A Way Out: America's Ghettos and the Legacy of Racism / Edition 1

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After decades of hand-wringing and well-intentioned efforts to improve inner cities, ghettos remain places of degrading poverty with few jobs, much crime, failing schools, and dilapidated housing. Stepping around fruitless arguments over whether or not ghettos are dysfunctional communities that exacerbate poverty, and beyond modest proposals to ameliorate their problems, one of America's leading experts on civil rights gives us a stunning but commonsensical solution: give residents the means to leave.

Inner cities, writes Owen Fiss, are structures of subordination. The only way to end the poverty they transmit across generations is to help people move out of them—and into neighborhoods with higher employment rates and decent schools. Based on programs tried successfully in Chicago and elsewhere, Fiss's proposal is for a provocative national policy initiative that would give inner-city residents rent vouchers so they can move to better neighborhoods. This would end at last the informal segregation, by race and income, of our metropolitan regions. Given the government's role in creating and maintaining segregation, Fiss argues, justice demands no less than such sweeping federal action.

To sample the heated controversy that Fiss's ideas will ignite, the book includes ten responses from scholars, journalists, and practicing lawyers. Some endorse Fiss's proposal in general terms but take issue with particulars. Others concur with his diagnosis of the problem but argue that his policy response is wrongheaded. Still others accuse Fiss of underestimating the internal strength of inner-city communities as well as the hostility of white suburbs.

Fiss's bold views should set off a debate that will help shape urban social policy into the foreseeable future. It is indispensable reading for anyone interested in social justice, domestic policy, or the fate of our cities.

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What People Are Saying

Samuel Issacharoff
Making an entirely novel proposal, this book is fair, accurate, and just plain smart. I have not seen so bold a public policy pronouncement in quite some time.
Samuel Issacharoff, Columbia Law School
Randall Kennedy
Fiss sets forth with admirable clarity and rigor an integrationist manifesto for the early twenty-first century. The most striking aspect of his book is the unembarrassed, unequivocal, unblinking manner in which Fiss champions a position that has been in retreat since the mid 1960s. Fiss is boldly and seriously advancing ideas that will be scoffed at by dominant sectors of both the political right and the political left.
Randall Kennedy, Harvard Law School
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780691088815
  • Publisher: Princeton University Press
  • Publication date: 2/3/2003
  • Edition description: New Edition
  • Edition number: 1
  • Pages: 144
  • Product dimensions: 5.75 (w) x 9.75 (h) x 0.60 (d)

Meet the Author

Owen Fiss is Sterling Professor of Law at Yale University. His books include "The Irony of Free Speech, Liberalism Divided", and "The Civil Rights Injunction". Joshua Cohen is Leon and Anne Goldberg Professor of Humanities and Professor of Philosophy and Political Science at MIT. He is Editor of "Boston Review". Jefferson Decker, a former managing editor of "Boston Review", is a graduate student in U.S. History at Columbia University. Joel Rogers is the John D. MacArthur Professor of Law, Political Science, and Sociology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and founder and director of the Center on Wisconsin Strategy (COWS).
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Read an Excerpt

A Way Out

America's Ghettos and the Legacy of Racism
By Owen Fiss


Copyright © 2003
All right reserved.

ISBN: 0691088810

Chapter One

Part 1


There is so much to celebrate in America. The nation is the strongest and most prosperous the world has ever known. We have enjoyed the blessings of a constitutional democracy for more than two hundred years. Civil society is endowed with effective and vibrant private institutions. The United States economy is highly productive and is the locomotive that drives the world economy. With a remarkably high standard of living, we are imbued with the sense of power and satisfaction that comes from having so many of the things that money can buy-travel, leisure, cars, and beautiful homes.

In the shadow of this glory, profound problems persist, some close to the core of our civilization. Perhaps the most glaring is the presence in our cities of communities known as ghettos. The persons living in the typical ghetto are black, but, even more significant, they are poor. Many are on welfare, and even those who work tend to earn amounts that place them beneath the poverty line. As a consequence, the housing stock is old and dilapidated, retail establishments scarce, crime rates high, gangs rampant, drugs plentiful, and jobs in short supply.

Living under such adverse conditions tests the human spirit. It demands resiliency and ingenuity, and a fair measure of faith. The survivors are often strong and determined individuals, who, through hard work and the elemental bonds of love and friendship, have made a life in the inner city for themselves and their families. The ghetto is their home. It has also been home for some of America's most talented writers and artists. Yet alongside these individual truths is a collective one, vividly and poignantly described by James Baldwin forty years ago in Letter from a Region in My Mind. The ghettos of America were produced by the most blatant racial exclusionary practices. As a vestige of our unique and unfortunate racial history, they continue to isolate and concentrate the most disadvantaged and, through this very isolation and concentration, perpetuate and magnify that disadvantage.

Since the time that Baldwin wrote and during the Second Reconstruction-the period in American history begun by Brown v. Board of Education-some black families have managed to flee the confines of the ghetto, as Baldwin and the most gifted of his generation once did. These families now live in more upscale neighborhoods, a few integrated, the others predominantly black. The poor and jobless have remained behind in the ghetto, their numbers swollen and their plight worsened as both jobs and those who succeeded economically left the inner city. Housing stock aged, social institutions deteriorated, and crime escalated. By concentrating and isolating the poor and jobless, the ghetto turned neighbors on each other and, over time, created a sector of the black community known as the underclass. The members of this class suffer from a multitude of disadvantages that can ultimately be traced to racial discrimination and its economic consequences. Those disadvantages prevent them from enjoying the splendor of America or improving their position. They are the worst off in our society, and their plight stands as an affront to the ideal of equality embodied in the Fourteenth Amendment.

Many strategies have been devised for addressing the needs of the underclass, some even tried. All are imperfect. The disparity between the magnitude of the problems and the modesty of the proposed remedies is simply overwhelming. The most tempting are those that leave the ghetto intact while attempting to improve the day-to-day life of those who remain confined there. Examples of such remedies include creating jobs, allocating new resources to local schools, and strengthening the enforcement of the criminal laws. What all these remedies overlook, however, is that the ghetto itself is a structure of subordination, which, by isolating and concentrating the most disadvantaged, creates the very dynamics that render the quality of life of those forced to live in it so miserable and their prospect for success so bleak.

The only strategy with any meaningful chance of success is one that ends the ghetto as a feature of American life. Pursuing this remedy requires providing those who are trapped in the ghetto with the economic resources necessary to move to better neighborhoods-black or white-if they so choose. With the means to move, most will leave, and that will be enough to break the concentration of mutually reinforcing destructive forces-poverty, joblessness, crime, poorly functioning social institutions-that turn the ghetto into a structure of subordination. The physical space that once belonged to the ghetto quickly will be reclaimed by developers and transformed into a new, up-and-coming neighborhood.

Providing ghetto residents with such a choice of residence in a way that promotes economic integration has been tried with success in the very recent past, though only through pilot programs with very limited reach. I believe that we must expand these programs and defend them on the grounds of justice. The ghetto is responsible for the creation and maintenance of the black underclass, and the proposed deconcentration program should be seen as a remedy for the role that society and its agent, the state, have played in constructing the ghetto in the first place.

Providing the resources necessary for such a program will have vast economic consequences for the country. Great human and social costs will also be involved. Means might be devised to facilitate moving and to lessen the disruption of a move. But no matter what, those who take advantage of the opportunity to leave will lose the comfort and support of neighbors they have known over the years and will face substantial hardships in adjusting to new communities. Because many are likely to leave, those who consider staying put will find the context of their decision radically altered. Communities will be broken up, and receiving communities will need to undergo long processes of adjustment.

All these consequences, like the conflicts engendered by earlier efforts at school desegregation, are very disturbing. Yet they seem inescapable. The only alternative to a program that seeks to expand choice is to condemn a sector of the black community to suffer in perpetuity from the devastating effects of our racial history.


Although our ghettos were never surrounded by the physical walls that often marked the European ones, a blend of economics and racial practices produced the same sense of confinement. Over the course of the twentieth century, principally starting after the First World War, millions of blacks left the agricultural areas of the South and moved to the growing urban centers of the nation, some in the South, others in the North and West. These migrants had no savings and few employable skills. The skills they acquired on the farms and plantations were of very limited value in the cities, and the poor education they had earlier received only compounded their competitive disadvantage. Most were educated under the Jim Crow system and thus attended schools that were systematically short-changed and grossly inferior. Separate schools were never equal.

The newcomers settled in urban sectors with the oldest and poorest housing stock, and remained clustered in these neighborhoods. Initially this form of segregation might have been attributable to the very understandable desire, shared by every group of immigrants, to seek the help and support of friends and relatives. But more pernicious dynamics were also at work, which excluded the black migrants from white neighborhoods and endowed their segregation with a remarkable degree of permanence.

Even in the North, the newcomers encountered Jim Crow, though often in new guise. Children were nominally assigned to schools on the basis of residence, but the segregation of neighborhoods and the gerrymandering of attendance zones insured that blacks attended one set of schools and whites another. The education blacks received was, once again, inferior and provided them with few of the skills necessary for upward mobility. Their parents and others of working age were either barred from employment or relegated to the lowest-paying or most-demeaning jobs because of race.

As a result, it was almost impossible for the newcomers to the cities to improve their economic position or even to imagine a move to a better neighborhood. In the years following the Second World War, the federal government responded to the needs of the very poor by building housing projects. Although rent was subsidized, the construction of public housing only reinforced racial housing patterns. Local authorities, knowing that the occupants were likely to be black, confined these projects to the black areas of the city.

Even the few blacks who prospered economically or professionally found it difficult, if not impossible, to rent an apartment or buy a house in a white neighborhood. At one point in our history, the municipal zoning power was used explicitly to confine blacks to certain areas of the city. After such ordinances were declared illegal in 1917, greater reliance was placed on racially restrictive covenants, which obliged buyers never to sell their newly acquired houses to blacks. In 1948 the Supreme Court declared racial covenants illegal, but other barriers persisted.

White property owners refused to sell or rent to blacks. Some banks refused to make home mortgage loans to blacks altogether, and others disfavored so-called changing neighborhoods. Those blacks who were lucky enough to find a willing seller or landlord and dared to move to a white neighborhood faced great hostility and harassment, sometimes even violence. Lorraine Hansberry's A Raisin in the Sun, which opened on Broadway in 1959 and two years later was released as a film, still stands as a monument to the ordeal of a black family moving to a white neighborhood.

Usually the state acquiesced in these exclusionary practices. Sometimes it actively supported them, even after the Supreme Court declared racially restrictive zoning and covenants to be illegal. In the postwar era, the Federal Housing Administration (FHA) played a pivotal role in the development of the suburbs by issuing home mortgages and lowering the cost of housing. As Kenneth Jackson explains in Crabgrass Frontier (1985), the FHA consistently promoted, or at least reinforced, bank practices that made it virtually impossible for blacks to get mortgages for homes in white neighborhoods. The FHA Underwriting Manual in force during the 1950s warned that "if a neighborhood is to retain stability, it is necessary that properties shall continue to be occupied by the same social and racial classes."

In time these policies were also abandoned, but others were instituted that had similar effects. As late as 1964 the voters of California approved an initiative, the notorious Proposition 14, that reaffirmed the right of property owners to sell or rent to whomever they wished. This measure was described by the Supreme Court as a thinly veiled attempt to encourage racial discrimination. It was held unconstitutional in 1967.

In April 1968, in the immediate wake of the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., Congress passed a federal fair housing law. The law created new opportunities for those who had the economic means to move out of the ghettos into more affluent, typically white neighborhoods. Admittedly blacks seeking to move had to cope with resistance to that law and considerable hostility. Still, the 1968 law made exodus from the ghettos easier and thus began to chip away at one important source of confinement.

When the fair housing act was initially passed, only a few blacks were able, as a practical matter, to take advantage of their newly expanded freedom. Yet over the next thirty years this changed. The number of blacks financially able to leave the ghettos increased significantly, thanks to the general growth of the economy and, perhaps even more important, to a number of civil rights strategies instituted during the Second Reconstruction.

During this period, efforts were made to spread resources more equitably among schools and to give black Americans access to some of the better elementary and secondary schools. The 1954 decision of the Supreme Court in Brown v. Board of Education decreed as much, but it was not until the late 1960s that open resistance to that decision was overcome and practical steps, usually under court order or threat of terminating federal financial assistance, were taken to implement it. In lock-step fashion, the doors of higher education were also opened to blacks.

A federal fair employment law was enacted in 1964, and full enforcement began in 1968. Affirmative action programs also appeared in the late 1960s and early 1970s, and over the next thirty years dramatically enhanced the process of integration. These programs gave preferential treatment to blacks in employment and in certain educational sectors that controlled access to the professions and other high-paying careers.

As a result of all these policies, plus a growing economy, a sector of the black community-generally referred to as the black middle class-emerged with the economic means to exercise the freedom conferred under the 1968 fair housing law. These individuals claimed for themselves what has long been thought part of the American dream-moving to a better neighborhood. It is hard to leave friends and familiar surroundings, but everyone recognizes that the quality of life-vulnerability to crime, the nature of one's kids' friends and classmates, the quality of stores and housing-depends, in good part, on one's neighborhood. Many people move when they have the economic means to do so, and the new black middle class was no exception. Most moved to what were then white, middle-class neighborhoods. Some of these stabilized as racially integrated neighborhoods; others experienced so-called white flight and emerged as middle-class black neighborhoods.

Like Baldwin and the lucky few of his generation, the families who moved during this period were the exception. Against all odds, they were able to seize the new opportunities created during the Second Reconstruction and escape the harsh realities of ghetto life. But the bulk of those living in the ghetto remained there, bearing the full burden of America's racial history, stymied by poverty and by the discriminatory practices that persist to this very day in housing, employment, and education. Indeed, ghettos have continued to grow in recent decades, both in geographical reach and population. In 1970, 2.4 million blacks lived in neighborhoods where more than 40 percent of the persons were below the official poverty line. By 1990 the number had risen to 4.2 million. The comparable figure from the 2000 census is not yet available, but it is fair to assume that the same trajectory has continued.


Excerpted from A Way Out by Owen Fiss Copyright © 2003 by
Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents

PART I: What Should Be Done for Those Who Have Been Left Behind? by OWEN FISS 3
Communities, Capital, and Conflicts BY TRACEY L. MEARES 51
Better Neighborhoods? BY ROBERT COLES 57
Beyond Moralizing BY J. PHILLIP THOMPSON 60
Exit and Redevelopment BY GARY ORFIELD 74
Relocation Works BY JAMES E.ROSENBAUM 79
Against Social Engineering BY JIM SLEEPER 92
If Baldwin Could Speak BY STEVEN GREGORY 102
PART III: A Task Unfinished BY OWEN FISS 113
Notes on the Contributors 127
Index 129

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"Making an entirely novel proposal, this book is fair, accurate, and just plain smart. I have not seen so bold a public policy pronouncement in quite some time."—Samuel Issacharoff, Columbia Law School

"Fiss sets forth with admirable clarity and rigor an integrationist manifesto for the early twenty-first century. The most striking aspect of his book is the unembarrassed, unequivocal, unblinking manner in which Fiss champions a position that has been in retreat since the mid 1960s. Fiss is boldly and seriously advancing ideas that will be scoffed at by dominant sectors of both the political right and the political left."—Randall Kennedy, Harvard Law School

Read More Show Less

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