Once upon a time, there was a small â but rapidly growing â black middle class in America. The members of this new gentry were African-Americans who became free men and women after the abolition of slavery in 1865. By the beginning of the 1900s, black people were buying homes, sending their children to elite colleges, becoming business owners, joining academia and â as a sign of their increasing confidence â entering the federal bureaucracy in the thousands. Things were looking so promising that in Washington DC, for instance, public transportation wasnât segregated. But just when blacks were poised to become a solid pillar of society, white America decided it had had enough of equality.
The election of Woodrow Wilson as president in 1912 was the defining event that drove a stake through the heart of the black middle class. It was the cause of the great racial divide that exists today and threatens to rip apart Americaâs social fabric.
Eric Yellin, associate professor of History and American Studies at the University of Richmond, explains in his book Racism in the Nationâs Service (April 2013) how the Wilson administration wreaked havoc on the government careers of African-Americans in the 1910s.
âWhen Wilson arrived in the nationâs capital in March 1913, he brought with him an administration loaded with white supremacists,â Yellin writes in the online literary magazine Berfrois. âHis lieutenants segregated offices, harassed black workers and removed black politicians from political appointments that had been held by black men for more than a generation.â
The Wilson administrationâs systematic approach to drive African-Americans from the centre stage of US society towards the ghettoes was so efficient that it may well have inspired Adolf Hitler to send German Jews to the ghettoes less than a generation later.
Many administrators and congressmen arrived with the specific goal of redeeming the capital for white supremacy, says Yellin. âLong ago we determined that (the Negro) never should be our master,â explained one of Wilsonâs administrators, assistant secretary of the treasury John Skelton Williams. Williams vowed âstern, final, definite prohibitionâ of any âsocial or political equal(ity)â. Wilson appointed white men to important executive positions usually held by leading black politicians, and racist bureaucrats went out of their way to humiliate ordinary black clerks.
According to Yellin, in its attack on a nationally known and symbolic black middle class, âfederal segregationâ signalled the US governmentâs support for a national racial regime in which African-Americans were not only politically disenfranchised but also professionally and economically hobbled. Particularly damaging was the progressive justification given by Wilson and others, whose ideas about black corruption and the inevitability of racial âfrictionâ allowed them and others to portray discrimination as reform.
Having broken the back of the black middle class by walling off an entire community from the best paying and most secure jobs, white America launched its next big assault. This was operation whitewash, to ethnically cleanse blacks from mixed neighbourhoods and turn these into lily white suburbs. The plan was to drive every last black person away from the mainstream and into the ghettoes.
It started with banks refusing to provide home loans to blacks. American journalist Ta-Nehisi Coates writes in The Atlantic: âFrom the 1930s through the 1960s, black people across the country were largely cut out of the legitimate home-mortgage market through means both legal and extralegal. Chicago whites employed every measure, from ârestrictive covenantsâ to bombings, to keep their neighbourhoods segregated.â
The US government helped the mobs by creating the Federal Housing Administration, which made black neighbourhoods ineligible for home loans. âNeither the percentage of black people living there nor their social class mattered,â writes Coates. âBlack people were viewed as a contagion.â
Soon, such discrimination spread to the entire mortgage industry, which was already rife with racism, excluding black people from most legitimate means of obtaining a mortgage. While whites wanting to buy a home could rely on a lending system backed by the US government, blacks were driven towards scam artists who ripped off innocents.
To illustrate how unfair the situation was, consider that home ownership rates increased from 30 percent of the US population in 1930 to nearly 60 percent by 1960. This was possible only because the US government pumped money into the housing loan market and lowered the downpayment to just 10 percent of the house price. The beneficiaries were nearly all whites.
Adds Coates: âThe American real estate industry believed segregation to be a moral principle. As late as 1950, the National Association of Real Estate Boardsâ code of ethics warned that âa realtor should never be instrumental in introducing into a neighborhoodâŚ any race or nationality, or any individuals whose presence will clearly be detrimental to property valuesâ.â
A 1943 brochure specified that such potential undesirables might include madams, bootleggers, gangsters â and âa coloured man of means who was giving his children a college education and thought they were entitled to live among whitesâ.
Because home ownership is the easiest â and for most people the only â way to create wealth, the lack of upward mobility in the housing market condemns black Americans to the permanent underclass.
The implications are chilling, concludes Coates. âAs a rule, poor black people do not work their way out of the ghetto â and those who do often face the horror of watching their children and grandchildren tumble back.â
Just like Native Americans have been herded into reservations, black Americans have been tucked out of sight in ghettoes and row housing.
When Barack Obama became the US president, there was a lot of chatter about âpost-racialâ America. It just shows how naĂŻve people really are. For, the elevation of a black man to the highest office in the most âexceptionalâ and âmoralâ nation on the planet is causing panic among whites.
In the article Fears of a Black President, Coates writes: âBefore Barack Obama, the âblack presidentâ lived in the African-American imagination as a kind of cosmic joke, a phantom of all that could never be. White folks, whatever their talk of freedom and liberty, would not allow a black president. They could not tolerate Emmettâs boyish gaze. Dr King turned the other cheek, and they blew it off. White folks shot Lincoln over ânigger equalityâ, ran Ida Wells out of Memphis, beat Freedom Riders over bus seats, slaughtered Medgar in his driveway like a dog. The comedian Dave Chappelle joked that the first black president would need a âvice-president Santiagoâ â because the only thing that would ensure his life in the White House was a Hispanic president-in-waiting. A black president signing a Bill into law might as well sign his own death certificate.
âWhat black people are experiencing right now is a kind of privilege previously withheld â seeing our most sacred cultural practices and tropes validated in the worldâs highest office. Throughout the whole of American history, this kind of cultural power was wielded solely by whites, and with such ubiquity that it was not even commented upon. The expansion of this cultural power beyond the private province of whites has been a tremendous advance for black America.â
At the same time, what does it mean for the other side? âConversely, for those who have long treasured white exclusivity, the existence of a President Barack Obama is discombobulating, even terrifying,â writes Coates.
Sure, Obamaâs rise has been a huge morale-booster for blacks, but it has clearly increased the racial divide. White Americans have become more militant and apprehensive of the rise of the blacks. They are walling off themselves from minorities and buying guns. The siege mentality of white America does not portend a good time â either for the blacks or the US in general.
America has become a country where blacks are denied the right to social mobility that is every Americanâs right. In the entire history of mankind, such a systematic destruction of a community has scarcely been undertaken. While the Jewish Holocaust lasted just 14 years, the Americans have been lynching African-Americans for more than 200 years. In fact, the word lynch (hanging of blacks by white mobs) originates in the US â from the actions of Captain William Lynch of Pittsylvania County and Colonel Charles Lynch of Bedford County.
At the same time, Americans continue to believe they are the most exceptional and democratic nation on earth. The US claims to be the land of the free and yet black children canât walk safely without the likes of George Zimmerman and Darren Wilson gunning them down.
The alarming frequency of riots such as Ferguson is evidence that the US is sitting on dynamite. With blacks caught in a desperate no-win situation, the Ku Klux Klan (KKK) membership increasing, gun sales out of control, and whites seeing blacks as âdemonsâ (in the grotesque imagery of cop Wilson), it is only a matter of time before all hell breaks loose across the US.
The spike in racial flashpoints on Obamaâs watch is a result of polarisation among whites chafing against a black president
2009 Oscar Grant After police officer Johannes Mehserle was found guilty of involuntary manslaughter in the shooting of black transit passenger Oscar Grant in Oakland, California, rioters trashed police cars and forced Mayor Ron Dellums to take shelter in City Hall
2012 Manuel Diaz When 25-year-old suspected gang member Manuel Diaz was shot dead, Anaheim was left paralysed after four days and nights of riots, with crowds setting fires, smashing windows and throwing rocks and other projectiles at police
2013 Kimani Gray When 16-year-old Kimani Gray was killed by police after he allegedly pointed a handgun at them, massive riots broke out in Brooklyn
2013 Trayvon Martin After George Zimmerman was acquitted of murder in his shooting of black teenager Trayvon Martin, riots erupted across the country