The Warmth of Other Suns

Isabel Wilkerson

Isabel Wilkerson’s book about the migration of African Americans out of the South is appropriately epic considering it spans the greater part of the 20th century (from 1910–1970). She interviewed over 1,200 people and spent fifteen years researching and writing this book that is part oral history, part narrative non-fiction focusing on three migrant’s experiences in detail (basically each person’s entire life story), and the rest historical contextualization of it all. Aside from some research done by sociologists in the 1920s on those who landed in Chicago, this phenomenon has been largely unstudied with such depth and historical scope.

I won’t attempt to summarize the entire book, but there were two moments from Wilkerson’s contextualizing that stuck in my head. The first about Martin Luther King Jr. shifting his focus within civil rights to ideas of economic justice and running into a concept sociologist Gunnar Myrdal referred to as the Northern Paradox: in short that people in the North people were against discrimination in principle but often carried it out in their personal affairs.

Thus any civil rights campaign in the North would not be an attack on outrageous laws that, with enough grit and fortitude, could be overturned with the stroke of a pen. Instead, King would be fighting the ill-defined fear and antipathy that made northern whites flee at the sight of a black neighbor, turn away blacks at realty offices, or not hire them if they chose. The “enemy” was a feeling, a general unease that led to the flight of white people and businesses and sucked the resources out of the ghettos the migrants were quarantined into. No laws could make frightened white northerners care about blacks enough to permit them full access to the system they dominated.

On the topic of white flight, Wilkerson examines the commonly held belief that black people moving into white neighborhoods causes property values to drop. What researchers found when they studied the trends of white flight was actually as follows:

The instability of a white neighborhood under pressure from the very possibility of integration put the neighborhood into a kind of real estate purgatory. It set off a downward cycle of anticipation, in which worried whites no longer bought homes in white neighborhoods that might one day attract colored residents even if none lived there at the time. Rents and purchase prices were dropped “in a futile attempt to attract white residents,” as Hirsch put it. With prices falling and the neighborhood’s future uncertain, lenders refused to grant mortgages or made them more difficult to obtain. Panicked whites sold at low prices to salvage what equity they had left, giving the homeowners who remained little incentive to invest any further to keep up or improve their properties.
        Thus many white neighborhoods began declining before colored residents even arrived, Hirsch noted. There emerged a perfect storm of nervous owners, falling prices, vacancies unfillable with white tenants or buyers, and a market of colored buyers who may not have been able to afford the neighborhood at first but now could with prices within their reach. The arrival of colored home buyers was often the final verdict on a neighborhood’s falling property value rather than the cause of it. Many colored people, already facing wage disparities, either could not have afforded a neighborhood on the rise or would not have been granted mortgages except by lenders and sellers with their backs against the wall. It was the falling home values that made it possible for colored people to move in at all.

For me this book ties a clean thread between the brutalities of slavery and the lingering brutalities of today. Many of the experiences that convinced people they had to flee for their very lives were sound pretty familiar to stories we see on the news today — especially stories of black people in police custody who mysteriously end up dead. In an essay for Essence magazine published last year, Wilkerson wrote of how the Reconstruction era lead into the Jim Crow era, a reversal so extreme historians refer to it as the Nadir. She questioned whether we are in a second Nadir: “It seems the rate of police killings now surpasses the rate of lynchings during the worst decades of the Jim Crow era. There was a lynching every four days in the early decades of the twentieth century. It’s been estimated that an African-American is now killed by police every two to three days.” It’s a hard paradox to reconcile that conditions can improve yet still this violence persists.