Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Another reason for distrusting Dodgers nostalgia: desegregating baseball was easier than repairing Brooklyn's racial divide, to historian Wilder

The Brooklyn Dodgers, and the desegregation of baseball via Jackie Robinson, loom large in Brooklyn history. Thus they have been and will be invoked by many Atlantic Yards boosters.

The Rev. Al Sharpton, straining mightily at the March 2010 groundbreaking, suggested that the sliver of the Nets owned by black celebrity millionaire Jay-Z was a milestone: "I'm glad I lived to see the color line in ownership broken in Brooklyn, where we've gone from Jackie to Jay-Z, where we can not only play the game but we can own a piece of the game."

(The color line in ownership had been broken earlier, and in full, in Charlotte.)

Not so simple

But maybe it's a little more complicated. In his 2001 book, A Covenant with Color: Race and Social Power in Brooklyn 1636-1990, historian Craig Steven Wilder writes:
It is a twisted irony that Brooklyn's politicians offered more vocal protests against segregated sports than they had against the construction of a black ghetto. By attacking Jim Crow in professional sports, local officials were able to grandstand as champions of racial equality without tackling the politically costly issues of employment and housing discrimination.

...Yet, the integration of its famous baseball team was a mild accomplishment when measured against Brooklyn's extraordinary social divisions.
Wilder seems less impressed that the Dodgers, in the words of Pete Hamill (as conveyed by brother Denis) not only integrated the team but integrated the stands.

Now, while Atlantic Yards is portrayed by proponents as narrowing some of those social divisions, the evidence is far more mixed--and the significant government aid and subsidies would, at best, trickle down rather than represent a public commitment to change.

That means the much-ballyhooed eight acres of open space would arrive in full only after the project is finished, perhaps in 25 years. That's far different from a public project where the open space comes first.

And the subsidized housing--affordable only in part to those who most vocally advocated for it--is delayed.

The book's official summary

From the blurb:
In charting the social history of one of the nation's oldest urban locales, Wilder contends that power relations—in all their complexity—are the starting point for understanding Brooklyn's turbulent racial dynamics. He spells out the workings of power—its manipulation of resources, whether in the form of unfree labor, privileges of citizenship, better jobs, housing, government aid, or access to skilled trades. Wilder deploys an extraordinary spectrum of evidence to illustrate the mechanics of power that have kept African American Brooklynites in subordinate positions: from letters and diaries to family papers of Kings County's slaveholders, from tax records to the public archives of the Home Owners Loan Corporation.

Wilder illustrates his points through a variety of cases, including banking interests, the rise of Kings County's colonial elite, industrialization and slavery, race-based distribution of federal money in jobs, and mortgage loans during and after the Depression. He delves into the evolution of the Brooklyn ghetto, tracing how housing segregation corralled African Americans in Bedford-Stuyvesant. The book explores colonial enslavement, the rise of Jim Crow, labor discrimination and union exclusion, and educational inequality. Throughout, Wilder uses Brooklyn as a lens through which to view larger issues of race and power on a national level.
From the book: formation of the ghetto

Wilder explains the multiple forces contributing to racial hierarchy:
The formation of the Central Brooklyn ghetto ensured that race would be propelled into the future; for, the ghetto gave color an unmistakable, undeniable, and unavoidable daily reality, a reality that black people were accused of creating.

Segregation was the initial stride of domination. The Central Brooklyn ghetto allowed white people to hoard social benefits while people of color became the primary consumers of social ills. The ghetto guaranteed white Brooklynites a monopoly in public services and perpetual control of the local government, quality schools, cleaner and safer streets, more efficient transportation, a greater share of government subsidies, superior medical and health facilities, and greater access to parks, pools, and playgrounds. Those conditions, when coupled with white Brooklynites' power to limit the pool of nonwhite labor competitors, forcibly volunteered black Brooklynites for unemployment, crime, disease, and mortality. So people at the borough's periphery and in the suburbs quickly defended the ghetto as a product of black people's nature and culture and, therefore, fixed, and as quickly denied that it was socially established and, therefore, changeable.
He concludes:
Racism continues to reflect a disparity of power and it is as egregious today as it was in the eighteenth century because the advent of less dramatic forms of dominance is not progress. More insidious in modern social relations is the fact that white people do not have to expressly target black people in order to exploit them. They only have to locate their interests in private and public policies that have disparate impact. Freed from involvement in color-specific political decisions and specific acts of racial oppression, white Americans can more easily imagine the injustices of their society to be natural or irrational.
The aftermath

Wilder's book was published a decade ago, and covers a period ending in 1990. Brooklyn has gone through significant changes in the last two decades, and even last decade.

During that time, some leaders of the black community have concluded that alliance with a powerful developer and project, rather than protest, represents a better tactic than relying on government to right social ills. That may have been pragmatism, as suggested by John Atlas in his book on ACORN.

The results of that alliance, given Forest City Ratner's performance on jobs, housing, and even the enforcement of the Community Benefits Agreement, however, give pause to that pragmatism.

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