Segregation: A Global History of Divided Cities

Urban centres across the world were built with racial separation in mind, Wendy Pullan discovers

June 21, 2012

One of the more surprising examples of the new walls and barriers that mark ethnic and/or racial divisions was built to enclose a neighbourhood of mainly African residents in the city of Padua. Why such a drastic measure was deemed necessary or appropriate for dealing with a higher-than-usual crime rate in an otherwise middle-class area of this quiet northern Italian city remains obscure. That actions such as this have been more common and widespread than most of us know, or wish to believe, is one of the key points of Carl Nightingale’s history of urban segregation.

Segregation: A Global History of Divided Cities begins with early European exploration in the 15th and 16th centuries and the enormous global changes brought about by modern colonialism and imperialism. These events coincided with the start of the rapid growth and expansion of cities. Urban segregation was one result, something that Nightingale argues has always been intentional and is still present in contemporary forms. He tells us that although the word “segregation” is derived from the Latin idea of culling livestock, the modern racial phenomenon began something unprecedented, “new sorts of planet-crossing connections” and new practices of “city-splitting”. Segregation is a 300-year blip in the long history of the world, but as the book shows, it has been a tainted one.

The scope of the work is challenging and impressive. Although Segregation is organised in a mostly chronological manner to focus on different parts of the world - imperial England and France, the Indian subcontinent, China and the Pacific, the African continent (especially South Africa), the author’s own home territory of the US, as well as dipping occasionally into Nazi Germany, Latin America and the Middle East - Nightingale is particularly interested in revealing the interconnectedness of the histories. This is a complicated endeavour, and it reflects what he rightly portrays as the “messiness” of the subject in order to present a clearer picture of the overall links. This strategy is generally successful, despite the tendency to see segregation so pervasively as to make almost all urban ordering seem malicious. In particular, an early chapter, “Seventy Centuries of City-Splitting”, assigns proto-segregation too extensively. Surely ancient temple compounds that separated the gods from human beings cannot be a precedent, as Nightingale seems to suggest, for any conceivable form of modern segregation?

Although it was a device to control people of colour, Nightingale points out that most urban segregation was dependent upon white settlement and varied according to its needs and excesses. Physical barriers embodied more ephemeral social and economic boundaries, and in some cases, British colonial masters forced or cajoled the indigenous population to either build or pay for the walls and ditches that segregated them. And as much as barriers were formidable, a number of situations required permeability, including domestic service, menial labour and what were regarded as illicit sexual transgressions.

The white interlopers introduced their own institutions to reformulate the lands in which they found themselves; yet, at the same time, they were influenced by the lands they settled. In the deserts and jungles that were inhospitable to them, white settlement was less extensive and the transferring-out of slaves was common. In the temperate areas of North America that were more palatable to European sensibilities, restrictionist immigration policies were common, indicating that these potentially wealthy lands were for white men only. Likewise, public health and hygiene often determined whether settlers would stay or go. Disease and uncleanliness were associated with the racial “other”, and a danger to the health of white Europeans. Sewers and water systems became a major focus for the redevelopment of cities, and Nightingale claims that it was the spread of bubonic plague in the Far East that made segregation a political rallying cry in the late 19th century. Clearly segregation was recognisable as such wherever it appeared, but like a mutating virus, it adapted very well to differing conditions in place and time.

Segregation makes a contribution as a new and particular history of world cities, for the practice of division according to ethno/racial criteria seriously affected the formation of modern urban centres. Being integral to the fundamental aspects of the city itself has made it difficult to eradicate, determining many significant urban building blocks such as real estate, land economy, urban planning and architecture. The relationship between poverty and wealth regularly shadows patterns of urban segregation, often as a result of increasingly sophisticated laws based upon readings of racial characteristics applied to neighbourhoods and quarters. The links between racial difference and the residential areas of a city were key indicators, and one ruling power learned from the next. Nightingale points out that Hitler’s Nuremberg Laws were similar to the racial laws of the US and South Africa, first reliant on creating city ghettos and only later removing people to concentration camps.

The author even implicates public parks, at least indirectly, as being closely linked to the development of leafy, green and economically exclusive American suburbs. One might counter the argument with Victoria Park, which was established for the poor of London’s East End. But this raises an interesting question: were such parks intended for all of the poor, regardless of race or colour? Nightingale outlines the career in South Africa of one Lionel Curtis, appointed the British acting town clerk of Johannesburg in 1901. Curtis had started a settlement house in the East End of London and wandered East Anglia dressed in old, dirty clothes to seek out and understand the lot of vagrants. But according to Nightingale, once he got to South Africa, he helped to organise “a white supremacist city unparalleled anywhere else in the world”. Under Curtis’ rule, every British immigrant to Johannesburg, whether middle class or slum dweller, would be entitled to a house and garden, luxuries unthinkable for the black and coloured populations. By the time he returned to England in 1906, the acting town clerk and his colleagues had transformed a relatively loose idea of race segregation into a more refined system of legal precedents “bristling with many elements from across British colonial practice and from the world beyond”.

Nightingale is clear that racial segregation can take place in any city and points out the divisions and hierarchies that exist in many post-colonial nations. Nonetheless, segregation was, to a large extent, instigated and implemented by whites and today has become the white man’s burden. Yet, in telling this story from the segregationist’s point of view, we can only wonder what the various non-white populations thought and felt. Comments from African-American scholars such as W.E.B. Du Bois are revealing, and sociologist Horace Cayton Jr’s comment that in the early 1940s Indian independence was being discussed in the pool halls of Chicago’s black South Side reveals an interesting political awareness. But with a twist on the proverbial maxim that history is told by the victors, we know about segregation mostly from the segregationists, not from those who suffered under its policies and practices. Nightingale appears to have scoured the few sources that do exist, and he notes that only now are activists from slums and shantytowns making their voices heard. This book deserves to be widely read, for in presenting cities through the lens of segregation (or vice versa), it opens up a new series of relationships that will enrich a number of disciplines. Nonetheless, to a large extent, the story is still being told from one side of the fence.

The Author

Carl Nightingale, associate professor of transnational studies and American studies at the University of Buffalo, says his interest in segregation began when growing up on the white, wealthy campus of Philadelphia’s Haverford College, where his father was an academic.

“At the end of the yard was a chain link fence, and beyond the fence (closed and locked every evening at 7 by college security officers)…were very modest houses inhabited entirely by African-Americans.”

Buffalo, too, he says, has its divisions - “a classic American rust-belt city that has lost over half its population in the past 50 years”, whose “Main Street is one of the severest racial dividing lines in the country”.

But “inspiring” change is happening, Nightingale adds: he lauds Push Buffalo (People United for Sustainable Housing) for “what may be the single most promising grassroots urban revival effort in the country”.

Family help was vital to Segregation’s creation. Nightingale’s wife Martha’s “brilliant work as a scholar of the law profoundly inspired its underlying arguments”.And as he started the book, “our daughter Mbali, who was born in Soweto, came into our life through adoption. Our new family in South Africa helped inspire its underlying spirit of determination in the face of overwhelming adversity.”

Segregation: A Global History of Divided Cities

By Carl H. Nightingale

University of Chicago Press 536pp, £22.50

ISBN 9780226580746 and 9780226580777 (e-book)

Published 25 June 2012

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