“Don’t take this the wrong way, but you sound like you’re a white guy.”
In her clipped, Back of the Yards accent, our realtor began to communicate her concerns about our initial choice of neighborhoods. We were about to get a lesson in Chicago house-hunting that would take years to fully absorb.
We tend to think of racism purely in terms of personal bigotry. That distortion makes it difficult for us to recognize institutional racism in action. A racist system can produce an unjust outcome without active assistance from bigots. Racism without racists continues to dampen economic outcomes for black families long after everyone has forgotten the original logic behind those institutions. Beyond the impact to minorities, those deep cultural forces help to explain the growing tension between upper and lower income whites. Understanding the Trump phenomenon might start by exploring how I came to live a white neighborhood.
Relocating from Houston, we had three weeks to pick a place to live in the Chicago area and no idea what we were doing. Needless to say, that unsettling call with our realtor did not quiet our nerves. Our realtor, let’s call her Rose, wanted to channel us toward the obvious landing point for an outsider with no ethnic connection to a particular Chicago neighborhood. She suggested distant suburbs like Naperville or Aurora and we balked. We weren’t moving our family a thousand miles from the familiar comforts of Houston just to live in a colder version of Katy. If we couldn’t live in Chicago itself then we wanted to live near enough that we could still experience it.
With the benefit of hindsight I better appreciate my realtor’s dilemma. We wanted to live in a safe, affordable, diverse neighborhood close to the city, featuring great public schools and first class infrastructure. In other words a fantasy town conjured from the imaginations of idealistic young idiots. Rose was fumbling for a means to explain the realities we faced without violating a code of silence around race.
Our realtor was a cog in a machine, playing her role as she understood it. On the second miserable day of searching we surrendered. We got everything else we wanted by giving up on diversity. As it turns out, that’s a wider compromise made by lots of Americans, with implications not just for black families but for lower income whites.
Social, economic and political forces too big for us to recognize processed our identity and nudged us toward the place we belonged: Elmhurst. For us, a well-educated, middle-income young white family with a promising future, that machine served our interests better than we could have imagined. It does not operate in such a benevolent fashion for everyone.
When we discuss racial issues in the US we often personify the forces involved, describing the actions, choices, or opinions of certain groups as though they were the product of conscious deliberation. Those characterizations may be accurate as a summary of an entire group’s attitudes or behaviors, in the same way that many ingredients result in a single stew. However, very few individuals consciously recognize their relationships to those aggregates. Ask an Elmhurst resident why they decided to live in a “white’s-only” neighborhood and you might face some hostility as they correct your assumptions.
A more accurate picture emerges when we recognize that these wider cultural and political tides operate more like evolutionary forces, far less deliberate or intentional than we generally expect. Institutions, operating with uncritical support, can take on a will of their own. You don’t have to be racist to live in a white neighborhood, but willful blindness will certainly make it more comfortable.
Becoming conscious of the ways our individual choices impact our collective reality is a necessary prelude to achieving any deliberate political outcome. The white neighborhood in which I chose to raise my family is not white because of pointy hoods or burning crosses. No laws prevent a minority family from moving here. Its character rose from ordinary people making choices that served their interests inside a system shaped by centuries of racist attitudes.
There have been no landmark moments in the desegregation of Elmhurst, or of DuPage County. No laws had to be challenged to make it possible for African-Americans or other minorities to live here. Our Elmhurst History Museum preserves a photograph from the 1930’s of our semi-pro football team. That team included a black player, but there is no mention of whether he was the first or whether that was unusual. It doesn’t seem to have been meaningful enough to warrant any comment at all. The relatively powerful racial segregation that exists here, as in most Northern cities, was not created or enforced by hooded thugs. Segregation rose from larger forces.
Elmhurst and the county around it took its present character from the block-busting campaigns of the post-war era. The practice and its implications deserve a longer description, laid out at this link. There was no need for Jim Crow-style laws to explicitly prohibit black families from purchasing homes in Elmhurst during the post-war boom. The machine took care of that.
Until the late 80’s no realtor who valued their job would share listings in the white suburbs with African-Americans or post them in places that black families might see. The kind of sorting I experienced in 2004 as a “white guy” with access to Internet listings was relatively benign, but still powerful. In previous decades that machine was nearly impenetrable. If a black family with the available income was able to find a home for sale in Elmhurst they still couldn’t get a mortgage. To live here, they would have needed extraordinary will, income and luck. That simply couldn’t happen on a meaningful scale.
Towns like ours were built in layers, first by generations of open racial discrimination in housing, then by block busting, and finally by the concentration of wealth as more affluent whites carved themselves out from the wider community. Perhaps no one intended to build a machine that would sort people into charming pockets of affluence like Elmhurst and desperate neighborhoods burdened by blight. Yet that’s what the rules of the game rewarded, so that’s what we got.
The fate of blue-collar white towns like Maywood, torn apart by blockbusting, steadily drove up real estate values in places like Hinsdale, Western Springs and Elmhurst. These villages managed by virtue of distance from the city, political organization, and higher cost, to retain de facto racial segregation. As the process advanced, minority families weren’t the only ones locked out. Those towns became almost impenetrable to middle income whites, not just financially but culturally.
In the past couple of decades, as overt racism became unacceptable politically, whiteness mattered less and less. Middle and lower income whites saw the protections they once enjoyed from a shared identity with wealthier whites slipping away. By the time I moved to Chicago in 2004, sounding “like a white guy” still mattered, but only if you could write a check to back it up. By that time places like Elmhurst had taken on their unique character and no one remembered why.
With money, you can still buy your way into a sheltered world of white privilege. In fact, by paying an additional premium that few can afford, minority families can now gain access as well. That premium is steep. White, black, brown or purple, if your family did not build up capital in an era when whites enjoyed explicitly protected status, you probably will not raise your children in Elmhurst. As access to the economic ladder comes to be increasingly defined by education, the consequences of residential segregation worsen.
Mitt Romney accidentally described the shape of this problem in his 2012 campaign. Now that laws openly favoring white economic interests have been stripped from the system, everyone is free to achieve on equal terms. Romney described how this brave new world operates, suggested anyone can be successful if they just had the gumption to borrow $20,000 from their parents and launch a venture.
America has responded to centuries of white supremacy with a new “colorblind” strategy. Explicit racial preferences are being stripped away, but whatever capital families accumulated while those protections were in place is considered “earned.” Looking for a way to make a living? Just borrow tens of thousands of dollars from your parents. Your parents don’t have that kind of money? Why not?
Black families have been pointing out the flaws in our colorblind aspirations for decades. Lower income whites are only just waking up to the ruse. As wealthier white families retreat into places like Elmhurst and roll up the ladders, race-based protections that once shielded working families from the impact of their lower incomes are disappearing.
Here’s a dirty secret about life in America’s white islands. The income it takes to continue living here is far less than the income you’ll need to get here in the first place. Paying a mortgage requires an income. Getting a mortgage requires capital. Where does a couple with small children in their early 30’s get the capital to live in a place like this? Few get it from their work alone.
That explains why the places that were solidly white 25 years ago are still solidly white today, even after our explicit racial preferences were repealed. For those who had help from parents to finance college, and then “borrowed” just $20-30K from family for a down payment on a “starter-home,” getting to Elmhurst is not a stretch.
Conversely, if you borrowed all or most of your tuition and had to accumulate a down payment in cash on your own to buy your first home, no matter how successful you are in your career it is unlikely that you will ever live in Elmhurst or a place like it. By the time you climb those mountains, your life will probably already be established somewhere.
How many young minority families started their lives with the kind of family capital enjoyed by white peers, even their “middle class” white peers? Virtually none. The additional cost, hassle, and transition involved, along with the absence of ties to those wealthier places means an overwhelming majority will stay put even if their incomes rise over their lifetimes. Thanks to its pedigree, Elmhurst stays white more or less in perpetuity without the need for any discriminatory laws.
No one stands guard to prevent “the wrong people” from living here. In a cringe-worthy irony neighbors occasionally complain about the absence of diversity. A machine we choose not to see and virtually never question makes this place what it is and keeps it this way. With few exceptions, these enclaves are the preserve of those who benefited most from centuries of white supremacy. For the most part, we don’t even know it.
This might not matter but for one vital twist. Access to a nice neighborhood is not merely a question of living in a fine home. In fact, in many of these elite neighborhoods your home will be far less impressive than those available at cut-rate prices in a distant exurb. No one comes here to buy a house. We are buying a membership.
An emerging knowledge economy is spawning a new aristocracy of education. Earning the mere chance to compete means capitalizing on educational opportunities early. These white islands are educational incubators.
With a few notable exceptions, education in America is a local enterprise. When Chicago’s most affluent white families fled into these elite suburbs, they took their resources with them. Their capital now fuels educational dynamos. In our newly colorblind society we are all equal, but some are still more equal than others. Having early access to one of these supercells may not guarantee future success, but it makes that kind of success an assumption rather than a stretch.
Our personal choice of neighborhood meant that unlike many middle-income families, black, white or purple, my family was able to ride the slipstream of wealthier whites as they pulled away from everyone else. As a consequence of those ties, the capital we have accumulated has been magnified at a level that whites at lower incomes and minority families do not experience. In this neighborhood, our income buys us access to benefits we could not otherwise afford.
We spend practically nothing on security. Our children have access to some of the best educational and social opportunities that exist. Our investment in a house, thanks to the invisible and unspoken membership it includes, appreciates consistently at a level we would not have experienced in a less affluent block. The implications of this choice were not obvious to me when we moved here. It might never have been clear to me at a conscious level if I hadn’t been too curious for my own good. None of us have to recognize the machinery at work in order to benefit from it.
Our colorblind settlement of years of racial discrimination produced some strange outcomes. A world of apparent racial equity made places like Elmhurst wealthier and as white as ever. For whites just slightly farther down the income scale, the end of racial segregation led to some very different outcomes.
Unable to attach themselves to wealthier whites, this new era of racial “equity” meant they experienced a new opportunity to be treated more or less the same as minorities. The energy behind Donald Trump and Ted Cruz boils down to one critical dynamic – for blue collar whites, the growth of pluralism offers nothing but the chance to share a common fate with black Americans. There is a quiet, functional dimension to racism in America that promises to be far more persistent than mere personal bigotry and much more painful to dismantle.
Why do I live in a white neighborhood? I live here for much the same reason as everyone else up and down the street. A deeply racist history and culture shaped the landscape over hundreds of years to make this the most attractive option for those who can afford it. The conditions that created this place are no longer visible. Yet, like the glacier that carved out Lake Michigan, this history still impacts our lives.
Racially enlightened liberals may sneer at the bigotry of blue-collar voters, but no one seems concerned that New York’s solidly Democratic Westchester County is so strangely white. America is flirting with the promise of authentic pluralism, but like a plane pushing at the sound barrier, invisible forces are pushing back.
We will not achieve the powerful benefits of pluralism on the cheap. Cruz or Trump may fail to win the White House, but demagogues will continue to resonate with struggling whites as their protections fall away. Ironically, failed racist activism by those at lower income levels may be the force that compels us to recognize how white privilege still shields the wealthy and limits broader opportunity.
White voters disadvantaged by our “color-blind” approach to racial justice might finally provide the political energy to question this arrangement. Martin Luther King once dared to believe that lower income whites might recognize common interests across racial lines. If we understand how I came to live in a white neighborhood, will that insight give us the vision and willingness to build something better? Will we ever be able to see far enough beyond our personal needs, to recognize the broader wealth that a more just society could generate?