David Simon's 'Show Me a Hero' Recap: Less Springsteen, More Public Enemy Needed?

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

Show Me A Hero Oscar Isaac Still - H 2015

Two scholars — experts on urban America — wonder if the the show is shortchanging the role African-Americans played in the battle for housing in Yonkers.

David Simon's new series Show Me a Hero tackles a famous but little-known modern civil rights battle: the 1980s battle for integrated housing in Yonkers, New York. THR asked two scholars, Thomas Sugrue of NYU and Craig Wilder of MIT, to follow the series and weigh in with their thoughts. Sugrue leads off the discussion by wondering if Simon focuses to much on the white players in the story, overlooking the tremendous black activism that brought the case to this point. Wilder follows by stepping back to take a broad look at how deeply embedded this discriminatory housing was in both policy and practice.

Thomas J. Sugrue (twitter: @tomsugrue)

I haven’t compiled a full playlist for Show Me a Hero, but there’s no doubting that Bruce Springsteen tops the chart. We hear the Boss on Yonkers Mayor Nick Waciscko’s boom box and in his car. And for good reason. People like Yonkers’ youthful mayor, an upwardly mobile former cop turned lawyer, made up Springsteen’s core audience. The Boss was (and is) the bard of white, male baby boomers.

The strength of Show Me a Hero, four episodes into the series, is Simon’s ability to capture the complex world of white America with searing realism. They are living in the suburbs a quarter-century after Martin Luther King Jr. marched on Washington for jobs and freedom. They look back through their rearview mirrors, with a mix of romance and contempt, at the urban neighborhoods that they left behind. They claim (with a few noteworthy exceptions) to be colorblind, even if they can’t contain their vitriol toward public housing residents who might be “invading” their neighborhoods. Simon’s portrayals of white Yonkers residents are wholly unromantic. They are fearful of what they don’t know (black folks). They are insecure in their homeownership. Some like Waciscko struggle to find a middle ground.

Simon’s strength is his weakness. Show Me a Hero, at least thus far, is a very white story. The black characters, like the rap music that we hear thumping in the background in Yonkers’s housing projects, are mostly recessive. To be sure, the show’s black characters are far from one dimensional. One struggles with crack addiction, another loses her asthmatic boyfriend, a third is a skilled woodworker and dedicated mother who can’t make enough money to support her children, a fourth is a hardworking health aide who looks older than her 47 years and struggles with diabetes-related blindness. None of them are villains, none are heroes. They suffer, and sometimes they are resilient. But all of them are victims. 

Show Me a Hero does a service by reminding us of the people who really paid the price for racial injustice. But it also leaves out an important part of the story: the role of civil rights activists, and especially black folks, in the long struggle. We catch a glimpse of a civil rights march through East Yonkers, “No Justice, No Peace,” and a brief appearance by the Reverend Al Sharpton.

But Yonkers had its own homegrown leaders, more important than Sharpton in the city’s history. For decades before Judge Leonard Sand ordered Yonkers to desegregate its public housing and schools, grassroots activists in Yonkers — most of them black — led the fight against racial discrimination. They were unwilling to accept separate and unequal status.

Yonkers activists founded a branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) in 1938, four decades before the group filed suit against the city charging it with discrimination in public education and housing. The Yonkers branch was one of dozens in suburban New York (including Great Neck, Hempstead, Hillburn, New Rochelle, Mount Vernon, Rockville Center and White Plains). One of the major battles that the NAACP fought, intensifying during and after World War II, was against racial segregation in housing.

NAACP members pushed states like New York to pass laws forbidding discrimination in housing and in schools. They used every tool at their disposal: holding mass meetings, marching and, increasingly, turning to the courts. In the 1950s, the Yonkers NAACP challenged the city’s decision to construct a housing project in a mostly black section of town. And again in the mid-1960s, the NAACP and the Congress of Racial Equality fought the construction of high-rise public housing in the black section of town. In the 1970s, the NAACP challenged discriminatory practices in Yonkers’ city employment. And in 1978, local NAACP leaders filed a complaint with the federal government, charging that the Yonkers school district deliberately segregated its students by race.

It would be asking too much of a six-episode miniseries to cover the long history of civil rights activism in Yonkers. But to leave it out altogether misses one of the most important lessons of the battle for fair housing. Yonkers blacks were not just victims. They fought the system of segregation — against great odds. Their victories were few, and hard won. But the lawsuit that came before Judge Leonard Sand, the city council battles that followed and the eventual construction of scattered site housing in the city were the culmination of several decades of struggle.

If I were putting together the soundtrack for Show Me a Hero, I would definitely keep the Springsteen. But I’d load my boom box with some music from the blacker side of town. There are a lot of good candidates (though I would skip some of the overplayed civil rights era anthems). Why not something edgier that came out during the Yonkers housing battle? Public Enemy’s “Don’t Believe the Hype” (1988), which challenges the media portrayals of black men that fueled the fears of white Yonkers residents (“the minute they see me, fear me”) and the anthem to the still unfinished battle for racial justice: “Fight the Power” (1989).

Craig Wilder (twitter: @craigswilder)

In the backdrop of the political wrangling and legal maneuvering that dominate the first two weeks of this series, African-American and Latino families struggle to build better lives. The sight of brown parents standing in lines and filling out forms to give their children access to schools in other neighborhoods is ordinary. We expect candidates for national office to announce their education agendas while surrounded by brown children in failing schools that those politicians will never visit again. Segregation, particularly school segregation, remains an intractable barrier to social and economic justice.

In the 1970s the Regional Plan Association condemned the “growing apartheid” of Westchester, next door to Yonkers and moving toward irreversible racial segregation and economic inequality. African-American and Latino families, like Italian and Irish families, migrated to Yonkers in search of a better quality of life. Their differing fates reflect disparities in access to education, jobs, housing and even recreation. For example, the New York Times Guide to Suburban Schools, a handbook for homebuyers, made the percentage of black and “Spanish-surnamed” students the first questions on the school surveys that it used to determine neighborhood desirability.

When Yonkers’ white residents protested Judge Sand’s desegregation order, they invoked family and community histories that erased the role of policy. Racial segregation facilitated the transfer of resources from non-white to white communities. It rendered black families’ hard work, incomes and aspirations irrelevant; depressed the values of their homes; and impeded their ability to create intergenerational wealth.

During the Great Depression, surveyors for the Home Owner’s Loan Corporation — the New Deal agency created to address the mortgage foreclosure crisis — found that a “Negro section [D-2 in Yonkers] comprises mostly Post Office clerks or New York City employees and many own their own homes.” Stable federal and municipal jobs and homeownership — the evidence of social striving — were no protections for black citizens. Staffers assigned this district a “hazardous” or “D” grade on the accompanying security (aka, redlining) map. Another Yonkers neighborhood (C-3) was punished because its small black community was not confined to one zone and the nearest schools were “in the adjoining hazardous area and children must attend with colored and foreign born [students].”

In the mid-1930s, the Mortgage Conference of New York, a statewide combination of banks and insurance companies that set lending guidelines, published maps that identified every black resident, and only black residents, on each block in New York City. It routinely updated its maps and also circulated information on the racial makeup of schools in Greater New York. A decade later, MCNY began tracking Spanish-speaking people.

Such policies brought the residential incarceration of African-American and Latino families. A 1940 HOLC review found that the black population in the D-2 neighborhood of Yonkers had increased 50 percent, and African Americans were now three-quarters of all its residents.

Public and private actors protected white people’s economic investments — even for those groups they tended to disdain — and respected and enhanced their political power. In one Yonkers district, B-4, with wealthy white residents, “beautiful homes,” and “high, rolling winding roads [that are] heavily wooded,” HOLC staffers worried about the arrival of “better class Italians” into the north and a single black-owned building. The former concern seems to have been dropped; the latter persisted. The Depression-era preacher Father M. J. Divine had opened a “Heaven” — one of the hotels that the ministry ran to help followers find jobs and practice Christian economic uplift. Agents examined the site to ensure that there were “no signs of life there; no evidence of Negroes.”