A Covenant with Color: Race and Social Power in Brooklyn

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Columbia University Press, 2000 - History - 325 pages
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Spanning three centuries of Brooklyn history from the colonial period to the present, A Covenant with Color exposes the intricate relations of dominance and subordination that have long characterized the relative social positions of white and black Brooklynites. Craig Steven Wilder -- examining both quantitative and qualitative evidence and utilizing cutting-edge literature on race theory -- demonstrates how ideas of race were born, how they evolved, and how they were carried forth into contemporary society.

In charting the social history of one of the nation's oldest urban locales, Wilder contends that power relations -- in all their complexity -- are the starting point for understanding Brooklyn's turbulent racial dynamics. He spells out the workings of power -- its manipulation of resources, whether in the form of unfree labor, privileges of citizenship, better jobs, housing, government aid, or access to skilled trades. Wilder deploys an extraordinary spectrum of evidence to illustrate the mechanics of power that have kept African American Brooklynites in subordinate positions: from letters and diaries to family papers of Kings County's slaveholders, from tax records to the public archives of the Home Owners Loan Corporation.

Wilder illustrates his points through a variety of cases, including banking interests, the rise of Kings County's colonial elite, industrialization and slavery, race-based distribution of federal money in jobs, and mortgage loans during and after the Depression. He delves into the evolution of the Brooklyn ghetto, tracing how housing segregation corralled African Americans in Bedford-Stuyvesant. The book explores colonial enslavement, the rise of Jim Crow, labor discrimination and union exclusion, and educational inequality. Throughout, Wilder uses Brooklyn as a lens through which to view larger issues of race and power on a national level.

One of the few recent attempts to provide a comprehensive history of race relations in an American city, A Covenant with Color is a major contribution to urban history and the history of race and class in America.

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About the author (2000)

Craig Steven Wilder is assistant professor of history and chair of African American Studies at Williams College in Williamstown, Massachusetts. He was born and raised in the Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood of Brooklyn, where he continues to reside during part of the year.

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