Paul R. Lehman, T V’s “Good Times” was an example of government sponsored segregation and discrimination

December 9, 2012 at 1:03 pm | Posted in African American, Bigotry in America, blacks, chicago, desegregation, Equal Opportunity, European American, fairness, integregation, justice, minority, Prejudice, public education, Race in America, socioeconomics, whites | 7 Comments
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When most people think of history, they think of it as being static; however, to do so would be a mistake because it is dynamic. Whenever additional information is added to an historical event, that information changes the way the event is interpreted. An example is the television hit show of the middle to late ’70s, “Good Times.”We were told that the show  ”follows the challenges and joys of the close-knit Evans family—patriarch James, mother Florida, eldest son and accomplished amateur painter J.J. (James Evens, Jr), brainy and beautiful daughter Thelma, and youngest son Michael, a political and social activist—who live together in a high-rise housing project on the South side of Chicago.” While the show was presented as humorous, the truth of the matter is that the show was about a representative  African American family living the projects, struggling to survive in an environment of  government sanctioned segregation and discrimination. The government and society created at least three boundaries restricting the freedoms and advancement of many African Americans.

For many Americans living in large cities during the so-called New Deal, the only reasonable and affordable place to live was in public housing. For African Americans, however, the living conditions were quite different from those of European Americans living in public housing. For example, the housing for African Americans was generally located in an existing low social, economic, and predominantly African American community. For European Americans, the public housing was generally placed in economically established European American neighborhoods. For anyone with a passing knowledge of “Good Times,” we know that the Evans family lived in the projects.  What we did not question about that fact was the projects was like a prison with its boundaries, inhabitants, and restrictions. The government required the inhabitants of some projects to be African Americans, which meant they were segregated.

Living in the projects is like living in a unique and isolated world where every aspect of one’s life is of concern. For the African Americans, living in the projects meant being totally inconvenienced from goods, services, employment, school, and security. Because of the location of the projects in the less attractive and economically secure area of the cities, the problems associated with crime, drugs, unemployment, transportation and a host of other concerns were part of everyday life. These concerns were not the same for the European Americans living in public housing. Their locations placed them in or near the conveniences needed to carry on a “normal” life for the brief time they would live there. Many of the problems faced by the Evans family were from their immediate living environment.

The next challenge faced by the Evans family came from the location in which the projects were built. Since the community was low social, and economical, the chances for employment in the community were slim to none. Since unemployment was also a feature of the area, we know that crime would be a close companion along with the drug culture. Any child living in such an environment had to be concerned with his or her security because of the presence of gangs and their activities. Fortunately, the Evans children were not associated with gangs because of the strong and constant influence of their parents. Children living in the real world are not always so fortunate. Like the conditions inside the projects, the local community was segregated and reflected signs of discrimination and neglect, especially in the schools.

We were told that the Evans family lived in public housing located in Chicago’s South side—reportedly the “baddest part of town.”What that meant was the government did not pay close if any attention to what happened in this area primarily because its inhabitants were poor African Americans. Although the Evans children had talents, the avenues available to them for further development were extremely limited. The two primary institutions available to the children for creative expression were the church and the school, both segregated and in the African American community. Segregation is a form of discrimination that places, for African Americans, a challenge to participate in whatever they are being denied. What we see of the Evans family in “Good Times” is a daily struggle to survive in a society that has stacked the deck against them.

In an article by Richard Rothstein in The American Prospect (11/12), entitled “Government-Sponsored Segregation,” he comments on public housing in New York, but could easily include other cities like Chicago, Philadelphia: “Whereas in the mid-1950s most New York public-housing tenants were white, [European American], today they are only 5 percent white, as the decampment of middle-class families to segregated suburbs has been completed.” He adds that “The public and media stereotype of project residents has become one of entrenched poverty and social dysfunction. By 1973, President Richard Nixon could describe such projects as ‘monstrous, depressing places—rundown, overcrowded, crime-ridden.’” So, living under such conditions, how was the Evans family to progress?

When we consider “Good Times” as a form of entertainment—humor, we suspend reality because the Evans fight back with the only weapon at their disposal—laughter. When we assess this show seriously, we must see it as an absurd creation. The only relief they experience in their daily struggle for survival is through laughter. The words to the “Good Times” theme song underscores their short-lived joys in life that mirrors the show’s name: “Any time you meet a payment. Good Times.” This experience suggests that trying to meet payments is a constant struggle. The point hits home in these lines” Any time you’re out from under. / Not getting hastled, not getting hustled. / Keeping’ your head above water, /Making a wave when you can.” These conditions described above all indicate not good times, but desperate times. If one has to try and keep his head above water, we do not have to guess where the rest of his body is located. None of these situations are a laughing matter.

“Good Times” ended its television run in 1979; Rothstein noted that “Although housing authorities nationwide had ceased purposefully segregated projects in the last quarter of the 20th century, they never took action to reverse the effect of previous policies.” What is even more disheartening is how society characterizes many African Americans who live in public housing as lazy, uneducated, drug-taking, free-loaders with little or no initiative simply because of where they live.  Rothstein informs us that “In 1984, The Dallas Morning News sent reporters to federally funded projects in 47 cities. They found that the nation’s nearly ten million public-housing residents were still almost always segregated by race [ethnicity].” What he says next underscores the claim of discrimination against African Americans: “The few remaining predominantly white projects had superior facilities, amenities, services and maintenance in comparison to predominantly black [African American] projects.”

A gap in the social, economic, educational, and political conditions of African Americans and Europeans was created by government sponsored segregation and discrimination, and to this day has not come near being closed. The irony of this gap is that the African American is seen as a villain when he tries to close the gap. History, we know to be the record of passed events, but we also know that the more information we obtain about those events, the better able we are to speak to their significance.




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  1. This is one of your better blogs.

  2. During the 1950s, a majority of Queensbridge residents were white. Since, they have become inhabited by predominantly African American and Latino families. Like many of the infamous housing projects, Queensbridge was the home to a host of notable hip-hop artists (Nas, Marley Marl, MC Shan, Roxanne Shante and Mobb Deep) who have detailed the housing project’s poverty-stricken conditions in their rhymes. Gun violence and a vibrant illegal drug-trade sum up their details of the harsh realities living in Queensbridge.

  3. The findings presented in The Location and Racial Composition of Public Housing in the United States are based on data from the newly created Public Housing Race and Location Data File, which matches demographic information on a sample of 17 percent of the Nation’s public housing projects with the socioeconomic characteristics of the census tract in which each project is located.

  4. [1] Robert C. Weaver, 1948, 1967. The Negro Ghetto. New York: Russell & Russell, pp. 73-75; Arnold R. Hirsch, 1983, 1998. Making the Second Ghetto: Race and Housing in Chicago, 1940-1960. University of Chicago Press, p. 14; Arnold R. Hirsch. 2000. “Choosing Segregation. Federal Housing Policy Between Shelley and Brown.” In John F. Bauman, Roger Biles, and Kristin M. Szylvian. From Tenements to the Taylor Homes. In Search of an Urban Housing Policy in Twentieth Century America. University Park, Pennsylvania: The Pennsylvania State University Press: 206-225, 209. These New Deal projects were not the first public housing; the federal government had built housing for munitions-plant workers during World War I, and these too were segregated.

  5. Youths living in public housing might be more likely to be fearful, live around crime problems, have poorer social relationships and have higher levels of psychological strain. These factors could contribute to the increased rates of tobacco use, Yu said.

  6. Yu is an assistant professor in the School of Social Work, which is part of the MU College of Human Environmental Sciences, and also teaches in the Master of Public Health Program. The study, “Understanding tobacco use among urban African-American adolescents living in public housing communities: A test of problem behavior theory,” was published in Addictive Behaviors. Yu’s coauthors included researchers from the University of Illinois at Chicago, Boston College and the University of South Carolina.

  7. This is the first discussion of GOOD TIMES I’ve read that did not talk about “Dy-no-mite.” It’s a refreshing change of pace.

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