Friday, June 10, 2005


The Wachovia apology and its aftermath is laden with ironies. In order to qualify to lend financial support to an affordable housing project up north, a southern bank founded after the Civil War is required to own up to having benefited from its predecessor banks' profits in slavery. Since it failed to the first time around (and it must be sorry for that too now), it may be out of the deal. Surely, though, there's no real surprise in this scenario. Writes Gary Ashwill for the Durham-based Institute for Southern Studies:

One striking element of this story is how it keeps coming back to capitalism’s cannibalistic lineages: few current firms dabbled in slavery themselves, but many have at one time or another swallowed older companies that had swallowed still older companies that may have held slaves or owned slave ships or accepted slaves as collateral or whatever. Slavery is indelibly imprinted on the DNA of western capital, which tells you something about the historical processes that led to the hegemony of the U.S. and western Europe.

In other words, everything is related. Let's take a look at the affordable housing need that generated the redevelopment project that Charlotte-based Wachovia got involved in that triggered the Chicago ordinance that required the disclosure of the long-ago involvement in slavery.

It's in the North Kenwood-Oakland neighborhood, a once affluent area with classic inner-city problems:

During the first wave of the Great Migration between 1916 and 1920 many African Americans settled in Oakland. During the 1930s Oakland experienced its greatest diversity, with a mixture of African Americans, Germans, Jews, English, Irish, Canadians, and Japanese. Racial tensions escalated as the African American population increased. Some white residents resorted to violence and restrictive covenants to prevent blacks from moving into Oakland, but such efforts proved unsuccessful, and by 1950 Oakland was 77 percent African American.

In the 1970s, Oakland experienced a declining economic base. Public housing projects such as Ida B. Wells, once the pride of the community, became crime-infested. The former Oakland Theatre located in the heart of Oakland near 39th and Cottage Grove became the headquarters of the notorious El Rukn street gang. The city of Chicago demolished dilapidated buildings, and vacant lots were left scattered throughout the community. Oakland's average income fell below the poverty level as middle-class residents moved further south.

In the 1990s the neighborhood struggled to pull itself back together. Meanwhile by 1999, as part of a campaign launched by Mayor Daley to address Cabrini Green-type problems, the Chicago Housing Authority had demolished all but two of its high-rise apartment buildings along the lakefront in North Kenwood-Oakland.* "Today," says the CHA web site, "this neighborhood is experiencing redevelopment resurgence, with the CHA’s former Lakefront property positioned as the leader in this redevelopment movement." The relocation of hundreds thousands of dislocated residents has not gone smoothly; but we are assured that "The CHA has worked diligently with local neighborhood organizations to ensure that the design of the new Lakefront site would correspond with the aesthetics of the surrounding neighborhood."

North Kenwood-Oakland is just north of the prestigious Hyde Park neighborhood. Pressure on housing prices now is tremendous. "The lure . . . for developers is certainly understandable. Land is still available and affordable. . . . The neighborhoods are within walking distance of the lakefront, the most sought-after amenity in Chicago."

The project that the Wachovia Affordable Housing Community Development Corporation is involved in is a $9 million project to create 162 affordable housing units spread in a number of buildings throughout Kenwood and Oakland. Wachovia is the "tax syndicator" in the provision of 10 years' worth of tax credits, a service another bank could provide if it loses the right to participate.

Chicago's ordinance, enacted in 2003, aims "to promote full and accurate disclosure to the public about any slavery policies sold by any companies, or profits from slavery by other industries (or their predecessors) who are doing business with the city." Like similar ordinances in Philadelphia, Richmond, and Los Angeles--like one proposed this term, apparently unsuccessfully, for the state of North Carolina--it raises the issue of reparations.

Reparations for slavery is something that strikes me as morally just (as Eric Muller argues) but practically and politically fraught. On the other hand, as Gary Ashwill rightly points out, it ought not be that hard to atone for more recent wrongs. But that, too, turns out to be a lot to ask. Writes Ashwill,

[W]hat about the long post-slavery era of oppression under Jim Crow? That happened within living memory, and certainly involved economic exploitation along with infringement of political rights. The moment for slave reparations may have passed when Reconstruction died; but we're still barely 40 years past the Civil Rights Act, 50 years past Brown v. Board of Education. There's plenty of ongoing, present-day economic hardship, among communities and individuals that can be traced directly, unproblematically, and (pretty much) uncontroversially, to legal segregation of all sorts. But I suppose reparations for Jim Crow would be tantamount to reviving the Great Society (itself a sort of social reparations project), which ain't happening anytime soon.

Not much to add to that but a couple of footnotes. The first is about a word. According to a history of GIS mapping, "redlining" was born this way:

Searching through archives and old cartography publications, Cloud found several overlay maps from the 1930s and 1940s. They were, he says, "the most complex and accomplished uses of overlays yet found." One set, prepared by federal officials during the New Deal, depicted American cities and showed, with different translucent layers, data about problems such as high concentrations of decrepit buildings. Later maps, concealed for many years from public view, carried fateful red lines that enclosed blocks occupied mainly "by any distinct racial, national, or income group that would be considered an undesirable element if introduced into other parts of the city," in the words of a 1936 document cited by Cloud. Thus was born the term "redlining" (say, charging residents of targeted areas more for loans or insurance).

The second is a story told by Alice Walker ("Beyond the Peacock," 1975). At a reading of her work, someone let her know that Walker's childhood home was just down the highway from Flannnery O'Connor's. This was news. She later came to love O'Connor's writing, and she remembered a particular field she used to pass and admire, but she didn't know they were connected. She took her mother on a trip to Georgia to revisit the place where they lived and to visit the O'Connor site.

The house they had lived in was a sharecropper tenement. They walk past "posted" signs to find that the house is still there, at least half of it is: two of the four rooms had disintegrated and are put to use as barns. Then they go to Andalusia, as the O'Connor home is called. No one lives there, but the house has a caretaker. Walker approaches and knocks.

What I feel at the moment of knocking is fury that someone is paid to take care of her house, though no one lives in it, and that her house still, in fact, stands, while mine--which of course we never owned anyway--is slowly rotting into dust. Her house becomes--in an instant--the symbol of my own disinheritance, and for that instant I hate her guts. All that she has meant to me is diminished, though her diminishment within me is against my will. . . .

Standing there knocking on Flannery O'Connor's door, I do not think of her illness, her magnificent work in spite of it; I think: it all comes back to houses. To how people live. There are rich people who own houses to live in and poor people who do not. And this is wrong. Literary separatism, fashionable now among blacks as it has always been among whites, is easier to practice than to change a fact like this. I think: I would level this country with the sweep of my hand, if I could.

Apologize for slavery? Sure. No problem. We are all very, very sorry.

*"The 1990s saw both continuity and change for black Chicagoans. Racial issues still flared, with several cases of police brutality toward African Americans, controversy over inequitable promotions for African American police officers, and allegations of racial profiling in the affluent suburb of Highland Park. Mayor Richard M. Daley attempted to remedy the problems created by the housing projects built by his father in the 1960s with a $1.5 billion plan to remove the city's 51 high-rise projects and replace them with 'mixed income' housing. This policy, implemented in the opening years of the twenty-first century, has evoked a mixed reaction from community activists, who have argued that mixed income is but a 'euphemism for removal of the poor.'" --"African Americans," Encyclopedia of Chicago

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