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US Business-friendly Houston not always ‘free’ market for Black communities, history shows

14:35  19 october  2020
14:35  19 october  2020 Source:   houstonchronicle.com

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A black market is a transaction platform, whether physical or virtual, where goods or services are exchanged Anything that is subject to the conditions described in the previous sections can show up in the Some black market goods are stolen from legitimate markets , taking business away from

Houston is nothing if not business friendly.

From its beginnings as a speculative real estate bet in the 1830s to the subsequent booms in commodities — from cotton to oil — the story of Houston is touted as a testament to the idea that free markets with minimal government intervention are the best way to propel the economy.

But according to interviews with historians, sociologists and economists, the markets that built Houston were never very free at all — at least not for Black residents.

Job discrimination met Black workers when thousands of them arrived in Houston during the Great Migration of the early 20th century. Redlining during the 1940s starved Black homeowners and businesses of credit. Segregation prevented full participation in the economy. Environmental contamination disproportionately sickened Black neighborhoods.

In short, historians said, Houston’s Black communities were often excluded from the market or forced to bear the brunt of its costs.

“People say, ‘We’re all equal now, so everybody’s got the same shot,’ but is that really true?” said Bernadette Pruitt, an assistant professor of history at Sam Houston State University in Huntsville. “When you look at the country, the free enterprise? That’s been true for some people, but not for everyone. A lot of people are playing catch up.”

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Broken socioeconomic ladder

Houston’s Black population dramatically increased in the first half of the 20th century when some 44,000 Black migrants arrived, mostly from rural areas in east Texas and Louisiana, according to Pruitt.

Remaining in the South, instead of heading to the North meant staying in a region where racist violence was rampant, Pruitt said. But Black migrants risked it to keep families intact, find jobs and chart a path toward financial security.

Black laborers, however, found they were excluded from more lucrative blue-collar jobs at refineries, steel foundries and construction companies. They were hired for more dangerous jobs in manufacturing, shipping and railroads, performing grueling work at lower pay than white peers. Middle class Black men and women struggled to break into skilled jobs, even if they had college degrees. At times, Black professionals faced violence when they took jobs such as firefighters and engineers, Pruitt said.

“This created fear, a form of social control, to get Blacks out of the skilled arena,” Pruitt said.

Despite the discrimination, Black workers and their families developed thriving businesses, churches, schools and unions in the Third Ward, Sunnyside, Independence Heights, Acres Homes, the Fifth Ward, and Freedmen’s Town in the Fourth Ward. These communities often exercised political power against racial injustice — for example, in 1973 hundreds of Houston longshore workers participated in a strike to protest police brutality.

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At times, Houston’s free-for-all market was used to downplay police violence against Black residents. The notable (and eccentric) Houston lawyer, Richard “Racehorse” Haynes, was quoted saying that the “incredible number of instances” of police brutality in the city was just “typically Houston, where a boom-town atmosphere prevails.”

‘Same old’

Black families were not only excluded from the job market, but also the housing market. In the 1930s and 1940s, the federal government began offering loans to help low- and middle-income people buy homes, but restricted the lending to certain areas through a practice known as redlining.

The practice rated areas for their lending risk, using criteria that relied, in part, on race. Neighborhoods with high concentrations of Black residents were rated as “hazardous” (including Third Ward and Fifth Ward). Areas rates as “best” usually had high concentrations of white residents (Montrose, River Oaks).

Property values plummeted in areas that received low ratings, driving out investment and residents — if they could afford to leave. After World War II, redlining and government programs, such as the GI Bill, propelled white families into home ownership and the middle class.

Black families were entitled to benefits of the GI Bill and other programs, but often prevented from obtaining them due to discriminatory practices. Oak Forest, northwest of the Heights, was the first government-backed development in Houston to exclude people of color, according to research by Texas Housers, a local nonprofit.

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“That’s when we really see democracy take place for white America,” said Pruitt. “But for Black (people), it’s the same old, same old.”

This land is my land

While government turned its back on housing markets in Black communities, it intervened aggressively to build highways, using eminent domain to route them through the hearts of Black neighborhoods. Houston’s Fifth Ward was split by the Interstate 10 expansion, Houston’s Fourth Ward by Interstate 45.

Government regulation of land use has been a point of contention throughout the city’s history. Houstonians voted down zoning three times in the last century, most recently in 1993.

Bill Fulton, executive director of Rice University's Kinder Institute for Urban Research, said the city does not necessarily lack land planning. Houston has historically used other tools — ordinances and deed restrictions that sometimes explicitly excluded racial groups from neighborhoods — to determine where and how land is developed, particularly for white, affluent neighborhoods.

Black neighborhoods often lacked these protections. Meanwhile, without zoning, they became vulnerable to encroaching industrial development that polluted the air, land and water.

‘The smell of money’

A Houston cliché says the smell of refineries is “the smell of money.” But for Black residents, and other communities of color, that smell was just the smell — powerful and sickening.

“Really, it is the smell of sickness and death,” wrote Jane Dale Owen, the granddaughter of Robert Lee Blaffer, co-founder of Humble Oil, in the Houston Chronicle in 2003.

Owen, who died in 2014, wrote that she believed her grandfather would be “appalled” at the failure of leaders to address the air pollution in Houston.

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Black people on average are exposed to 56 percent more air pollution that leads to heart and breathing deaths than they create, according to a 2019 study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. Non-Hispanic white people are on average exposed to 17 percent less air pollution than they cause.

Environmental disparities can in part be attributed to the disproportionate number of industrial sites in Black neighborhoods and other communities of color — a legacy of the destruction in property values caused by redlining and weak government protections for the neighborhoods.

In the predominantly Black and Hispanic neighborhoods of Acres Homes, Near Northside, Second Ward, Third Ward and Gulfton, more than 1,300 schools, parks, churches and other facilities that serve sensitive populations are located within one mile of a hazardous site, according to a 2019 analysis by Air Alliance Houston, a local nonprofit, and the Rice Kinder Institute.

“When minority communities start to complain, they’re seen as not being supportive of new jobs and new development,” said Samuel Collins III, a local historian who serves on the board of advisers to the National Trust for Historic Preservation. “At the same time, unfortunately, companies have not always been truthful about the damage they cause in the community.”

Change is coming

On the whole, Houston remains suspicious of government and wary of it intervening in markets, said Stephen Klineberg, a sociologist at Rice University who has conducted the Kinder Houston Area Survey, an annual survey of resident’s attitudes and beliefs, for 39 years.

But in recent years, Klineberg’s survey has found increasing support for government action in areas such as education funding, environmental protection and programs to reduce income and wealth inequality.

He attributes the shift to changing demographics and growing concerns of inequity in the region. Houston is already the most diverse major metropolitan area in the nation and will only become more diverse in the future. More than 70 percent of those in Harris County under the age of 20 are Black or Hispanic.

“We’re watching the city in unmistakable change and in the process of re-inventing itself,” Klineberg said. “There’s a sense of an emerging Houston that is very different from the traditional bi-racial Southern city dominated by white men.”

erin.douglas@chron.com

twitter.com/erinmdouglas23

Stephen Silas to be named Rockets head coach .
The Houston Rockets have made a surprise choice to become their new head coach, as they are near a deal to make Dallas Mavericks assistant Stephen Silas their new coach, replacing Mike D’Antoni. The son of former NBA coach Paul Silas, Stephen has extensive experience as an assistant. He’s worked for the Hornets, Cavaliers, Warriors, and Mavericks in his career. He does not have any head coaching experience, but he did fill in for Steve Clifford during an illness in the 2017-18 season. © Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports Mavericks assistant Stephen Silas will be the Rockets' new head coach.

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