be allowed to stand now that there are no explicit pro-segregation laws on the books.  But this all misses the point of Justice Warren's reasoning in the Brown decision, which was that segregation is inherently damaging to education, and if states are to ensure quality education for all, they must do what is necessary to make it an integrated education.  If people really believed this or cared about it, it wouldn't matter if segregation is or is not sanctioned by law; if it exists de facto, then it must be combatted.  Of course [white] people pretty clearly do not care about or believe in this, since they have not only simply allowed resegregation to happen, but have actively promulgated laws to speed resegregation along.  It's all a pretty depressing story, but I'd highly recommend you read the article.

On a related note is this shorter bit on Portland, Oregon's white supremacist history.  I have long caricatured the "new" Portland as a place where nominally progressive, alternative white folks can go to have fun without having to come into contact with the people of color that they at heart don't really like to be around.  It's like Brooklyn, but without the minorities.  And indeed, when I briefly visited Portland last year, I was struck that, outside of its trendy center, it felt like a depressed Great Plains small town of the listless, beaten-down white proletariat, just multiplied into an entire big city.  A friend of mine who was working there in the family law sector confirmed that the pathologies of the oppressed, permanent underclass, things like drug abuse, domestic violence, criminal activity, were all alive and well in Portland, just that this permanent underclass was mainly white, again closer in this sense to the all-white depressed towns of Middle America than the bigger industrial cities where the role of entrenched lumpen class is filled by blacks and other ethnic minorities.

All this is to say that I never understood the craze about Portland.  On the one hand it seemed like a playground for faux-progressive closet racists with money, and on the other like a city with all the problems generated by inequality and hopeless poverty, just with a mainly white cast of characters.  The latter can draw my sympathy, and if I were from there I would do my all to work with the underclass to improve life, just as I try to do in my own hometown of Chicago.  But I would never think of Portland as some amazing destination just calling me to live there.  This Atlantic article confirms my suspicious curiosity about the fact that such a supposedly great place to live and work was not drawing black migrants en masse.  Again, for me segregation doesn't just happen, so when you see de facto segregation somewhere, there must be a more active, malicious racism operating below the surface.

One last thing, only tangentially related to Portland.  A few years ago I watched the 1981 movie Reds.  It follows the life of John Reed, a super-radical socialist journalist of the early 20th century.  (He was originally from Portland).  I would highly recommend this movie.  It's a long slog at 3-plus hours, but it is a fascinating account of people, places, and issues that don't get much play in your typical textbooks about US history.  I also find it amazing that this absurdly long film about an obscure Communist sympathizer born 100 years before would have been made and won quite a few awards at the beginning of the sunny consumerfest Reagan era.  Anyway, check it out.

No comments:

Post a Comment