More Ferguson

There has been a lot of good writing and a lot of bad writing to come out about Ferguson. I’ll try and compile some of it here soon. In the meantime, this piece by Peter Coy in Bloomberg BusinessWeek is neither good nor bad writing, I guess, but it does point to the relationship of metropolitan fragmentation and the political disempowerment of African Americans in St. Louis County as well as suggest that the proliferation of jurisdictions makes goals like economic coordination for development quite a bit more difficult.

Coy tends to overstate the case a bit; the dynamics of the real estate market, employment, and educational inequality can operate to disadvantage minority group members within the borders of large jurisdictions just as much as in small fragmented ones. And no one who has been paying attention to the LAPD or the NYPD, for example, would suggest that things automatically improve for minorities when control of policing is carried out at a large scale.

But, there are important dynamics that do unfold in a metropolitan context, in the relationship among jurisdictions. And the more jurisdictions there are, the greater the force of those dynamics. One of these is the cutthroat competition for revenue-producing businesses. Coy writes:

Businesses choosing where to locate can play the tiny municipalities off against one another for tax incentives, prompting a race to the bottom that robs them all of desperately needed revenue. “There’s a tremendous opportunity and incentive to just poach from one municipality to another,” says University of Iowa historian Colin Gordon, author of Mapping Decline: St. Louis and the Fate of the American City.

Coy makes a couple of contradictory points: that the race-to-the bottom effect of competitive localism disadvantages some jurisdictions, and he implies that this is the case with Ferguson. Yet, Ferguson is not exceptionally impoverished nor is it distant from many centers of economic activity. Its residents may have to cross municipal borders to go to work, but that’s not illegal (at least not yet).

There’s another piece of the puzzle that links competitive localism to the situation in Ferguson, and specifically to the mutual hostility between the city’s Black residents and the police. Local public defender Thomas Harvey (with ArchCity Defenders) has written a paper addressing this specific linkage (h/t Vox and Sarah Kliff).

In Ferguson, court fees and fines are the second largest source of funds for the city; $2.6 million was collected in 2013 alone. That’s become a key source of tension. There is a perception in the area, Harvey says, that the black population is targeted to pay those fines. Eighty-six percent of the traffic stops, for example, happen to black residents — even though the city is 67 percent black.

The key that ArchCity Defenders report is that

the amount collected through the municipal courts seems to be inversely proportional to the wealth of the municipality.

Put simply, when cities lose in the race to the bottom, many turn to fining their own citizens as a revenue measure. And paradoxically, those with the least means to pay traffic tickets and fines will find themselves targeted for this kind of enforcement because they are also the people with the least means to leave a city that’s oppressively policing them.

Segregation, Policing, and St. Louis

I’ve been horrified by the recent events in the segregated and disadvantaged St. Louis suburb of Ferguson, Missouri. A half century after the passage of the Civil Rights Act, the essential civil liberty of being in public space is far from secure for Black people in particular and racial minorities in general, who can be killed by the police while unarmed on a public street (women face a different set of restrictions on their ability to be in public that are privately enforced but sanctioned by state inaction against sexual violence).

I’m preparing to teach a course on race in America as an interdisciplinary study, and the social psychology of implicit bias and threat perception are highly salient to this question. One internet commenter has poignantly noted that Black men appear to possess a magical ability to convince white police officers and vigilantes that they are holding deadly weapons. Perhaps many of these white agents of public safety harbor genuine animus against Black people (it’s possible). Yet, another possibility, not a mutually exclusive one, exists: that whites’ responses to Black people in public represent a convergence of the psychological phenomenon of implicit bias through the ideological constructs of self-defense by armed force promoted by the gun industry.

The habitus of whites in America–the everyday conditions under which most white people live, and the ideas they draw from those conditions, constitute a pedagogy about race and danger that, despite the growing disrepute of racial supremacy in public speech, is nonetheless powerful. It affects whites’ support of policing, and it sustains their support for harsh sentencing and longer incarceration when they are made aware that Black people are disproportionately incarcerated.

These and other social science perspectives on race are valuable; integrated, they point to what Barbara Reskin calls a “race discrimination system” in which the interaction of diffuse parts of society–institutions, ideologies, and accumulated legacies of past discrimination–produce emergent and ongoing racial disparities. It’s important to understand racism as something alive that is being reproduced every day rather than as something inert and dead that is being eroded slowly and gradually.

I of course want to think about how a series of systemic moments link across space and across time. That is, I want to do history with this. George Lipsitz has a useful term, the “public pedagogy” to describe how the spaces created by racial segregation channel opportunity, embed existing prejudices, and create the conditions under which today’s “color-blind” or “laissez-faire” racism can flourish as whites identify the local social and economic traumas of systemic racism with the presumed cultural attributes of Black or other nonwhite people. Lipsitz’s book How Racism Takes Place is a lucid and compelling account of this process across time, and how interventions in urban planning, the law, and ideological production, among other factors, have sustained a public pedagogy that puts over the lesson with stunning effectiveness that Black people are dangerous and must be contained. Coincidentally, Lipsitz writes a great deal about St. Louis in parts of this book, and it’s all very urgent in light of current events.

Another historian whose work should get significant attention as a way of understanding the tragedy in Ferguson is Colin Gordon, whose book Mapping Decline shows the spatial reallocation of real estate wealth and insurance coverage in metro St. Louis in the post-WWII Era, and exposes the evolving pedagogy of place that informed and grew out of bureaucratic decisions made by planners, urban renewal experts, bankers, and insurance agents. These processes seem dry and technical, but they sustained, with profound consequences, the idea that Black people’s presence in St. Louis’s neighborhoods was dangerous to the personal and economic safety of whites and the health of the body politic, and needed to be contained by mapping the metropolitan area and delineating whose bodies would be welcome and whose would not. These decisions drove white flight but they also determined that more affluent Black St. Louisans would run on a treadmill of property, acquiring suburban residence as white neighbors left, taking access to credit and insurance, as well as social esteem with them. One of Gordon’s interviewees would call the transition of University City and Ferguson among other close-in suburbs “Ghetto spillover,” which dramatically misconstrues the social agency involved, placing, as so often happens, blame for the area’s perceived decline on the people most directly affected by it.

You can see some of those maps here.



This post was occasioned by a confluence of two events. I recently finished Carl Smith’s wonderful book City Water, City Life: Water and the Infrastructure of Ideas in Urbanizing Philadelphia, Boston, and Chicago, and a 93 year-old water main in west Los Angeles ruptured, sending up to two feet of flood water across Sunset Boulevard and parts of UCLA’s Westwood campus, including the famous Pauley Pavilion basketball arena. Although I’m sure my reading of Smith had no causal effect on the water main rupture (that would be a result of the combination of chemistry, physics, and systemic neglect of public infrastructure), I can’t let such a wonderful coincidence go by without comment (for somewhat more pointed comment, see Charlie Pierce).

Smith’s book is a clever and well-developed synthesis of several strains of urban historiography. He connects the kind of infrastructural history of waterworks and institutional history of public health and sanitary movements associated with Joel Tarr’s pathbreaking work to the analysis of the creation of a public city through infrastructure and governance developed by reform intellectuals like Frederic Howe and later historians like Thomas Bender. Smith further considers the way that ideas, expressed in public through polemic, the rhetoric of water boards’ annual reports, and even art commemorating and monumentalizing the establishment of municipal water service as a kind of secular urban miracle, drove the development of infrastructure and governing authority and helped to make clean and safe water a taken-for-granted part of American urban life.

This is no mere history of waterworks (though it does shed new light on the efforts to establish them in three cities). Smith makes insightful arguments about how the struggle to provide water changed the meaning and experience of urban life, physically, politically, and ideologically. One key way, Smith argues, that it did so was through changing the way that urban dwellers related to time. Specifically, when cities committed resources through bonded debt to build waterworks, they compelled their residents to accept a financial burden on behalf of future generations of residents (as well as on behalf of other members of an urban collective in their own day), and the elites who frequently championed and shepherded the idea of waterworks to fruition developed novel and sophisticated appeals to historical immortality, family morality, and self-interest to encourage residents, and especially those of means, who would bear much of the financial cost, to embrace that burden, and to justify extending it to the future.

 The borrowing demanded by waterworks inspired bold and ingenious invocations of history and time that characterized a debt as a bequest or endowment for which future residents should be grateful, not as a burden they should resent…. The Watering Committee [of Philadelphia, in 1799] pointed out that people living in the city in years to come would be “justly made to pay, in some proportion, for the benefit they would receive.” A water loan should be viewed as a gift to them, not an encumbrance, since it did no less than make a greater Philadelphia possible. (211-12)

Smith’s work takes on a particularly tragic resonance in light of the LA rupture which, to be honest, is receiving attention mostly because it flooded a famous sports arena, rather than for what it says about our collective capacity to connect our own interests to others in our place and time and those whose lives will be shaped in the future by our present actions. In California and across the country, Americans have turned the idea of committing future generations to public infrastructure on its head, deciding now to abandon our water, sewer, road, and communications systems and tell our progeny to decide on their own if they want to fix it. Today, with near-zero interest rates, we could be deciding on behalf of our grandchildren to issue infrastructure bonds that would help guarantee the movement of people, goods, and ideas, and ensure the provision of clean water and the safe evacuation of sewage from our homes. I don’t think they’d resent us for it, even if we used some of the money to make some self-congratulatory statues in our own honor (which the Philadelphian waterworks champions of the late 18th century certainly did). Imagine if Philadelphians in 1799 had watched Fox News….

It’s also worth noting that the development of water works required urban elites and ordinary residents to wrestle with and find pragmatic solutions to allocating costs for water service. While home usage was amenable to a user fee model that continued the idea of private responsibility, building capacity for public uses of water like fire protection defied all efforts to assign costs to individual beneficiaries, becoming a true public good. Further, while many debated how to link payment to usage, the public health promises of clean water in an age of deadly epidemic disease raised an opposite point–that access to clean water could be construed as a right and entitlement of habitation of a city that couldn’t be denied to individuals for humane reasons and that should not be withheld for the benefit of the city as a whole.

To distribute water without charge was never a serious option…. At the same time, however, no humane community could deny an individual access to water even if that person could not afford to pay for it. In short, figuring out fees for water, while it entailed financial considerations that were challenging for technical reasons, also posed more abstract questions of individual and collective obligations and rights. (93)

In our contemporary terms, residents of nineteenth century Philadelphia, Boston and Chicago established, sometimes unwittingly and not without the recurrent expression of contrary opinion, that access to clean water was a human right. Today the United Nations “recognizes the right to safe and clean drinking water and sanitation as a human right that is essential for the full enjoyment of life and all human rights.” The appointed emergency management of the city of Detroit, of course, disagrees, and has ordered the termination of water service to 17,000 homes and businesses for delinquency on water bills. John Nichols estimates that there are up to 90,000 low income Detroit families who may face a water shutoff over water bills that have continued to rise under pressure from bond investors and emergency managers to shore up the finances of the city’s water services. This might mean up to 300,000 Detroiters and 40% of water customers.

Smith’s thesis is that an “infrastructure of ideas” as much as an infrastructure of pumps, pipes, and spigots, brought water into the fabric of urban life. It was once unthinkable to deny access to water because of the inability to pay, as it was once unthinkable to make one generation’s investment in infrastructure a casualty of a later generation’s refusal to pay the upkeep.  Read Smith’s book and reflect on the consequences of abandoning the accumulated infrastructure of ideas of two centuries.

Smith, Carl S. City Water, City Life: Water and the Infrastructure of Ideas in Urbanizing Philadelphia, Boston, and Chicago. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2013.

San Fernando Valley Stuff

Here’s an interesting piece by Ryan Reft on the website of KCET, the Los Angeles Public Television station, evaluating the racial and political contradictions of the “gentleman farmer” ideal that grew up in the Valley, and the way that that ideal fostered a quasi-rural sense of place within the boundaries of the west coast’s largest city. Reft mostly relies on the excellent work of Matt Garcia and my friend Laura Barraclough to evaluate the ways that industry and urbanization and agriculture intersected in the Valley.

I get a little love at the end too, on the subject of the Valley secession movement of 2002.

Scott Walker: Metropolitics as the Root of American Conservatism

Interesting piece by Alec MacGillis in the New Republic on Scott Walker’s rise and the way that his political persona and base is rooted in the polarized landscape of metro Milwaukee.

There are some interesting nuggets about Walker’s early forays into student politics at Marquette, including the gem that he earned the name “Niedermayer” (after the uptight villain in Animal House). But the treatment of the rise of talk radio, the racial and economic segregation of Milwaukee and its suburbs, and the significance of resentments about taxes and a public sector perceived to benefit Milwaukee’s black residents are the real takeaways.

This resonates pretty strongly with something I’m writing about the 1990s tax revolts in Fulton County, and I have to point out this passage:

According to studies by the Brookings Institution and Brown University, the Milwaukee metro area is one of the top two most racially segregated regions in the country. The WOW counties were voting Republican at levels unseen in other Northern suburbs; one needed to look as far as the white suburbs around Atlanta and Birmingham for similar numbers.

Indeed, MacGillis refers to something that I’ve written about here before: that metropolitics are a great framework for understanding the contemporary tone and agenda of conservatism. The tumult over stripping collective bargaining from state workers was a surprise only because people hadn’t observed Walker’s tenure as Milwaukee County executive:

Nationally, the tumult was described as a kind of alien visitation on Wisconsin’s paradise of Upper Midwestern civility. In fact, the episode had simply brought the polarization between the WOW counties and liberal Milwaukee and Madison out into the open for the first time.

Postracial Black Politicians

Let’s imagine a politician frequently described as “professorial”, who at various times made a living as a professor.

This politician also struggled to define a political identity in a biracial political environment where some whites suspected him of being a black militant and many black leaders debated whether he was “black enough.”

And, when this politician faced a right-wing populist uprising that protested public spending and taxation, the stuff really hit the fan. Critics accused him of taking his election as an “anointing as king” and accused him of wanting to confiscate their wealth to distribute it to political supporters and welfare deadbeats.

And, when those critics attempted to remove him from office, leading him toward the embrace of a previously skeptical black civil rights establishment, white critics went absolutely berzerk, treating this politician’s rallying of supporters as a betrayal of a tacit bargain to ignore race in the public sphere. As one editorial put it, “We thought that [Politician X] would be one black public official who wouldn’t run for racial cover the minute he feels heat. We were wrong.” In this construction, not only is the politician in question criticized, that criticism is embedded in not-at-all concealed stereotypes about black leadership generally. While this editorial validated readers’ stereotypes of black political leaders as incompetent and prone to bad faith invocations of racial oppression (the notorious “race card”), it shifted blame for continuing that stereotype onto an individual who had been presumed to depart from it. Another contemporary editorial asserted that “if we are ever going to be able to smother racism in this country, a good place to start would be to stop blaming it on racism every time a black person gets into trouble.”

I’m sure it’s obvious that, while I’m encouraging you to think of Barack Obama, I’m actually describing former Fulton County Commission chair Michael Lomax, who was the target of anger during an explosive tax revolt in 1991. I’ve written about that tax revolt and its consequences here before, but the reason I’m addressing it now is that the terms of engagement by which many white moderates accepted Barack Obama, and indeed under which Obama himself laid claim to legitimacy as a presidential candidate–that he address race as little as possible under the banner of postracial politics–were rehearsed in Atlanta’s metropolitics a generation ago. Lomax’s position in the tax revolt was an eerie precursor to Obama’s in the face of the Tea Party: a cerebral centrist with pretensions to creating a biracial political coalition, beset from the right by a populist anti-tax movement with substantial, though unacknowledged, racial undertones, but ideologically constrained from referencing the racial component of that opposition, and severely chastised by the media for “going there.” Most people outside of Atlanta would be unfamiliar with Lomax’s political career, but he exemplifies both a precursor to Obama-type “postracial” minority politicians and an early warning of the ways that evolving racism constrained them.

Historians have a great deal to contribute to developing understandings of color-blindness as a dominant racial ideology–engaging with the work of sociologists, political scientists, social psychologists, and increasingly media scholars. But I think it’s particularly important to identify metropolitan space as a formative arena for this mode of politics, a master space, if you will, that connects and organizes ideology, institutions, and media, and creates social and material stakes for negotiations and conflict around racial identities.

Understanding Reparations is a Metropolitan History Issue. Also, Let’s Not Teach Any More History

Check this video, which accompanies Ta-Nehisi Coates’s “The Case for Reparations” on The Atlantic. Then please read the article.


Coates’s piece has been making a big splash in my virtual circles, and with good cause. There is much to discuss about Coates’s argument, and I’ll probably update this post with links to other writers and bloggers who offer a constructive comment on it.

Update: Nathan Connolly’s piece on the new blog of the Urban History Association is terrific.

I would like to mention, however, that the impact the article made on me was in the way that it connected the historical processes of migration and urbanization to the perpetuation of racial inequality. If the typical American is willing to accept that slavery was a system of horrific racial abuse and exploitation, and that the Jim Crow practices of the post-Reconstruction South were likewise brutal and undemocratic, the case for reparations generally falls off the rails somewhere after the March on Washington. Understanding the ways that racial prejudice and economic, political, and cultural exploitation and exclusion work requires understanding the ways that race has been woven into the fabric of metropolitan America.

This is, of course, what urban and metropolitan historians of race and ethnicity do, and Coates shows his work, referring readers to an excellent reading list describing the ways that the housing markets, among other urban institutions, perpetuated segregation and thus grossly unequal opportunity networks for black Americans outside the South and both before and after the era of Civil Rights.

The Great Migrations of African Americans out of the South to northern cities, in particular come under scrutiny. These migrations were certainly transformative, but Coates disrupts the narrative of progress toward equality (with help from Beryl Satter’s Family Property and Isabel Wilkerson’s The Warmth of Other Suns) by explaining how predatory schemes like contract buying (how black buyers denied participation in the legitimate home credit markets were exploited by home sellers, who would receive monthly payments directly from buyers but retain title all equity in the home until the contract terms were fulfilled and could reclaim the property for any violation of a contract, including one missed payment).

The online version of Coates’s article is particularly useful because it provides multimedia supplements about historical figures and incidents like the Chicago Contract Buyer’s League, which in the late 1960s rallied residents of black Chicago neighborhoods to identify the terms of their oppression. Crucially, as both the League then and Coates now argue, the oppression of black Chicagoans was not a vestige of poverty or ignorance held over from the rural south, but an ongoing series of crimes against them, abetted by the state.

In return for the “deprivations of their rights and privileges under the Thirteenth and Fourteenth Amendments,” the league demanded “prayers for relief”—payback of all moneys paid on contracts and all moneys paid for structural improvement of properties, at 6 percent interest minus a “fair, non-discriminatory” rental price for time of occupation. Moreover, the league asked the court to adjudge that the defendants had “acted willfully and maliciously and that malice is the gist of this action.”

Ross and the Contract Buyers League were no longer appealing to the government simply for equality. They were no longer fleeing in hopes of a better deal elsewhere. They were charging society with a crime against their community. They wanted the crime publicly ruled as such. They wanted the crime’s executors declared to be offensive to society. And they wanted restitution for the great injury brought upon them by said offenders. In 1968, Clyde Ross and the Contract Buyers League were no longer simply seeking the protection of the law. They were seeking reparations.

This is the core of the claim to reparations: identifying racism as a massive series of crimes. Unfortunately, as George Lipsitz has argued in How Racism Takes Place, the “public pedagogy” of place tends to obscure the political action and racial intent behind segregation and naturalize it. Lipsitz uses the them of crime to critique the now-classic HBO series The Wire, noting that the state-sanctioned exodus of whites from the city of Baltimore and the systemic denial of housing credit and opportunity to black residents, underlying all of the failures of the city’s institutions, was “the crime The Wire couldn’t name.”

It’s worth noting here, as an aside, that viewing the case for reparations in the context of how metropolitan space organizes economic and social advantage and disadvantage totally undercuts an argument against reparations that most people regard as a conversation-ender: that it would be difficult to distinguish the descendants of slaves from other persons of African ancestry in the US. Of course, the case for reparations begins with slavery and the wealth expropriated from black slaves. But that expropriation has continued through the public crimes of metropolitan segregation, and any person who is black in America, regardless of the duration of their roots in the country, is adversely affected by living in a society organized this way.

Much of the best of metropolitan history is an attempt to understand these crimes, and the ways in which they have been abetted, ignored, and excused. Coates may not dig as deeply into the nuances of these historical issues as many academic historians do, he nonetheless does something that academic historians are somewhat reluctant to do, which is to connect knowledge of the past not only to understanding our collective arrival in the present, but to map out paths to an alternative future.

In totally unrelated news, the city of Boston’s public schools will no longer be maintaining independent history departments (h/t Erik Loomis @ Lawyers, Guns and Money)