In fact, many of the racial injustices we associate with the South are actually worse in the North. Housing segregation between black and white residents, for instance, is most pervasive above the Mason-Dixon line. Of America’s 25 most racially segregated metropolitan areas, just five are in the South; Northern cities — Detroit, Milwaukee and New York — top the list. Segregation in Northern metro areas has declined a bit since 1990, but an analysis of 2010 census data found that Detroit’s level of segregation, for instance, is nearly twice as high as Charleston’s.
The division between black and white neighborhoods in the North is a result of a poisonous mix of racist public policies and real estate practices that reigned unchecked for decades. Until the mid-20th century, federal homeownership programs made it difficult for black Americans to get mortgages and fueled the massive growth of whites-only suburbs. Real estate agents openly discriminated against black aspiring homeowners, refusing to show them houses in predominately white communities.
When all else failed, white Northerners attacked blacks who attempted to cross the color line, using tactics we typically associate with the Jim Crow South. They threw bricks through the windows of their black neighbors’ homes, firebombed an integrated apartment building and beat black residents in the streets. In Detroit, to name one example, whites launched more than 200 attacks on black homeowners between 1945 and 1965. In Levittown, Pa., hundreds of angry whites gathered in front of the home of the first black family to move there and threw rocks through the windows. Racists burned crosses in the yards of the few white neighbors who welcomed the new family. That violence occurred in 1957, the same year whites in Little Rock attacked black students integrating Central High School, yet it’s that story — of racial bias in the South — that dominates our narrative of America’s civil rights struggle.