David Simon's 'Show Me a Hero' Recap: Two Experts on Urban America Weigh In

Show Me A Hero Oscar Isaac Still - H 2015
Paul Schiraldi/HBO

Show Me A Hero Oscar Isaac Still - H 2015

A pair of distinguished American historians of racial discrimination are writing about the show each week for THR.

Show Me a Hero, HBO's three-part six-hour miniseries from David Simon that debuted on Sunday is based on a true story. The battle over housing discrimination in Yonkers, New York that unfolded in the late 1980 made headline news across the country and is considered by historians to be one of the most important cases of the last fifty years.

Simon’s previous show, The Wire, was celebrated as the most realistic depiction of America’s drug problem and the problems of its cities ever seen on TV (so good it is used in college classes). The Hollywood Reporter asked two distinguished historians — Thomas Sugrue of New York University and Craig Steven Wilder of MIT to blog along with the series. Sugrue, who is a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and taught at Penn for two decades before arriving at NYU this year, is the author of four books, including The Origins of the Urban Crisis and Sweet Land of Liberty: The Forgotten Struggle for Civil Rights in the North. Wilder, who taught at Dartmouth before MIT, is the author of Ebony & Ivy: Race, Slavery, and the Troubled History of America’s Universities. He was also a consultant on Ken Burns’ documentary The Central Park Five and before becoming a professor was a community activist in Brooklyn. 

First up this week, Prof. Sugrue offers background on the case, pointing out that far from being unique, Yonkers was in many ways Everytown, USA. Prof Wilder echoes this by recalling how George Wallace, the segregationist Alabama governor who tried to stop Martin Luther King, Jr. in Selma, drew 16,000 cheering New Yorkers to Madison Square Garden when he ran for president in 1968. 

Thomas Sugrue

In our cherished histories of civil rights, we learn about Birmingham, Montgomery and Selma, but seldom about places like Yonkers, where David Simon’s new mini-series, Show Me a Hero, takes place. A city of nearly 200,000 people, it lies along the Hudson River just north of the Bronx. In the early 1980s, when Judge Leonard Sand ordered the city to construct desegregated and affordable housing, more than eight in 10 Yonkers residents were white. Most of the city’s blacks lived in a square mile cluster near the Bronx border, most stuck in shabby public housing projects.

America’s maps are dotted with places like Yonkers. Think of Compton or Ferguson. Ironically, most of those places are not in those Southern states where rednecks waved their Confederate battle flags, pushed blacks to the back of the bus and donned their KKK hoods, but in the major metropolitan areas north of the Mason-Dixon line, places that have long prided themselves on their open-mindedness. Of the top 10 most segregated metropolitan areas with populations over a half million in the last census, none is in the South. They include old industrial centers like Milwaukee and Detroit (numbers 1 and 4), Barack Obama’s adopted hometown Chicago (number 3), and superficially cosmopolitan Los Angeles (number 10). The second most segregated place? America’s greatest megalopolis — New York — including beleaguered Yonkers.

We have easy shorthand to explain away the great gap between blacks and whites in housing. Birds of a feather flock together. Segregated housing is just the sum of individual choices about where to live. It’s a matter of class, not race. Black folks simply can’t afford to live in suburbs. The racial divide in housing is not the result of racism, it’s simply the result of a free market. These are the commonplace explanations for the grim reality that today — nearly half a century after President Lyndon Johnson signed Title VIII of the Civil Rights Act (also known as the Fair Housing Act) — America still remains divided by black and white. But the Yonkers story gives the lie to these myths.

There was nothing natural about racial segregation in Yonkers or in metropolitan New York. There was nothing resembling a free market in housing there in the 1940s when civil rights activists around the region began demanding equal opportunity in housing. Blacks had little freedom of choice in housing when Martin Luther King, Jr. turned his attention from ending Jim Crow in the South to challenging separate and unequal education and housing in the North. And when Nick Wascisko, the boy mayor of Yonkers played by Oscar Isaac, stood up and demanded that his city council comply with a court ruling, his hometown’s African American population was trapped in a neighborhood not of their own making.

Why? Because up through 1968, real estate brokers and property owners in New York, as in most of the country, openly discriminated against minorities. The National Association of Real Estate Brokers (known now by its trademark name Realtors) held it unethical for its members to introduce "into a neighborhood a character of property or occupancy, members of any race or nationality, or any individuals whose presence will clearly be detrimental to property values in that neighborhood." Even after that language fell, Realtors abided by the spirit of the code. At the peak of the civil rights era, they argued that laws forbidding racial discrimination restricted individuals’ freedom of contract and association. Beginning in the 1970s, brokers regularly steered black buyers and renters toward minority neighborhoods and away from white neighborhoods — even those where they could afford to live, like many all-white parts of Yonkers.

But it was not just real estate brokers who were responsible for segregation. Municipal governments, including Yonkers’ city council and school board, did the bidding of their white constituents. Reviewing some four decades of city records, Sands found that "race has had a chronic and pervasive influence on decisions relating to the location of subsidized housing.'' And he pointed his finger at both the city’s white residents, who staunchly opposed integrated housing and schools, and at the politicians who deliberately carved out a tiny part of the town for black residents. The clustering of blacks in southwest Yonkers was the result of a poisonous mixture of grassroots white racism, aided and abetted by local politicians who had the power to decide where to build public housing, how to zone land and where to draw school attendance boundaries. There was nothing unintentional about any of those decisions. The city’s small black population had no political representation — and no voice in the process.

When Nick Wascicko tried to corral enough votes on Yonkers’ city council to implement a modest plan to construct integrated and affordable housing, he was not just swimming against the tide of his constituents’ anger. He was fighting against decades of separate and unequal housing, pervasive discrimination and an unwillingness of white Yonkers residents — and most northern whites — to acknowledge that their race problem was every bit as deeply entrenched as its Southern cousin, Jim Crow.

Craig Steven Wilder 

Americans are rehearsed at forgetting the public policies that shaped the social and economic histories of their families and communities. The twentieth century American middle class was built on a matrix of economic, educational and residential discrimination. Judge Leonard Sand (memorably played by Bob Balaban in Show Me a Hero) rightly connected the segregation of Yonkers’ schools to systematic housing discrimination that began much earlier. "Separate school children by wealth and the result is class misunderstanding and hatred," reads the November 1910 mission statement in the inaugural edition of the NAACP’s organ, The Crisis. "Separate them by race and the result is war." 

Despite such warnings about the dangers of segregation, white northerners have spent the past century raising walls of division. Housing and school segregation defined the development of not just Yonkers, but all of Westchester County. In a 1942 mortgage guide for Greater New York, Fred H. Allen of the Bowery Savings Bank addressed concerns about "a tremendous influx of Negroes" into Westchester. Black families were isolated in small sections of a few cities and towns, Allen noted, which opened the possibility of building all-white residential districts with exclusive public school systems. Banks, insurance companies, department stores and utilities were part of the private partnership that lobbied state and federal agencies to accelerate residential segregation in Greater New York. By the mid-twentieth century, they had helped to recreate public education as a commodity accessed through racially exclusive suburbs.

Discriminatory public policies and private market regulations worked to eliminate household income and free will as factors in black families’ residential decisions. Westchester and its subdivisions imposed zoning policies that took three-quarters of all the land in the county, more than three hundred square miles, out of the reach of working-class and poor families. Cities and towns regulated the size of lots, determined the minimum square footage of new homes, required detached buildings, set the distance between structures, and placed other zoning and building code obstacles to affordable housing. By 1971 the Regional Plan Association could condemn the "growing apartheid" of Westchester, a county moving toward irreversible racial segregation and economic inequality.

In 1961 New Rochelle, to the east of Yonkers in Westchester, became the first northern city placed under a court-mandated school desegregation plan. Federal judges eventually took action against schools and districts throughout Greater New York. Beginning in the 1960s, the state education commissioners ordered the desegregation of more than a dozen municipal and town school systems in the counties neighboring New York City, particularly Westchester, Nassau, and Suffolk. Nearly two-dozen districts in those counties agreed to "voluntary" desegregation during the same period to avoid court and state intervention.

Judges and state officials faced broad grassroots resistance, not just to integration, but to the dismantling of the structures of racial privilege that it threatened. On Thursday, October 24, 1968, more than sixteen thousand white New Yorkers waited in Madison Square Garden for a chance to see the insurgent presidential candidate George Wallace of Alabama. Buses brought supporters from Westchester and Long Island. They waved Confederate flags, sang "Dixie," and occasionally broke into chants of "White Power" and "N—ers Must Go."