A few months ago, I recommended Jason Kuznicki’s excellent article on America’s history of state-sanctioned racial discrimination. In it, Kuznicki discusses the relationship between government regulations and social prejudice (emphasis mine):
In a mobile and egalitarian commercial republic influenced by Christianity, practicing racism ought to be difficult. It becomes much easier, however, when there are legally established definitions of race and when outcomes and opportunities are clearly bound to racial identity. Laws to this effect work to fix definitions of race in the public mind, even if these definitions don’t map well onto physiological reality.
Law reifies race. Racialized laws are likely to be enacted by lawmakers who were racists to begin with, but their continued existence also makes racism easier to practice in the future, whether in the public sector, the private sector, or even the confines of one’s own mind.
In a new article from Southern Spaces, we see this dynamic at work in turn-of-the-century Atlanta, where white residents sought to exclude blacks from a desirable neighborhood in the Fourth Ward:
White home-owning residents of the Fourth Ward went to considerable lengths to push through the relocation of Morris Brown, a major African American institution in the hopes that the black populace would follow. They organized meetings between white political leadership and school and African Methodist Episcopal Church officials. They offered cash. They offered land. And black Fourth Warders declined each.
Faced with effective black resistance, Jackson Hill’s white home-owning residents met in October 1910 to delineate a fourteen block area in the neighborhood with a racial boundary line and, as the Atlanta Constitution reported, “put the public and all real estate developers on notice that the sale or renting of property within the white territory [specified] would be considered a reprehensible and unfriendly act.”
Brow-beating realtors and bribing black residents to leave didn’t work, so the neighborhood turned to government-enforced housing discrimination to get rid of the undesirables:
When black families continued renting and purchasing homes within Jackson Hill, whites adopted tactics common throughout the urban South and increasingly utilized in the urban North; in 1913 they proposed a city ordinance outlining racial residential segregation procedures.
At the risk of over-generalizing, I think this scenario raises a few interesting questions about libertarian and conservative thinking on race and discrimination. To a cosmopolitan libertarian, the idea that racism in the United States is the product of state-sanctioned discrimination is no doubt an attractive one: it puts the onus of Jim Crow on the state instead of civil society. In turn-of-the-century Atlanta, however, the chain of causation starts with individuals and private homeowner associations: the 1913 city ordinance segregating residential neighborhoods was preceded by private efforts to eject black residents and was the result of what, in retrospect, could plausibly be described as grassroots pressure. Kuznicki acknowledges that state discrimination doesn’t spring fully-formed from some deracinated political vacuum, but I was surprised by the intensity of racial animosity exhibited by white homeowners before the state officially endorsed housing segregation.
A few further questions: First, what if cash bribes and social pressures had been enough to segregate the Fourth Ward? Does a turn-of-the-century conservative/libertarian simply look the other way, perhaps frowning on Atlantans’ retrograde social habits but nonetheless allowing that they have the right to create lily-white neighborhoods through non-coercive means?
On the other hand, the Southern Spaces article suggests that integrated neighborhoods held up surprisingly well despite (or perhaps because of) social pressures. Black families wouldn’t be bribed into leaving their homes. “Reprehensible and unfriendly” or not, Atlanta’s real estate developers continued to sell property to black families. You often hear that economic logic trumps the psychology of discrimination – perhaps there’s some truth to this after all.