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 john a. powell

excerpted from: john a. powell, , DREAMING OF A SELF BEYOND WHITENESS AND ISOLATION, 18 Washington University Journal of Law and Policy 45, 29- (2005)(90 Footnotes omitted)

In the post-civil-rights era, how is it that whiteness and racial hierarchy endure despite the end of Jim Crow and the end of the legal enforcement of what many considered to be the ultimate boundary, anti-miscegenation laws? I have argued elsewhere and will continue to argue here that the way we organize our metropolitan areas, especially through persistent segregation, plays a large part in maintaining a way of racially distributing benefits and burdens, and provides the necessary space and boundary for whiteness to continue to flourish. It is clear, and increasingly accepted by contemporary geographers, that the spatial and the social are mutually constitutive.

Historically, Jim Crow laws had been most heavily developed in the South. However, the North had long used more rhetorically benign ways of inscribing whiteness. While the South was using specific laws that separated whites and blacks more by status than by physical space, the North was much more likely to use spatial separation. At the time that blacks began to demand an end to Jim Crow laws and started moving north, the country was creating, on a massive scale, a new white place called the suburbs. From its inception, this place was explicitly white space. When this space was challenged by Dr. King in Cicero, a Chicago suburb, by leading a march against housing discrimination, he was attacked by angry whites and there was a withdrawing of Northern support for civil rights. In many respects, the civil rights movement in this country was about the South, and attacking the ways that the South had constructed white space. Not only was the Northern form of white space not successfully attacked, but it was actually expanded to protect and extend white privilege.

Today, our arrangements of metropolitan space--persistent segregation, concentrated poverty, and fragmented governments people and opportunity in a racialized way reinscribing whiteness and its attendant privileges. We can, in part, trace this back to the government. The executive and legislative branches help finance white flight through transportation spending, subsidies and other measures, and the courts help to develop legal barriers to facilitate the exclusion of blacks and, to a lesser extent, other non-whites. For years, blacks and other marginalized groups fought to get into public space as full members, in part to have access to opportunity, but also to change the rules around space. What has happened in the last fifty years since the dismantling of Jim Crow is that rules related to public space have changed and shifted, and white space has become quasi-private. So now, the suburbs are treated as private, with the implicit right to exclude, and cities are treated as public. Blacks are now moving to the suburbs in record numbers, trying to take advantage of well-financed, high-functioning schools, and to gain access to emerging job markets and other opportunities. But to date, much of their efforts have been frustrated by the protections that the law and public policy have extended to this new white space. At one point, the Court treated local space only as a function of the State, and therefore, accessible to and able to be regulated by the State. Nevertheless, as blacks began to move to these spaces, there was an important shift as local autonomy became constitutionalized. What we are seeing today is a devolution not just back to States' Rights, which was always bound up in the right to regulate blacks and create white space, but also a devolution back to local rights, which is increasingly being used to draw boundaries around white space.

The civil rights movement has been successful in opening up public space just in time to see that power and privilege shift to private space. Blacks gained power in the cities as opportunities left. This is why Winant can note that "the elimination of Jim Crow did not really occur" and that civil rights laws fail to "address the deeper logic of race in U.S. history and culture." This is not about individual preference on the part of whites. Whites did not and could not create this space without the economic and legal support of the government. This realignment has caused another major shift in political alliances in this country. Northern suburban whites have realigned with Southern whites. The realignment has been both facilitated and exploited by the Republican Party. It is based on maintaining white space by preying on white fears without the explicit use of Jim Crow laws. Even though this process was complex, some variation of it was predicted by President Johnson when he signed the voting rights act into law. So despite Brown, lunch counter sit-ins, marches on Washington, riots, speeches, hundreds of civil rights laws, and considerable gains in terms of racial attitudes, today we still live in racially segregated neighborhoods, send our children to racially segregated schools, have a transportation system and a health care system that is highly racialized, and distribute future opportunity through racialized wealth, all with virtually no reference to racism.

What is particularly important to the focus of this paper is that this phenomenon of spatial racism helps explain why the ending of anti-miscegenation laws and other old white boundaries did not bring about the destruction of whiteness as a social category. Too often, we tend to focus on particular borders or boundaries, obscuring our understanding of the fluid and relational nature of these boundaries. There is not a singular way to arrange institutions and structures to preserve whiteness and recreate racial hierarchy. Our focus on what was and its demise may obscure what is, and more importantly, what will be. At the same time that Jim Crow laws were being attacked and dismantled, the country was restructuring with new boundaries that would facilitate a new form of racial hierarchy. Federal Judge Robert Carter has noted that he was mistaken in thinking that the principle problem of racial exclusion was segregation. He now notes that segregation was but a symptom of the more intractable problem of white supremacy. I do not say this in order to be pessimistic, nor to downplay the roles that segregation and white space have in creating whiteness, but simply to urge us to be aware that while we are fighting to change these racial boundaries, new and transformed structures, institutions and arrangements may be emerging to shore up whiteness.


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