By Xiomara Gonzalez
The United States government has made sure to keep people of color separate from white Americans. White people were, and still are, given advantages in housing, education, and employment. Even though some may believe that America is a nation of equality, it is hard to believe when institutionalized racism still exists. During the lifetime of Henrietta Lacks, we are amidst the Jim Crow era, the height of segregation and racism. We might assume that racism and segregation are things of the past, but desegregation in America never truly happened. Examples of this are hidden in every poor neighborhood and in every suburb. Why is it that suburbs, highly populated with white people, often receive better funding for education, and healthcare, while poor neighborhoods, often filled with people of color, are ignored and neglected when it comes to basic human rights like healthcare and education? In some ways, this question answers itself. However, some of the details are rather disturbing.
Housing discrimination began at the during the first half of the 20th century. This was around the time that Henrietta Lacks was born. Skloot’s book, “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks” challenges ideas that have long been overlooked. Henrietta was a major contributor to modern science, yet her name was never known to the public. In the book, we are given the stories of several different family members related to Henrietta Lacks. Throughout the book we see constant examples of racism and inequality. We see this from the moment that Henrietta Lacks’ blood sample was placed in the “colored” section. After Henrietta dies from cervical cancer, HeLa cells continue to live on, as does her family and the consequences of the Great Depression.
In 1934, the National Housing Act was put in to play as a reaction to the massive amounts of foreclosures which occurred during the Great Depression. The purpose of the National Housing Act, a part of the Great Deal, was to make housing more affordable. It eventually led to the creation of the Federal Housing Administration. The FHA attempted to improve housing standards and help rebalance banks with new mortgages. However idealistic their attempts were, they were still rooted in segregation. The FHA endorsed segregating neighborhoods and had rules which allowed landlords to discriminate against new tenants. The Underwriting Manual of 1935 states, “Protection against some adverse influences is obtained by the existence and enforcement of proper zoning regulations and appropriate deed restrictions…Important among adverse influences besides those mentioned above are the following: infiltration of inharmonious racial or nationality groups;” This means that if a landlord feels that someone’s race or nationality is “inharmonious” with their other tenants and location, they have the right to decline them housing.
While it would seem unconstitutional to discriminate against someone based on the color of their skin, sadly, it is seeded in the everyday lives of fellow Americans. According to Badger’s article in the Washington Post, segregation became even worse after the Great Migration of African Americans from the South. This is partially because segregation was still enforced at the time. However, it was and still is influenced by the layout of cities and landlords who would only sell to whites. Many cities are still scarred with the stain of segregation. In Badger and Cameron’s article, we are shown images of cities and their racial division. It shows the current percentage of residency by ethnicity. Each race is labelled with a different color. White is blue, Hispanic is orange, African American is green, Asian is red, and Other is brown. In the images from the Washington Post article, we see splotches of colors divided by railroads, highways, avenues and rivers. Often the blue, symbolizing white Americans, is spread evenly across the map while greens, reds and oranges are tucked into neat little corners. Throughout the 19th century, railroads, natural obstacles and some man-made constructs were used as tools to divide the nation. Interestingly, the saying about “the other side of the tracks” is evident in today’s cities. Some examples of our divided nation lay in the racial complex of cities like Detroit, Pittsburgh, St. Louis and maybe even the city you currently reside in. In Kansas City, we see an evident symbol of the past. “The Troost Wall” was a legally enforced line of segregation during the Jim Crow Era that was never desegregated. Now there is clear separation of race from one side of Troost Avenue to the other.
Rothstein’s article “Public Housing: Government Sponsored Segregation” addresses some of the issues brought forth by the FHA and how it has affected the racial complex of cities today. The article states that “If a black family could afford to buy into a white neighborhood without government help, the FHA would refuse to insure future mortgages even to whites in that neighborhood, because it was now threatened with integration.” This of course was before the Fair Housing Act in 1968, which protected minorities from housing discrimination. However, it shows to what levels insurers would discriminate and for how long it has affected the opportunities of others. If the Fair Housing Act wasn’t released until 1968, that means that people were treated unfairly for more than thirty years when it came to housing discrimination. This also means that the government truly was sponsoring segregation, as the title of the article suggests.
Another way that the FHA and VA could force segregation was through the relocation of white families. “Many white families, who before the postwar housing boom lived in urban neighborhoods in proximity to African Americans, were relocated to more isolated white racial enclaves, created and promoted by government policy.” This started during the mid-1930s, which was when Henrietta Lacks was growing up. It started with the FHA, then after WWII, the VA started guaranteeing white middle-class families suburban homes for incredible rates. Most of the time, they would make sure the monthly rate was less expensive than their current residence. This affected not only the white middle-class, but the poor and minority families as well. The FHA manual at that time deemed it necessary to deny funding for entire neighborhoods because of an “incompatible racial element” and not wanting to associate with a “lower level of society.”
Segregation was forced upon many families during the Jim Crow era and throughout the 20th century, and we are still experiencing the effects of it today. “Although housing authorities nationwide had ceased purposefully segregating projects in the last quarter of the 20th century, they never took action to reverse the effect of previous policies.” This means that even though laws were put in place to help fight discriminating policies, there was no effort to desegregate the divided nation. The frightening part is that many whites today are more selective with housing, and subconsciously choose places that are more populated with other whites, while black families tend to be less selective and make no efforts to self-segregate.
This shows how differently Americans were affected by institutionalized racism. It also explains why some families are stuck in the cycle of poverty while many others prosper. This is shown in “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks”, as her white relatives are prospering while the black Lackses are still stranded in their former slave quarters. When neighborhoods are backed by the FHA, they are given more public funding for things like education and resources. When people remain uneducated, they are stuck in the cycle of poverty. They aren’t given the same opportunities in life, much of the time this means living off lower wages and being unable to support a family. This puts their children in a similar situation. When a family like Henrietta Lack’s family, are handed difficult situations, they must often choose between getting an education and taking care of children. While Deborah could persevere through high school, many women do not have the same drive or support. This repeats this cycle of poverty and of segregation.
In Johnson’s study on the effects of residential racism, we see that children who grow up in poverty have a higher likelihood of being in poverty as an adult. This study, called "The Effects of Residential Segregation During Childhood on Life Chances: Causal Evidence Using Historical Railroad Track Configurations" was done with statistics from children around the 1950s followed through to 2009. This could include Henrietta Lacks’ children. The study shows that growing up in poverty increases the probability of incarceration, and even affects physical health during adulthood. It reduces the rate of high school graduation, which impacts adult earnings. It also shows that whites were not as heavily affected by the segregation, while people of color were clearly, negatively impacted. So how can we, as a nation, say that some people deserve the lives they live when many of them are discriminated against and given fewer opportunities than others? Is it fair to judge a child who grew up with nothing, when you might have been given a decent education and housing? We need to reconcile with our pasts and finally desegregate. We need to give the same opportunities to all, and fund the neighborhoods which are desperate for help.
Badger, Emily. “How Race Still Influences Where We Choose to Live.” Washington Post, July 17 2015. https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/wonk/wp/2015/07/17/how-race-still-influences-where-we-chose-to-live/?utm_term=.1d9db8ffe6d7 (Accessed September 25th, 2017)
Badger, Emily, and Darla Cameron. "How railroads, highways and other man-made lines racially divide America’s cities." Washington Post, July 16, 2015. https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/wonk/wp/2015/07/16/how-railroads-highways-and-other-man-made-lines-racially-divide-americas-cities/?utm_term=.d986baf8fc1c (Accessed September 20, 2017)
Hanchett, Tom. "The Other "Subsidized Housing" Federal Aid to Suburbanization, 1940s-1960s." From Tenements to Taylor Homes: In Search of Urban Housing Policy in Twentieth Century America. Accessed September 18, 2017. http://www.historysouth.org/wp-content/uploads/2015/12/The-Other-22Subsidized-Housing22-Federal-Aid-To-Suburbanization-.pdf. pp. 3-4
Skloot, Rebecca. The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks (NY: Broadway Books, 2017).
“Underwriting and Valuation Procedure under Title II”, Underwriting Manual. Washington D.C., VA: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1931. From Federal Housing Association, 6/1/1935, Part II 308-314. https://prospect.org/sites/default/files/fha_1935_manual.pdf (accessed September 20th, 2017)