White Space: Beyond the ‘First’ White Presidency

By Walter Greason

White nationalists marched through the streets of Charlottesville, Virginia, in August 2017. From an historian’s perspective, there was little surprise in this action, especially after two years of widespread appeals to white nationalism in the course of one of the most heated presidential campaigns in American history. Why did the organizers’ choose Charlottesville? What do their organizations hope to gain by defending sites of Confederate history?

Virginia is, perhaps, the deepest home for white nationalist expression in the United States. Long before the American Revolution, ideas about racial differences and divisions shaped the Old Dominion. Between 1670 and 1750, the intertwined influences of slavery and white supremacy redefined freedom and bondage in the British Colonies. Cities like Norfolk and Richmond, and small towns like Charlottesville, grew in the soil of racial strife and oppression for more than three centuries. Racial perceptions shaped the spaces and places that teach American history. White supremacy molded the evolution of the American political economy.

Due to the grafting of racial perceptions through economic spatialization (informed by race), we must ask: how can the detailed analysis of metropolitan growth better inform scholarly and public understandings of white supremacy in the twenty-first century? The first step must be the forceful confrontation of the pervasive denials about racist decision-making by people in positions of authority throughout American society. In 2016, university leaders made straight-faced excuses about the hateful politics of white supremacy represented by Woodrow Wilson with nothing more than nostalgia as a rhetorical fig leaf.

Urban historians – better than most – know that the language of economic growth offers the thinnest veneer for earlier generations of racist reasoning based in both science and religion. In the traditions of Kenneth Jackson, Robert Fogelson, Lizabeth Cohen, and Thomas Sugrue, in his book Colored Property, David Freund revealed how the language of biological racism in housing markets before 1945 transformed into market and efficiency justifications during the Civil Rights/Black Power era. Even 100 years prior to the racist housing associations in Freund’s work, in the early nineteenth century, municipal land-use patterns reflected the assumptions of white supremacy, including in discussions about gradual emancipation. In the context of the Charlottesville Nazi and Klan marchers’ chants of “Blood and Land,” the expanding metropolis represents an existential threat against the purity of small towns and isolated rural communities.

The megapolitan threat – as both a symbol and a reality – mobilized the resurgent fascist movement in the United States. A megapolitan is a massive, metropolitan region – there are currently ten in the United States (“BosWash” or “Boston-Washington” being the wealthiest) and perhaps another dozen growing around the world. The white nationalists understand that inclusive cities undermine their political agenda. No one symbolized the ascendant power of a global, multi-racial coalition against white supremacy more than Barack Obama. The daily reminders about an African American with presidential authority instigated a backlash that channeled through a patriarchal xenophobia that simmered under the leadership of Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush, Bill Clinton, and George W. Bush. The feeling of retreat among social conservatives who perceived the encroachment of women’s rights, racial equality, LGBTQ equality, and fluid immigration policies drove a politics of resentment that continues to unfold daily in 2017. For educators, it is a crucial moment to distinguish among the segments of the American population that are committed to fascism and white supremacy and others who simply stand silently on the sidelines waiting for the tension and conflict to subside.

Figure 1. Richmond, Virginia (c. 1864)


Urbanists’ challenge is to bring rural spaces into urban history.. This imperative exists because the majority of the participants in the movements to reassert white nationalism come from rural areas and small towns across the United States. In Suburban Erasure, I began this process by showing that the fringes of cities were simultaneously independent small towns and rural communities. Even without formal incorporation into the political framework of major cities, the commercial infrastructure that connected metropolitan areas dramatically transformed rural places. Sometimes, this process even erased the most vulnerable enclaves of African Americans. Since 1960, racially marginalized communities with little material prosperity have remained the easiest target for suburban redevelopment in the United States.

Suburban erasure did not just eliminate small enclaves of African Americans; it also created a new terrain of white nationalism. The twentieth-century erasure of historically black, brown, and impoverished communities differs significantly from nineteenth century settlement and land-use patterns. African American communities were only protected by the perception of the profitability of the residents’ bodies and labor before the Civil War. The possibility of thriving, autonomous black communities after Reconstruction (and, especially, after Plessy v. Ferguson) was intolerable, as seen in the rising tide of lynchings and riots that culminated in the Red Summer of 1919, the Tulsa riot of 1921, and the destruction of Rosewood, Florida, in 1923. With the advent of amortized mortgages, violent removal was no longer necessary. Market forces and economies of scale could simply erase small communities. Over the next century, scholars must grapple with the ways that race informed the evolution of space and place in locations like Middletown and Toms River, New Jersey (see Figures 2 and 3) – formerly rural places where new forms of metropolitan segregation reinforce the politics of white supremacy.

Figure 2. Middletown, New Jersey (c. 2017)


Figure 3. Toms River, New Jersey (c. 2017)


Scholars have added new insights into old debates that simultaneously sought to reverse the process of historical erasure and form new understandings of urban, rural, and suburban spaces. Robyn Rodriguez’s In Lady Liberty’s Shadow and David E. Goldberg’s The Retreats of Reconstruction advance scholars’ understanding of this changing cultural and spatial landscape. Goldberg shows how the political economy of northern Jim Crow entrenched racist policies of inclusion that required immigrants to pursue social expressions of white identity in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Rodriguez complements this knowledge by revealing the ways that whiteness shaped the suburban politics of immigration after 1970. Willow Lung-Amam has uncovered similar patterns and pressures in Silicon Valley’s suburban schools. Zaire Dinzey-Flores documented the effects of these forces in Puerto Rico as gated communities shaped the built environment. Rhonda Williams opens the door to new paradigms in urban history by centering the experiences of African American women in the processes of creating just, inclusive metropolitan places. Anthony Pratcher’s new research on Phoenix, Arizona, emphasizes the patterns of displacement and erasure that compose the central assumptions of suburbanization and metropolitan expansion. Work by Carl Nightingale and Angel Nieves shows the ways that transnational institutions communicated these assumptions over the last two centuries, inspiring a new generation of scholars led by Paige Glotzer, Devin Fergus, Nathan Connolly, and Marcia Chatelain to analyze the racial and spatial dimensions of greed in the real estate markets.

These combined efforts bring urban history to the forefront of the public policy debates as seen in the pages of the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Atlantic magazine, the Boston Review, and National Public Radio. As historians contribute to the planning of future cities, Charlottesville reminds us to carefully disentangle the ways that white supremacy has informed the transitions among rural, urban, and suburban spaces over the last three hundred years.

Photo at top: The Rotunda, the signature building at the University of Virginia, Charlottesville, Virginia, Carol M. Highsmith, between 1980 – 2006, Carol M. Highsmith Collection, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

Walter Greason is a professor of history and anthropology and Dean of the Honors Program at Monmouth University. Dr. Greason’s research focuses on the comparative, economic analysis of slavery, industrialization, and suburbanization. He serves as the Treasurer for the Society for American City and Regional Planning History, which is holding its national conference this year in Cleveland, Ohio, from October 26 through 29, 2017. Dr. Greason has published widely including three books, The Path to Freedom, Suburban Erasure, and The American Economy. 


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