Homes in the Frog Hallow neighborhood of Hartford.

To my white friends here in Connecticut. Here’s a story of how white supremacy and structural racism are passed down to the next generation of our children:

Once upon a time… a developer is approved, using some state and federal dollars, to build “affordable” apartments in a predominantly, white wealthy suburban town that borders a predominantly black and brown, low-income city. The apartments are to be located near the border of the two municipalities because zoning in the white town restricts multi-family apartments to only one neighborhood.

Let’s call this neighborhood “Greenfields.”

About five years ago, after the first units of affordable housing were built, the all-white, wealthy school board redistricted Greenfields so that all the affordable apartments feed to the same elementary school. This was done despite the fact that some of the housing in the neighborhood is actually closer to other elementary schools. The school board said it was meant to “keep the neighborhood together.”

In 2010, when the first units of affordable housing were slated to be built, white people who live in Greenfields and other neighborhoods were very upset. They came out to many zoning meetings, protesting the housing construction because of “safety concerns.”

“The traffic will be terrible,” they said. “The design doesn’t match the aesthetic of our town,” they cried. “We moved here for the good schools This will make our classrooms more crowded,” they lamented.

However, change is inevitable and so the housing was built. While it is “affordable” for the middle and upper class people in town, the apartments still rent for upward of $2,000/month. This is quite unaffordable for many of the people living in the city next door.

The city next door has all the issues that come with generations of deep racial and economic segregation: drastically underfunded schools, high rates of uninsured families, high rates of childhood asthma and eviction, large pockets of deep poverty, and more. Some families decide they will do anything it takes to get out of the conditions of the city and offer their children “a better chance.”

The history of redlining, which institutionalized racial segregation in towns and cities across Connecticut back in the 1930s, means that many of the people in the city also are black, brown, and immigrant families.

So, some black and brown families start slowly moving into the apartments. At first, everything appears to be harmonious. And many of the white families who live in Greenfields, while making no attempt to socialize or be friends with the new families, love to discuss at dinner parties “the wonderful diversity” at their children’s elementary school.

Now in 2019, more housing is scheduled to be built because, since it is not really affordable, it is actually profitable. This rate of rapid change scares some of the more conservative members of the town leadership. “The fabric of our town is changing., This isn’t the town I grew up in,” they say to each other, poolside at the country club.

Some of them take it upon themselves to make the apartments a focal point of the next local elections and, while door-knocking with constituents, talk openly about how the apartments are “a real problem,” and how “crime has increased.”

Meanwhile, back in the neighborhood, the redistricting that the school board did means that as more black and brown children enter the Greenfields school district, the less and less white the school is becoming. Some white families start to move out of Greenfields; not out of the town, just to another neighborhood.

When asked by their peers why they are moving, they say “Our child needs special attention and we felt the school wasn’t providing it.” Some say, “We needed more space.” Others say, “We weren’t really happy at the school.”

The white flight is a slow trickle at first, but as the number of black and brown bodies in the Greenfields elementary school approaches 50%, it escalates rapidly. Some families, who just five years ago were so proud of the diversity, move their children into school districts in the town that are 90% white and don’t mention diversity again.

The “problem with the apartments” turns out to be an excellent campaign strategy and several candidates are elected. This leads the town council to pressure the mayor to increase policing in that neighborhood. Since Greenfields is on the border, there is already an aggressive practice of racial profiling in that zone, as the police understand it is their job to keep the white town people safe by keeping the black and brown city people out.

But what happens when the city people become the town people?

What had been mainly a practice of traffic stops turns into a practice of police harassment and terrorizing of the black and brown residents in Greenfields. And since many of these residents are culturally very different from the white residents, their behaviors are immediately suspect.

Every behavior is scrutinized and then criminalized.  “Why are cars parked on your lawn? Where are you walking to this late? How many people you got living in this apartment? Are there any drugs or alcohol on the premises? Do you own any weapons? Is this your daughter? Let me see your license and registration.”

Police report statistics to the town council members, who feel satisfied that they are getting to the “root” of the problem.The black and brown residents organize within their neighborhood to address this harassment, and they are labeled “angry, aggressive,” and of course, “ungrateful.”

At the next school board meeting, the board quietly approves an extension on the Greenfields school to address “overcrowding,” rather than redistricting students to the other, predominantly white elementary schools.

A year later, the school board, justifying that they recently spent all that money on building the extension, publicly votes to take dollars away from the Greenfield school district. The black and brown residents organize to address these issues and they are labeled “angry, aggressive” and of course, “ungrateful.”

Over time, the concentration of black and brown bodies in one area of the town is fixed, and the lack of investment in the local school and other community infrastructure — combined with the aggressive police presence — makes it an “undesirable” place to live. The white families who once touted diversity now lament the state of the neighborhood. “Isn’t it so sad, the people there just need so much help.” Real estate agents quietly steer white families away from buying in Greenfields. “You’ll get more bang for your buck in other neighborhoods,” they often say.

After 20 years of organizing, the black and brown residents of Greenfields are tired, so when a hedge fund billionaire comes along to offer to build a new charter school in their district as the solution to all their problems, many of them agree.

The shiny new building and higher standards of curriculum appear to be a godsend at first. But since the charter school is part of a national network built and privately held by white, wealthy people, the aggressive disciplinary policies of the school mimic the early days of the police harassment in their neighborhood.

And when the black and brown residents organize to address these issues, they are labeled “angry, aggressive,” and of course “ungrateful.”

Because they are good people, many of the white families send their high schoolers — who have internalized a deep sense of superiority — to volunteer at the public elementary and charter schools. Many of the black and brown children, who do not have one teacher of color, can sense their bodies are a problem and internalize deep feelings of inferiority.

And so it goes, in the Land of Steady Habits.

Most of the time, the white residents of the town at the annual Memorial Day parade just shake their heads at the state of things and say, “what can we do? That’s just the way it is.”

Callie Gale Heilmann is an Anti-Racism Organizer with Bridgeport Generation Now, Bridgeport Anti-Racism Collective.

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17 Comments

  1. The way out of segregation is thru education getting a job and working hard (pulling yourself up by your own boot straps)problem now a days people are lazy and want everything for nothing.you reap what you sew.I was raised in extreme poverty and it didn t stop me from living a good life. Comes with hard work!

    1. Growing up with 2 siblings in a small northeast CT town I never knew we were poor until I got out on my own in my twenties. We were coached and prodded in the direction of being self-sufficient. Never collected unemployment until I experienced age discrimination at age 59. My family NEVER reached out to social services for assistance – didn’t need to in spite of the financial limitations.

  2. I am actually pretty surprised by the tone of this post. What I gather from the article is that non-whites can not maintain their own neighborhoods. That if the whites move out everything goes to pot. Is that what you’re trying to say? I mean the school redistricting is pretty dirty; but blaming white flight and fair weather liberals not practicing what they preach leading to the decay of a town or city? I don’t know, sounds pretty racist to me.

  3. The way out of segregation begins in the home. You sit down & read to your child & you teach them some manners & incremently you introduce them to how to socialize, play in the yard, be self-reliant, get involved in the cutlure, & as they grrow-supervise their homework & check it over. You don’t start buying them iphones at age 6. You develop a thirst for education or a trade & you get them involved in fitness, & church, & you take them to the museum, & the zoo, & you celebrate holidays. And then they can get into college & hopefully become a productive member of society where they can then buy their car & home of their choice. The wrong approach occurs when we don’t ensure the child attends school because it is too much fun to trash the rented apartment & do drugs in the neighborhood. This is what the welfare system allows & facilitates. People don’t develop self-reliance or any goals. They want the govt to do things by fiat. Develop a thirst for education & develop a work ethic. Family & consumers skills must be learned. Don’t be pound-foolish; be penny-wise.

    1. Hi kal, we welcome your comments but please note that our guidelines require that comments be limited to 1,000 characters. We will not be able to approve comments that exceed that limit going forward.

      1. I would suggest that you recount the characters in this comment.
        I copied & pasted into my wordprocessor and came up with a character count of 881 – which is not in excess of CT Mirror’s 1,000 character limit. Has this comment been edited since originally posted?

      2. Hi CT_Yankee_1, we use lettercount.com to determine character count. Word’s character count does not include spaces.

  4. This viewpoint is unbalanced and will do nothing to help further the goal of desegregating our school systems and building more affordable housing. Furthermore, it looks like Bridgeport Generation Now and the Bridgeport Anti-Racism Collective have hired a racist to be in charge of their anti-racist efforts.

    The definition of racism is prejudice, discrimination, or antagonism directed against someone of a different race – the author’s viewpoint meets that definition and is racist not only towards “rich white families” but towards all minorities – especially those that are financially successful. More importantly, this viewpoint insults those successful people (both in the public and private sector) who are trying to solve the problem of segregation, not just talk about it along racial divides.

  5. Question: How do people afford the rent?
    If the cost is $2,000+ per month, as the author posits, how many poor people from the neighboring city are going to be able to move in? Why wouldn’t they buy somewhere rather than rent in a designated location?
    The article mentions that some people are desperate to escape the cities. But the money needed doesn’t appear as a result.

  6. The picture painted in the article I took to be thought provoking; Connecticut’s concentration of poverty in its major cities is so severe it could not possibly be an accident…but easy to overlook for some who don’t live or work there.

    People behave in ways that they think protect themselves financially such as with home prices and schools without even thinking about it. Then the government and courts march in with rules like Sheff and magnet school quotas that have to pass muster with the courts and voters and don’t always makes sense for actual people involved. I hope that we can increase our respect and acceptance for one another as a society because one-on-one I see people of all colors and walks of life live it every day.

  7. Grandparents on both side of my family came to this country dirt poor, not speaking the language, discriminated against and living in what would now be called segregated (and very poor) sections of NYC. There was no welfare, SNAP, subsidized anything or any government programs.

    Their children, my parents both had graduate degrees and successful careers.

    Might want to see how many living in today’s urban neighborhoods have two parent families and an emphasis on education before blaming it on “white supremacy” and “structural racism”

  8. This issue is so much more complex. For example, builders can’t build affordable housing where the land costs are high; towns with expensive homes keep land costs high because taxpayers want to protect/grow their investment, so affordable housing must go to land that is also affordable. Also, to the issue of socializing among socio-economic groups: when relaxing, people gravitate to people who are similar and understand them. People don’t automatically separate themselves because of color or money bias. White people often feel that they will accidentally say something that will be interpreted as offensive. Black people may feel that they will not be welcome. A Courant article years ago covered a study that discovered that black kids worried greatly about being bused into white schools because they thought their lunch money would be stolen and they would be bullied. College kids segregate during off-time because it’s more fun with people who have similar preferences.

  9. If we could not see and therefore could not use skin tone to group people, as this author does so conveniently, this conversation would be different. Rather, the conversation would be about living conditions, crime, family, education and the fight to maintain a fabric within a community where things like family, education, property, etc. are valued.

    It is harder to look at yourself, or the group you identify as being part of, and to ask yourself if you play a role in the problem. It is easy to summarily blame others and do so based upon the tone of their skin.

  10. Bravo Ms Heilmann. I’m a 77 year old grandmother. Born in Brooklyn, living in Stony Brook, L.I. for 53 yrs. My opinion, you’re spot on. Thank you for you article.

  11. The article is spot on, and it’s happening in all 50 states as well as infiltrating every aspect of our community and election systems. This is why reparations are needed to reverse this racist phenomenon.

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