Opinion: In housing, dog whistles and race-based slogans maintain the segregated status quo

People Post is a space for opinion pieces, letters to the editor and guest submissions from members of the Long Beach community. The following is an op-ed submitted by Michael Clemson, the vice chair of the Long Beach Transit Board of Directors, and a resident of District 4, and does not necessarily reflect the views of the Long Beach Post.

Protests and demonstrations across Long Beach have shown the urgent need to address structural racism. Clearly, the murder of Black people by the police and other police violence nationwide is the immediate issue, but Long Beach is as guilty of racism in many other ways. White people, past and present, made choices to segregate Long Beach. We can, if we choose to, join the work already underway to desegregate it today.

Housing segregation of the 1900s was locked in place through government-backed tactics like redlining, a practice that denied mortgages for neighborhoods with Black families. After World War II, Black war veterans were excluded from housing benefits available to white veterans. Deed restrictions legally excluded non-Whites from housing in most of the city, especially in the newly built subdivisions in East Long Beach. Park Estates, one of the wealthiest neighborhoods in Long Beach, was originally advertised to prospective homeowners as exclusively White, saying that no property there will be sold to ”any person of African or Asiatic descent or to any person not of the white or Caucasian race.” The effect of this segregation still lingers, in a city that is 28% White, Park Estates is 68%.

Park Estates didn’t just get segregated, someone had to do it. In this case it was Lloyd Whaley, the developer of much of East Long Beach and the namesake of Whaley Park. (You can still see the racist restrictions that Whaley signed on the Park Estates Homeowners Association website.) It wasn’t until the late 1940s that a Supreme Court decision ruled racial deed restrictions unconstitutional, real estate agents chose to use tactics to maintain segregation. Steering was a practice where agents would refuse to show Black families houses in White neighborhoods. Blockbusting was when real estate agents would use fear of Black neighbors to convince White homeowners to sell at reduced prices.

While these tactics were formally made illegal in California by Black fair housing activists from Long Beach, they still continue. Senay Kenfe, a local musician and community organizer, told me how he watched his mother’s apartment building go from 10 Black families to just one in less than a decade as the property management company chose to steer Black residents away. Another Long Beach resident shared how he found an apartment but when arriving with his wife to sign the lease, was told that it was no longer available. He is Mexican American and his wife is Black.

Our city’s recent experience in deciding who gets to live where was the Land Use Element, which resulted in residents of mostly White suburbs refusing to allow their neighborhoods to change. But again, that didn’t just happen. In this case Landlord Robert Fox ran a fear-based campaign, printing signs saying, “High Density + Zero Parking = High Crime.” He told his supporters that adding apartments would bring more people to East Long Beach and, baselessly, that those people would bring crime. In a city where 73% of Black people and 65% of Latinos rent that’s just a repeat of stories of urban crime that drove the White flight of the 1950s and 60s.

That message took hold in the resistance against the plan. People described “crackerbox” apartments, often the only affordable housing in the neighborhood, as “blights” and “intruders” that replaced the “charming buildings” of old. In defense of the “neighborhood character” of mostly-White neighborhoods, Fox warned that “Iowa-by-the-Sea” Long Beach would become “Miami-by-the-Sea” – it’s always “Chicago” or “Detroit” or “Miami,” never “Denver” or “Amsterdam” or “Portland.”  They talked about how they paid good money to be away from “thugs,” “crackheads” and “undesirable people.” Make no mistake about it, these are racist dog whistles.

Those dog whistles were enough for the city to almost completely remove any changes to East Long Beach. New housing would be concentrated Downtown and in Black and Brown communities, virtually assuring that Black and Brown people would be displaced. People who are the first to lose and the last to recover are left further exposed to the spiral of eviction, job loss and homelessness that’s only been made worse by the COVID-19 crisis.

Whether we asked for it or not, segregation was done for the benefit of White people. Even a little research shows how our systems of segregation were built into our cities. It’s up to White people to help dismantle that. We, as White people, have to welcome Black families into our neighborhoods. At its most basic, we should not be calling the police when Black families have friends over—a recurring experience of a friend. If your instinct is to call the police, ask yourself why. Do the circumstances warrant police involvement? White people should join in pushing back on racist comments and dog whistles on Facebook and Nextdoor (maybe starting with the comments to this article). And maybe we take the step to support affordable apartments down the street or on an old parking lot.

Neighborhood associations’ complaints hold tremendous power in City Hall. Calls to keep out people who “aren’t supposed to be there” are made in your name, so get involved there and advocate for inclusion rather than exclusion. Urbanists need to call on the city to implement and promote policies that invest in people, rather than places, and are specifically designed to address historical inequities that are unique to Black people. White homeowners should be prepared to support progressive taxes to support these programs so that the financial burden is on the people who have benefited from historical discrimination.

White people have a crucial role to play in building an equitable, inclusive city. Our generation may not have asked for segregation, but if we keep benefiting from it and don’t try to change it then we own it.

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