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The long, painful history of the Sacramento neighborhood where Stephon Clark was killed

The roads protesters block for Stephon Clark were the front line of Sacramento's segregation wars.

Protesters block Interstate 5 -- which was built on the bones of the city's most diverse working-class neighborhood -- as part of a protest against the Sacramento police department after two officers shot and killed Stephon Clark, an unarmed black man, in the backyard of his grandmother's house.  (CREDIT: Getty Images / Diana Ofosu)
Protesters block Interstate 5 -- which was built on the bones of the city's most diverse working-class neighborhood -- as part of a protest against the Sacramento police department after two officers shot and killed Stephon Clark, an unarmed black man, in the backyard of his grandmother's house. (CREDIT: Getty Images / Diana Ofosu)

When thousands of angry Sacramento residents stepped out last Thursday night in protest of the police killing of Stephon Clark in his grandmother’s backyard, they didn’t walk the streets near where he died.

They mustered about 10 miles away outside City Hall, then took a move the city police chief acknowledged was unexpected — up onto Interstate 5 at the height of rush hour, locking up traffic for a mile in every direction, then wheeling around off the freeway to coagulate at the Golden 1 Center about an hour before the Sacramento Kings planned to play the 73rd game of their NBA season.

The protesters returned to the same chosen ground repeatedly in the week since that first freeway takeover and arena shutdown. Subsequent actions have skipped the freeway ingredient but followed a similar route, choking access to a second game earlier this week but leaving the arena alone after police ratcheted up their presence there following Clark’s funeral.

The routes protesters chose have taken them past ghosts of a particularly charged history — although not one many outside the area would have any reason to know. Shouting for change as they walked, they traced the outline of Sacramento’s laboratory of segregation: the old West End.

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The basketball arena sits just a block north of it. The short strip of a 1400-mile superhighway connecting Mexico to Canada where they walked crushed its westernmost edge.

It’s a fairly short walk from City Hall to I-5 to the arena, if you consult a simple street map. But the history the marchers charted in that informal parade is long and ugly, diagraming a nearly 100 year story of willful division, economic repression, and divide-and-conquer white capitalism.

Every time the Kings play, crowds flock unwittingly to the epicenter of the racist housing policy and public works experiments that shaped the city where Stephon Clark was born and, on Thursday, buried.

I-5’s pavement and the downtown areas adjacent were once home to a thriving multi-ethnic enclave of working-class families of color, intentionally destroyed six decades ago in the name of progress.

A 1938 MAP OF HOW SACRAMENTO WAS REDLINED AT THAT TIME. CREDIT: UNIVERSITY OF MARYLAND/RACES REDLINING
A 1938 MAP OF HOW SACRAMENTO WAS REDLINED AT THAT TIME. CREDIT: UNIVERSITY OF MARYLAND/RACES REDLINING

Today, the city’s demographic map looks like a big X to researchers like Jesus Hernandez of the University of California – Davis. The east-west axis is overwhelmingly white, and the city’s minority populations cluster in the north and south ends of the metro area, a dotted line bisected by that white branch.

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“You can use that X to measure every single social ill in the city. Where the schools are, where the poverty is, who doesn’t have health insurance, who’s out of work. You name it, you can map it by this,” Hernandez said. “There’s an importance to the geography where this guy was shot. Nobody wants to understand or admit how this has taken shape.”

The knot of highways, restaurants, shops, office complexes, and sports sprawl in Sacramento’s downtown today is the fruit of a slow, semi-secret crusade that city leaders spent generations pursuing. The crusaders won long before protesters chose to make a stand here in 2018. Their victory spawned communities like Meadowview, where Stephon Clark was shot down for the sin of holding a cell phone in his grandma’s backyard.

“That neighborhood was entirely pushed out and destroyed in the 1950s and ‘60s. It was very deliberate,” local historian William Burg told ThinkProgress. “It came from a longstanding desire from the city to reclaim those areas for the white business class.”

It’s a story common to American cities. In Charlotte, St. Louis, Los Angeles, and dozens of others, intentionally isolated communities of color that found prosperity and the beginnings of intergenerational upward mobility — the main thread of the American Dream — were eventually torn down or paved over in the name of highways, stadiums, and public attractions.

“This is an intergenerational process of how we separate race and space.”

The closing couplet of those rhyming American stories is always the same: The same neighborhoods policy and racism created become the most deprived, and the most heavily policed.

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“This is a lot bigger than the Kings or than one guy getting shot. This is an intergenerational process of how we separate race and space. And this is why the Clarks end up in Meadowview,” Hernandez said. “The last guy that got shot [by police] here, he was up in the north end of this same geography. You can predict where everything’s going to happen by this geography.”

The only option they had

The West End, where Hernandez’s parents met in the 1940s, used to look very different. California’s capital city was once more of a cow town, with railways and two rivers sewing together an early urban core ringed with vast acres of farmland. In the post-frontier days, the West End was where immigrant workers laid down community networks.

First, it was Japanese and Chinese laborers who dominated a few dozen square blocks between the state capitol and the river. Later migrations — sparked in particular by President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s executive order opening military industry jobs to African-Americans and by the 1942 Labor Importation Program colloquially known as the Bracero Act — would bring waves of black and Latinx families to the city.

They, too, ended up calling the West End home — because it was near the canneries, military factories, and field labor pickup hubs where they’d come for work, sure, but also because nowhere else in town would let them in.

White Sacramento was determined to stay that way. City leaders made racial segregation in housing a standard, almost automated practice as far back as the 1920s, when a real estate developer named J.C. Carly wrote racially restrictive language into contracts governing the subdivisions he was planting in the innermost portions of Sacramento’s abundant farmlands.

“Sacramento became this magnet for migration, and they all get stuck downtown,” Hernandez said. “They were thriving communities. But because race was related to property value, it means all the property values downtown were low.”

When Roosevelt’s new federal housing finance system came online a decade after Carly started building out from downtown, the new system replicated the same kind of racial barriers nationwide. Maps from the 1930s document the use of “redlining” in Sacramento — a conscious choice to refuse federal insurance for home loans in areas deemed too risky to back. Those neighborhoods were overwhelmingly black, driving housing finance into white communities and keeping it out of reach for everyone else.

The West End pops out in Sacramento’s redlining map from 1938, a rectangle with one corner cut out where the capitol complex juts into it.

A zoomed-in image from a 1938 redlining map shows Sacramento's West End (center) and other neighborhoods that were cut off from home financing systems key to intergenerational wealth-building. CREDIT: University of Maryland/RACES
A zoomed-in image from a 1938 redlining map shows Sacramento's West End (center) and other neighborhoods that were cut off from home financing systems key to intergenerational wealth-building. CREDIT: University of Maryland/RACES

Over the decade after that map was drawn, the city as a whole saw what passed for boom times in that era. Overall property values jumped by 46 percent across the city from 1938 to 1949.

But not in the West End. In that isolated pocket, where no one could get a loan to fix up a house or buy a new one, they dropped by 30 percent. The combination put a “bullseye” on the neighborhood, Hernandez said, in the post-war period when politicians around the country started looking to overhaul inner cities they’d long neglected.

By the 1950s, the West End was ripe for redlining’s grim twin, that other vital tool to America’s racist housing history: Urban renewal.

“Blight,” and a West End exodus

In 1950, the West End was home to seven out of every 10 non-white Sacramentans.

The year before, Congress had passed the American Housing Act of 1949, aimed at raising living standards in a wide range of housing types across the country with federal assistance. The squallor, noise, and crowding common to working-class life was supposed to be stamped out, replaced with space, safety, and security. A city that wanted to raze a block of slums could get federal help to do it, provided the plan included replacement housing of a better caliber.

Sacramento’s white leaders had another idea. What if the West End could be torn down and replaced, but with retail space and office blocks instead of new housing?

Congress soon gave leeway to the original rules of President Harry Truman’s “Fair Deal” housing program. Amendments in 1954 opened the door to revitalization projects that made little or no attempt to re-accommodate the people they displaced from neighborhoods deemed “blighted.”

“You can’t say we’re destroying this neighborhood because it’s black…so you say oh we’re destroying this neighborhood because it’s blighted.”

It’s a loaded word, “blight,” though its ideological freight was long ago blanched into neutrality by the casual professionalism of development jargon.

“The term comes out of eugenics, it comes from biology,” local historian William Burg said. “All ‘blight’ means is this property isn’t worth as much as we think it should be. And an inherent property of redlining is that if a neighborhood is non-white in its population then it’s worth less. The only way to remove that blight is to remove the population.”

When Sacramento leaders asked residents to approve a bond program and associated tax hikes in 1954, it wasn’t billed as part of a racial purge of the West End. It was to combat blight.

“You can’t say we’re destroying this neighborhood because it’s black or because the people there are Japanese, so you say oh we’re destroying this neighborhood because it’s blighted. It becomes a euphemism,” Burg said.

The sales pitch didn’t quite work. The 1954 bond issue got voted down after torrid activism from West Enders. But the ballot win would only delay the “progress” city fathers had in mind, not stop it. California’s legislature approved a clever new financing gimmick for renewal projects called “Tax Increment Financing.”

Again, as former deputy state treasurer Mark Paul explained in a 2012 article, that word “blight” was crucial.

“A city redevelopment agency could declare a particular area to be blighted–and then cap the property taxes that flowed from that area to other local governments like schools and counties. The agency could keep for itself any property tax growth above that cap,” Paul wrote. “This changed the game. Suddenly, redevelopment could be financed on the come, with the property tax money that otherwise would have gone to the schools and counties. Other people’s money. Sacramento picked up the weapon, and the fight was on.”

Protesters film an interaction with California Highway Patrol officers during the blockade of I-5. CREDIT: Justin Sullivan/Getty Images
Protesters film an interaction with California Highway Patrol officers during the blockade of I-5. CREDIT: Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

The willful eviction of Sacramento’s non-white populace from the neighborhood it had built for itself was still sub-rosa in the city’s planning pitch, even after the new financing tools took away ballot box resistance.

“Certainly the rhetoric was more about creating an appropriate setting for the state capital, making it more attractive for shopping, for visitors,” said Robin Datel, a geographer at Sacramento State. “But of course they did spend some of that redevelopment money on housing that was not affordable for the existing population.”

Just as tax-increment financing let Sacramento leaders bypass West End resistance, Congress gave cities across the country another cheap tool to tear up the “blighted” pockets of black and brown family life they’d created generations earlier through redlining: Interstate highways. For every dollar California spent building I-5, 90 cents would come from Washington. Easy.

Sacramento already had a couple major state roads cutting up its core, built to move people and goods between downtown and the suburbs. I-5 would connect them to a new major artery of commerce running the entire height of the west coast. The simplest place to put the new infrastructure in Sacramento — both logistically and politically — was the West End.

The same strip of busy highway where protesters put their bodies in the way of traffic last Friday was a key tool in the redevelopment scheme.

The diaspora that built Clark’s neighborhood

With the new financing systems circumventing populist opposition to West End redevelopment and federal money gushing into the roads project, the area’s doom was sealed. A forced exodus of West End residents had begun.

The families that had once been pushed into that square half-mile of racial and financial isolation were now expelled from it with haste.

Their searches for new homes took them to a handful of suburban areas that had been built without the racial restrictions Carly baked into earlier neighborhoods. The two decades after Truman’s “Fair Deal” saw drastic demographic shifts in neighborhoods that had been as lily-white as anywhere else outside the West End.

Oak Park, for example, had been 93.5 percent white in 1950. Two decades later, 48 percent of Oak Park residents were non-white. Today, the neighborhood — which was just about the closest to Sacramento’s core of any of the areas where West End redevelopment exiles landed — is the locus of gentrification as tech firms bring in new-money professionals who disdain the suburban lifestyle.

Most of the black, Latinx, Japanese, and Chinese families who needed to make new homes after their old ones were torn down ended up much farther out than Oak Park. Their legacies extend a dozen miles either way from downtown, scraping out that sociologist’s X that Hernandez sees reflected in everything from school graduation rates to subprime lending.

You can see the same change 30 minutes south in Meadowview, once you drive past a Walmart and a library named for Martin Luther King Jr. and a school named for the guy who invited a blight-proof potato to cure famine in Ireland.

At the closest zoom possible from census data, the neighborhood where Stephon Clark died was roughly 47 percent white in 1980. By 2010, that share had dropped in half. That census tract was then 45 percent Asian American and 23 percent black, according to figures in the University of Minnesota’s IPUMS NHGIS database.

“Because there were no race covenants out there, this was a place minority families could move to,” Hernandez said. “Meadowview was first a suburban white space, but then it was one of the very few places where minorities could buy decent housing starting in the 1960s.” People of color were pushed south away from the core census tracts where development was still bound by the race covenants from J.C. Carly’s era.

It’s tough to capture a precise comparison to the time before Sacramento blew up the West End, because census boundaries have shifted dramatically with population growth since then. But in 1950, the area of south Sacramento that includes Meadowview had about 5,300 people living in it — and about 4,700 of them were white.

That shift — from 90 percent white before the urban renewal schemes vivisected Sacramento’s ethnic downtown melting pot, to less than one quarter white in 2010 — is evidence of how a century of racist development policymaking yielded the environment that drives Sacramento policing to be at its twitchiest and most fearful in places like Meadowview where crime is relatively high and opportunity is relatively low.

Protesters stand on a California Highway Patrol car on Interstate 5 during a human blockade of traffic days after Stephon Clark was killed by police. (CREDIT: Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)
Protesters stand on a California Highway Patrol car on Interstate 5 during a human blockade of traffic days after Stephon Clark was killed by police. (CREDIT: Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

Public investments in schools, infrastructure, new business activity all cling to the whiter east-west axis of the X where Hernandez says most of the city’s investments in the future go.

“Most? Damn near all,” said Berry Accius, a community activist who’s helped lead the protests that followed Clark’s killing. “Say this, they don’t invest in the black community. As far as the African-American community, all you have is liquor stores food deserts and churches. And if it’s not gentrified now it’ll be gentrified later.”

The shifting sands of segregation, diaspora, and gentrification that have shuffled Sacramento’s minority population around aren’t magic or happenstance. Hernandez emphasized that they happen by deliberate design.

“This is a story of racial interventions in the marketplace. All the things it takes for a market to work, we intervened. We created racial rules for a marketplace. This is why you have poverty, why you have no jobs there, why you have freeways cutting off these neighborhoods,” Hernandez said. “That’s the story of Sacramento, and it’s not a story of diversity.”

Policing’s racial geography

Policing in Sacramento today reflects the same racial divides that the city’s public policies and services have imposed for a century.

Roughly half of the 316 jaywalking tickets issued in 2016 were to black people, the Sacramento Bee reported last year, even though they make up just 14 percent of the city’s population. The stats prompted the paper’s editorial board to wonder, “are people being rousted for walking while black?”

The year before, the city police reported that 41 percent of its 137 separate use-of-force incidents on record had involved a black civilian.

Sacramento’s police force is dramatically whiter than the populace it serves, with the fifth-largest such disparity of any major city as of a July 2016 analysis from Brookings. Three out of four cops are white in a city where two thirds of the people aren’t. That’s a fairly reliable predictor of fatal police violence against black people, as academics have long understood.

The Sacramento Police Department has had a few of these incidents in recent memory. City officers shot and killed a homeless man named Dazion Flenaugh in April 2016, then killed Joseph Mann under similar circumstances three months later. In both cases the dead man had a knife, a stark difference to Clark’s death. Those are just two of the more than halfdozen black men shot by law enforcement for the city, county, and neighboring towns since 2015. None of those stories are as simple or as baffling as Clark’s death, with 20 shots fired in a matter of seconds based on a cell phone somehow mistaken for a pistol.

“They really want you to believe, hey, they can’t do anything wrong! But the only person that’s going to get killed in their community by the police are black people.”

Encountering a police officer while black is perilous anywhere in Sacramento, Accius said, but there is still a tangible geography to those interactions.

“African-American communities are heavily policed, overly policed, and then you have this certain attitude from police officers,” the organizer said. “They really want you to believe, hey, they can’t do anything wrong! But the only person that’s going to get killed in their community by the police are the black people in the black communities. Because they are looked at as savages. Animals get better treatment than black people out here.”

The intangible perceptions and attitudes that individual police officers carry with them on the job have a massive influence over how they conduct themselves in tense situations. Some police agencies around the country have begun to take seriously the concept of “implicit bias,” a well-founded sociology principle which holds that we all internalize stereotypes and act on them unconsciously. The common cultural image of black men as particularly dangerous makes police more likely to use force against a black person than they might be in a similar interaction with a white person or a woman.

Neighborhoods, too, influence these unspoken biases of behavior. The areas where Sacramento’s century-long land management practices have pushed its black, Latinx, and Asian populations have reputations of their own.

“Go to random people in Sacramento and mention the words Oak Park or Del Paso Heights or Meadowview, and there will be instantaneous perceptions, particularly if they’re older. They’re perceived as dangerous, impoverished, socially alienated places, especially if they’ve never been there or interacted with anyone who lives there,” said Sacramento State’s Datel.

“Go to random people in Sacramento and mention Meadowview, and there will be instantaneous perceptions.”

“I would find it hard to believe that the images that the word ‘Meadowview’ conjures up in anybody’s mind, including police, are not a part of the emotion that they bring to what happened, to the decision to shoot.”

It’s precisely such bias that the organizers behind the Clark protests hope to combat — a first step of many toward reversing the neglectful tide of public investment in non-white residents the city’s ridden for a century.

“The good thing in Sacramento is our city council is progressive enough to recognize the climate and really do something historic, change the quality of policing in a way that could be modeled elsewhere. What does a reform to police systems look like across America?” Accius said.

“Envision that, where it’s truly about protecting and serving everyone, everyone. Where it’s, OK, police are going to do what they do, they have their biases like everyone else,” he said, “but it’s not going to lead to a death.”