Authors: Ibram X. Kendi
Banks remain twice as likely to offer loans to White entrepreneurs than to Black entrepreneurs.
Customers avoid Black businesses like they are the “ghetto,” like the “White man’s ice is colder,” as antiracists have joked for years. I knew this then. But my dueling consciousness still led me to think like one young Black writer wrote in
in 2017: “On an intellectual level, I know that Black people have been denied equal access to capital, training, and physical space. But
does that inequitable treatment excuse bad service?” Does not good service, like every other commodity, typically cost more money? How can we acknowledge the clouds of racism over Black spaces and be shocked when it rains on our heads?
I felt Black was beautiful, but Black spaces were not? Nearly everything I am I owe to Black space. Black neighborhood. Black church. Black college. Black studies. I was like a plant devaluing the soil that made me.
HE HISTORY OF
space racism is long. It is an American history that begins with Thomas Jefferson’s solution to the “Negro problem.” Civilize and emancipate the Negro. Send the Negro to Africa to “
carry back to the country of their origin the seeds of civilization,” as Jefferson proposed in a letter in 1811. But the Negro commonly wanted no part in returning and redeeming Africa “from ignorance and barbarism.” We do not want to go to the “
savage wilds of Africa,” free Black Philadelphians resolved in 1817. Slaveholders were, meanwhile, decrying the savage wilds of free Blacks.
A writer for the South’s
De Bow’s Review
searched around the world, through a series of articles in 1859 and 1860, for “a moral, happy, and voluntarily industrious community of free negroes,” but concluded, “no such community exists upon the face of the earth.”
On January 12, 1865, in the midst of the Civil War, General William T.
Sherman and U.S. secretary of war Edwin M. Stanton met with twenty Black leaders in Savannah, Georgia. After their spokesman, Garrison Frazier, said they needed land to be free so “we could reap the fruit of our labor, take care of ourselves,” Stanton asked if they would “rather live…scattered among the whites or in colonies by yourselves?”
“Live by ourselves,” Frazier responded, “for there is a prejudice against us in the South that will take years to get over.”
Four days later, German Sherman issued Special Field Order No. 15 to punish Confederate landowners and rid his army camps of runaways. Black people received an army mule and “not more than forty acres” on coastal plains of South Carolina and Georgia. “The sole and exclusive management of affairs
will be left to the freed people themselves,” Sherman ordered.
Horace Greeley, the most eminent newspaper editor of the day, thought
Sherman’s order deprived the Negroes “of the advantage of white teachers and neighbors, who would lead them to an understanding and enjoyment of that higher civilization of which hitherto they have been deprived as slaves.” Freed Southern Blacks “like their fellows at the North” will be “aided by contact with white civilization,” Greeley wrote in his
on January 30, 1865.
Black people were rejecting Greeley’s integrationist strategy. By June 1865, roughly forty thousand Blacks had settled on four hundred thousand acres of land before Confederate landowners, aided by the new Johnson administration, started taking back “their” land.
The integrationist strategy—the placing of White and non-White bodies in the same spaces—is thought to cultivate away the barbarism of people of color and the racism of White people. The integrationist strategy expects Black bodies to heal in proximity to Whites who haven’t yet stopped fighting them. After enduring slavery’s violence, Frazier and his brethren had enough. They desired to separate, not from Whites but from White racism. Separation is not always segregation. The antiracist desire to separate from racists is different from the segregationist desire to separate from “inferior” Blacks.
Whenever Black people voluntarily gather among themselves, integrationists do not see spaces of Black solidarity created to separate Black people from racism. They see spaces of White hate. They do not see spaces of cultural solidarity, of solidarity against racism. They see spaces of segregation against White people. Integrationists do not see these spaces as the movement of Black people toward Black people. Integrationists think about them as a movement away from White people. They then equate that movement away from White people with the White segregationist movement away from Black people. Integrationists equate spaces for the survival of Black bodies with spaces for the survival of White supremacy.
When integrationists use segregation and separation interchangeably, they are using the vocabulary of Jim Crow. Segregationists blurred the lines between segregation and separation by projecting their policies as standing “
on the platform of equal accommodations for each race but separate,” to quote Atlanta newspaper editor Henry W. Grady in 1885. The U.S. Supreme Court sanctioned this spoken veil in the 1896
Plessy v. Ferguson
decision. Separate but equal covered up the segregationist policies that
diverted resources toward exclusively White spaces. In 1930, segregationist Alabama spent $37 for each White student, compared to $7 for each Black student; Georgia, $32 to $7; and South Carolina, $53 to $5. High school was unavailable for my maternal grandparents around this time in Georgia.
“Equal,” thought to be the soft target of the “separate but equal” ruling, ended up being a formidable foe for civil-rights activists—it was nearly impossible to get equal resources for Black institutions. The NAACP Legal Defense Fund switched tactics to taking down “separate.” Lawyers revived the old integrationist “
assumption that the enforced separation of the two races stamps the colored race with a badge of inferiority,” which Associate Justice Henry Billings Brown called a “fallacy” in his
Plessy v. Ferguson
In the landmark
Brown v. Board of Education
case in 1954, NAACP lawyer Thurgood Marshall attempted to prove the assumption using the new integrationist social science. Marshall asked psychologists Kenneth and Mamie Clark to repeat their famous doll tests for the case. Presented with dolls with different skin colors,
the majority of Black children preferred White dolls, which the Clarks saw as proof of the negative psychological harm of segregation. White social scientists argued the harm could be permanent. The U.S. Supreme Court unanimously agreed. “
To separate [colored children] from others of similar age and qualifications solely because of their race generates a feeling of inferiority as to their status in the community that may affect their hearts and minds in a way unlikely ever to be undone,” Chief Justice Earl Warren wrote.
Justice Warren did not judge White schools to be having a detrimental effect upon White children. He wrote the “segregation of white and colored children in public schools has a detrimental effect upon the colored children.” It retards their “education and mental development,” Warren explained. “We conclude that, in the field of public education, the doctrine of ‘separate but equal’ has no place. Separate educational facilities are inherently unequal.”
What really made the schools unequal were the dramatically unequal resources provided to them, not the mere fact of racial separation. The Supreme Court justices deciding both
avowed the segregationist lie that the “Negro and white schools involved have been equalized, or are being equalized,” to quote Justice Warren. By 1973, when the resource inequities between the public schools had become too obvious to deny, the Supreme Court ruled, in
San Antonio Independent School District v. Rodriguez,
that property-tax allocations yielding inequities in public schools do not violate the equal-protection clause of the U.S. Constitution.
Court ruling reified the only solution emanating from the
decision in 1954: busing Black bodies from detrimental Black spaces to worthwhile White spaces. Since “
there are adequate Negro schools and prepared instructors and instructions, then there is nothing different except the presence of white people,” wrote an insulted Zora Neale Hurston in the
in 1955. Martin Luther King Jr. also privately disagreed. “I favor integration on buses and in all areas of public accommodation and travel….
I think integration in our public schools is different,” King told two Black teachers in Montgomery, Alabama, in 1959. “White people view black people as inferior….People with such a low view of the black race cannot be given free rein and put in charge of the intellectual care and development of our boys and girls.”
King had a nightmare that came to pass. Non-White students fill most of the seats in today’s public school classrooms but are taught by
an 80 percent White teaching force, which often has, however unconsciously, lower expectations for non-White students. When Black and White teachers look at the same Black student, White teachers are about
40 percent less likely to believe the student will finish high school.
Low-income Black students who have at least one Black teacher in elementary school are 29 percent less likely to drop out of school, 39 percent less likely among very low-income Black boys.
King’s nightmare is a product of the dueling
decision. The court rightly undermined the legitimacy of segregated White spaces that hoard public resources, exclude all non-Whites, and are wholly dominated by White peoples and cultures. But the court also reinforced the legitimacy of integrated White spaces that hoard public resources, include some non-Whites, and are generally, though not wholly, dominated by White peoples and cultures. White majorities, White power, and White culture dominate both the segregated and the integrated, making both White. But the unspoken veil claims there is no such thing as integrated White spaces, or for that matter integrated Black spaces that are underresourced, include some non-Blacks, and are generally, though not wholly, dominated by Black peoples and cultures. The court ruled Black spaces, segregated or integrated, inherently unequal and inferior.
the integrated White space came to define the ideal integrated space where inferior non-White bodies could be developed. The integrated Black space became a de facto segregated space where inferior Black bodies were left behind.
Integration had turned into “a one-way street,” a young Chicago lawyer observed in 1995. “The minority assimilated into the dominant culture, not the other way around,” Barack Obama wrote. “Only white culture could be neutral and objective. Only white culture could be nonracial.” Integration (into Whiteness) became racial progress.
HE EXPERIENCE OF
an integrated education made all the difference in the lives of black children,” wrote Cal Berkeley professor David L. Kirp in
The New York Times
in 2016, speaking from the new low of integration’s roller-coaster history.
The percentage of Southern Black students attending integrated White schools jumped from zero in 1954 to 23 percent in 1969 to 44 percent in 1989 before falling back to 23 percent in 2011. The “academic-achievement gap” followed a similar roller coaster, closing with the integration of White schools, before opening back up, proving that “African-American students who attended integrated schools fared better academically than those left behind in segregated schools,” Kirp argued. Standardized tests “proved” White students and White spaces were smarter. And yet, what if the scoring gap closed because, as Black students integrated White schools, more students received the same education and test prep?
Integrationists have resented the rise in what they call segregated schools. “Like many whites who grew up in the 1960s and 1970s,
I had always thought the ultimate goal of better race relations was integration,” wrote Manhattan Institute fellow Tamar Jacoby in 1998. “The very word had a kind of magic to it,” but now “few of us talk about it anymore.” We are not pursuing Martin Luther King’s “color-blind dream” of “a more or less race-neutral America.”
The integrationist transformation of King as color-blind and race-neutral erases the actual King. He did not live to integrate Black spaces and people into White oblivion. If he did, then why did he build low-income Atlanta apartments “
using Negro workmen, Negro architects, Negro attorneys, and Negro financial institutions throughout,” as he proudly reported in 1967? Why did he urge Black people to stop being “ashamed of being Black,” to invest in their own spaces? The child of a Black neighborhood, church, college, and organization lived to ensure equal access to public accommodations and equal resources for all racialized spaces, an antiracist strategy as culture-saving as his nonviolence was body-saving.
Through lynching Black bodies, segregationists are, in the end, more harmful to Black
than integrationists are. Through lynching Black cultures, integrationists are, in the end, more harmful to
bodies than segregationists are. Think about the logical conclusion of integrationist strategy: every race being represented in every U.S. space according to their percentage in the national population. A Black (12.7 percent) person would not see another until after seeing eight or so non-Blacks. A Latinx (17.8 percent) person would not see another until after seeing seven or so non-Latinx. An Asian (4.8 percent) person would not see another until after seeing nineteen non-Asians. A Native (0.9 percent) person would not see another until after seeing ninety-nine non-Natives. White (61.3 percent) Americans would always see more White people around than non-White people. They would gain everything, from the expansion of integrated White spaces to Whites gentrifying all the non-White institutions, associations, and neighborhoods. No more spatial wombs for non-White cultures. Only White spatial wombs of assimilation. We would all become “
only white men” with different “skins,” to quote historian Kenneth Stampp in 1956.