Opinion | The coronavirus and the cities we need

In the United States, blacks and Hispanics suffer primarily.

Most poor whites live in mixed-income neighborhoods. In the nation’s 100 largest metropolitan areas, about a third of low-income whites (3.4 million people) lived in high-poverty urban neighborhoods in 2014, according to a Brookings Institution analysis. In contrast, 72 percent of low-income blacks, or 5.2 million people, lived in high-poverty urban neighborhoods, as did 68 percent of low-income Hispanics, or 6.7 million people.

The pandemic has exacerbated inequalities in urban life. Low-income Americans, who are generally unable to work from home, are dying at higher rates. And the very idea of ​​leaving the cities is a luxury reserved for those who have the resources to pick up and move. The poor are tied to the places where they are born.

The beauty and danger of cities is that we are all united.

The wealthy, the economist Joseph Stiglitz has written, have “the best homes, the best education, the best doctors, and the best lifestyles. But there is one thing that money does not seem to have bought: the understanding that their fate is tied to how the other 99 percent live. “

IIn March 1968, Martin Luther King Jr. traveled from Detroit to one of its affluent suburbs, Grosse Pointe, with a police officer sitting on his lap to protect him from violence. That night, he told a crowd gathered at the local high school that there were “two Americas”: one in which white children grew up in “the sunlight of opportunity” and another in which black children were raised in circumstances so bleak that “the best in these minds can never come out.” Every American city was divided he said. “Each city ends up being two cities instead of one.”

As African Americans migrated from the rural South to industrial cities in the early 20th century, white communities and their political leaders aggressively funneled newcomers away from white neighborhoods. Some cities created zoning codes that specified where blacks could not live. Even in the Jim Crow era, that was considered a bit excessive; the Supreme Court outlawed the practice in 1917. But lawmakers quickly learned that it was easy enough to achieve the same goals without being so explicit. Chicago, for example, adopted a zoning code in 1923 that made no mention of race, but heavily restricted high-density residential and industrial development. to the black neighborhoods.

From the 1930s through the 1960s, the Federal Housing Administration, created to encourage homeownership by subsidizing home loans, refused to back loans in black neighborhoods, which were outlined in red lines on city maps. agency. In Detroit, a developer convinced the government to back loans in a new white subdivision in 1941 by building a six-foot-high, half-mile wall along its boundary with an adjacent black neighborhood. An agency manual also recommended roads as useful barriers to maintaining racial segregation.

Between 1934 and 1962, whites obtained 98 percent of government-backed loans.

Congress outlawed such explicit racism in the Fair Housing Act of 1968, but the chessboard created during the building boom of the postwar years endures. The wealth gap between blacks and whites allowed suburban communities to limit integration through zoning laws that restricted the construction of denser and more affordable housing. The nation’s former industrial centers, not just places like Peoria, Ill. And Syracuse, NY, but also New York City and Boston, remain some of the most racially segregated cities in America.

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