The chairperson of the Progressive Youth Organization, Andrés, was invited to speak at Longview Community College surrounding the issue of segregation. As a lifelong resident of Kansas City, in a segregated, now rapidly gentrifying neighborhood, our comrade gives an analysis of segregation as an institution of racism and ties it with the capitalist mode of production. He also comments briefly on the role Kansas City played in segregating America’s cities and how even after the passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act Kansas City continued and continues to remain a very segregated city. The video of the lecture is provided as well as the presentation paper to go along with it.
The Roots of Racism
So to begin we should go back to the roots of segregation which is a form of institutional racism. This begs a chicken and the egg question of which came first? Well when we talk of how people perceived one another some groups of people were viewed as being lower than others we see this in how the Romans and Greeks would call non-Romans and non-Greeks “Barbarian”. We see even in the Aztec world in which the slur for nomadic peoples was “chichimeca” or dog-speaker. People had a conception of prejudice of other people throughout millenia, there was a semblance of superiority even, but the institutional aspect of this prejudice taking the form of laws, the social division of labor based on race and nation only come about under capitalism. It would not be wrong to say then that we know what came first in this question. The chicken is capitalism, a capitalism which developed rapidly in the post-feudal, post-Black death age of Europe in the 15th and 16th centuries. We should reflect upon just how Western capitalism got it’s first start-up that is it’s first huge surges of capital and wealth, in the process in which Karl Marx called “the primitive accumulation” which he notes in his volume Capital:
The discovery of gold and silver in America, the extirpation, enslavement and entombment in mines of the aboriginal population, the beginning of the conquest and looting of the East Indies, the turning of Africa into a warren for the commercial hunting of black-skins, signalised the rosy dawn of the era of capitalist production. These idyllic proceedings are the chief moments of primitive accumulation. . . . [They all] depend in part on brute force, e.g., the colonial system. But, they all employ the power of the State, the concentrated and organised force of society, to hasten, hot-house fashion, the process of transformation of the feudal mode of production into the capitalist mode . . . . [C]apital comes dripping from head to foot, from every pore, with blood and dirt.
Western capitalism thus began first with the violent pillaging and forceful enslavement of numerous populations, which yes has been going on for a millenia, but in this aspect becomes centralized and much more acute. Empire building in Europe had ceased for hundreds of years since the collapse of the Roman Empire. Slavery in the ancient world was not exclusive to race, even in the beginnings of the colonization of the New World Africans, Irish and Indians began their journey as indentured servants. However, due to the near genocide of the indigenous people due to war, disease and overwork and due to the close proximity to the Americas and abundant population of Africa; the European powers began to ship in exclusively African bonded labor. It should come then to no surprise then how people begin to form opinions on the superiority and inferiority of themselves and others when it comes to the fact that unpaid labor is delegated to exclusively one people.
Over time the Europeans begin to impose laws to ensure that this social division is crystallized in society. Such is the case of the racial castes enacted in the Spanish Empire which ensured that pure Africans and indigenous people were situated at the bottom rung of society as slaves and indentured servants, although there existed a large population of free people of color. In the British colonies racism was institutionalized through laws which made slavery a permanent institution in colonial early America. John Casor, an indentured servant in the Virginia colony became the first person of African descent to be declared a slave for life due to a civil suit in 1655. The irony of the case of John Casor as the first documented case of a slave of African descent for life was that he was enslaved to Anthony Johnson, himself an Angolan colonist who started off in the Virginia colony as an indentured servant. Simultaneously, the foundations for the institutions of racial slavery of the Black race was born as was the right for free Blacks to also own Black slaves.
After this ruling,Virginia would begin to form laws which stated that children born to enslaved mothers would be born into slavery, regardless of the status of fathers, which then violated English common law and it is then in the year 1699, the colony passed a law that deported all free blacks. By situating Black people in the British colonies as beyond any legal protection granted before and even by instituting that children born to free fathers and enslaved mothers were slaves, we begin to see the semblances of a one drop rule more than 100 years before the founding of the United States. This was justified by the Courts which stated that:
“Insofar as Negroes were heathens, they could never become Englishmen; insofar as they were not Englishmen, they could not be entitled to the protections of the common law”
Prior to this Africans, like many other peoples came to the New World not as slaves, but as indentured servants, the first brought to Jamestown in 1619 came under a contract of agreement for x amount of years of unpaid labor and after which were granted 50 acres of land in which they were allowed to grow tobacco and other crops for sale.
The Liberation of Slaves comes with a Price
Let’s fast forward to the post-Civil War and post-reconstruction years. Free Blacks in the South had always been delegated to second class citizenship in various degrees from being denied access to education, public office, certain careers etc. but after the conclusion of the Civil War and Reconstruction, Southern states and cities began passing laws discriminating against Black citizens on a massive scale. The South also re-instituted slavery by other means through the implementation of the so-called “Black Codes” which was “slavery by another name” in that it included the implementation of unpaid labor from “debts” one accrued as a slave to bonded labor for violation of minor crimes. This was brought on by the labor shortage accrued in the South by planters after the war, who denied of their free labor instituted a broad vagrancy law which allowed authorities to arrest the newly free people of color for minor infractions and contract them out to involuntary labor. Vagrancy laws criminalized unemployment, or people working in jobs not recognized by Whites, failure to pay a certain tax and other minor infractions all constituted vagrancy and could land a free Black person to enslaved labor once again. This all to overcome the labor shortage and viability of the once profitable cotton and tobacco industry, Southern states allowed convict leasing, which put in place a system which hired out convicts for labor, from public works projects to providing planters with workers. It should be noted that planters were required to provide food and board to convicts who worked their land, and so pervasive was this criminal justice system that according to Douglas Blackmon, author of Slavery by Another Name: The Re-Enslavement of Black Americans after The Civil War was so pervasive, that Southern states did not build any prisons until the late 19th Century. This system of neo-slavery continued until the conclusion of World War II. It became so lucrative that 73% of Alabama’s annual revenue in 1898 came from convict leasing. In states where the convict lease system was used, revenues from the program generated income nearly four times the cost (372%) of the costs of prison administration. American corporations also benefited from this unfree labor; U.S. Steel, the Putnam Lumber Company and Georgia Power co..
In addition to the evolution of the chattel slave system to one of debt peonage and corvee labor, Black citizens in the South were restricted in other ways from being full citizens of the country they lived in. However, it is with the Supreme Court case of Plessy v. Ferguson that the power of the Federal Government officially sanctions racial segregation as the Law of the South. For the next several decades after this landmark case, Southern governments were able to claim legal justification for the segregation policies they began to adopt. Even with the landmark case of Brown v. Board of Education, formal segregation did not meet an end until Lyndon B. Johnson signed the 1964 Civil Rights Act and by the end of the 1960s, legal segregation in the South had begun to unravel.
Kansas City In Focus
The Country Club Plaza was built nearly 100 years ago by racist developer J.C. Nichols as the nation’s oldest shopping center. It is also one of the wealthiest areas of the city due to generational wealth accrued from the racially restrictive policies of the Nichols era.
Now, let us turn to Missouri and Kansas City in particular. Missouri itself was considered a Border state in the Civil War; politically aligned with the Union but allowed to practice slavery until the conclusion of the War. Culturally, the state displays features of the Midwest, The South and the North. It is in terms of segregation though, that Kansas City stands as a representative of all that was evil with the South. J.C. Nichols in the 1920s was one of the pioneers of housing segregation in the country, and in fact, Kansas City should be regarded as one of the pioneers in this model in it’s own right. As director of the Kansas City Real Estate Board he promoted the practice of housing development which enforced racial restrictive convenants through the use of neighborhood associations to bar non-whites from his neighborhoods. Springing forth a number of neighborhoods in the Kansas City metro area which are still racially segregated to this day, such as Sunset Hill, Brookside, Mission Hills, Fairway, Prairie Village, The Country Club Plaza, and Ward Parkway. Coupled with the automobile, this fostered a de-facto white flight in the 1930s, a full decade before the rest of America’s cities. The effects of Brown v. Board of Education in Kansas City exacerbated segregation in the city, in which Troost Avenue became the dividing line between White and Black Kansas City.
The school district boundaries were drawn to preserve a white only school in the southwest of the city. Even with the passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, Kansas City schools were still very segregated, with the Federal government stepping in in 1973 to order the school district to integrate. Residual segregation from the Nichols era policies remains in effect to where “East of Troost” is still considered the “Black side of the city”, and the city of Kansas City itself, is viewed by it’s surrounding white suburbs as “dangerous”. Neighborhood development is in full steam in parts of the Northland in which communities have been developed in recent years, while existing communities in the city are undeveloped, unless viewed as prime targets for gentrification. The racially segregated real estate system in the City was long lasting, and seen as such, if one is able to tie generational wealth through investment in real estate which for decades was denied to Blacks in the city. The ripple effect of a denial of such a large investment of wealth is that it affects income that is circulated in the community, as well as the lessened likelihood of higher education, an education that is costly and rises every year.
In another evolution of segregation is it’s adoption of qualities of integration that comes in the form of gentrification. The same developers who have neglected the inner city begin to refocus on it, but not in a way which targets long time residents, which are many times working class and poor Latino and Black people, but outsiders who are drawn in; many times millenial white youth. When these neighborhoods become more and more desirable and thus more expensive many residents are then priced out of their homes, especially if they are renting. As a whole Kansas City is not experiencing this effect, in part due to the already well developed suburban areas which continue to attract more and more white residents, but in particular cases such as the Downtown-Plaza corridor home values have increased upwards of 150% from the years 2000-2011. Neighborhoods such as the City Market in the Northeast and the Westside and Crossroads district are markers of this trend.
Capitalism is the root of it all not because it is capitalist but because it is a class society.
Capitalism as we have touched upon earlier was not the progenitor of racial animosity, but rather the one that institutionalized it. Not for any simple reason, but as a way to organize social production to benefit the class which was in power, in this instance the capitalist class. The institution of anti-black racism could not have been engineered here without the systematic genocide of the original inhabitants, as there would have been no need to import so many people from Africa to a new continent. Nevertheless, US capitalism would have never reached it’s heights as a premier world power without the blood, sweat and tears of Black slaves. The super profits from King Cotton in the South and the tobacco industry increased the profits of manufacturers in the Northern cities of the country, which allowed it to dominate way of life after the Civil War. Even after the nation began to dismantle it’s legalized generational transgressions against the colored people of its nation, it left them to fend for themselves and increased the ranks of the underclass, exacerbated by a poor and underfunded educational system and a post-industrial economy where the most common and precarious employment are those that are low wage service sector jobs. Things in such societies cannot be seen as separate from one another but as mutually enforcing systems. They also must be seen as rooted in an inherently unequal system which has a history of producing on the ideological and actual level systemic oppression of those who do not benefit from this system.