Race, Fair Housing and the Outer Boroughs: 1970's Edition

On the subject of race, words matter. Negro, Black, Afro-American. As times changed after the Second World War, each one denoted respect, or its opposite. "Colored" was the language of the Jim Crow South, and it indicated a particularly ugly and backward-looking point of view.

I learned this in the New York City of the 1970's. Growing up in one of the outer boroughs, I practiced Little Michael Jackson's dance moves with my subway buddy, Leslie, waiting for the Number 4 train. Leaning out the window of our apartment I developed a lifelong love of the salsa music being practiced at the VFW Hall across the street by apprentice musicians from Puerto Rico who on the weekends electrified the dance floors in the Bronx Boriqueno clubs. We learned through Dr. King to refer to our darker-skinned friends as Negro; and then as they grew Afros and donned dashikis, they instructed us to call them Black.

At our magnet high school, through music, food, adolescent hormones and the contact high of being with other kids who were different, but all the same, a little dorky--geeky was not a word yet--we built a culture of inclusion. Thrilled to be away from the vigilant eye of protective parents, we developed an appreciative understanding of others. We were, truly, better together.

We were lucky. Through the social experiment of magnet schools like Bronx Science and Stuyvesant, New York City brought kids from diverse racial and ethnic backgrounds together to learn, play and bond. Many of my classmates of color went on to the Ivy League, into the middle class, and even beyond. But what the schools did for us, they could not do for many other young New Yorkers, because of the persistence of housing segregation. For kids who did not have the skills to ace those admission tests, who could not travel up to an hour each way on public transportation, neighborhood high schools remained drearily monochrome.

The reason was, in large measure, housing discrimination. Sometimes it was a matter of income. But often, in modest neighborhoods like the one I grew up in, it was a refusal to rent to people of color. I was reminded of this the other night during the Presidential debate, as Donald Trump defended the practices of his rental housing properties during those same 1970's. Trump was at the beginning of his career with his father's real estate business in Queens, when I was in high school. According to court filings, the Trump Organization illegally declined the applications of minority applicants for apartments. Some applications were allegedly coded "C" for "colored" --the Jim Crow term, the label so ugly and full of hate that Hillary Clinton could not bring herself to mouth it as she skewered the practices of the young Donald Trump. It took a suit by the US Justice Department to end these alleged violations of fair housing laws by Trump and others like him. The exchange between the two candidates took me right back to the outer boroughs of my youth. I remember how much we gained by being together, how much we have to lose if we let demagogues drive us apart-- and I recognized in the man on TV the bigotry that made a truly integrated community impossible for so many New Yorkers of my generation.