The Hartford Courant did the community a great service Sunday morning, publishing an above-the-fold investigative story headed “How two towns illustrate racial divide.” West Hartford is mostly white. The article is largely about West Hartford, but it could just as easily have been about Newington, Wethersfield, Glastonbury, Farmington or South Windsor.
The article presents an in-depth look at how West Hartford used zoning laws restrictive covenants, and other devices to preserve itself as a white town, and how Bloomfield became a Black town. Yes, I know Blacks and other people of color live in West Hartford, and plenty of white people in live in Bloomfield, but we all know those are just statistics. Everyone who lives in greater Hartford knows that in the more general sense West Hartford is white and Bloomfield is Black.
The Courant’s article is excellent. White people should read it and begin to see, if they haven’t seen already, how we’ve made our world white and how we keep it that way. I don’t mean to quibble with the article, but there are some things that the article doesn’t say that I believe are important.
First, I think the stories of West Hartford and Bloomfield offer an opportunity to see that we live in a white supremacist world. We think white is good and Black isn’t. White culture is good and desirable; white culture should be preserved and strived for. Black culture is bad and should be avoided. Think about it: No town in America tries to “make itself” Black. From the point of view of us white people, why would anyone want to do that? White is the standard. We want to “make” our towns white, and it’s okay if some other town “becomes” Black – any other town, so long as it isn’t ours. We want our towns to be West Hartford; we don’t want to be Bloomfield.
People in Bloomfield and towns like it will say that’s nonsense, that Bloomfield is a nice place to live, etc. They are correct – there’s nothing wrong with Bloomfield. For the most part, people in Bloomfield live pleasant lives in nice, comfortable homes. However, from the American cultural perspective Bloomfield is a Black town, and Black towns aren’t to be desired like white towns. In our hearts, most white people think that West Hartford is “better” than Bloomfield simply because West Hartford is white.
Here’s a test. Suppose our friend Senator Looney succeeds in passing legislation that limits state aid for education to municipalities with population in excess of 100,000 people. (He hasn’t made that proposal, but it actually isn’t such a bad idea.) In other words, no state education assistance for West Hartford unless it merges with some other town or towns. Look at the map: The logical merger candidates are Hartford, Bloomfield, Avon, Farmington, and Newington. Is there any question which towns West Hartford’s town manager calls about a merger? Of course not. Calling Hartford or Bloomfield would be political suicide. In order to get over the 100,000 threshold, West Hartford would merge with a white town, for sure. That’s Avon, Farmington or Newington. And when someone called West Hartford on its racism, it would defend itself by saying something like “We’re not racist. We’re merging with towns that are most like us in terms of life style, education, and community values.”
That’s white supremacy – that’s how white people live in America. White life is good and must be protected. We don’t say it; oh, no, we never would say it, and in fact most of us don’t even think it. But it’s there.
White supremacy is a cultural mindset. Most people raised in America, white and Black, have been acculturated to believe that white is better. The NAACP spent decades promoting the objective of integrating Blacks into white life because, well, white was better. That’s what Malcom X and Bobby Seale and Angela Davis were complaining about in the 60s. They saw that whether anyone believed that white social norms are “better” than the norms of other cultures was irrelevant. It’s not for white people to set some standard and expect that everyone else live by those standards.
White supremacy is a cultural mindset that has afflicted American culture from the beginning. If you read between the lines in the Courant’s article, you can see it. When you see it, you can see that it isn’t anyone’s fault. The point is that it’s there, it’s part of our world, and it’s wrong. White isn’t inherently better, and white shouldn’t be protected and preserved for white people. We live in one community, all of us, white and Black.
Second, the Courant’s article leaves out a simple but important part of the history: Greater Hartford has been a white supremacist community from the beginning, and it continues through today. We didn’t simply have an ugly little period in our history in which we divided up all the people, white and Black; we aren’t simply living with the lingering effects of a decade or two of discrimination. No, that’s not it at all. We’ve been keeping Black and white people separate from the beginning, and we continue to do it.
What do I mean by that? The story explains that West Hartford began its transformation from farm town to suburb early in the 20th century. But the article leaves out the other part of the history, which is by and large there were no Black people in Connecticut before the 20th century. Sure, we all like the feel-good stories about this Black free man or free woman in Connecticut in the 19th century, but there were no Black communities of any consequence in Connecticut then. Blacks lived in the South, not in New England.
It wasn’t until the Great Migration in the 20th century that millions of Black people left the South and began to populate the northern states in any significant numbers. And when they moved north, Blacks began to reside first in the big cities on major rail lines – Chicago in the Midwest and Baltimore, Philadelphia, and New York City on the east coast. Meaningful demographic change in greater Hartford didn’t begin until the 1920s, precisely when West Hartford began discriminating against Blacks. White people in West Hartford created and enforced racial segregation as soon as there were enough Blacks to be a “problem.” In other words, West Hartford was a white supremacist community from the beginning, and West Hartford has worked actively to remain a white supremacist community ever since.
Now, before the West Hartfordites get all bent out of shape, I’m not calling anyone a racist. Plenty of West Hartford people are well intentioned, and West Hartford is in many ways one of the most progressive, forward-looking towns in the area. What we’re talking about here is classic systemic racism. As the Courant article points out, West Hartford was built on a white supremacist model, and white people who live there (including me, when I lived there) unwittingly help to perpetuate that model. As I’ve suggested before, when we say “I like my town the way it is,” implicitly what we’re saying is “white supremacy works for me.”
Third, once we recognize that our towns are white supremacist institutions, it becomes easier to see that movements to change zoning laws to permit more affordable housing are not the answer to systemic racism. White people fight every change that threatens white supremacy, just as West Hartford whites protested the effort three years ago to build some affordable housing. Every effort to undo racism is met with opposition, because most people in town are white and “they like their town the way it is.” Taking down, brick by brick, the great segregationist wall that whites have built will take centuries.
The problem with systemic racism isn’t affordable housing laws. The problem with systemic racism is that whites don’t share power with Blacks. And, so long as the white supremacist model is working, the voters in West Hartford will remain predominantly white, and they will use their voting power to defend each brick in the white supremacist wall that “protects” West Hartford from Bloomfield. It’s a cozy, if unwitting, arrangement.
And now, fourth, back to where I started almost two years ago: We have white supremacist towns like West Hartford because we have towns. We used the town boundaries and town laws to establish a white supremacist system, and we use the town governance structure to preserve the system. Town boundaries are the walls that preserve segregation in Connecticut.
In 1960, when Connecticut was considering whether to operate primarily with town governments or with county governments, the choice to go with town government preserved the power of the white supremacists. In 1954, the U.S. Supreme Court had said that political subdivisions must integrate their schools. If Connecticut had gone to county government, Hartford County would have been legally obligated to integrate; town governments would keep the Blacks out, legally. Connecticut kept the towns because, well, “I like my town the way it is.”
Blacks remain the victims of white supremacy because they have been, in a sense, disenfranchised. They’ve been forced to live in Hartford and Bloomfield, and they have no vote in West Hartford. Town boundaries assure that white people can keep the power, and with the power white people can keep their towns white.
Greater Hartford is one segregated community, not ten or fifteen separate communities that happen to be Black or white. White supremacists used our town boundaries as the walls that segregate greater Hartford, and white people use the town boundaries today to maintain that segregation.
The solution to racism, segregation, and white supremacy in greater Hartford is to take down the walls. When we eliminate the town boundaries, Blacks and whites will share power for the first time in the history of greater Hartford. When we merge Hartford and the surrounding towns, when whites share power and decision making with Blacks, we will begin to end white supremacy, racism and segregation in our community.