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If Houston is progressive, why does segregation persist?

If Houston is progressive, why does segregation persist?

Texas Southern University students are joined by alumni and community leaders as they march down Cleburne Street in Houston on Thursday, March 4, 2021.  The demonstrators commemorated the March 4, 1960 sit-in led by 13 Texas Southern students at a Weingarten grocery store, which started a sit-in movement aimed at desegregating Houston.  The sit-in at Weingarten's Supermarket was the first in a series of nonviolent demonstrations that ultimately led to the peaceful end of segregation in public places.  According to the Texas Historical Commission, Houston's lunch counters quietly crumbled on August 25, 1960.
Texas Southern University students are joined by alumni and community leaders as they march down Cleburne Street in Houston on Thursday, March 4, 2021. The demonstrators commemorated the March 4, 1960 sit-in led by 13 Texas Southern students at a Weingarten grocery store, which started a sit-in movement aimed at desegregating Houston. The sit-in at Weingarten’s Supermarket was the first in a series of nonviolent demonstrations that ultimately led to the peaceful end of segregation in public places. According to the Texas Historical Commission, Houston’s lunch counters quietly crumbled on August 25, 1960.Mark Mulligan/Staff Photographer

Once called “Heavenly Houston,” this city has long touted its harmonious racial and ethnic diversity. But the real story is of course more complicated. In the recently published “Houston and the Permanence of Segregation: An Afropessimist Approach to Urban History,” historian David Ponton III examines postwar Houston, arguing that our sense of the city as a progressive paradigm ignores the continued presence of segregation. Senior editorial writer Leah Binkovitz spoke with the University of South Florida professor to discuss Houston’s past, present and future. Their conversation has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

Q: Why Houston? This is a book about segregation in the postwar era, a point in history when we typically think of legal segregation as finally ending. What makes Houston the right place to talk about this?

A: Much urban history has focused on the big cities we know: Los Angeles; Philadelphia; Oakland, California; Washington, DC; New Orleans; Atlanta. Houston has been left out of the story of what is happening in postwar America in terms of residential segregation.

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Houston did not experience these post-war economic consequences. The economy actually grew while other economies faltered. Houston experienced no population decline, while these other cities did experience population declines. And Houston had no division between a black urban core and a white suburb. Houston already had black suburbs, some of which were federally subsidized.

Houston cannot be explained by these other mechanisms in the same way as other cities. But the outcomes were the same. There is very clear hyper-segregation of black Americans across the country, including in Houston. This means that the mechanisms, while important to understand, do not provide an explanation. And if these aren’t explanations, Houston begs the question: Why does segregation persist, right?

Q: What alternative explanation for Houston’s segregation do you explore in the book? (Spoiler alert: it’s kind of in the title.)

A: What remains are the things we see emerging in these intimate stories in the book: a persistent anti-blackness. So even today, the Kinder Institute in Houston, one of the most diverse metropolitan areas in the country, continues to see slowly declining levels of segregation, with the exception of one group in particular, and that is Houston’s black population. In fact, the Kinder Institute has noted that black Houstonians continue to live “substantially separated” from their white and Asian counterparts.

Question: Residential segregation is without a doubt the most visible consequence, but in the book you talk about all kinds of segregation. Why is segregation important? What does it do?

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A: Segregation looks like divorce. But it is also a very intimate relationship. It is necessary to have closeness and closeness.

Take the story of Green Pond for example. There is a young white boy, Billy Bodenheimer, age 12, who lived in Montrose in 1959. He was found sexually assaulted and murdered in a cooler. The city police are investigating this case. They are descending on the Green Pond neighborhood, in the area near where the River Oaks Shopping Center currently is.

Neighborhoods like River Oaks were developed in close proximity to established black neighborhoods like Green Pond because the developers thought, ‘we want to stand out from these poor black people, but we also need to be close enough to them so that they can work for us as domestic workers and so on.” So here you have this poor black neighborhood, nestled between middle-class Montrose, Black Fourth Ward, and super-wealthy River Oaks.

And this young boy dies. In the previous weeks there had been reports of a white man in his twenties trying to lure young white girls into his car. There was another example of a young black girl being sexually assaulted and murdered in the neighborhood. And several reports with the same description, of a white male preying on children in the area.

But instead of investigating that, the police go into Green Pond and pick up these seven young black men and boys. They put them in the cooler. They call it racist comments. And the young men are found guilty of this crime.

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Residential segregation therefore translates, through this structured intimacy, into a separation of power within the criminal justice system.

Q: Houston is very proud of its diversity. For some, I think this will be a difficult story to reconcile with what they see: is the city still so segregated today? What kind of reactions have you had to the work so far?

A: In response to the hesitation people may have in accepting this, first look back at Houston’s past, boosterism even in the Jim Crow era. People described Houston as a heavenly place. It was seen as a place where black people, even in the Jim Crow South, could build wealth for themselves; they could start businesses; they could survive. Where there wasn’t racial violence or intimidation by white Houstonians, you wouldn’t have to deal with the kind of violence we saw in rural places like Alabama or Mississippi. Houston has always boasted about being this progressive place in the South. I don’t want to downplay that either. Houston is a special place.

That said, that’s part of the job of the story, right?

Houston was a better place to live for many black Texans, and yet they too were hyper-segregated. They still had to deal with a lot of police brutality. They had the lowest paying jobs. Today, black people live in River Oaks, but they are very few.

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Secondly, take a look at your street: who do you live next to? Look at your child’s class: who teaches him or her? We look at segregation and it’s staring us in the face.

The question is not whether the reasoning is correct. The question is: Does your daily life reflect a truly integrated Houston? Or are we fooling ourselves?

Q: You open the book with Christia Adair, a 20th century black civil rights organizer and suffragist. You highlight all her achievements, but you also notice that she was still limited – sometimes literally – in what she could achieve or even dream because of some of these underlying dynamics.

You write that she goes to the department store and forces the salespeople to let her try on a corset. It’s kind of a perfect metaphor, right? She protests the demeaning views of black women being too dirty to try on clothes, but she does so by directly aligning herself with a different kind of restrictive ideology.

This is very much a book about Houston’s history, but you also argue that we need to dream new dreams about the future. How? I always struggle with what a real out-of-the-box dream looks like.

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A: I’m with you, Leah. We will both struggle with the dream part.

I want people to say by the end of this text: this whole system of segregation was built up, and we spent a lot of money on it; and the system of police brutality, and we spend a lot of money perpetuating it. And there is a system of divesting from public education, which ironically costs a lot of money. We have invested in these structures that make life harder for poor Houstonians of all racial groups and also for Black Houstonians as a racial group.

But there really is no limit to how we can dream differently. Imagine the wildest thing possible. What would it look like to create a Houston that reflects the things you dream about most?

Leah Binkovitz is a senior editorial writer for The Houston Chronicle.