Chicago, 1951. By the 1950s, there isn’t enough housing for Black migrants in Chicago, and white neighborhoods still refuse to accept them. In fact, white residents deliberately terrorize them through arson and bombings. For instance, when the Black, well-to-do Clark family rents an apartment in the all-white suburb of Cicero, protestors meet them on move-in day and the police run them out of town. A white mob breaks into their apartment, destroys everything they own, then burns down the whole 20-unit building and riots for three days. The city prosecutes the Clarks, landlord, and realtor—and not the mob. This riot shows that racism can be just as vicious in the North as in the South, and it makes front-page news around the world. And decades later, there are still virtually no Black people in Cicero.
The same pattern of violence and housing discrimination continues in Northern cities, which should dispel the common assumption that the North was less racist than the South. Instead, the crucial difference was merely that racial hierarchy wasn’t written into the law, which meant that ordinary citizens took it upon themselves to enforce it. This led to situations like the one the Clark family faced. Notably, even though the government didn’t write segregation into the laws, it still chose to side with the racist mob. But at the same time, the Clarks’ story begins with something that never would have been possible in the South: a Black family moving into a white neighborhood. This fact alone speaks to the greater flexibility in the North’s racial hierarchy as compared to the South’s.
White homeowners tend to justify excluding Black newcomers from their neighborhoods by claiming that they will reduce property values. Social scientists have found that this is true, but only as a self-fulfilling prophecy. Often before Black families even move into a neighborhood, white residents sell their homes at a discount because they merely worry that Black people will come. Meanwhile, new white residents refuse to move in and banks refuse to offer new mortgages in the area. These conditions lower property prices, making the area attractive to Black buyers (and highly profitable for real estate speculators). And this cycle explains why, in the 1950s, white families started leaving cities for the suburbs—a pattern that continues into the 21st century.
As Wilkerson explains here and social scientists have broadly shown, housing markets and the financial system have been some of the most powerful forces behind the persistent economic inequality between different racial groups in the U.S. These forces create a self-reinforcing cycle, in which the housing market rewards white homeowners and neighborhoods with a premium, while penalizing Black ones by reducing the value of their properties. This is particularly devastating and bitterly ironic because, at the same time, segregation drives up rents and drives down housing quality in Black neighborhoods like Harlem and Bronzeville. Readers might even attribute Robert Foster’s success in part to the fact that he managed to buy a home in a predominantly white—but technically integrated—area, which didn’t fall victim to the same deterioration as Ida Mae and George’s neighborhoods.
New York, 1963. Through TV and newspapers, George Starling learns how the police are brutalizing civil rights protesters in the South. It reminds him of his own childhood. He feels angry at white people and concerned for his friends and family. And he watches tensions between his white and Black passengers get even worse. He sends what money he can to support the movement, and he joins a fundraising drive to rebuild three burned-out churches in Georgia. He feels that he has to do everything he can to push for justice. He spends a month enthusiastically collecting donations, and he keeps going even after the drive formally shuts down.
Thanks to his strong conscience, George continues supporting justice and Black empowerment in whatever way he can. His story serves as a reminder that the civil rights movement truly was a collective undertaking led by a whole generation of ordinary people. It also highlights the way that technological change influenced politics: television famously enabled Americans everywhere to see segregationist police brutalizing civil rights protestors in the South in 1965. This significantly contributed to popular support for the civil rights movement. Indeed, it helped create a collective Black national consciousness in a way that wasn’t possible when Ida Mae, George, and Robert first migrated in decades past.
Los Angeles, August 1961. When Robert learns that his brother Madison needs gallbladder surgery, he insists that Madison do it in Los Angeles, instead of dealing with the segregated medical system in Monroe. Madison agrees, and Robert ensures that he gets the best surgeon available. The surgery goes perfectly, but a few days later, Madison starts feeling strange—and then he has a serious blood clot in the bathroom. He dies soon thereafter, but not before Robert has a chance to visit him in the hospital. Even though Madison’s blood clot was impossible to prevent, Robert blames himself for it.
Just like the Chicago riots show why so many migrants were wrong to think of the North as a perfect, integrated paradise, Madison’s sudden, tragic, but unpreventable death in California is deeply ironic because it contradicts Robert’s rosy view of the state (and especially its medical system). At the end of the day, Robert will never definitively win over his brother—or Dr. Clement, the other most influential person in his life who questions his decision to migrate.