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Living in black and white: How different races inhabit cities

July 10, 2012

From The Economist:

CARL NIGHTINGALE’S history of segregation claims to be a detailed account of how cities were, for millennia, divided along racial lines. But it is really a history of how colonialism affected the construction, governance and policing of great urban areas.

For the past 500 years white Europeans have often used their economic and military power to build and rebuild urban landscapes in order to grab the safest, healthiest and nicest parts for themselves. Even in places where colonial rule is now a distant memory, many urban environments cannot be understood without recalling their foundation as a fortified enclave for Europeans bent on procuring commodities or opening markets. Calcutta (now Kolkata) was set up in 1690 by a member of Britain’s East India Company, in defiance of the local Muslim overlord. It later vied with London as the biggest metropolis in the British empire.

Both colonialism itself and the divided cities it spawned reached their zenith on the eve of the first world war. As Europeans migrated in large numbers to far-flung corners of their expanding empires, the need to keep them comfortable, both physically and psychologically, meant that other groups were treated with ever greater ruthlessness. Mr Nightingale shows how the roots of apartheid in South Africa, for example, are to be found much earlier than the 1948 election victory of the National Party; they lie in the colonial project which led to the creation of Johannesburg half a century earlier with white and non-white areas. (…) Even when black people were enfranchised and began asserting their civil rights in the 1960s, politics in Chicago was manipulated in ways whose end-result was not so different from apartheid, he argues. One early factor was the emergence of a property market that was distorted by covenants which specified the race of the purchaser.

Mr Nightingale is right to point out that segregation can exist without a formal regime. But he surely underestimates the difference between a country like the United States, where the disadvantaged have legal and political tools at their disposal, and apartheid South Africa where no such tools were available. [More]

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