The poisonous link between housing and racism in the US has received some welcome and overdue attention lately. Richard Rothstein’s book The Color of Law and George Clooney’s film Suburbicon each expose how black people have been deliberately excluded from “white areas”. City of Segregation shows how the legacy endures, 50 years after the US Fair Housing Act sought to end housing discrimination.
Andrea Gibbons focuses her meticulous research on the city where she was involved in housing justice campaigns. She describes how systematic, institutional racism has shaped LA and is “one of the most visible, universal and heartbreaking aspects of all US cities”.
LA conjures numerous images, many fostered by its most famous neighbourhood, Hollywood. But as Gibbons describes in detail, the city is riven by class and ethnic fault lines. Moreover, she shows how these lines of segregation are not fixed, but shift with movements of capital. Gibbons outlines successive waves of attacks on working class and black communities which continue today. A bit more about the city’s history would have been welcome. Also, for a book of social geography, it would have been good if the design had made the maps more legible!
The fight for a decent, secure, truly affordable and safe home has become the new frontier of class war. Gibbons captures recent (and current) attempts of corporate and political interests to clear central LA of poor people — and the resistance. Struggles against gentrification and displacement are happening everywhere, but have a particular potency in LA, where the numbers of homeless people (about 50,000), the majority of them black, are staggering.
The book gives a valuable insight into the contrasting cultures and practices of activism in the US and UK. The model of the community or labour organiser, until comparatively recently, has not been prominent here. From a British perspective, American housing campaigns, though often brilliantly organised, can seem overly controlled by full time activists.
Gibbons’ book also highlights the heroic examples of black civil rights campaigners like Charlotta Bass, the first African-American woman to own and run a newspaper (The California Eagle) in the US, which she used to challenge some of the most vicious Jim Crow-era racism.
Gibbons tends to focus her analysis on the dynamic between “whiteness and land use”. This is a very important issue, but one which can downplay the centrality of social class in understanding how cities are shaped. But quite rightly she links the particular embodied historic racism of LA to the uprisings in places like Baltimore and Ferguson and the Black Lives Matter movement.
The book addresses “the historical relationship between injustice, violence and geography,” but oddly, it doesn’t mention Donald Trump, the personification of those evils.