City Lit: Black in Brooklyn

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From New York’s Dutch settler days through the feral draft riots of the Civil War era to today, race relations on both sides of the East River have been exploitative and explosive. The color line, a Brooklynite’s new book demonstrates, runs down Flatbush Avenue as prominently as in any southern Delta town.

In A Covenant With Color: Race and Social Power in Brooklyn, Williams College historian and Bedford-Stuyvesant native Craig Steven Wilder goes beyond listing ugly iniquities. He proposes that victimization of blacks in employment, housing, and education was not so much an outcome of a racially supremacist ideology as it was economically expedient. For the masters of a burgeoning economy, the way to guarantee stability was to reward and contain one group of quarrelsome laborers and persecute the others. “It was not hate but an equally vulgar greed that drove local Christian farmers to enslave Africans,” Wilder says. Soon color became “the primary metaphor for class”–a shorthand that endures.

While this paradigm is not original–Wilder acknowledges his debt to “white-skin privilege” critics such as David Roediger and others–Wilder is the first to use the model to minutely examine one urban area in order to explain more than 375 years of American history. For the most part, the analysis works.

By the end of the American Revolution, New York was the country’s fifth largest slave-owning state, and Kings County was its slaveholding capital. In 1800, more than 60 percent of Kings County families were slaveholders, and local elected officials routinely opposed efforts to end slavery.

Even after 1827, when slaveholding was abolished statewide, Kings County commerce remained dependent on, and sympathetic to, the South. Brooklyn business leader’s fortunes in sugar, molasses and warehousing of wheat and grain were linked–like New York City’s dependence on cotton–to the fate of the southern plantation economy. The Empire Stores along DUMBO’s waterfront, whose hulking, vacant warehouses await settlement by artists or dot-com workers, once handled 90 percent of the tobacco entering New York harbor.

Starting in the 1840s, waves of impoverished Irish immigrants started arriving on New York’s shores, and blacks found themselves outnumbered by the flood of newcomers, who battled them for scarce jobs and housing. Despite Irish patriot Daniel O’Connell’s plea to his countrymen to “treat the colored people as your equals, as brethren,” Wilder says it was solidarity by skin tone that framed the opportunistic “covenant” into which much of the white working class entered. The immigrant-based Democratic Party soon became the party of exclusion by color and anti-black mobilizations.

“In the face of scarcity, white Brooklynites combined with their fellows to grab opportunities…. Since those above could not be touched, they braced themselves more firmly against those below…. [They] told themselves that the world was tending toward exclusion anyway, that their actions only ushered in the inevitable, and that maybe Negroes were slightly less human than themselves,” Wilder writes.

The new century unfolded like the last. Kept out of skilled trades, people of color could not even benefit from wartime labor scarcity, while in bad times menial and service jobs typically held by blacks were coveted by whites. Even as late as 1946, the Brooklyn Union Gas Company, along with Con Edison and New York Telephone, were engaging in systematic racial steering in hiring. (Wilder justifies wide-scale scabbing by blacks–he coyly calls it “substitute labor”–in textiles and transportation strikes as a necessity brought on by poverty and union exclusion.)

Housing and lending discrimination were just as prevalent, with government policies abetting segregation. The growth of the giant Bedford-Stuyvesant ghetto and the decline of northern Brooklyn, Wilder argues, were due less to whites fleeing their black neighbors than to public policies in such areas as lending and infrastructure development that rewarded white neighborhoods and emerging suburbs.

As powerful as Wilder’s narratives are, there is a corresponding fatalism at the heart of the book. Wilder suggests that the alliances forged between poor white immigrants and their rulers against blacks were inevitable. Color, Wilder seems to say, was the sole determining factor in forming these alliances.

But as Wilder himself points out, there were exceptions, and these suggest at least the possibility that “covenants” could be formed on the basis of principle and shared condition, not color. Wilder describes a successful union battle during World War II, led by a militant white leadership, that reversed the improper layoff of black women working the night shift at Brooklyn’s Naval Clothing Depot. Why weren’t common struggles like this one more plentiful or their lessons more apparent in Brooklyn history? Wilder does not explore the implications.

Surely, there is more than one covenant, as shown by events at the Depot. Which one a group chooses to enter, and why, are important questions that need answers too.