Blog Post

Black Urban Life and the Question of Property and Scale

Robert O. Self

Let me begin this account of session 3, “Race, Power, and Urban Spaces” with Carl Nightingale’s (Univ. at Buffalo, SUNY) observation in this session that ghetto entered the American lexicon, through St. Clair Drake and Horace Cayton’s Black Metropolis (1945), as a critique of white supremacy and became, by the 1980s, an attack on black people and black communities. As Leslie Harris (Emory Univ.) observed in the first presentation, the meaning of concepts depends on the cultural work one wants to do. Drake and Cayton hoped ghetto would activate a new vantage and a renewed attack on American racism; a later generation of white commenters transformed the word into a term of disparagement used against the very neighborhoods and people for whom Drake and Cayton had sought sympathy.

Thomas Sugrue (New York Univ.) had Drake and Cayton in mind when he introduced the session, noting that urban history touches on virtually every major theme of African American history, perhaps most tellingly on the twin themes of Black Metropolis—the persistence of the color line and its indignities alongside the persistence of community. Migration, community formation, the segregated metropolis, and industrial proletarianization, have long been the mainstays of African American urban history. The session gave no indication this would radically change in the near term, but its participants nudged the field in innovative directions.

Following Sugrue’s introduction, the session participants took up two major subjects of African American urban historiography in the last three decades: labor and property. Harris and Nathan D. B. Connolly (New York Univ.) asked the audience to think about African American urban history through a series of paradoxes. Harris, for example, noted the paradox that antebellum cities in which slavery flourished often offered the widest range of employment for free blacks—employment opportunities that whites quickly monopolized after slavery’s end. The second paradox, she added, was that contemporary cities that are defined as “successful” are typically those in which black communities are struggling against displacement and dispossession.

For Connolly, an additional underappreciated paradox of 20th-century black urban history is the role played by black property owners in negotiating the terms of urban Jim Crow. Mobilizing their tax receipts as proof of smallholder citizenship and respectability, these property owners gained a fragile foothold of authority in white politics, and thereby wrung a minimum of segregated public services from an urban elite disinclined to make many concessions. Connolly noted, however, that they did so at the expense of black community solidarity.

Joe Trotter (Carnegie Mellon Univ.) and Nightingale next turned the session’s attention first to a distinct dimension of black property-holding—armed self-defense—and then to the international context of post-bellum African American urbanization and the long global history of urban racial segregation and isolation. Nightingale, building on his global history of segregation, introduced the concept of diascalar, which refers to the idea that urban racial segregation should be studied as developing across several centuries, in multiple colonial locales, at varying geographic scales, and at the behest of various combinations of urban and imperial elites and white settlers (or property owners).

More than anything as I listened to these presentations and their histories of black people, cities, and property, I was reminded of the usefulness of the economic concept of rent seeking. In shorthand, rent seeking is a strategy to secure capital, or money, not by increasing economic productivity or by creating value, but rather by means of a subsidy, a privilege, a monopoly, or some other segmentation of markets. Racial segregation and the segmenting of real estate markets by race in the 20th century opened up vast possibilities for rent seeking by whites—think about the classic search for “good suburban schools,” for example. Subsidized highways, low petroleum costs, FHA-structured mortgages, and redlining (among other public policies) made possible the ever wider geographic search by white families for highly resourced public school districts—a formidable form of rent seeking. That single process has distorted both American education and asset accumulation in such profound ways that even the best-designed reforms would take generations to undue the damage.

I bring up rent seeking because it’s important not just to know that whites benefit from a segregated housing market but also to specify how. Property markets are fundamentally structural—the rules and institutions that govern them are far more significant than any individual choice made within the game’s rules—but they are also the product of human hands. Over the long history of the making of racialized urban property markets, strategies, rules, and institutions, among other things, as Nightingale reminded us, adhere into practices, and it’s the history of those practices, and the people whose lives they shape, that urban history is meant to tell.


Robert O. Self teaches modern US history at Brown University.


SESSION 3: Race, Power, and Urban Spaces