Opinion: A Long Overdue Report Card on Racial Inequality in New York City

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Harlem, March, 1965

Stanley Wolfson, New York World Telegram & Sun

Harlem: March 15, 1965

New York City has not had a report card on racial inequality in 54 years. There are approximately 600 magazine and newspaper articles, books, and journal articles written since 1965 on aspects of the lives of New York City’s immigrants and African, Asian, and Latino Americans. These publications have recorded a half-century of change among these groups and that inequality and people of color are still synonymous. However, has inequality increased or decreased? Missing is the big picture, seen only by comparing before and after – a half-century ago with the present. Our recently published anthology, Racial Inequality in New York City Since 1965, provides that report card.

The city has changed and racial inequality has increased but neither happened in the way nor with the outcomes that we anticipated.

Less than one percent of New Yorkers, who are overwhelmingly White, have made almost all of the financial gains in the last half-century. Before 1965, income gains were distributed more widely. When New Yorkers leave our multi-hued public spaces and go home, we are the most racially segregated city in the U.S. – more so than in 1965. There are now, in fact, five New York Cities; each one is Whiter and more financially well off than the last one. However, no neighborhood is wholly segregated racially as in 1965. Schools, as reflections of communities, are more segregated by race and income than in 1965. Despite fifty years of continuous reforms, low-income African and Latino American students still attend schools where the likelihood of graduating and going to a two-year or a four-year college are lower than they were half a century ago. The tragedy is that we have known for some time what it takes to educate these students. Missing is the political will to implement real educational change and to spend the money necessary to improve outcomes.


Watch
Contributing writers discuss “Racial Inequality in New York City Since 1965”: Medgar Evers College, October 17, 2019
Featuring Chelli Devadutt, Benjamin Bowser, John Flateau, Natalie Byfield and Jarrett Murphy

 


The prospects that New York City would become a majority-minority city were known before 1965; the idea was terrifying. By now, it was presumed that Black and Puerto Rican gangs would have squared off with each other and with White ethnic youth in unprecedented orgies of street violence. This violence has not happened despite a diversity of foreign-born groups, unimagined in 1965. Along with Cuban and Puerto Rican New Yorkers are now Dominicans and Mexicans and ten other groups from central and South America. Afro-Caribbean and African Americans have diversified with at least five continental African nationalities. New Yorkers of Asian descendants have gone from three to eight distinct groups. European ethnic New Yorkers are still very much a part of the city, adding Russians and other Eastern Europeans to the mix. Tensions exist, but tolerance and the lack of violence have been extraordinary, given how close so many cultural-racial groups live to one another. The only continuing pre-1965 ethnic conflict is between the city’s predominantly White ethnic police force and Black and Latino youth. These young people do not use or deal drugs any more than White youth, and crime rates have dropped to historic lows. However, annually, more Black and Latino youth are repeatedly stopped and frisked than live in the entire City of New York. In the process, their civil rights are violated, and they are unnecessarily humiliated and endangered. The overwhelming majority of these young people are law-abiding and commit no crimes.

Even more remarkable is that young White urban professionals have moved into predominantly Black and Latino neighborhoods without violence. In 1965, no one would have believed this could have happened. From a historical perspective, gentrification has been underway since New York City was just a fort at the foot of Manhattan Island. Black and immigrant communities have always existed on the edge of downtowns. As the city has grown and nearby land increased in value, their residents have been moved farther away from downtown, and their neighborhoods have been repurposed for business or higher income residency. Instead of continuing suburban growth, in the last half-century, we have witnessed the decline, bottoming-out, and now redevelopment and repurposing of low-income communities in all the boroughs. Affluent and middle-class Whites are coming in, and low-income people of color are being pushed out to the edge of the city and to aging formerly White working-class suburban housing.

The inversion of New York’s central city and suburbs did not happen by some natural law. The reversal was set in motion during the 1970s with the City’s fiscal crisis. Neighborhoods that are now gentrifying are precisely the ones from which the city withdraw municipal services – fire companies, police, housing inspection, street repair, and garbage pickup. The War on Drugs was also fought in these neighborhoods, where an entire generation of young men of color was lost to drugs and incarceration. Outcomes included the spread of HIV disease to other low-income New York City communities, a rapid out-migration of residents, and a collapse of communities as social entities. The stage was set for virtually no opposition to gentrification. The same disinvestment of the physical infrastructure that led to the collapse of the South Bronx, Harlem, and Bedford-Stuyvesant is now underway in the City’s public housing. It is only a matter of time before they too will become uninhabitable, abandoned, and repurposed if adequate reinvestment does not occur.

Many useful tools could be used to reverse increasing racial inequality, several of which were pioneered in New York City. Leadership from the mayor and City Council are particularly necessary to demonstrate political will that has not existed in the past.  To improve the quality of life for city residents, some economic and wage tools are a minimum living wage based on the cost of living indices, an extension of minimum wages to immigrants who normally are paid less, a less regressive tax structure, advanced on-site job or vocational counseling, retraining and related assistance to laid-off workers, and continuous reinvestment and maintenance in the city’s vital physical infrastructure. Some housing tools are: regional planning rather than city-by-city planning; greater dispersal and support for low-density public and affordable housing; more extensive use of housing vouchers; integration of social services and education into public housing; and use of community preference rules for eligibility and admissions to public and affordable housing. Some education tools are an annual audits to assure that every school has the resources and personnel to fulfill its education mission; reinstatement of after-school athletic, arts, music, and tutorial programs; after-work and weekend academies for parents; integration of social and health services into schools; and pay incentives for teachers and principals who achieve excellence in student outcomes.



Watch
Contributing writers discuss “Racial Inequality in New York City Since 1965”: CUNY Graduate Center, October 18, 2019.
Featuring Chelli Devadutt, John Mollenkopf, Benjamin Bowser, Natalie Byfield, James Parrott, James Rodriguez, Victor Bach, Hector Cordero Guzman, Howard Shih, Michael Fortner and Jarrett Murphy

 


Particular leadership is needed to transform policing from an externally imposed para-military to one that is community-based. Bridges can be built between the police and community with precinct-level advisory and review committees; use of community residents as public safety liaison workers; civilian oversight of police personal identification record keeping, and crime assessment algorithms; face-recognition training for police officers; and multi-sector (health, social services, schools and housing) post-crime forensics to review, innovate and improve police responses to community crime.

The central implication of more than centuries of racial inequality in New York City is that it is not due to the racial prejudice of a single generation. It is not due to once enslaved New Yorkers needing more time to assimilate the American culture like past European immigrants. In the last half-century, there has been a sorting out of immigrant New Yorkers by color. Those who can pass for white have done quite well; those who could not, have faced the brunt of inequality. Efforts to reduce racial inequality are defeated in each generation because there is an unchallenged fundamental belief that African ancestry and other people of color should define the bottom of the city’s social hierarchy in every generation. Until this belief is challenged through ongoing education and public media, racial inequality will be a continuing blight on the lives of all New Yorkers.

Benjamin P. Bowser (Emeritus Professor of Sociology and Social Services at California State University East Bay) and Chelli Devadutt are the co-editors of “Racial Inequality in New York City Since 1965.”Gita Julianna is the executive director at Social Justice Lab. For a pamphlet of major findings and recommendations, download a summary here. There are also limited copies of the anthology Racial Inequality in New York City Since 1965 available at a much-reduced price. Please contact cpd321@nyu.edu for more information.

2 thoughts on “Opinion: A Long Overdue Report Card on Racial Inequality in New York City

  1. Any neighborhood that became majority African American post-1960 also became a violent slum. Brownsville, East New York, etc. This is the sad truth of NYC history. Whites fled the crime caused by the new residents.

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