Kriston Capps is a staff writer for CityLab covering housing, architecture, and politics. He previously worked as a senior editor for Architect magazine.
David Simon’s HBO mini-series shows how disparate impact can be just as destructive as explicit racism.
Something we hear a lot of on Show Me a Hero: the Boss. It seems like a Bruce Springsteen song plays any time the mayor of Yonkers walks into a room.
Something we have not heard, more than halfway through the series: racial epithets. For a show about the bitter race battle that exploded in Yonkers in the late 1980s, the angry white protesters—and even angrier white council members—aren’t lashing out with the vile language you might expect.
Maybe it’s an absurd thing to notice, that outraged white demonstrators don’t stoop to utterly horrible behavior to protest the integration of their neighborhoods. But it’s no oversight. And it’s not due to any particular sensitivity on the part of the HBO show’s creators. (This is the team that gave us The Wire, after all.) On Show Me a Hero, outraged whites root their arguments (such as they are) in class and property rights—not race and hatred. That’s a deliberate, important decision by the artists behind the show that does and does not reflect the historical reality.
By the second chapter of Show Me a Hero (episodes 3 and 4, which air Sunday at 8 p.m.), the conflict over a plan to build low-income housing in affluent white neighborhoods has evolved into an all-out political war to stop its construction. This is the point in the series where Nick Wasicsko (played by Oscar Isaac), a Yonkers council member and its mayor, hands the baton to Mary Dorman (Catherine Keener), an anti-housing protester. She winds up being the protagonist who carries the last act of the show, its strange beating heart.
In real life and in this fiction, Dorman was radicalized by the court-ordered plan to build public housing east of the Saw Mill River Parkway, the border line between the middle-class white communities of Yonkers (such as her own) and its poorer black and Hispanic neighborhoods. All of these people, and the conflicts between them, are represented and typified in David Simon’s mini-series. Dorman is the viewer’s window into the minds of enraged, white, middle-of-the-road homeowners.
Dorman falls into the orbit of Jack O’Toole, the agitator who initially led white Yonkers residents in their efforts to defeat public housing. She joins the Save Yonkers campaign and becomes one of the housing plan’s most vocal critics. She’s also one of the most dedicated supporters of Hank Spallone, the absolutist Yonkers council member who leads efforts to stall and appeal the court’s order (played to perfection by Alfred Molina).
Dorman parrots O’Toole’s talking points: It’s not about race, she says. It’s an economic issue, it’s about crime and drugs, it’s about rights for whites—real #AllLivesMatter stuff. In episode 4, Wasicsko puts O’Toole and his apparatus in context. The scene: At home with his paramour and council secretary, Nay Noe, watching a press conference on television.
Nay: O'Toole scares me. Like, more than the others.
Nick: Yeah, cause he's more dangerous. You will never hear Jack O'Toole utter a racist phrase, cause guys like that, they learn how not to say the bad words. No more “coon,” no more “nigger,” nothing out of his mouth that will give it away. It's all property values, and life and liberty, and people aren't living where they can afford. Underneath it all, it's fear. Same as it ever was.
Show Me a Hero is art that explores the nuance of disparate impact. The mini-series reveals how implicit racism is every bit as destructive as explicit racism. In the post-Jim Crow era, legislators and developers used housing policies to legally destroy black communities. The fight over disparate impact in Yonkers in the 1980s is still happening in Westchester County (where Yonkers is located).
Two months ago, almost 30 years after the events of Show Me a Hero, and nearly 50 years after the passage of the Fair Housing Act, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that disparate impact counts as discrimination. Housing policies that disproportionately negatively affect a protected class (such as a racial minority) are prohibited under the Constitution, thanks to the Court’s 5–4 decision in Texas Department of Housing and Community Affairs v. The Inclusive Communities Project. That case—a battle over the concentration of low-income housing in predominantly black and Hsipanic neighborhoods in the Dallas metro area—reads like a script for Show Me a Hero.
Show Me a Hero doesn’t mean to show us villains. It means to show us facts. A polite society that discourages white Americans from using the N-word is still one that can subject black residents to devastating racism. It’s a subtler vintage, but it’s served in cities everywhere. The way we understand disparate impact under federal law today guarantees that the fiction of integration that was exposed in Yonkers will be revealed over and over, as the same housing fight breaks out in cities across the country.
But make no mistake about Yonkers in the late ‘80s. Its residents weren’t that polite.
While no explicit racial epithets were used by persons making public statements at the hearings, several trial witnesses testified that community members made specific racial slurs both inside and outside the hearing room, such as, “they are going to send blacks, and they are going to send niggers and they are going to send spicks out here,” and “we don't want those children.”
That’s from the appellate court decision affirming United States v. Yonkers Board of Education, the case that led to the events of Show Me a Hero. It makes for harsh reading. If David Simon’s show doesn’t fully capture the nature of racist white hatred in the fight over Yonkers, it’s because the show serves a larger truth about the fight happening today.