The West Chester University Frederick Douglass Institute sponsored a panel discussion in Sykes Theater on Thursday, March 1 from 12:30 to 1:45 p.m. as part of their Lunch (En)Counters spring series.
The panel discussion was centered around author Richard Rothstein’s “The Color of Law: A Forgotten History of How Our Government Segregated America.” The panelists were public policy and administration associate professor Kristen Crossney, history professor Karin Gedge and WCU alumna Fredda Maddox.
Crossney’s presentation focused on redlining, defined by dictionary.com as “a discriminatory practice by which banks, insurance companies, etc., refuse or limit loans, mortgages, insurance, etc., within specific geographic areas, especially inner-city neighborhoods.”
Crossney kicked off her presentation with a quote by University of California Berkeley professor John A. Powell: “There are no explicit laws now that say blacks can’t live in a certain neighborhood, which was true at the turn of the century in Baltimore and other cities. We actually had cities passing laws saying blacks and whites could not live on the same block, or saying that blacks could not hold jobs over whites. Today, we have many of the same practices without the explicit language, and those practices are largely inscribed in geography. And so, geography does the work of Jim Crow laws.”
Crossney’s research on redlining supports Powell’s statement. “Geographical location is the key to everything,” she said. “But think about what is tied to your location.”
Crossney mentioned that this includes the quality of amenities in one’s house and neighborhood, as well as what public services and education are available.
Crossney said that even now there are economic shifts that affect people differently. She gave an example of schools’ access to technology. Some schools can provide a tablet or laptop to each student. For schools who do not have the ability to do so, they allow students to bring their own. However, Crossney noted a third scenario in which students do not have access to technology at school or at home. “There are multiple tiers of inequality within the system,” said Crossney.
So although overt discrimination is no longer legal, Crossney explained, the effects are still felt today. “But perhaps most concerning is that we’re still left with the consequences of racism that was legal almost 100 years ago,” said Crossney.
In her segment, Maddox, an attorney and former Pennsylvania state trooper, discussed race and jury selection. To begin, she asked the audience members to imagine they were being tried as a defendant. Maddox pointed out that in Chester County, all of the judges are Caucasian, as are most prosecutors and often the majority of the jury pool.
“Do you think, the moment you walked into that courtroom, that you really are going to get an honest chance?” she asked, then pointed out, “Because if you know about the sixth Amendment, it’s supposed to be a jury of your peers.”
One can only serve on a jury if they are registered to vote. As Maddox noted, black people were not allowed to vote during the Jim Crow era, and thus were not eligible to serve on a jury.
Maddox referenced the case of James Batson, an African-American man convicted of burglary by an all-white jury. Batson appealed his conviction, arguing that the prosecutor’s dismissal of black potential jurors violated the sixth and 14th Amendments. In 1986, the United States Supreme Court ruled in the Batson v. Kentucky case that jurors could not be dismissed based solely on their race.
Maddox then told the audience about Medgar Evers, an African-American civil rights activist who was assassinated by a white supremacist in 1963. Byron De La Beckwith, a member of the Ku Klux Klan, was arrested and tried twice. Both times the all-white juries failed to reach a verdict. It was not until 1994 that Beckwith was found guilty of murder.
“The difference was the jury pool,” said Maddox. “It was more of a balance [between white and black people].”
Gedge brought the panel to a close with a presentation on myths surrounding race and segregation. Some myths she discussed were the ideas that “segregation in housing and neighborhoods is the result of ‘people just wanting to live with others like them’” and that “since whites made more money and worked harder, they were able to ‘flee’ the immigrant city slums and buy homes in the suburbs.”
In reality, Gedge explained, governmental policies at all levels separated white and black people while giving subsidies to white people and denying them to black people. Additionally, public housing projects “deliberately designated” buildings and neighborhoods as “white” or “black,” even if they had previously been integrated. State licensing agencies also “knowingly approved realtor codes of ethics that prohibited realtors from integrating neighborhoods.”
Gedge offered “partial” solutions in combating historical myths, as she noted, “When you expose problems like this, I think you are obligated to talk about some possible solutions.”
One solution Gedge suggested was taking action. She recommended that students ask provocative questions in their classrooms, while encouraging others to help students “identify right-wing conservative arguments that undermine progress toward equity.”
She also proposed spreading knowledge. “Once we recognize that private and public individuals and agencies and systems created and supported dejure segregation, then we as citizens can take responsibility for undoing those structures,” Gedge wrote in her presentation. “We can’t fix legal supports of racism unless we recognize them. We need to trace their interwoven bars to equality to dismantle those bars.”