Updated: Dec 18, 2021
“We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.” - United States Constitution,
Throughout the history of the United States, the government has sanctioned race-based policies like the post-reconstruction black codes and Jim Crow laws and facilitated housing discrimination through redlining policies. Although race is a human made construct, the United States government has used it to create discord and an unbalanced social hierarchy. Race-based systems like the ones mentioned above have allowed for discrimination and state-sanctioned violence, which has created a social hierarchy that continues to affect the outcomes of education, economics, and health for many underserved and underrepresented in the United States. This case study will look at the infrastructure of race-based policy and the poverty that results from it.
Post Reconstruction: Creating the Hierarchy
According to the Constitution, “we hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” (US 1776). The above excerpt represents how the United States was intended to operate for white men. A fact that is often obscured with denial or dismissiveness is that African Americans and Native Americans were not legally or socially included in “all men are created equal.” At the time the Constitution was written, Blacks were still enslaved, and were regarded as property. In fact, it was not until after the Emancipation Proclamation in 1865, which gave African Americans freedom, that laws were put in place to establish more equity. This period is known as the Reconstruction Era (1863-1877).
The Reconstruction era gave previously enslaved people a foundation to embark on their new journey of freedom. During this time, African Americans were being elected to office, and legislation was passed that began leveling the playing field in America. This legislation included the thirteenth, fourteenth, and fifteenth amendments to the United States Constitution. This effort to build infrastructure around equity was met with resistance. Equity was seen as a threat to the position of White Americans. An article entitled, “What If Reconstruction Hadn’t Failed?” (Gordon-Reed, 2015), reflects the pervasiveness of white-supremacist ideology in academia. White supremacists’ societies in the Southern United States were not interested in granting Black citizenship, ending slavery, preventing discrimination based on race, and giving Black males the right to vote. Gordon-Reed (2015) addresses how Southern Whites believed extending rights to Blacks would strip Whites of their “God-given” right to rule over Black people (Gordon-Reed, 2015). Many White Americans felt that allowing their former slaves this amount of access to resources and privilege was a threat to their own. The only way to keep their dominance in society was to build infrastructure rooted in race-based policies to disenfranchise the newly freed Black Americans. After the Civil War, there was an attempt to build infrastructure around rights for African Americans.
One example of political resistance that shows how Whites were resistant to establishing equity is the defeat of the Readjusters and their progressive racial policies in Virginia. Many of the first progressive policies in United States Post-Civil War came from Virginia by way of the ironic workings of a former Confederate Army Commander William Mahone. After the Civil War, William Mahone became a senator and established the Readjuster Party in his birthplace of Virginia. This interracial Black Majority Party was the first of its kind. The Readjusters were able to develop political power within the state of Virginia from 1879 to 1883. During this period, a Readjuster governor occupied the statehouse, two Readjusters represented Virginia in the United States Senate, and Readjusters represented six of Virginia’s ten congressional districts. This strong political hold allowed for impactful legislation to be established that created more equity. This is important because it shows a time not long after slavery ended when policies were implemented that made the American dream feasible for Black Americans. With Mahone in leadership, the Readjuster coalition controlled the state legislature and the courts, and held and distributed the state’s many coveted federal offices (Dailey, 2017).
As a black-majority party, the Readjusters established a place for African American citizenship and political power within American society and created access to black suffrage, office-holding, and jury service. This was not seen on this level anywhere else in the United States at that time. However, it showed a strong example of what was possible when African Americans were given access to resources. In an article for the Huffington Post entitled, “What if the Reconstruction Hadn’t Failed?” Jane Dailey states that the Confederate monuments being protested today were built to write over the history and conceal the wins of the Reconstruction Era. Confederate monuments were designed to conceal a time where African Americans in the former Confederacy exercised political power, ran for public office, published newspapers, marched as militias, ran businesses, organized voluntary associations, built schools and churches. (Dailey, 2017) It was important that this time was suppressed because it showed African Americans were able to excel as full members of society when given equitable access. This was not good for the assumption that African Americans were innately inferior to whites. In essence, these monuments and the laws that followed aimed to establish a culture that was white dominant in which blacks would have to learn to adapt. This destroyed the progress made during this time.
When the Readjusters lost power, they were replaced with counter organizations that re-established the order of white supremacy. Organizations like the Association for the Preservation of Virginia Antiquities (APVA) established campaigns that equated the Readjuster’s rule with “mobocracy.” Groups like these effectively organized to radically remove the Readjusters’ political stronghold in Virginia. After 1900, William Mahone, and the Readjusters’ political influence was suppressed. William Mahone was thereafter characterized by whites in Virginia as a demagogic race traitor with autocratic tendencies. (Dailey, 2017) Contributions by individuals like William Mahone were rewritten or completely erased.
As a result, to protect the status of American “whiteness,” attempts to build infrastructure around Black liberation from groups like the Readjusters, was met with social, political, academic, and physical resistance, by White people. The goal of this White resistance was to stifle progress and criminalize blackness, thus creating white supremacy within the fabric of post-slavery American society. Gordon- Reed (2015) talked about this assault in his article, What If Reconstruction Hadn’t Failed. To cement the white supremacist social hierarchy a whole school of literature and history sprang up to carry the message far and wide. The message was that the Reconstruction Era was not good for white people in the south, and “terrible” things had happened. (Gordon-Reed, 2015). These terrible things included Gordon-Reed (2015) gives the example of D.W. Griffith, whose film, Birth of a Nation, which depicted Black men raping white women, stealing, and displayed images of black ignorance in politics (Gordon-Reed, 2015). This propaganda was spread in schools and churches. The white supremacist agenda also influenced legislation. Some of the laws that were created were called the Black Codes. Although Black Codes vary from state to state, there were some common elements such as: Race was defined by blood; the presence of any amount of black blood made one black. Employment was required of all freedmen; violators faced vagrancy charges. Freedmen could not assemble without the presence of a white person. Freedmen were assumed to be agricultural workers and their duties and hours were tightly regulated. Freedmen were not to be taught to read or write. Public facilities were segregated. Violators of these laws were subject to being whipped or branded. Central Piedmont Community College, 2017).
It is important to note that these laws were enacted in post-slavery American society. The infrastructure created by laws codified and established a social norm of white supremacy by restricting social experience and civic engagement for African Americans. These codes deprived African Americans of the right to vote, the right to serve on juries, the right to own or carry weapons, and sometimes the right to rent or lease land. (OpenStax College, 2016) This type of race-based infrastructure was embedded in policies at the local, state, and federal levels. This also allowed for terroristic violence to be inflicted on Blacks without consequence.
Between 1881 and 1968, there were 3,446 recorded lynchings of Black people in the United States. The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) website talks about how many lynchings were a response to restoring the social order in the south after the Civil War. Lynchings were more common in the South. Lynchings became more prevalent after the end of the Civil War because many white people felt that the freed blacks were getting away with too much freedom. Whites in the South used lynching’s as a form of intimidation to control Black communities, social, political, and academic endeavors. (NAACP, 2017) Violence by white citizens was commonplace, but so was police violence against Blacks as well.
In the South, the start of policing was rooted in the preservation of slavery. An article entitled “How the U.S. Got Its Police Force” from the Time Magazine talks about this history. Many of the first policing institutions were the slave patrols. These organizations were used to chase down runaways and prevent slave revolts. Evidence of the first formal slave patrol was in the Carolina colonies which was initiated in 1704 (Waxman, 2017). After the Civil War, slave patrollers continued to work as segregationists. The former confederate military personnel, and slave patrollers became, local sheriffs enforcing segregation and the disenfranchisement of freed African Americans (Waxman, 2017). One of the ways still used to sustain control against Blacks by law enforcement is excessive violence, which sometimes is fatal.
Drawing the Line in the Sand: Government Redlining
Under Franklin D. Roosevelt, official redlining policies continued the race-based policies that contributed to creating the most significant economic gap between white Americans and black Americans. In 1933, Franklin D. Roosevelt created the Home Owner Loan Corporation (HOLC). This corporation was established to give more support to home lenders. This corporation was formed to provide more support to home lenders and allowed them to lend with less risk. Although many people began to have access to home loans that they did not have before, the HOLC gave out grades. These grades aimed to assess the potential for investing in the building and selling of new homes in specific areas. One of the requirements to receive a good grade was to have a low population of African Americans. If there was a significant population of African Americans or the population was projected to increase, it was deemed unfit, or a bad investment for investors. After receiving a grade, the area was then color coded. The red regions were deemed “hazardous.” This hazardous rating prevented a mortgage man from providing loans for property in these areas. Many times, areas would get a low rating because of a small Black population. (Nickerson & Appel, 2017) They categorized Jewish and Italian communities that were integrated with Blacks as unfit as well. This caused Jewish and Italian communities to leave diverse areas to have access to buying a home and to have more social clout. Many of the government documents referred to Jewish and Italians as the low class when living among Black Americans.
Above is an example of a government community assessment form. This example is an official Homeowner Loan Corporation document that was used to survey a Los Angeles County community. In this document, it’s clear how the United States government creates the infrastructure that categorizes communities based on race. Under nationalities, it lists “Mexicans, Japanese, and low-class Italians,” and listed separately are “Negroes.” In the description, it gives this area a low grade and states that it is an excellent location for a slum clearance project.
The slum clearance project allowed the US Government to displace whole communities from their owned properties to enable the developers to build new developments. “Title I, the slum clearance and urban redevelopment section of the act, created a separate fund for land clearance and provided machinery for larger participation by private capital in the rehabilitation of slum areas. The law makes federal aid available to communities for clearing slums and blighted areas without regard to whether the land is to be used for private or public purposes” (CQ Researcher, 1952). This shows that the government used slum clearance policies as the way to deem communities unfit to then repurpose that community for development. Some of this land was owned by the tenants, but because it was deemed a slum clearance area, the government was able to displace them. Below is a map of Los Angeles and shows the red areas where blacks and other people of color lived. These areas were also the areas targeted for slum clearance (Tse, 2016). The slum clearance policies did not have guarantees for a replacement for those families. Often, slum clearance resulted in homelessness or placement in dilapidated government housing projects.
When the United States created policies that strategically isolated the African American community to renting and buying in specific areas the United States government continued the culture of building infrastructure that sanctioned racism, segregation, and discrimination. In 'Forgotten History' Of How the U.S. Government Segregated America, Terrance Gross (2017) explained how the US government justified this practice. Under these policies, the presence of African Americans in these predominantly communities would result in the loans being at risk, and the lowering of property value (Gross, 2017). U.S. real estate agents took advantage of this by blockbusting. Blockbusting was the practice of convincing White home owners to sale their property below market value because of the fear that Black people were moving in their neighborhood. Erin Eberlin (2016), talks about how this was done by staging Black people walking dogs in predominantly white neighborhoods. This action would cause White homeowners to sale their property as soon as possible (Eberlin, 2016). Those real-estate agents would then charge African American 80-100% over market value for the same homes (Eberlin, 2016). This practice created an incentive for white communities to be resistant to the black residence with violence, and protests. It also created a real-estate market that to this day inherently charges African American Homeowners more.
These discriminatory housing policies resulted in the creation of ghetto urban centers. The middle class, working class, and poverty-stricken blacks were forced to reside in rundown neighborhoods because of government-sanctioned redlining. Communities in Los Angeles like Watts shows the outcome of this strategic disenfranchisement. Kelley (2015) addressed the effect of these discriminatory housing policies and slum clearance practices. Many predominantly African American and Latino areas were designated slum clearance in order to develop government-subsidized freeway. These developments not only displaced whole communities, it established borders which aided segregation (Kelley, 2015).
By giving underserved white people, like the Jewish, Italians, and Irish access to homeownership and employment, the US government gave them access to the American dream and reaffirmed the social hierarchy of white supremacy. According to James Truslow Adams (as cited in the Library of Congress, n.d), the American dream is “that dream of a land in which life should be better and richer and fuller for everyone, with opportunity for each according to ability or achievement” (as cited in the Library of Congress, n.d). The above exert directly contradicts how the government was treating its Black American citizens. Instead of the American Dream, Black Americans were experiencing blocked opportunities, and the stifling of black achievement.
American culture was beginning to build a collective consciousness of what it meant to be an ideal American. Being the ideal American included homeownership, employment, and access to social mobility. It was assumed that anyone who did not have access to this collective identity was not working hard enough. One of the most disabling things the race-based policy of redlining did was block the establishment of black wealth through the ownership of real estate. By blocking equal access to home the United States government establish the most significant blow to the wealth gap, and created a hindrance to the establishment of transferable. Ta-Nehisi Coates ‘s (2014) highlights an excerpt from the book Black Wealth/White Wealth by Melvin L. Oliver and Thomas M. Shapiro, which further addresses the wealth gap created by government-sanctioned real estate discrimination. African Americans who were able to afford home ownership were only given access to central-city communities where their investments quickly depreciated. Their homes and communities deteriorated and lost value in comparison to those homes and communities that were backed by the FHA. (Coates, 2014). Redlining was the most consequential government contribution to poverty in underserved communities.
Race-Based Policy and the Outcomes: Cause and Effect
It is evident there were strategic and coordinated policies created to disenfranchise underserved and underrepresented groups like Blacks and Latinos in the United States. It is important to point out how the resulting conditions crippled the health, economic, and academic sustainability of these demographics. The health concerns that came with the Nazi-style corralling of blacks and lower-class groups in urban centers forced them to live in deplorable conditions. In 1998 Hartman talked about the health and safety problems caused which included lead poisoning, rat bites, fires, asphyxiation from poorly ventilated heating systems; it is important to note that these dangerous outcomes were not the creation of the tenants (Hartman, 1998). These results were due to race-based policies that sanctioned the building of dilapidated housing, and authorized the funding of education based off of property values which they set to be minuscule in underserved communities. Although these circumstances were not created by underserved communities, the consequences were theirs to endure alone.
Segregation and discrimination based on race, ethnicity, and class deprived many of these resident’s access to employment as well. Blocking people from access to work can only lead to them finding alternative sources of income. Something as harmless as babysitting for the neighbors, or as illegal as selling drugs becomes a way to make money. This money takes care of the need for housing, food, and clothing. When the alternate means of incomes are more dangerous, it becomes an imminent threat to everyone in the community. This formula of government-sanctioned denial of access boiled over continuously with the urban centers rebelling and rioting due to the conditions they were forced to endure. Propaganda allows the resulting ills to create negative stereotypes of everyone in these communities, and these images are portrayed vehemently in the media.
Although these instances are a result of failed government policy, the news and media used the plight of the black community to demonize it. The criminalization of the black community is often seen in how crime is reported. Kassia E. Kulaszewicz (2015) discusses how the portrayals of Blacks in the media and how people who are influenced by these representations develop and sustain stereotypes of Black men as criminal and dangerous. This creates a social dynamic where Black people, in general, are affected by biased reporting in the media.
Although Blacks and Whites commit crimes proportionately, Kulaszewicz (2015) addresses how there is more visual and informational content for Black criminals than White criminals, as well as content that highlights white victimization. (Kulaszewicz, 2015) By depicting blacks as criminal, and whites a victim it further complicates the discussion of poverty. It makes it hard to challenges whiteness as the reason for poverty because white is often depicted as the victims of it, and blacks as the perpetrator. Also by seeing Blacks as criminals, it challenges the notion that Blacks Americans can be Middle-Class Americans.
In the early 1970s, there was a strong Black middle class. The enforcement of equal opportunity laws, affirmative action, and a substantial amount of high paying blue-collar employment gave Blacks the infrastructure they needed to access the American dream academically and economically. “Blacks had significantly narrowed the historic wage gap they experienced with whites, as their percentage of medium incomes compared to white’s incomes rose from about 50 percent in 1958 to 63 percent n 1973” (Mullings, 2009). There was also a significant increase in college enrollment from African Americans. “The number of African Americans attending college and professional schools soared, from about 400,000 in 1970 to 1.1million only ten years later” (Mullings, 2009). Towards the end of the 1970s, this access was stifled yet again by government-sanctioned policies. From 1973-1980 the government began to “deindustrialize.” Deindustrialization directly attacked the economic foundation of Black America. During the 1970s deindustrialization, 30 million jobs were lost (Mullings, 2009). Muhammad (2013) addressed how Many of the jobs lost were in the industries African Americans depended on for financial sustainability. Drastic cuts to government spending for school lunches, unemployment insurance, child care, subsidized housing, Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC) and the Comprehensive Employment and Training Act (CETA), which trained workers and provided them with public sector jobs, all disproportionately affected African Americans. During Ronald Reagan first few years in office the government, cut social benefit spending by $20 billion a year (Muhammad, 2013). Similar to what was seen as a response to the Reconstruction Era, new policies were established that were rooted in the conservative goal of creating an anti-welfare state aimed again at stifling black progress. Many attempts were made to revert to pre-civil rights political behavior. Regan attempted to veto the Civil Rights Restoration Act of 1988 although it passed it set a clear tone on how he felt about black progress. This was reiterated with legislation he was able to get passed. Muhamad (2013) spoke about how although President Reagan wasn’t successful with vetoing the Civil Rights Restoration Act, he was successful in cutting funding for the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) and the civil rights division of the Justice Department. Both of these organizations were designed to crack down on discriminatory practices in education, housing, and the workplace. When Reagan cut resources, both agencies were drastically declined in their effectiveness. The EEOC filed 60 percent fewer cases, and most cases of segregation in schools or housing at the Justice Department went uninvestigated (Muhammad, 2013).
The social and economic effects of government deindustrialization were cataclysmic. By doing so, the government destabilized the social fabric of communities, state, and the nation. Deindustrialization caused many negative consequences. Economically there was a loss of jobs, homes, and reductions in the tax base. The economic results lead to cuts in necessary public services like police and fire protection; increases in crime both immediately and long-term, and decaying local physical infrastructure. There were negative health outcomes as well which included the loss of health care, and increases in suicide, drug and alcohol abuse, family violence, and depression; declines in nonprofits and cultural resources; and loss of faith in institutions such as government, business, unions, churches, and traditional political organizations (Russo & Linkon, 2017). Under the lead of the conservative right, the world was embarking on a restructuring of industrial policies resulting in a capitalist economic agenda shift. With this economic shift, there was also a language shift.
Can You Hear Them Talking? The Language of Race-Based Policy
The new political terrain did not allow for blatant bigoted and racist language so new infrastructure around language was created. Dog whistling is a language infrastructure strategy used to speak in code to an intended audience based on common knowledge or assumptions shared within that group. It is defined by the political dictionary as, “A type of political speech using code words that appear to mean one thing to the general population but have a different meaning for a targeted part of the audience” (Political Dictionary, 2017). Although cloaked in “dog whistles” and sanitized language, the conservative right agenda yet again contributed to poverty in underserved communities. This shift to the conservative right is seen with the election of Margaret Thatcher in the United Kingdom, and the election of Ronald Reagan in the United States in the following year. Monibot (2016) attributed this to an anti-Stalinist philosophy that created hegemony. This hegemony affected how government functioned all over the world. Right shifted governments reduced or eliminated support for many liberal welfare programs that had been instituted for the previous half-century; public housing, public education, job training, food stamps, child nutrition, and support for indigent and disabled, all faced steep cuts or were eliminated (Mullings, 2009). There were also massive tax cuts for the rich, the crushing of trade unions, deregulation, privatisation, outsourcing and competition in public services. Ronald Reagan used white racists to build his support base. While kicking his campaign off in the town where three civil rights workers were kidnapped and murdered, he used terms like state rights, referring to the right of whites to resist education, or referring to a “young buck,” a term used to describe strong resistant black men. Ian Haney Lopez (2014) addressed this in an interview he did with democracy now:
Now, when Reagan campaigns using that same term in 1980, that’s just 16 years after these civil rights workers had been slain there. There isn’t a voter alive in that town who hadn’t been alive when these civil rights workers were lynched. And for him to go and say "states’ rights," it’s a clear dog whistle, saying, "I understand that this term is about the ability of whites to resist integration (Lopez, 2014).
Dog whistling continues to be the way race is addressed in politics.
Dog whistling is seen in the media when inner city black and brown faces are often referred to as thugs. “Coded language describes phrases that are targeted so often at a specific group of people or idea that eventually the circumstances of a phrase's use are blended into the phrase's meaning” (Lopez, 2016). Words like "thug" or “welfare queen” are racially charged terms because they have been used so often to describe black men and women in particular even when they're doing nothing wrong, it now carries a racist connotation. Dog whistling is also seen when the media refers to other marginalized groups example referring to immigrants as illegal aliens when they are Mexican immigrants or when using the term Muslim/Islamic to mean terrorist. “These terms are commonly used against people of color, ethnic minorities, women, LGBTQ people, and religious groups — right now, particularly, Muslims” (Lopez, 2016). Although it may look different or sound different, it is essential to understand how these micro-aggressions rooted in race-based thinking cause some of the same outcomes as it more explicit predecessors.
Conclusion: What is Clear?
There is no denying historical documentation of race-based policy and the outcomes those systems created. It is a tragedy that the United States government continues to ignore the critical outcomes of its darkest hours of racism, bigotry, and oppression it implemented through policy. The race-based policy examples of the post Reconstruction Era, government redlining policies, states sanctioned violence, and criminalization based on race, all sustain an unbalanced social hierarchy. Within the social hierarchy Black bodies, Brown bodies, Female bodies, LGBTQ bodies, and Muslim bodies are not always safe from ridicule, social isolation, and sometimes violence - sometimes state-sanctions violence. The lack of acknowledging how these practices, traditions, and laws still affect the outcomes of academics, economics, and health for African Americans, and other marginalized groups is a disservice to all Americans. Until we deal with the infrastructure of race-based policy in academics, economics, and health we only scratch the surface of addressing the social hierarchy it creates.
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