Thursday, March 3, 2011

What Happened to Jackson

As part of my decision to move back to Jackson, I've been reflecting a lot on the question of "what happened to Jackson?".  What made the city change so dramatically in terms of the racial and class structure of the population?

If you look at a graph of Jackson's population, you'll see that it's population peaked in the early 1980's, then had a dramatic falling off after that with significant changes in race and class.  Not only do you see this pattern in Jackson, you see it all over the South, including cities New Orleans, Memphis, Birmingham, Atlanta and others. At the same time you see a corresponding growth in what were mainly rural areas around the city.

Obviously this was an example of "white flight" changing the fabric of Jackson, growing into a full-fledged flight of the middle class regardless of race by the mid 90's.  So what caused it?  What about the 1980's broke the camel's back?

The Civil Rights Act of 1968 contained in it most of the elements of what we consider Fair Housing law.  Prior to this people (particularly in the South) used all sorts of statutorial, contractual and under-handed means to keep "white" neighborhoods "white" now made illegal by the Civil Rights Act.

Many suggest White Flight began with the fair housing laws as white people began to move away from the black people moving into their neighborhoods.  If that's so, then why did it take 15 years for the population to peak in Jackson?

One possibility might be that, when the law was passed it had no immediate provision for enforcement, but by the 1980's the federal Office of Fair Housing and Equal Opportunity was fully operational and becoming one of the largest public advocacy departments in the US government.  There were several instances, like this, during the Civil Rights Era where the laws changed, but didn't have much effect until the feds put in some form of enforcement.

With the latest census data showing just how much Jackson changed (and how much it's shrunk) there's been a great deal of hand-wringing and rhetoric about "what are we gonna do?"  and "how are we gonna fix this?"  like they didn't know it was happening all along.

I don't fault the Civil Rights Act of 1968 at all here.  Sometimes you have to force people to do the right thing, even though doing so will cause a very damaging resistance.   That's been the history of the civil rights movement in the South since the move for emancipation began in the 19th century.

This isn't the first time the city of Jackson found itself suffering mightily from these social changes either:  the end of slavery meant burning Jackson to the ground. We did recover though, and rebuild, and even with the Great Depression, Jackson began to thrive again by the 1930's.

The ancient Greeks believed you had to suffer from your hubris before you began to recover from it.  Maybe Jackson's slump is just our suffering from the hubris of the Jim Crow mentality we followed for many years.  I think Jackson, and many of the cities in the same situation, will recover.  It won't be immediate, but we've recovered from worse before.

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