Georgetown Law’s Sheryll Cashin Says Racial Inequality Won’t End Until We Dismantle American Residential Caste

October 15, 2021

Georgetown Law Professor Sheryll Cashin is calling on America to wake up and abolish the entrenched system she says has been driving racial inequality for more than a century.

In her latest book, Cashin, the Carmack Waterhouse Professor of Law for Civil Rights and Social Justice, describes the deliberate creation and pernicious persistence of what she calls American residential caste.

Watch her explain in a new video below, and read an excerpt of White Space, Black Hood: Opportunity Hoarding and Segregation in the Age of Inequality:

This book aims to make the processes of American residential caste transparent. The basic move of creating and maintaining institutions that subordinate Black Americans to confer value on affluent whites has not changed — although the mechanics and propaganda have metastasized.

I argue that policy decisions made in the early 20th century, to construct ghettos, have profound consequences for producing current inequality. I also contend that geography is now central to American caste, a mechanism for overinvesting in affluent white space and disinvesting and plundering elsewhere. Geography helps to construct social and racial distinctions that justify the way things are.

I call the Black people trapped in high-poverty neighborhoods “descendants,” in recognition of an unbroken continuum from slavery. Occasionally, I also use this honorific to describe Black Americans like myself, who do not live in the hood but descend from the long legacy of slavery. Descendants are typecast and consigned to the bottom of the social order.

Denizens of poverty-free, very-white spaces enjoy entrenched advantages, and everyone else struggles to access opportunity in real estate markets premised on exclusion begun a century before to contain descendants. The residential caste system I describe is not only about the iconic hood. It is about power, politics, and distribution of resources away from those who most need public goods to people and communities with more than enough.

Non-descendants should care, because exclusion and opportunity hoarding harm the vast majority of people who cannot buy their way into bastions of affluence, and because geography as caste is destroying America. Physical segregation, constructed at the outset to contain then-Negroes, is the progenitor of our broken, gerrymandered politics. Descendants were powerless to change their reality in large part because of myths told about them. Mythologizing about “pathological” Black people helped perfect broad skepticism about government and anti-tax fanaticism.

Of course, there are other strains of American oppression and dog-whistling rhetoric. Pervasive contemporary stereotypes of immigrants and Americans of color, of Muslims, and of Black Americans imply divergence from a presumed norm of American Christian whiteness. That norm, sometimes stated plainly by avowed white nationalists, was the organizing plank for regimes of oppression essential to American capitalism and expansion—from the conquest of Indigenous and Mexican people to slavery to the exclusion of Asian and other immigrants and, later, to Jim crow.

Ancient and current stories of oppression along myriad dimensions need to be told and retold to hasten the day when a critical mass of whites rejects the idea of white dominance and joins an ascending coalition to dismantle regimes borne of supremacy.

I am writing about the geography and dogma of anti-Black oppression because I care about descendants and because geography as caste ensnares us all. Under the old Jim crow, Blackness was the primary marker for discrimination and exclusion. American caste now exists at the intersection of race, economic status, and geography, and this system of sorting and exclusion has been hardening. It thrives on certain cultural assumptions—that affluent space is earned and hood living is the deserved consequence of individual bad behavior.

Like race, “ghetto” is a social construct. At some point, this word used to describe high-poverty neighborhoods became pejorative, as powerful as the n-word. To paraphrase sociologist Elijah Anderson, American society is very invested in the ghetto as a dangerous place, where people at the bottom of the social order live. Our words and mechanisms for subordination have changed. The problem of Black belonging continues, but it is most felt by descendants in the hood.

Descendants are the group least likely in American society to experience the accoutrements of citizenship. Exit from the hood and from the bottom of the social order is improbable. Among the modern state actions designed to contain descendants are militaristic policing in which Blackness itself becomes the pretext for stopping people, mass incarceration, the criminalization of poverty, a school-to-prison pipeline, and housing and school policies that invest in, rather than discourage, poverty concentration.

Less understood is that concentrated Black poverty facilitates poverty-free affluent white space and habits of favor and disfavor by public and private actors. White space would not exist without the hood and government at all levels created and still reifies this racialized residential order.

In particular, this book illuminates three anti-Black processes that undergird the entire system of American residential caste—boundary maintenance, opportunity hoarding, and stereotype-driven surveillance. Many people acquiesce in or participate in these processes. Yet the practices necessary to maintaining residential caste also undermine most non-Black people. The successful have seceded from the struggling. Highly educated and affluent people tend to live in their own neighborhoods and support policies like exclusionary zoning and neighborhood school assignments that lock others out and concentrate advantage.

As with slavery and follow-on institutions like peonage and convict leasing, the hood is a source of wealth extraction and exploitation that benefits American capitalists—from the prison industrial complex to Opportunity Zones that enabled investors, through loopholes, to shelter 100 percent of capital gains in luxury properties rather than distressed hoods the program was marketed to help.

In another example, in the 2000s, predatory lenders targeted segregated Black neighborhoods for their most usurious subprime mortgages. This predation culminated in a foreclosure crisis that eviscerated Black and Latinx wealth, reduced the Black homeownership rate to 1968 levels, and eliminated gains of the civil rights revolution in housing. White homeownership rebounded while the rate of Black homeownership continued to decline under unchecked financial processes that disparately harmed.

By 2020, the Black-white homeownership gap had widened to a chasm not seen since 1890. And yet we don’t tell stories that encourage the prosecution and jailing of white-collar criminals who steal Black wealth and create national financial crises. We have a pervasive narrative about Black “thugs” but no similar policy-driving story about corporate criminals.

While state and private actors plunder, extract, surveil, and contain in the hood, they overinvest in and protect white space. Apologists have constructed many modern stereotypes to support the status quo and retain the benefits of exclusion and exclusivity—from golden schools, neighborhoods, and infrastructure to artisanal food.

The idea that descendants belong apart from everyone else is the often-unspoken-but-sometimes-shouted-out-loud norm animating most fair housing and school integration debates. Stereotypes also hide the fact that concentrated poverty is by no means solely a Black problem. The footprint of concentrated poverty is expanding; the percentage of Blacks, Latinx, and whites who live in such conditions is rising.
Concentrated poverty grows fastest in the suburbs. Yet it is far easier for politicians and media figures to stoke division among those mutually locked out of opportunity than to build multiracial coalitions that transcend division and demand fairness from elites.

Ultimately, I argue for abolition of the processes of anti-Black residential caste and repair, the building of new institutions of opportunity for descendants, and the nation. The goal should be to transform the lens through which society sees residents of poor Black neighborhoods, from presumed thug to presumed citizen, and to alter the relationship of the state with these neighborhoods, from punitive to caring. I offer positive examples of places that are beginning to do this. I also call on the state at all levels to cease and desist from habits borne of white supremacy.

This work will be difficult, perhaps as arduous and long-arced as the movements for abolition of slavery and modern civil rights. There is cause for hope. Black voters mattered in 2020. A plurality of whites and sizable majorities of Asian, Black, Indigenous, and Latinx people prevailed in politics. This coalition can grow and pursue saner, just policies both nationally and locally.

Despite backlash and fatigue, Black Americans have more allies than they have ever had in US history. Together, we must first understand the processes of residential caste, then dismantle them.