Several folks have asked for the manuscript of my portion of the presentation on Tuesday night. I will be updating this manuscript with links and notes to the research I conducted. As usual, the words below don’t entirely match what I said, but they are pretty close:
December 4, 2018
Questions White People Are Afraid to Ask: Historical Frame
The proverbial tip of the iceberg is the 10% of a situation that is visible, while the 90% remains invisible, below the surface. The killing of EJ Bradford is the very tiniest tip of a pattern of violence that is invisible to most white folks who live in predominantly white communities. What happened on Thanksgiving night was the outcome of decades and centuries of intentional policy and strategy. What we’re going to do in the next 30 minutes is frame these events historically, culturally, and spiritually. William Faulkner said, “The past isn’t dead. It isn’t even the past.” The past is the present. So I’m going to share with you a bit about everything that led up to the killing of EJ Bradford. (Recent reporting on the protests is available here.)
William Hoover’s family were bigwigs in Jefferson County. There are a couple of things he is remembered for. He was an advocate of traffic safety. He coined the slogan, “Drive carefully; the life you save may be your own.” He was president of The Club, which sits on top of Red Mountain and looks down on Birmingham, literally and figuratively. And he was also known for being a militant segregationist. He founded the American States Rights Association which opposed integration. He published Neo-Nazi propaganda. He also founded Hoover Academy in 1963 so white kids wouldn’t have to integrate in West End. In the 1950’s he bought lots of land along Highway 31 and planned a new city for whites only.
The first attempt to incorporate the city of Hoover happened in 1964, the same year the Civil Rights Act was signed. They succeeded in 1967. (More history of Hoover is available here and here, and be sure to check out John Archibald’s article here.)
People who don’t understand how history works might say, “well that was over 50 years ago. A lot has changed since then.” Sure, a lot has changed. And a lot has not.
In 1974, Hoover built its own shopping mall, its first major retail attraction. In the 1990’s it got a significant upgrade at the Riverchase Galleria. Today,. Costco is its largest tax revenue generator. Macy’s is number 10. The median household income in Hoover is nearly 80,000 per year, compared with Birmingham, which is 32,000, less than half that. The median property value in Hoover is over a quarter million dollars; in Birmingham it is 80,000. In Hoover poverty rate is only 6%. In Birmingham, the poverty rate is about 30%. (Economic data sourced here and here.)
Why such a discrepancy? We’ve coined a term for what happened in the following decades after Hoover was founded. We call it “white flight.” But let’s call what it actually was: wealth extraction. How many folks have heard the term “redlining?” Redlining began in the 1930’s, and it was the practice of banks to surround certain neighborhoods with a red line and describe them as “undesirable” because they were predominantly black. Banks refused to give government-backed FHA mortgages to people in those areas. So, for decades, white folks could get a government-subsidized handout to build wealth, while black folks could not. As white folks built suburbs and government built big roads to access those suburbs and subsidized big cars so white folks could get back and forth to work, many black people were stuck in a Great Depression that never ended. A study by the National Community Reinvestment Coalition found that the effects of redlining are still being felt today, because those neighborhoods have never recovered. Redlining and white flight, or wealth extraction, is a large part of what is responsible today for the “Racial wealth gap,” which means that white families have an average of 10 times the net worth of black families. The number one redlined community in the 1930’s was Macon, Georgia. Number two? Birmingham, Alabama. Folks, that’s why Jefferson county has more than 30 different municipal governments, most of which were created through white flight. If you’re white, the government has been backing your family’s mortgages and city development for nearly 100 years. You have been the recipient of a huge government handout that was not given to black families. Yet today, many white folks blame the people in poor neighborhoods for their own persistent poverty.
As a clergy person and a church planter, I also need to point out that churches are complicit. New churches were planted in these growing white suburbs, and when they grew to be megachuches with wealthy givers, white pastors said, “Look how God has blessed us.”
But let’s not just pick on Hoover. Let’s take an even longer and wider view. Because in 1901, a group of wealthy white landowners—former plantation owners—gathered to write our state’s constitution. The president of the convention stated their mission on the second day in his opening speech. Now this is a verbatim quote from the transcript, which you can find online: “What is it that we want to do? Why, it is within the limits imposed by the Federal Constitution, to establish white supremacy in this State.” To establish white supremacy in this state. His own words, in the transcripts, which are available online. (The full transcript is available here. Knox’s quote is on Day Two.)
To establish white supremacy, they debated the merits of public education, and worried that public education would allow black folks to rise above white folks. They debated various ways to disenfranchise voters, and tried to figure out how they could maximize the impact on black voters while minimizing the impact on white voters; all without ever making the law explicitly about race.
Let me quote just a snippet from Delegate Coleman from Greene county at the 1901 Convention. They were debating how much property someone needed in order to vote, and he was worried that white folks in the black belt would be disfranchised along with black folks. This is what he said, and let me remind you that this is in the transcripts:
“It was never intended by saying that $300 worth of personal property of real estate, to prescribe qualifications which would enable a man to vote. The real purpose was to disable certain parties from voting in this State. Now we have been willing to concede to the white people of Alabama any provision that they could frame, and we are willing to do it now.
…If there is anything here by which any white man is disfranchised. I would like to see it pointed out. We thought we had them all in. Some gentleman said yesterday that we could not go on the stump [go out in public] and defend it, as it was. Why, fellow delegates, you cannot defend many things if you take the whole people into consideration, but you can defend it and satisfactorily when it is understood that by this provision, the ignorant and venal vote will be eliminated, and the white man continued in dominion in this State.”
Translation: We can’t defend this as policy about race, but with a nudge and a wink we can make it acceptable, as long as it doesn’t disfranchise too many poor white folks as well.
Now, look, we all know Alabama has a racist and white supremacist history. You don’t need me to tell you that. But what I want to illustrate is that the people who worked to establish white supremacy in this state and in our cities were very strategic in their thinking. In these transcripts you can can see the architecture that would guarantee white supremacy for the next century.
And the whole point of these policies is to create plausible deniability, to be able to say, “Look, this isn’t about RACE — it’s about economics. It’s about local control of education. It’s about state’s rights. It’s about crime. It’s about drug policy.” All of that is a lie.
Another way they ensure white supremacy was to make sure that property taxes were low and sales taxes were high. The reason is that the wealth of white landowners was tied up in their land. And by using sales tax, the burden of funding government could be shifted to poor people. These delegates from 1901 ensured that our public coffers would never be full enough to fund programs of social uplift. You see every year in the news that Alabama is too broke to fund education, too broke to fund state parks, too broke to fund medicaid expansion, too broke to keep voter registration sites open. You see how this works. Folks, this is not an accident. This is by design.
The architects of white supremacy were strategic in their thinking. They set up a system that would outlast them and continue to deprive black folks of resources and give them to white folks. After they died, they could pull the levers of state and city governance from beyond the grave. They left a legacy that outlasted them, and they’ve continued to out-organize us for decades. How many of us are organizing to leave a legacy of justice for our children?
And unless you are directly affected by these policies, they are invisible to you. That’s the whole point.
Hoover in 2016 rezoned large chunks of the city so they could deal with, what was called euphemistically, “the apartment problem.” The zoning and planning commission saw this as a way to prevent more apartment dwellers, namely black and Latino folks, from coming to Hoover for the quality education. Just as several years before they tried to end bus service to make it more difficult for apartment dwellers to send their kids to school.
And of course, all of this is rooted in the widespread belief among white people that black people are inferior. Oh not in so many words. Just that they are more prone to crime. That’s why we invented the phrase “black on black crime.” That they are not good parents or are not involved in their kids education. That they are “riff raff.” The implicit bias we live with has not changed in 50, or 100, or 150 years. And many of the the policies and systems which were set up to disenfranchise and disempower black folks have not changed. So even if you, in your heart, don’t consciously hate black people, it doesn’t matter—we have to change the implicit unconscious bias we live with AND we have to change systems and policies that are designed to oppress.
Let me say a few kind words about Mr. Hoover, who died back in the 70’s. He wasn’t an evil person. After all, he was concerned about traffic safety. He was a successful businessman who “gave back to the community.” I’m sure he loved him Mama and Daddy. He was, in many ways, like many of our friends, neighbors, and family. “Not a racist bone in his body,” at least not in terms of the people he actually had relationships with. Just as I’m sure Mr. Knox, the president of the constitutional convention who said white supremacy was the purpose of our state, I’m sure he loved his family and his neighbors. He was a pillar of the community. He’d probably give you the shirt off of his back.
But let me remind you of the words of Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount: If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? And if you welcome only your own family, what more are you doing than anyone else?
The measure of our faith and our justice is how much we are willing to love and extend hospitality to people who are not our tribe. It’s how much we are willing to think about someone else’s history and their experience. And for that I turn the next portion over to Cat Goodrich.