The Web of Urban Racism (Harold M. Baron, 1968)

Synopsis by Madeleine McQuilling

In this chapter, Hal Baron spends a few pages on each of his main themes (history, housing, labor, education, politics) and explains how they all represent different aspects of what he terms the “web of urban racism.” The web of urban racism, a phrase Baron uses in his writings from the late 1960s onwards, denotes the network of institutional racism intrinsic to American society (1). Baron explains: 

 The impersonal institutions of the great cities have been woven together into a web of urban racism that entraps Negroes much as the spider’s net holds flies – they can wiggle but they cannot move very far. There is a carefully articulated interrelation of the barriers created by each institution. Whereas the single institutional strand standing alone might not be so strong, together the many strands form a powerful web. But here the analogy breaks down. In contrast to the spider’s prey, the victim of urban racism has fed on stronger stuff and is on the threshold of tearing the web. 

 Written in 1968, Baron’s sympathies for the black power movement surge beneath his calm prose. The “Long, hot summer of 1967” shone a spotlight on the problematic racrelations in America; by its light, the web of urban racism becomes more visible, and thus, more vulnerable. Baron is confident that its victims have “fed on stronger stuff,” and are now capable of “tearing the web.” In order for readers to fully appreciate this anticipated moment of liberation, Baron details how the web of urban racism came about, and how it continues to impact every sphere of daily life.   

 Baron starts his history of urban racism in America with the Civil War, declaring that the “abolition of slavery did not mean the abolition of racism.” To the contrary, the racism decreased only in its visibility, taking “on a new institutional form in which it was still effective in subjugating blacks and politically disarming poor whites.” In other words, the racism starts shifting from de jure to de facto. Baron sees de jure segregation, or legalized segregation, as a largely southern system; in contrast, he considers de facto, or automatic segregation a predominantly northern one But, Baron observes, “as the southern population becomes more demographically similar to the northern population, the nature of racism is beginning to assume greater similarities, especially in metropolitan centers.” The difference between de jure and de facto segregation is the difference between a school that forbids the enrollment of black students, and a school built in such a way that no black students live within its district. The great migration of the early 20th century made it painfully clear that racism survived the Civil War; it was alive and well––northern as well as southern.  

For Baron, the demographic shift represented a “push-pull phenomenon.” “The push,” he argues, “was the displacement of Negroes from southern agriculture, occasioned first by soil exhaustion, then by boll-weevil destruction and crop diversification.” The labor opportunities in the agricultural south were further diminished by the rise of tractors, herbicides, and agricultural machines. The pull of the city,” Baron continues, “has primarily been exerted through wartime labor shortages,” and the demand for unskilled labor that they occasion. The northern cities further appealed to black people because their system of de facto racism was “less obvious than the South’s Jim Crow.” Baron emphasizes that the demographic shift from rural to urban spaces is just as important as the one from south to north. This urbanization is important to Baron, because: “The great racial conflict now so manifest in the city is both generated and restrained by its major institutions.”  “Indeed,” as Baron declares in no uncertain language, “the white suburban noose around the city is drawing tighter.” 

 In this report, Baron advances the thesis that de facto segregation is actually worse than de jure segregation: “As the specific barriers become less distinctive and less absolute, their meshing together into an overriding network compensates so that the combined effect of the whole is greater than the sum of the individual institutions.” Baron clarifies: 

 For examples: the school system uses the neighborhood school policy which combined with residential segregation operates as a surrogate for direct segregation; suburbs in creating very restrictive zoning regulations, or urban renewal developments in setting universally high rents can eliminate all but a very few Negro families on the basis of income; given the racial differentials produced by the school system, an employer, by using his regular personnel tests and criteria, can screen out most Negroes from desirable jobs. 

 This is the web of urban racism. Although these racial controls represent a web from a structural standpoint, “from within the Negro community,” Baron explains, “it tends to appear that there is just a massive white sea that surrounds a black island.” This analogy brings to mind Du Bois’ cave allegory in Dusk of Dawn (or Myrdal’s reference to it in An American Dilemma), while echoing Martin Luther King’s “lonely island of poverty in the midst of a vast ocean of material prosperity” (2). As though to emphasize this socioeconomic aspect, Baron now moves from a broad discussion of the web of urban racism to its role in the dual labor market specifically.  

 While the education gap between black and white workers had nearly closed by the 1960s, the gap in salary, employment, leadership opportunities, and socioeconomic status has only grown. Baron notes that even “the United States Department of Labor has had to conclude that social and economic conditions are getting worse, not better’” for people trapped in slum sectors. For Baron, this inequality results from a dualism in the labor market that divides job openings along racial lines.  Contrary to other reports at the time, the Chicago Urban League’s “own studies indicate that the Negro job-seeker is quite the rational economic man, and thus the financial discrepancy exists because the black worker faces a very differently structured set of opportunities” than his white counterparts. Baron elaborates:  

In effect, certain jobs have become designated as “Negro” jobs. Negro workers are hired by certain industries, by particular firms within these industries, and in particular jobs within these firms. Within all industries, including government service, there is unmistakable evidence of occupational ceilings for Negroes. Within establishments that hire both Negro and white, the black workers are usually limited to specific job classifications and production units. An accurate rule of thumb is that the lower the pay or the more disagreeable and dirty the job, the greater the chance of finding a high proportion of Negroes. 

 This dual labor market works in tandem with the dual housing market to keep black people financially subordinate.  

 It goes without saying that ghettos are suboptimal places to live. As Baron clarifies: “The ghetto is bad not because it is inhabited by black people, but because it operates as a subjected enclave.” It exists specifically to trap black people, both physically and psychologically. As Baron proves for the Gautreaux v. Chicago Housing Authority case, many black families have little to no choice in their housing arrangements. “Overwhelmingly,” he explains, “real estate brokers refuse to show Negroes properties outside the ghetto or transition neighborhoods. Lending institutions refuse to grant them mortgages for properties beyond these confines.” Furthermore, the CUL found that housing units in the Chicago ghettos cost 10% more than comparable housing in white sectors. This so-called “color tax” extends to retail prices, allowing “merchants operating in the ghetto [to] charge more for goods and credit or sell inferior quality merchandise at regular prices.” When the lower wages and higher cost of living cause black people to depend upon welfare, “the bureaucrat machinery” degrades and infantilizes them, treating them “like wards of the state, rather than responsible adults.” The web of urban racism intentionally erodes black peoples’ power and credibility; the housing market threads are perhaps the most insidious, as physical location dictates one’s political and educational opportunities.  

Neighborhood school districting and gerrymandering systems prevent conditions in the ghetto from improving. As Baron remarks, “educational institutions which provide markedly different [inferior] results for black and white children are key to the structure of urban racism.” Children of black workers are almost always districted to underfunded, overcrowded schools, whose students lag years behind their white peers, thus trapping them in the same unskilled labor market as their parents. “Educational systems have become a major pillar of racism,” Baron observes, “precisely because education has become so important in the total scheme of our society.” That said, Baron is far more concerned about the psychological impact these schools have on their students than he is with reduced academic achievements. For Baron, ghetto schools exist “as extremely efficient training institutions” designed to instill in black children the role of “a subordinate ‘Negro.’” These children grow up surrounded by middle class black teachers and principals who can only maintain their positions of relative power by inculcating their “lower status black charges with the idea that they are unteachable.” This environment “conditions the individual Negro youngster to expect a subordinate position for the rest of his life” and so he is not surprised to find the exact same pattern in the political sphere. Baron describes how black office holders can be elected (in predominantly black districts), but that any effort to improve the lives of their black constituencies represents career suicide. “Even where skillful politicians have risen to the top, as in Harlem with J. Raymond Jones and Adam Clayton Powell,” Baron explains, “they have been cut down or circumscribed basically because they were black.” From this, Baron concludes that people working within urban institutions are unable to dismantle the web of urban racism precisely because they themselves are trapped inside it.  

“The Web of Urban Racism” is one of the last reports Baron wrote for the Chicago Urban League, as he left later that year. This document––which is uncharacteristically radical for the CUL––shows Baron’s shift from the integration model of the civil rights movement to the more radical one of black nationalism. Indeed, Baron argues that the student led black power movements have the greatest chance of tearing through the web. Today, under the slogans of black pride and black consciousness’” Baron observes, we are witnessing a revolution in the role expectations of high school and college students. They are disrupting the whole racist system by categorically refusing both the role of unteachable student, and that of token official. Baron explains that, the development of these new role concepts will bring the black youth into conflict with the racist norms and methods of operation in our major institutions,” and in doing so, places them on the “the threshold of tearing the web.” Baron believes that the success of these youth led movements will “depend upon the social, economic and political strategies” implemented, which is perhaps why he supported Detroit’s League of Revolutionary Black Workers after a short stint as a research associate at Northwestern University.  

In the final section, Baron draws on W.E.B. Du Bois to detail a possible future in which black and white cultures exist symbiotically. He explicitly rejects “the assumption that the dominant white society, which exercises racism’s controls, is the healthy organism into which the sick ghetto should dissolve.” Baron concludes the article with this evocative, prophetic paragraph: 

 White men and black men are locked together in this nation so that they determine one another’s fate. Since the day has come when the darker brother will no longer suffer trustingly like Job, a new destiny awaits them both. Racism’s cancer, disturbed by the resistance, can feed upon itself and bring greater destruction in its wake. Or, the healthy elements in the two cultures can contend and react upon each other, creatively transforming themselves in the process. The one possibility denied to each culture is to operate in isolation as though the other were not there. 

 This message of hope, tempered as it is with Old Testament style warnings, rhetorically places both white and black cultures on equal footing. They are both valid, they are both locked, and both of their fates will be impacted by the other.  





1.Hal Baron uses the phrase “web of urban racism” in the following works––Public Housing: Chicago Builds a Ghetto (1967), Negroes in Policy-Making Positions in Chicago: A Study in Black Powerlessness in Chicago’” (1968), “Report on the Chicago Urban League, Annual Meeting 1968,” The Demand for Black Labor: Historical Notes on the Political Economy of Racism (1971), Building Babylon: A Case of Racial Controls in Public Housing (1971), “Institutional Racism in Modern Metropolis” (1973), Racism Transformed: The Implications of the 1969s (1982).

2.W.E.B Du Bois cave analogy:“It is difficult to let others see the full psychological meaning of caste segregation. It is as though one, looking out from a dark cave in a side of an impending mountain, sees the world passing and speaks to it; speaks courteously and persuasively, showing them how these entombed souls are hindered in their natural movement, expression, and development; and how their loosening from prison would be a matter not simply of courtesy, sympathy, and help to them, but aid to all the world. One talks on evenly and logically in this way, but notices that the passing throng does not even tum its head, or if it does, glances curiously and walks on. It gradually penetrates the minds of the prisoners that the people passing do not hear; that some thick sheet of invisible but horribly tangible plate glass is between them and the world. They get excited; they talk louder; they gesticulate. Some of the passing world stop in curiosity; these gesticulations seem so pointless; they laugh and pass on. They still either do not hear at all, or hear but dimly, and even what they hear, they do not understand. Then the people within may become hysterical. They may scream and hurl themselves against the barriers, hardly realizing in their bewilderment that they are screaming in a vacuum unheard and that their antics may actually seem funny to those outside looking in. They may even, here and there, break through in blood and disfigurement, and find themselves faced by a horrified, implacable, and quite overwhelming mob of people frightened for their own very existence.” W.E.B Du BoisDusk of Dawn: An Essay Toward an Autobiography of a Race Concept. Edited by Henry Louis Gates Jr. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007), 66.