Richard Rothstein’s book, The Color of Law, recounts—among many other examples—the successful re-segregation efforts that took place in the city of Helena, Montana. It is but one of a great many other instances the book uses to describe how, during the 20th century, local and federal government enacted policies specifically intended to place black and white people in isolation from one another. The detrimental consequences of these efforts with respect to Native Blacks in this country cannot be overstated. They unquestionably constitute an essential component of the now yawning racial wealth gap, as whites—who previously lived in mixed communities but were afforded access to homes via FHA loans that were denied to African-Americans—clustered together in the suburbs. As black communities were left to languish in the wake of this re-segregation, The Color of Law shows how the present ills of urban black America—contrary to the claim of a pathologized blackness—are a direct, functional disorder of the racist handiwork of the real estate industry, state courts and the federal government.
What becomes apparent when looking at Helena—while never exactly being a very dense African-American city—was how the black community that was there had in fact prospered in a milieu of integration. There was an “established middle-class,” Rothstein writes, an African-American police officer patrolled one of the town’s wealthiest white neighborhoods, and there were “black newspapers, black-owned businesses and a black literary society.” However, as anti-black attitudes began metastasizing throughout the country, whatever harmony and stability had existed was soon shattered as African-Americans started being “systematically expelled” from Helena and other predominantly white communities. Between 1910 and 1970, the city’s black population declined by 90 per cent as a result of white mobs terrorizing the black community—abetted by local law enforcement—and anti-miscegenation laws.
To look at Helena today, one observes what seems to be a town that has—despite its unconscionable history—made progress in its stance on anti-blackness. After all, this past year, the city of Helena elected Wilmot Collins as its first black mayor. Collins is a 54 year-old refugee from Liberia who came to the United States at the age of 31, and is someone who, we are told, has “the most American of stories.” Presumably—for someone who is unaware of the specifics of Collins’ story—this language is meant to indicate and emphasize his embodiment of the idealized refugee experience; his ascendancy from the archetypal destitute arrival to his eventual attainment of the highest-ranking position in a municipal government. However, as with the preponderance of those “most American of stories,” a closer look at Collins’ actual experience shows how describing it in these terms conceals more than it reveals. Moreover, to conceive of Collins’ election as constituting some kind of meaningful leap forward for race relations in Helena, Montana is to misunderstand the utterly devastating legacy of the coordinated assault on black life that The Color of Law describes having taken place in the town, and on black America more generally. Those deliberate actions of re-segregation guaranteed the kind of instability that precludes any community-based, agenda-driven politics, and which could only ever allow for a future scenario in which a black candidate who “never felt that his race was a factor” might win the mayoral race.
It seems there could not be a more perfect expression and realization of the government project to keep Native Blacks at the bottom of society than to systematically engineer their place there and then have as mayor a feel-good symbol of blackness, and America’s enterprising spirit, say that his win was “not about race or anything.” Certainly, by now we must understand such a familiar proclamation as code for—and reassurance that—his tenure as Mayor will, too, not be “about race or anything.” However, a bit of digging on the Internet reveals just how powerfully race has in fact operated in Collins’ own “most American of stories.”
In 1984, Collins’ wife, Maddie, had been a Liberian high school cultural exchange student living in Helena. Her host family was a white family named the Nachsteims—Bruce and Nancy—a couple who would prove absolutely integral to both her and Wilmot’s futures. In 1988, Maddie graduated from Helena High School and returned to Liberia, which was then mired in a civil war. After fleeing the violence to Ghana with Wilmot, Maddie placed a telephone call from a shelter there to the Nachsteims and explained to them her situation. The Nachsteims quickly strategized a plan to get Maddie back to Helena. “The only way we could get [Maddie] into the U.S., was if she applied for a student visa,” Joyce Nachtsheim said. “So we explained to Carrol College what the plight was, and the college said, `We will pay for it, don’t you worry.’ It helped us tremendously, and so Maddie came on a student visa.” Maddie received a full scholarship to Carroll College, where she would study nursing.
Maddie arrived pregnant in Montana in 1992. Wilmot had to remain in Ghana. Immediately, the Nachsteims set about trying to reunite her with her husband as expeditiously as possible. Bruce Nachsteim—who was a former FBI agent—contacted state Senator Conrad Burns and Senator Baucus, along with Congressman Pat Williams to initiate the process that would eventually bring Maddie’s husband over to Helena. “I talked to everyone who was anyone,” he said. In the interim, Maddie gave birth to a daughter in a hospital that, according to Nachsteim, “didn’t charge her anything…everyone pitched in to help this African girl from a war-torn county whom they had no connection with. It was really very spectacular.”
Throughout, Nachsteim continued “trying tirelessly” to get Wilmot to the United States, and in 1994 Wilmot finally secured a visa to come to Montana. Here’s a description of his arrival in Helena from a Public International Radio article:
“When [Wilmot] first arrived to Montana in 1994, the community had already rallied around his wife, who arrived more than two years earlier. He got off the plane to find a welcoming party put together by students at Helena High School and members of The First Lutheran Church. They held sheets of paper that together spelled out ‘Welcome home Wilmot.'”
As much as the media would like to wrap Collins’ story in the mythos of American opportunity that we’re repeatedly told is available to the very least of us, a scenario like this is inarguably atypical of the experience of an average refugee. And insofar as we take Collins’ story to be emblematic of a certain notion of opportunity and improbable success which is only accessible here in America, it’s important—it’s essential—to note how Collins’ success is one that is predicated on, and made completely possible by, proximity to whiteness. Without the Nachsteims, there is no Mayor Collins.
This imperative to be afforded the opportunities occasioned by proximity to whiteness is what the Breaking Brown project has repeatedly stated is one of the absolutely critical ways that the United States government can begin providing adequate redress for the economic devastation that has defined black life in America since the arrival of the first African slaves in the 17th century, and which is catalogued at length and in vivid detail in the pages of The Color of Law.
Indeed, the very fact of Mayor Collins’ election in Helena takes on a particular valence in light of Rothstein’s account of how the city was able to all but completely vanquish its black community in the mid 20th century. In many ways, Mayor Collins—who is already using his platform to extol the virtues of refugees and other immigrants—represents a new point in the continuum of black disadvantage that was being established during re-segregation. Breaking Brown has demonstrated at length the detrimental effects of the non-U.S. citizen labor stream on black workers (and U.S. labor more generally), and the need to prioritize jobs and protections for American workers and to shore up the wage floor. And so what does it mean to have a black Democratic mayor now advocating for the replacement to native blacks? Not just in the labor market, but also as potential affirmative action slots in higher education, and the many other ways in which the ushering in of new diversity functions to assist the United States in continuing to mask the predetermined, inevitable failure of African-American Descendants of Slaves—and by extension, the United States’ failure to heal the wound that it inflicted centuries ago and then proceeded to keep open? What does it mean to understand the sort of race-neutral politics of Mayor Collins as that which filled the vacuum left in the expulsion of Helena’s native black community? What , we have to wonder, in those intervening years could have been different—in Helena and elsewhere—if the government hadn’t ordained and done everything possible to keep Native Blacks at the very bottom of the social order?