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How New York Became the Capital of the Jim Crow North

Racial injustice is not a regional sickness. It's a national cancer.
Spencer Platt/Getty Images

Ninety years ago, Donald Trump’s father was arrested at a Klan parade — in Queens. Fifty-five years ago, more than 10,000 white mothers marched over the Brooklyn Bridge to protest a very modest school desegregation program. Fifty years ago, 16,000 people packed into Madison Square Garden to cheer George Wallace’s candidacy for president. And a mere three years ago, New York City settled a federal lawsuit that had branded the NYPD’s stop-and-frisk practices unconstitutional and a form of racial profiling.

The events in Charlottesville earlier this month have focused urgent public attention on the history of white nationalism and white supremacy in the South. But there is a danger that this necessary focus on the South will obscure the long and sordid history of racism in the North, where it often hides behind polite faces, coded language, arcane policies and venal law enforcement rather than torch-lit marches through the streets. But that does not mean the racism of the Jim Crow North is less destructive, or its history is less important.

As in the South, that task of confronting historical racism will not happen only through the removal of metal sculptures. The first step is to understand the history of racism outside of the South, in the regions of the United States we call the Jim Crow North. Racial injustice was not a regional sickness. It was a national cancer.

Jim Crow segregation and racism had a strange and robust career outside of the South, especially in that supposed bastion of liberalism, New York City. Citizens at every level of New York society gave it life: journalists at national newspapers, wealthy suburban homeowners, working-class renters, university bureaucrats, police commissioners, mayors, union leaders and criminal court judges.

Many did so at the same time they condemned racism in the South. Indeed, one of the longest-standing facets of Northern racism and segregation was the constant deflection to the problems in the South. “Ultraliberal New York had more integration problems than Mississippi,” Malcolm X observed. “The North’s liberals have been for so long pointing accusing fingers at the South and getting away with it that they have fits when they are exposed as the world’s worst hypocrites.”

Slavery arrived in New Amsterdam, the colony now home to Manhattan, in 1626. It remained intact during and after the American Revolution, when slaves still represented 20 percent of New York’s population. The state outlawed new racial slavery in 1799, but masters still had use of their slaves, and their children, for 28 more years.

Nor are the city’s hands clean when it comes to the Civil War. New York was a stronghold of abolitionism, but it also bred proslavery sentiments and anti-immigrant white nationalism. The majority of city voters did not vote for Abraham Lincoln in 1860 (nor in 1864) because the city’s economy, its ports and its banks were wedded to slavery. In July 1863 a bloody Civil War battle actually happened in New York City (although we rarely recognize it as an official battle in the war) when immigrant artisans rebelled against the Union Army’s mandatory draft. They attacked draft offices, Republican newspapers and black people, killing random African Americans in the streets and even burning down the colored orphanage.

Nor did the end of the war and slavery bring racial reconciliation to New York. Just as Jim Crow segregation laws spread throughout the South in the 1890s and early 1900s, black people in New York suffered from written and unwritten rules against racial mixing in marriage, public accommodations and housing. Racial violence broke out in New York City over brutal encounters between black people and police officers in 1900, 1935 and 1943.

Not even the nation’s fight against the Nazis eliminated Jim Crow practices from New York City. When the city’s master builder, Robert Moses, expanded construction of housing, parks, playgrounds, highways and bridges in the decades following World War II, he adhered to ethnic composition rules for urban planning. This practice exacerbated the racial segregation that already existed in the city’s neighborhoods. The Federal Housing Authority’s neighborhood rating system and city zoning policies meant that New York City schools and neighborhoods grew even more segregated after the war.

The building of Stuyvesant Town, a residential development in New York City, shows how both private decisions and public policy shaped the Jim Crow North. Made possible by the city’s use of eminent domain to clear the area, the reversion of public streets and land to private ownership and a 25-year tax abatement, Stuyvesant Town opened in 1947 completely racially segregated. (Moses, who had championed the project, had directly opposed inserting a provision into the city contract that would have opposed discrimination in tenant selection.) When black people sued, the New York Supreme Court protected segregation and sided with the developer’s claim that the development was private — despite all the public money used to make it possible — and therefore entitled to discriminate as it sees fit.

With the Supreme Court’s decision in Brown v. Board of Education, black parents and civil rights activists thought desegregation would finally come to the city’s separate and unequal schools. But city leaders, many white New Yorkers and the city’s newspapers repeatedly demurred. Schools superintendent William Jansen directly instructed his staff to refer to New York City’s segregated schools as “separate” or “racially imbalanced”: “The use of the word ‘segregation’ in releases is always unfortunate.”

After a decade of meetings, rallies and black parent organizing, on Feb. 3, 1964, over 460,000 students and teachers stayed out of school to protest the lack of a comprehensive desegregation plan for New York City schools — the largest civil rights demonstration of the era, far outstripping the March on Washington. But the city bowed to white parents’ pressure not to desegregate.

As that episode suggests, opposition to civil rights activism was fierce in New York. In 1964, a year before the passage of the Voting Rights Act, in a poll conducted by the New York Times, a majority of white people in New York City said the civil rights movement had gone too far. Respondents spoke of black people receiving “everything on a silver platter” and of “reverse discrimination” against whites. Nearly half said that picketing and demonstrations hurt black people’s cause.

Civil rights opponents in New York weren’t trumpeting segregation at the schoolhouse door. Rather they laid blame for black poverty, over-policing of black communities, educational disparities and black uprisings at the foot of black people’s “cultural deprivation,” not the histories of segregation and discrimination that had shaped this city’s political, economic and social life since the 17th century. Which makes it unsurprising that a sold-out audience cheered Alabama Gov. George Wallace at Madison Square Garden, when he campaigned in New York City in 1968.

More recently, New York City became a primary practitioner of the racially discriminatory policing practice called “stop, question and frisk.” Such tactics targeted nearly 4.5 million individuals for no reason other than the color of their skin and the neighborhood they were walking through. Only one word exists for that: racism.

When racism is portrayed only through spitting and screaming, tiki torches and vigilante violence, many people rest easy, believing they share little responsibility for its maintenance. But systemic racial discrimination has long existed across the country and worked through multiple means: through language that disguised it, through government bureaucracy and the leveraging of political power and law enforcement that enabled it, and through arguments about cultural dysfunction that justified inequity and the need for punitive approaches.

Statues of Confederate soldiers and generals who rose up in rebellion against the United States need to come down. But when they do, we will still have to grapple with the history of racism in our country, especially in the Jim Crow North, where we have yet to recognize how deep our history of racial segregation is and yet to do the necessary work of removing its destructive practices and effects.