The word community sounds egalitarian to most people. And gated? No word has a fairer proportion of safety to airy openness in the image it conveys to the mind.
Florida is a land flowing with gates and communities. It is a Promised Land of sun, leisure, warm pools, and exclusivity. For the past month my wife and I have been vacationing at a house inside this paradise at one such community in a town in Florida. It took three references, photo ID, and all cash up front to get us in here.
We are grateful for our good fortune. And we are in a really safe place. But when thinking about the state of affairs which has excluded as many as 94% of all Americans from the possibility of living here—if only for a few weeks—it makes me sick to my stomach. And of course, if you don’t live here you can’t be here—not even to drive through.
The compound we live in is huge. While biking in it the other day I was amazed to stumble on another gated community inside ours. It has a lake and huge houses. The gated occupants of our community aren’t allowed in their community even though their community is inside our community. Apparently, there are layers of gated communities. I never knew that.
As a teenager, I lived for two years in Key West, Florida. This was before the Civil Rights Act of 1964. It was totally segregated down there. The only black person I ever saw was our maid. She was an articulate thirty-year-old woman and really beautiful. I liked her a lot and talked with her every chance I got, usually about politics. From her I learned how difficult life was for black people in Key West at that time—and maybe just as importantly, that a lot of black people actually lived in Key West.
She said she supported the incumbent Democrat for Congress who was then running against an upstart Republican—a young guy always on the radio always complaining about how rich his opponent was. She liked the Democrat, she said, because he once bought park benches for her neighborhood.
At Key West High School the powers-that-be were considering the admission of a black kid from a “good” family. His dad was an officer in the U.S. Navy, I think. In the school cafeteria over lunch I made the mistake of saying I saw nothing wrong with going to school with “Negroes” (as they were then called by polite people). “What!” some kid yelled. “You want to eat with niggers?” Soon a crowd gathered. I stood my ground, and no one beat me up. The South was changing, but only a little.
One thing Key West didn’t have back then—no town did in those days—was gated communities. We had a military base that was gated—I lived on it—but the gates were for security against the hated Communists. We didn’t have terrorists or any other sort of enemies of the state. All that was to come later.
After World War II, the South and some parts of the North enforced segregation with a civilian militia called the Ku Klux Klan. It was a quasi-religious/military-style organization self-tasked with extra-judicial punishments of Negroes who violated the unwritten codes of the South.
If a black family bought a house in a white neighborhood, the militia would burn it down. Sometimes, so as not to smoke-damage nearby homes, the KKK would bomb the house; or if young white children lived nearby they might burn a cross in the front yard to frighten the occupants into leaving. Lynchings, common after the First World War, were—by the 1950s—less common.
After dozens of documented actions against Negroes—and perhaps hundreds or thousands of undocumented ones—white neighborhoods did not need gates, or walls, or fences to remain segregated. Eventually, after years of separation, the white people who lived in these communities came to believe—many of them—that black people chose not to live next to them, because they preferred “their own kind.”
I don’t know what white people say today is the reason black people don’t live in the gated communities of Florida. I haven’t lived here long enough to learn.
I would bet that in some town somewhere in this huge state a black family lives in a gated community. Maybe more than one. I can imagine people pointing to that family as proof of my being uncharitable to the good people of Florida and to people everywhere who live in these spaces. But it seems plain to me—fifty years after Congress, the President and the Supreme Court declared segregated housing illegal—black people don’t live in these desirable communities. And why is that?