"The truth will set you free. But first it will piss you off."

Gloria Steinem

Thursday, April 24, 2014

The Crabgrass Frontier: A Whiter Shade of Pale (Eighth in a Series)

In discussing the growth of the suburbs after World War II, I have so far attempted to explain the appeal of leaving urban areas in impressionistic terms, seeking to explain the nature of the general yearning rather than the collection of individual motives actually involved.  Thus my use of Professor Kenneth Jackson’s term “the crabgrass frontier” and the cultural allusions pedaled by Madison Avenue supposedly drawing on traditional American characteristics.  I also mentioned that people’s motives for making the move underwent a change during the process.  The previous post in this series introduced you to another, larger migration that had been underway much longer than that to the crabgrass frontier, and in fact was in full swing when this new frontier first opened.  I used the word “clash, and now we begin to discuss in more detail why I chose that word.

To do so, we must get past post-war yearnings and Madison Avenue slogans and examine how things really went down.  First, “frontier” was a buzzword to sell stuff.  The reality was quite different, and in considerable contrast to every other “frontier” in American history.  For starters, the crabgrass frontier was neither wild nor ungoverned.  No one had to blaze any trail; the roads already existed, making the journey both short and comfortable (another considerable contrast).  Drivers had more to fear from law enforcement than from any savages they might encounter along the way (which was good, as this trek was a twice-daily thing).  The only ones to stake out any claims were the developers, who purchased the land in large batches, then proceeded to clear it and stake out a number of individual parcels within it, to sell individually.  The pioneers of this migration may have lined up a la the rush to the Oklahoma Territory, but the line was in front of the development’s sales office, not the land itself, and everybody waited their turn.  In other words, plenty of Boomers, but no Sooners.

All this was all done under the (more or less) watchful eye of local governments.  They were good at protecting their new residents from those people that in Woody Guthrie’s classic phrase, would rob you with a six-gun, but were often in league with those who rob you with a fountain pen.  One result of this was that the developers were largely left to decide which of the many queued up outside the front door they were actually going to allow into their new frontier community, and here is where the problem came in.

Those lines were overwhelmingly filled by white people, of course, clutching evidence of their financial qualifications.  But from the very beginning, here and there, a darker face appeared among the applicants.  African-Americans had benefited from the huge demand for labor caused by the war, but as usual they had benefitted the least.  Still, some saved enough to allow them to seek this new version of the American dream.  They were joined by African American veterans, eligible under the G.I. Bill, and together they reached for this new interpretation of the American dream.  Then came the bitter reality.

A few posts ago I introduced William Levitt, who was to the post-war housing revolution what Henry Ford was to the automobile revolution, for much the same reasons.  He introduced mass production to the housing industry and reaped massive profits, making him was the example others followed.  He brought affordable housing to the masses, but he was also a racist, of that most malignant type, one who fully understood the problem, and decided to profit by it, all the while stoutly claiming that he was doing no such thing.  He also came by his racism in the usual way: he inherited it.  His parents (ironically, Jewish refugees from discrimination in Russia), resided in Brooklyn until the first black family moved into their neighborhood.  They immediately moved to the Long Island suburb of Manhasset.  The father of the interloping family was a district attorney, but no matter. 

William Levitt deflected the many accusations of racism by employing a time-honored tactic: separate and compartmentalize two interlocked issues, then claim that you are only addressing one and simply not involved with the other.  Deciding that America had both a race problem and a housing problem, and ignoring their obvious interrelationship, he decided he could solve only one of them, and simply ignored the other.  Or so he claimed.  When under fire for his policies, Levitt stoutly maintained that race was just not a factor in what he was doing.  For William Levitt, it was only an economic issue: when a black family moved into a neighborhood, it would be followed by others, causing the value of nearby white-owned property to go down.  “I have come to know that if we sell one house to a Negro family, then 90 or 95 percent of our white customers will not buy into the community,” he said.

Thus it was that a sales prospectus for the first Levittown assured potential buyers that:

"No dwelling shall be used or occupied except by members of the Caucasian race, but the employment and maintenance of other than Caucasian servants shall be permitted.”

Ah, the good old days.  Levitt’s imitators largely followed his example, because they were allowed to.  Local governments joined in, using the same economics-only logic, and together they build a web of interlocking roadblocks for African Americans seeking to join the migration to the crabgrass frontier.  African-Americans, even veterans, found that such local “restrictive covenants” and tacit behind-the-scenes agreements virtually shut them out of the new suburbs. 

The N.A.A.C.P. and other groups fought to break the several forms of restrictive covenants on the sale of crabgrass frontier properties that developers, local governments and real estate organizations had jointly established for their mutual economic benefit.  In a great oversimplification of a complex historical reality, the Federal Government declined to intervene.  This should not have happened; a 1948 Supreme Court ruling had outlawed precisely such covenants as Levitt and his imitators inserted into their deeds of sale.  The Federal Housing Administration (FHA), however, decided on a tactic that is both still employed and still referred to as “a narrow interpretation of our responsibilities” (the Supreme Court employs it frequently).  The FHA decided that its role was only technical, and while it ensured that the accounting was on the up-and-up, refused to rule against any “social” covenants local authorities might employ.  This is, of course, merely a variation of the compartmentalization logic employed by Levitt and the others to establish such restrictions in the first place, but it held, at least for a while.  Such restrictive covenants would be overturned after persistent legal effort, but by then Levitt and the others had worked out more subtle means of achieving the same thing, and continued to practice them.  To put it simply, those overseeing the migration to the crabgrass frontier simply closed the doors to African Americans (other minorities were affected also, of course, but none to the same degree).  The result?  With but very few exceptions, the new suburbs were white.  This is why the city residents I spoke of last time—who would leave when black people began to appear in their neighborhood—could be sure that their relocation to the suburbs would be worth the effort.

This is also part of what I meant by “clash,” but only part.  The effect of closing the doors to the new suburbs was to force those African Americans who had so far followed--and succeeded at--the American Dream to largely remain within the older urban areas that had been their original destination.  As The Great Migration brought even more African Americans into these older, established urban areas, they provoked a variety of reactions.  One of these was to spur a new wave of migrants to the crabgrass frontier, seeking to hide behind those closed doors.  This became the third wave of the urban exodus, and the virtual uniformity of motive quickly gave it a title:  “White Flight.”  We will take a closer—and more personal—look at this phenomenon next time.


(All Quotations from Tom Lewis, Divided Highways.)