It Matters If You're Black or White: Segregated Communities Are Now the Norm in the US. Britain Will Follow If We Don't Address Inequality-And Fast, Writes Alice Miles

By Miles, Alice | New Statesman (1996), August 22, 2011 | Go to article overview

It Matters If You're Black or White: Segregated Communities Are Now the Norm in the US. Britain Will Follow If We Don't Address Inequality-And Fast, Writes Alice Miles


Miles, Alice, New Statesman (1996)


The consensus at Ian's Bakery, where the scones seem to take their inspiration from the Rocky Mountains framing us, is that the police should have shot back. Footage of the riots in England played for days on the news--a rare penetration of British news that isn't about the royal family into mainstream American consciousness.

A woman in London whose shop had been ransacked was shown pleading for police protection. The response was unanimous: give her a gun. "What the hell they doin'?" asked one man. "Shoot 'em." Admittedly this was the Midwest, where the baker shoots bears in his spare time and hands out the roasted meat free with the breakfast burritos. Still, these people reflected a healthy dose of American opinion that simply would not have put up with what they were watching. They couldn't believe the shop owners were not allowed to defend themselves, and shook their heads in amazement when I said the police were banned from shooting, too--not even plastic bullets or water cannon.

Another man, a retired army officer studying post-colonial literature--no honky-tonk cowboy--racked his brains to recall disorder of this sort in the US and came up with the Watts riots of 1965. There has been plenty of rioting in the US since then, but it largely occurs around colleges and in poor inner-city areas, so he had not noticed it. The reason why is evident in the suburbs, where I'm writing this: mile upon mile of tasteful clapboard, a low-density sprawl that the writer Eric Schlosser has described as "the architectural equivalent of fast food".

Over the past 20 years, immense subdivisions of small towns have sprung up all over Colorado: "the houses seem not to have been constructed by hand but manufactured by some gigantic machine, cast in the same mould and somehow dropped here fully made. You can easily get lost in these new subdivisions .. . without ever finding anything of significance to differentiate one block from another--except their numbers. Roads end without warning, and sidewalks run straight into the prairie, blocked by tall, wild grasses that have not yet been turned into lawns."

Here is where the white people live, segregated from black America. More than half of America lives in suburban areas; in Europe, two-thirds of us are urban. In tidy houses in neat suburbs, policed by small private armies of security guards and homeowners' committees, white America insulates itself from black.

House rules

With the new suburbs come rules: rules about the size of your trash can, the number of Christmas lights you may display, the colour of your curtains, the weight of the family dog. Professor Setha Low, a former president of the American Anthropological Association, says these rules entrench middle-class values. "Middle-class families imprint their landscapes with `niceness', reflecting their own landscape aesthetic of orderliness, consistency and control," she observes in Behind the Gates: Life, Security and the Pursuit of Happiness in Fortress America.

This homogeneity in effect excludes ethnic minorities. "Racist fears about the 'threat' of a visible minority, whether it is blacks, Latinos, `Orientals', or Koreans, are remarkably similar. This is because many neighbourhoods in the US are racially homogeneous. Thus, the physical space of the neighbourhood and its racial composition become synonymous."

You can gate without putting in gates property prices, residents' associations and just knowing one another's business act as effective barriers to outsiders. "Quiet laws" and indirect economic strategies limiting the minimum lot or house size, cul-de-sacs that allow for easy monitoring of who is where and social regulations complete the separation. In major metropolitan areas of the US, half of all new housing is built and sold as part of a collective regime, with privatised rubbish collection and security, and covenants regulated by governing bodies. …

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