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Class and Racial Segregation in the US and the Creation of Suburbs (1870-1940) Research Paper

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Introduction

Before the establishment of suburbs in the United States, there was little to no distinction between class segregation and race. This was mainly due to the fact that the majority of the lower-class unskilled workers were immigrants. During industrialization, many immigrants from Europe entered the United States in search of employment. As a result, there was no segregation as they had all immigrated to America with one goal in mind, and that was to find employment in the then expanding industrial sector. During the First World War, the number of African Americans in the United States increased dramatically. With more African Americans and other immigrants from eastern and southern Europe, more races were witnessed.

Factors that led to suburbanization

Suburbanization was a result of a number of factors that led to people moving from urban areas to the suburbs. Due to an influx of immigrants in the urban centers from Europe and other parts of the world, these centers became extremely congested as the population densities of the towns increased. This in turn led to other issues for instance the towns became polluted due to the number of industries that were being established, the levels of traffic had increased and generally the declining quality of life in the centers. During the First World War, a major influx of African Americans from the south was observed. As a result of this, the urban centers were considered to be dangerous and crime-infested. This also led to the rapid suburbanization of the United States (“History of Surbanization” par. 7).

Most of the immigrants in the United States came during the period of industrialization and were from Eastern and Southern Europe. In the beginning, segregation was nonexistent. Most of them have come in search of work in the flourishing industrial sector of this country, there was no room for racial affairs. As a result of this, America started being characterized by a diversity of races among them the African Americans. This resulted in sky-rocketing cases of crime. Consequently, these regions were termed no-go zones. This speeded up the suburbanization of America.

The mass production of automobiles fuelled the growth of suburbs in the United States in the early twentieth century. It allowed people to live in the outskirts and still work in the cities. Hindrances to travel were removed as people became reliant on vehicles as the main means of transport. The state thus responded with massive road-building projects. People were further compelled to move to the suburbs as a result of overpopulation within their residential areas. This paper will therefore focus on how the creation of suburbs (1870-1940) in the US and Canada helped fabricate class and racial segregation (Gans par. 6).

Suburbanization in America was influenced by both technological and social developments. The rapid development of transport routes greatly influenced suburbanization. Because of this, they may be characterized as railroad suburbs for those that developed because of the railroad passing nearby, freeway suburbs, streetcar suburbs and the early automobile suburbs. These were further reinforced by philosophies that pointed out that living outside the cities was healthier as compared to living within the cities (“Notable Kentucky African Americans Database” par. 4).

The period of transition from agricultural to industrialization led to the development of suburbs. The trend towards suburbanization was attributed to the Jeffersonian perception of democracy. Thomas Jefferson believed that rural life was good for the soul. He believed that the environment had a strong effect on human beings and that the right surroundings would encourage men and women to think clearly and rationally. These qualities, Jefferson believed were necessary for there to be a democratic society.

Thousands of Americans believed that land meant equality and freedom. So despite the fact that they were used to urban living, a majority of them who were immigrants decided to relocate as they felt that the large tracts of American land were beckoning them to claim independence on their own piece of land.

The development of the electrified streetcar in the late nineteenth century transformed most of the up-and-coming suburbs. The electrified streetcar traveled at 15 miles per hour in contrast to the horse-driven cart that traveled at five miles per hour. This development led to the increase of the radial diameter of the suburbs to ten miles around the city centers. The introduction of new technology led to some challenges. Some of them included the migration of people from Europe, businesses and industries expanded to the residential areas, the new industries, in turn, caused pollution and finally, it also led to corruption in government offices (Borchert 25).

During the Industrial Urban dominance period (1870-1930), most of the planned communities were still suburban enclaves for the well-to-do Americans. In addition to the aesthetic landscape design and the picturesque movement, suburban growth was being shaped by new ideas. An increase in the urban population led to the increase of the following problems; health, sanitation, fire, and shortage of housing. At the time the ideal solution for those who could afford the high commuting fares associated with railroads, which served a sparsely populated area was suburban housing. Suburban housing however remained unattainable for those who were not of the elite class.

The late nineteenth century suburbs were designed to appeal to the elite. The suburbs of the early to mid-twentieth century on the other hand were designed to appeal to the middle and the working classes. The great depression and the commencement of world war two greatly affected the rate at which the suburbs were growing. Non-the less the events set up the stage for a bigger and better transformation in the development of suburbs. With the financial crisis of 1929 however, it was difficult to determine who the middle class were. When the depression hit most homeowners could not afford to make the mortgage payments. When they realized that they owed more than what the homes were actually worth, they opted to give up their homes and properties to the banks for foreclosure (Sexton 3).

In this period, the lower and the working classes could not afford to live in the suburbs. One of the reasons that attributed to this was the cost of owning a home in the suburbs. Most of the people that made up the working classes were immigrants from Europe. At the time, the suburbs were considered to be reserved for the elite in society. Those in the lower and middle classes could not afford to pay the amount required to own homes. This, therefore, prevented them from owning homes in the suburbs.

Another factor that made it difficult for the lower and working-class people to own homes in the suburbs was the distance from the town centers. At a time when the transport system was not very efficient, it would therefore be very expensive to commute to work daily considering what they were earning. This was further aggravated by the great depression. The hardest hit, were the middle working class. Those that had mortgage payments opted to get rid of their assets when they realized that they owed more than what the asset was actually worth (Mack par. 6).

Effects of suburbanization

Segregation is a component of urban development that affected both the inner cities and suburbs as well. Social segregation which may either be voluntary or involuntary has continued to be recognizable in the following decades of the twentieth century. Because of the rhetoric phrase “separate but equal” which dominated both the political culture and social reality, racial and social segregation were officially legitimized. Until 1948, this contract was forbidden private contracts between private developers fostered racial segregation (Soldern 72).

Some of the programs implemented by the banking industries as well as the real estate industry effectively promoted racial segregation as they had policies that prevented African Americans from owning homes in these suburbs. It is as a result of this that most suburbs were predominantly inhabited by people of one race (Borchert par. 10).

Although there were always some critics of racial segregation, the city planning commissions were used to defending racial segregation. The argument they always put forward was that they wanted to avoid racial unrest and that they wanted to give the minorities an opportunity to practice good citizenship in their areas. The inner city Ghettos were shaped by the new deal housing policies. The building of new public housing projects further helped to encourage racial and social segregation. The element of racism was fast becoming embedded into the daily lives of the white folk. The Levitts and other residential developers had put in place restrictive covenants that prevented the African Americans from owning homes in Levittowns. These restrictions also extended to the renting of houses in these predominantly white suburb areas (Borchert par. 12).

The reason why many white Americans were reluctant to become segregated was that they knew that once their neighborhoods became racially mixed, then the value of their property, homes and savings would go down. This is because African Americans were assumed to be the cause of many social evils. For instance, crime was rampant in the areas they lived.

Other factors that led to racial segregation include the zoning of residential areas by the state committees. This further encouraged the segregation between the races as the African Americans had residential areas designated to them away from the white folk. This zoning was actually encouraged by the central government and even though it was not acceptable, it was prevalent in North America.

Under the restrictive laws that affected the African Americans, the population was that they were not allowed to vote. An incident that occurred in 1900 involved the shooting of an African American by the name Charles Benjamin O’Hara. He was shot when he protested the treatment of African Americans being harassed while they tried to register as voters. When the case was taken to court Michael Moynayhan claimed that he shot Charles in self-defense. The case was dismissed in a court of law and Michael walked free. The irony of the matter was that Charles was shot in the back, how Michael claimed self-defense and got away with it goes to show that even the judicial system was biased towards the African Americans that it was bound to give justice to (Hayden 47).

In a relatively similar case, William Biggerstaff was hanged in Helena, Montana in 1886. He had been born a slave in Shelby Kentucky. He had been arraigned in court for the murder of a man by the name Dick Johnson. He also pleaded self-defense just as Michael had, but the court found him guilty and sentenced him to hang.

In 1894, Justin W. Carter became the second African American lawyer to practice in Pennsylvania. When he died, he was lauded by the likes of Eleanor Roosevelt. This paved the way for other African Americans to venture into areas of study that were considered to be a predominantly white profession. This illustrated the role that law played in shaping the racial identity in North America in the early twentieth century (Mack 35).

Theories on segregation

Edward Shils put forward the elitist theory and went on to further argue that people can be characterized into three classes. These included the lowbrow class of people, the highbrow class of people and the middlebrow class of people. The elitist theory states that the perfect members of society be isolated from those considered to be worthless. Those classified under the highbrow class are the elites of the society and as such have the desired qualities required by the society.

The middlebrows, on the other hand, are those that aspire to become the elites in the society. In an ideal society, large numbers characterize this class. The lowbrows are those that are considered lacking the finesse of the elite. This class of people is necessary because not only do they make up the labor force, but also serve to make the middle class of people feel better about themselves so that they do not cause a revolt against the elites of the society (Broughton par. 7).

Farley carried out an experiment to find out the people’s perceptions on why the African Americans were as they were. He put forward four statements and asked those interviewed whether they strongly agreed with the statement or not. The first statement stated that the African Americans had the worst jobs, had low income and poor housing due to racial discrimination. The second statement was that the African Americans had a little inborn ability to learn. That most African Americans did not have the same opportunities to learn in order to get themselves out of poverty. And finally that most African Americans did not have the willpower and drive to get themselves out of paucity.

After the completion of this social experiment, it was found that most of the African Americans felt that the reason why they were not better placed in society was because of racial discrimination and the lack of quality learning materials. The whites on the other hand felt that the African Americans did not have the drive to want to better their lives and that they did not have the in-born ability to learn. This experiment showed how the blacks perceived their circumstances and how the whites perceived the blacks’ circumstances (Carter 124).

According to Weber, as cited by Sexton, a class is a group of people that are in the same economic situation or people in a similar situation. In the period between 1870 and 1940, a majority of the American labor force consisted of immigrants from Europe. This automatically led to the formation of a class of people that formed the labor force of North America. This is because they were experiencing and going through similar experiences in their places of work and their residential areas. Weber’s theory attempts to explain why the white American people were reluctant to mix with those from other races. The reason was that they had nothing in common that is in terms of economic and cultural aspects. This, therefore, explains why racial segregation was so widespread in North America (Sexton 4).

Other factors that led to racial segregation include the zoning of residential areas by the state committees. This further encouraged the segregation between the races as the African Americans had residential areas designated to them away from the white folk. This zoning was actually encouraged by the central government and even though it was frowned upon, it was still very much practiced in North America.

Conclusion

In conclusion, therefore, it is clear that suburbanization developed as a result of several factors. These include the rapid industrialization of America, which in turn led to an influx of people from other parts of the world. This influx of people led to the congestion of the town centers which then affected the provision of amenities such as health care, sanitation and housing. These factors led to the rapid suburbanization of America. Much as it led to the decongesting of town centers, it had other adverse effects in that it caused racial segregation in the country.

Works Cited

Borchert, James. “The Encyclopedia of Cleveland History” (n.d.). Web. 2010.

Broughton A. Daniel. Applying Social Theories to Detroit, 2010. Web. Social Policy and Thought.

Carter, William. Race, Rights, and the Thirteenth Amendment: Defining the Badges and Incidents of Slavery.2006. Web.

Gans, Levert. The Levittowners. 1965. Web.

Hayden, Delores. Building Suburbia: Green Fields and Urban Growth, 1820-2000 New York: Vintage, 2004.

History of Suburbanization, (n.d.). Web. 2010.

Mack, Kenneth. The Role of Law in the Making of Racial Identity: The Case of Harrisburg’s W. Justin Carter. (n.d.). Web. 2010.

“Notable Kentucky African Americans Database”. (n.d.). Web. 2010.

Sexton, Timothy. Classical Tradition in Social Theory: Marx, Weber & Durkheim. 2008. Web.

Soldern, von Adelheid, The Suburbanization of German and American Cities. Comment on the Nineteenth Annual Lecture of the GHI, 2005. Web.

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