This Isn’t How Localism Works

David Brooks in the New York Times recently lauded a shift away from federal action toward what he calls a “localist revolution.”

For Brooks, this is entirely positive. Though he seldom touts it, he is a conservative, and part of a movement intrinsically hostile to federal intervention since the era of Civil Rights. Since that time, of course, the rationale has evolved. While white southerners cast the feds as radical interlopers threatening to destroy the very foundation of society, for Brooks, the preferred argument today is that the feds are too conservative, bureaucratic, and slow.

Of course, Brooks’s analysis works (to the extent it does) only because he ignores a number of elephants in the room–that number being precisely fifty. While municipal governments are often keen to embrace labor, employment, civil rights, and environmental policies that reflect local needs and serve local constituencies, state governments, influenced by a growing number of right-wing think tanks, have more and more aggressively engaged in preemption.

So, when Brooks repeatedly lumps together all non-federal levels of government as exemplars of localism (“Localism is the belief that power should be wielded as much as possible at the neighborhood, city and state levels”), he couldn’t be more wrong.

The National League of Cities has issued this report, updated for 2018. It sheds some light on what David Brooks is missing. If you don’t feel like reading it, they have a chart:

Image National League of Cities

This column is remarkable on a paragraph-by-paragraph, sentence-by-sentence level for how wrong it is. I initially thought to prepare an FJM treatment, but it was too much. So instead I’ll make three points. First, Brooks has a naivete about political media that would be almost charming if the stakes weren’t so high. Second, Brooks misconstrues the direction of federal policy with regard to devolution so completely that he can’t possibly be arguing in good faith. And, finally, when Brooks shifts from touting the ideal of localism to laying out the kind of actual policy measures he hopes localism will produce, his column devolves to incoherence.

Here’s Brooks on the media:

[Localism] is thriving because while national politics takes place through the filter of the media circus, local politics by and large does not.

This is, actually, not a good thing, as it reflects a lack of attention from media to local and state affairs. Just this week, Tronc paid off its disgraced former chairman Michael Ferro, making good on a three-year, $5 million annual consulting contract (the carrot offered Ferro to resign when women made credible sexual assault allegations against him) with one lump sum payment, putting the organization nearly $15 million in the hole, a self-inflicted wound the company elected to heal by announcing massive staff layoffs at the New York Daily News. Similar spite-driven layoffs and lockouts have plagued alt-weeklies and other local publications, which have become (unfortunately) the stopgap for coverage of local affairs. And, indulging Brooks’s insistence on lumping antagonistic state and municipal governments together in his “everyone but the feds” definition of localism, coverage of state affairs may be even worse.

It is thriving because we’re in an era of low social trust. People really have faith only in the relationships right around them, the change agents who are right on the ground.

It’s a mystery where this degraded social trust came from, isn’t it? And, not for nothing, but it’s worth pointing out that, partly due to Michigan’s anti-city Emergency Management law, for example, people in Flint can’t count on anyone to get them clean drinking water, while their attorney general has been more interested in suing the federal EPA than in cooperating with it.

This helps us move on to point two, the political character of localism.

Since it will probably be the coming wave, I thought it might be useful to make a few notes on localism:

[narrator: these notes will not be useful.]

Localism is truly a revolution. It literally means flipping the power structure. For the past several decades, money, talent and power have flowed to the centers of national power. Politicians tried to ascend to national office as they advanced their careers. Smart young people flocked to national universities, and then to New York and D.C. The federal government assumed greater and greater control of American life.

No. This is entirely wrong, and what’s more, for Brooks to argue this shows how full of shit he is, because the devolution of policymaking and regulation of the environment, labor standards, social welfare, energy, education, and everything else since the Nixon administration proclaimed a New Federalism has been a huge victory for the conservative movement. What’s more, devolution and New Federalism are especially on-brand for Brooks, whose “reasonable conservative” schtick requires something more intellectually defensible than “tax cuts for the richest people in human history” or “go bomb brown people” or “how about fewer people get to vote,” the other policy cores of conservatism. If power had actually been flowing to Washington for decades, it would reflect quite poorly on the competence of people like David Brooks.

Fortunately, for Brooks, though perhaps unfortunately for the rest of us, this is just bullshit.

Brooks wants to perpetuate a victim narrative featuring the feds as villains, which requires him to ignore things like funding social programs through block grants, the Supreme Court’s efforts to wreck the Affordable Care Act, the rise of well-funded groups of state elected officials dedicated to suing the federal government, and the creation of a massive policy-entrepreneurial infrastructure through think-tanks and ALEC to thwart social and economic liberalism through state legislation. Many of the “smart young people” heading to New York and DC are in fact dedicating themselves to this devolution.

Brooks doubles down on this fictitious opposition because he wants to argue that there is a qualitative and moral difference between solving social problems through federal or local authority.

Localism is not federal power wielded on a smaller scale. It’s a different kind of power. The first difference is epistemological. The federal policymaker asks, “What can we do about homelessness?” The local person asks Fred or Mary what they need in order to have a home. These different questions yield different results.

This is true in a wholly banal sense, but falls apart completely on closer scrutiny. Both the federal and the local policymakers here are actually exploring possible action to reduce homelessness.

However, in most cases, the local policymaker is not asking homeless individuals what they need. The fundamental problem of localism is that most localities are able to use their powers defensively to exclude “undesirable” populations like the homeless. For 95% of local jurisdiction, homeless policy means “how can I convince Fred and Mary to leave town.”

The jurisdictions (large cities, mostly) who receive the homeless must therefore look beyond their own borders to solve problems that exceed their capacity, and that mostly means seeking to implement federally supported affordable housing policies.

If you’re still on board, we can skip ahead and ask what Brooks’s local solutions might look like.

There’s a legacy system, like a public school, a grocery store or an investment fund. Somebody breaks free from the system and creates an innovative alternative, like a charter school, an organic farm market or a crowdsource campaign.

Now here we arrive at the core of Brooks’s affection for the local. Policy “innovations” that all happen to reflect Brooks’s hostility to the public sector and enthusiasm for austerity. Note well that these paired alternatives reflect a “legacy” system that was set up to serve a broad public at a standard (observed in the breach to be sure) of inclusivity, and an “innovation” that serves a narrow base or rejects public responsibility entirely. Note, too, that state legislatures are involved here. These are the kinds of local initiatives that, strangely enough, don’t get preempted.

As Leo Linbeck of the Center for Opportunity Urbanism describes, the new innovators “announce the availability of the upgrade and then allow users to choose when to make the switch.” There’s a conversation between the legacy system and the innovator, as the former learns from and adapts to the alternative. Change happens through the conversation between old and new.

Or, change happens when the state legislature decides that funding your pension is less important than a tax cut and you get told to go pound sand. Or when your city responds to a massive hurricane by privatizing the entire school system. Or when Bill Gates or Mark Zuckerberg decide to throw a lot of money around to influence policy debates they really know nothing about, and cash-strapped cities agree in desperation to go along. Or when affluent whites want to avoid school desegregation. These are not conversations, except in the sense that ransom notes are conversations. And, while although I’m no New York Times pundit, I’m having a hard time understanding how change driven by Wall Street and Silicon Valley money squares with any sane understanding of localism.

There is a different division of labor for making change. As impact investor Deborah Frieze put it in a 2015 TEDx talk, change is led by Walk Outs. These are people who leave the legacy system and pioneer new alternatives. Then there are Illuminators. These are people who analyze and bring attention to the change that is now available.

Please make this stop. Unless you want to talk about these walkouts.

I’d highlight two other social roles. Elders are the city mothers and fathers who hold sway in the town because of their established positions. The Elders support the Walk Outs, make room for them and reform old systems. Then there are Network Entrepreneurs. They link the Walk Outs, who tend to be lonely, overworked and short-staffed. They help the Walk Outs build a support system and a way to exchange knowledge and care.

These terms are pulled from Professor I. Madeitup’s recent article in the Uranus Review of Urban Studies. Pause, too, for a minute and try to put these Ted Terms in a real-world context, like the charter school movement. Does Brooks expect anyone to believe that it’s the side that’s got hedge fund and tech money pouring into it that’s short-staffed?

Change in a localist world often looks like a renewal of old forms, which were often more intimate and personalistic than the technocratic structures of the past 50 years.

Never mind what we  just read about disruption and innovation. Localism is all about tradition and continuity and personalism. Here, perhaps we ought to pause to reflect on how in many places, “personalistic” governing means local housing authorities decline to enforce fair housing laws, meaning bigotry and prejudice can more easily affect who can rent where. And localism without civil rights enforcement means that “intimate” details like who you sleep with can affect your basic rights. Odd, LBGT civil rights protections are frequently preempted by state legislatures.

Localism stands for the idea that there is no one set of solutions to diverse national problems.

Of course not, which is why the American Legislative Exchange Council crafts templates for reactionary legislation tailored to the requirements of 50 state constitutions.

Instead, it brings conservatives and liberals together around the thought that people are happiest when their lives are enmeshed in caring face-to-face relationships, building their communities together.

OK. Here’s where David Brooks is showing himself to be even more completely full of shit. He’s made an entire career out of callow sociological observation about how people use geography to sort themselves according to political and cultural preferences (Brooks generally ignores how money factors into this sorting, but that’s par for the course). Now, however, when it comes time to face the implications of this for local government and politics, he is reduced to platitudes. He can’t face that the residents of affluent, white suburbs embrace anti-urban reaction. He can’t face the fact that the practice of localism amounts to resource-hoarding and exclusion. He can’t face the fact that suburban-rural coalitions of conservatives, in league with national policy entrepreneurs, are dedicated to hamstringing municipal governments and denying them the tools to deal with local problems.

What’s really going on, then? What Brooks and other conservatives are desperate to do is to find a way to champion and enact reactionary austerity and market orthodoxy in a climate where neither the White House nor Congress offer an appealing moral authority.

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Charters and Resegregation

Colorlines reports on a new study by The Hechinger Report, The Investigative Fund, and NBC News, which finds that a significant number of charter schools serve student populations that are significantly whiter than their districts. The full report, authored by Emmanuel Felton, looks at the particularly egregious example of Lake Oconee Academy, a k-12 charter school built explicitly to promote a retiree-oriented community to affluent families with young children, giving priority in enrollment to students of that area, and exacerbating racial segregation and educational inequality in a Georgia school district.

Read the whole report. I’ll just note that Lake Oconee Academy enrolls about a thousand students and has a student-piano ratio of about 40:1.

Historically, it is well worth noting, as Nancy MacLean does in her acclaimed (and controversial) book Democracy in Chains, that calls for school privatization and “choice” plans decoupling public school funding from publicly operated schools originated in the state of Virginia’s response to Brown v. Board of Education. Inspired by libertarian political economist James Buchanan, Virginia closed its public schools and offered vouchers so that the state and its subsidiary school districts would not technically be guilty of operating segregated schools.

This option proved politically impossible to maintain, as historian Matthew Lassiter argued, because affluent white suburbanites in Atlanta and other parts of the urbanizing south of the early 1960s felt entitled to quality schools and expected state officials to take action to reopen schools. Of course, they also expected that action in compliance with desegregation orders would be minimal, and advocated for “neighborhood schools” doctrines that ensured that affluent communities would be shielded from meaningful integration by the high price of homes (political theorist Clarissa Rile Hayward aptly describes this as “tuition”).

The case of Lake Oconee Academy suggests this dynamic will continue to play out in obvious and subtle ways. The homes in the school’s preferred attendance area are significantly more expensive than in the rest of the county, and likely to command an even higher premium based on the presumption that buying in the gated subdivision entitles the buyer to better schools. The Academy also requires Lands End uniforms, does not offer bus transportation, and gives priority in admission to the children of teachers and board members and the siblings of current students.

These policies are instrumental in maintaining a disproportionately white student population, and it’s not as though this was ever a mystery, as Felton writes of the school’s founding:

In December of 2006, the school board called a special meeting. The sole item on the agenda was the charter school, and the board voted four to one to approve it. Roi Johnson, longtime pastor of New Springfield Baptist Church in the small town of Siloam, says he stood up and declared, “What you’re doing is resegregating the schools intentionally.”

Suburban Strategies and SCOTUS

Brentin Mock writes about the SCOTUS decision approving Ohio’s “use it or lose it” voter disqualification program. Much ink has been spilled about the program’s self-evident partisan and racial basis. By design, it disqualifies African American and Democratic voters far more than it does white Republicans. Mock points out that the program also has the effect of disenfranchising urban voters and thereby reducing the influence of cities in elections (and the responsiveness of elected officials to cities). Ohio’s purges relied on two components: generating a list of registered voters who didn’t participate in a federal election, then mailing those voters response cards, with failure to reply entitling the state to terminate their registration.

Mock notes that this pinches urban voters from two directions. City residents are less likely to vote in many elections because partisan districting dilutes the influence of city voters and (see below) parties have targeted suburban voters. City residents experiencing rent increases, gentrification, redevelopment, eviction, or foreclosure are also likely to move and miss the opportunity to respond or to have an address mismatched to their registration. This is all well-known, of course. Vote caging is a longstanding strategy used to disqualify voters who fail to respond to a certified mailer, and inconsistencies in postal and other address databases (updates to which are frequently underfunded and delinquent) often create an opportunity to purge voters according to a Brennan Center report.

Given that state voter purges will continue to target urban, minority, and low-income communities, must the Democratic party focus on other constituencies, such as affluent suburbanites? An excellent op-ed by historians Matt Lassiter and Lily Geismer in the Times suggests otherwise. Lassiter and Geismer charge that the recent effort by the national Democratic Party to focus attention on suburban swing voters is misguided, both because those voters are unreliable Democrats at best and because adopting policies favored by the affluent, professional, and highly educated residents of northern Virginia, Silicon Valley, or Route 128 in Massachusetts makes Democrats less likely to mobilize the working class coalition they need to win consistently (note: the authors occasionally adopt the media frame of “white working class” voters swinging to Trump, a frame that ignores the above-average demographic profile of Trump voters. However, they make clear that a robust redistributive agenda is also needed to engage voters of color and low-income voters).

The reason is that the residents of those suburbs, while they may publicly object (or not) to Trump’s truculence and overt pandering to bigotry, in fact benefit from an inegalitarian political economy that is buttressed by the political and social boundaries that divide metro areas:

The political culture of upscale suburbs revolves around resource hoarding of children’s educational advantages, pervasive opposition to economic integration and affordable housing, and the consistent defense of homeowner privileges and taxpayer rights. Indeed, unlike traditional blue-collar Democrats, white-collar professionals across the ideological spectrum — for example, in the high-tech enclaves of California and Northern Virginia, which combined contain eight of the 15 most highly educated congressional districts in the nation — generally endorse tough-on-crime policies, express little interest in protections for unions and sympathize with the economic agenda of Wall Street and Silicon Valley.

These “Atari Democrats” (to use Geismer’s phrase) just aren’t sympathetic to a broadly progressive agenda that is the most vital source of interest in policy on the left, and there aren’t enough of them to make wooing them a good political proposition, especially looking ahead to a time when Republicans will have a more disciplined and less orange person at the symbolic helm of their party.

It is rather baffling, then, that Democrats have made relatively little fuss about voting rights. As Ari Berman predicted, SCOTUS has just given a green light to any state that cares to apply similar methods to purge its voting rolls and engineer an electorate that Democrats can’t consistently win. Although it’s tempting in the era of Trump to attribute Republican political strategy to a combination of bluster, graft, and bigotry, vote suppression has been a core conservative strategy for decades, and if the GOP wants an electorate that is dominated by the suburbs, Democrats should probably think about why that is, and whether they want to jump into that particular pool (I’ve noted this here and here and here). As an alternative, I’d suggest that a full-bore defense of voting rights as a campaign issue is a good place to start.

 

Metropolitics and Work Requirements

As Emily Badger writes in the New York Times, state legislatures have hit upon a not-that-clever but maybe clever enough plan to make racial discrimination in the allocation of Medicaid legal. States including Michigan will subject Medicaid applicants to work requirements, but offer exemption to residents of counties where unemployment is above a certain level.

This is, by any reasonable person’s analysis, an effort to discriminate using superficially color-blind means. Counties where unemployment is high enough to trigger the exemption are largely rural and white, while poor residents of disadvantaged urban or older suburban areas are subjected to work requirements because, while very unequal, urbanized counties are economically more dynamic.

The proposal taps into longstanding anti-welfare myths about urban cultural pathology, while offering the excuse of structural unemployment to explain the woes of rural whites. Of course, the gross inequalities of places like Genesee County, Michigan (where Flint is located) are in fact historically structured by the decisions of major industrial employers like General Motors to locate production outside the city limits, the efforts of white suburban residents to resist annexing industrial areas to the city, and public administrators who engineered segregated schools and communities as a matter of policy. Andrew Highsmith’s book Demolition Means Progress covers this ground compellingly (I reviewed it here).

In the contemporary moment, Badger quotes Urban Institute employment expert Heather Hahn, who notes a crude geographical determinism in Michigan’s legislation. Assuming that the proposal is, in fact, innocent of racial bias (we’re being charitable), it nonetheless ignores the complexity of regional employment markets:

“This is trying to thread that needle between ‘are you poor because of structural reasons, where you live,’ or ‘are you poor because of your own choices?’” said Heather Hahn, a senior fellow in the Center on Labor, Human Services and Population at the Urban Institute.

The problem, Ms. Hahn and others say, is that geography captures just one kind of barrier to employment. “If you’re taking only the geography as the structure,” Ms. Hahn said, “it’s really overlooking the much more obvious racial structure.” African-Americans who face racial discrimination in the job market are more likely to have a hard time finding work….

Policies that exempt high-unemployment places, but not people who face other obstacles to work, selectively acknowledge barriers for only some of the poor. In effect, they suggest that unemployment is a systemic problem in struggling rural communities — but that in poor urban neighborhoods, it’s a matter of individual decisions.

The political implications are also crystal clear. No one, Badger contends, is in the dark about the motive:

“What’s so galling here in Michigan is the social meaning of this exemption could not be more clear to people who live here,” said Nicholas Bagley, a professor at the University of Michigan Law School, who has argued in a series of blog posts and in a New York Times op-ed that the policy would run afoul of civil rights laws. “It is a way of extending solicitude to people who live in the hard-bitten white rural counties,” he said, but not to black residents in poor urban neighborhoods.

This is not a new story, but its revival is nonetheless disturbing.

Will Megan McArdle Ever Be Arrested for Trespassing at Starbucks?

Washington Post Opinion Page Merit Ideological Diversity Hire Megan McArdle recently opined that being openly conservative in liberal dominated arenas is the functional equivalent of being part of a racial minority group.

Here’s the crux of the argument:

A person of color in a white space spends a great deal of time noticing they are a person of color, and that they are in a white space. The white people are very rarely conscious of the glistening pink skin surrounding them on all sides. Something similar holds for liberals and conservatives in American cultural institutions. People on the right may be well-treated in liberal domains (I generally have been); their institutions may try hard to be fair (mine certainly have). But they will always be conscious of their difference, that their presence in those spaces is unusual, and cannot be taken for granted.

I’ll note again that she expressed this opinion on the Washington Post opinion page, which hired her expressly to create “diversity of opinion,” and she was paid for it. McArdle further contends that conservatives outside of the media are in fact surrounded constantly by “liberal cultural hegemony” that “barrages them daily with their ‘otherness’.” Which, she reasserts, is the same as the experience of racial minorities.

After drawing this equivalency, she head-fakes to suggest that conservatives should be able to experience empathy for aggrieved minorities, since they experience the same thing every day (hey, #BLM, don’t be alarmed about the #MAGA guys with guns showing up at your march, they GET IT!). With that accomplished, McArdle’s ready to declare that the rhetorical excess and rage-trolling that constitute the bulk of conservative discourse are, in fact, liberals’ fault for making right-wingers feel bad all the time:

If [feeling oppressed because the culture does not reflect all of your preferences, prejudices, or dogmas] happened to you, probably you’d be pretty mad. You might even become occasionally intemperate in your speech. Heck, you might even say “to hell with respectability politics,” and vote for a loudmouthed reality television star whose signature campaign move was telling cultural hegemons to take a long stroll off a short pier.

It’s time, once again, to reiterate that Megan McArdle was paid money to write this on the opinion pages of the Washington Post.

It’s perhaps unfortunate for McArdle that days after this poorly conceived essay, two black men were arrested for trespassing in a Philadelphia Starbucks while waiting for a colleague to join them (reports indicate a manager called the cops after the men were in the store for two minutes). Their waiting-around-without-ordering was deemed “suspicious.” Here’s a Slate forum on being black in public occasioned by the arrest. Note that “public” pretty much means “everywhere” and considerably more police get involved than when a conservative sees a gay couple in a cereal ad. The participants are Slate writers Jamelle Bouie and Aisha Harris, Gene Demby of NPR, and sociologist Tressie McMillan Cottom. The whole thing is worth it, but here’s an exchange that locates the incident in a set of historical and spatial practices characteristic of contemporary urban life, and calls out the normalcy of using the police to regulate black people’s use of public spaces (or, technically, public accommodations):

McMillan Cottom: In a broken-windows approach to policing, being black is the broken window. It is just cause for aggressive policing. The Philadelphia police commissioner wasn’t wrong when he said the officers did their job. They did. And that’s the problem.

Harris: Yes. While Starbucks is getting this image makeover, no one is questioning why this is a justified method for regulating space in the first place. Maybe the cops don’t have to arrest these guys for not ordering fast enough.

Demby: I was talking to Phillip Atiba Goff, the co-founder of the Center for Policing Equity and a Philly dude, who said it’s a mistake to partition the public’s racial bias off from the police’s racial bias. The police were called into this situation, as a colleague said, to mediate a misunderstanding, like they were RAs in a dorm and not armed agents of the state with broad discretion to use violence and detain people. And so there’s this way that the reasonableness of white people’s fears about black people is backed up by institutions. Folks call the cops to back them up in disagreements with other members of the public in ostensibly public spaces open to everyone.

I’m trying to imagine the cops dragging McArdle away in handcuffs from her laptop and a long-empty latté  as she drafts her column in a coffee shop. I guess my liberal privilege is still unchecked, because I can’t.

New Wealth Gap Research

A new report by a group of economists led by William Darity, Jr. and Darrick Hamilton identifies misguided approaches to understanding and rectifying the gap in wealth between white and black Americans (note: I came across this in the Twitter feed of Chicago sociologist/poet/polymath Eve Ewing. I posted about her New Republic report on the Chicago Housing Authority’s perverse refusal to build housing a while back. Follow @eveewing).

The picture is grim, with black households averaging less than ten percent of white household wealth (depending on which data is used, due to sampling variations). And, while a typical white household at the poverty line has about $18,000 in net worth, the typical black family with similar income has net worth of approximately zero. Whites are disproportionately represented among the wealthy and constitute nearly all of the top percentile. Within racial groups, a black family at the 99th percentile has just one eighth the wealth of a white family at the 99th percentile ($1.5 vs $12 million).

The authors offer a pointed rebuke to conservative and neoliberal policy prescriptions, which they content fail to grapple with the importance of intergenerational wealth transfers and instead blame dysfunction in the here-and-now among black Americans for their lagging wealth:

In this report, we address ten commonly held myths about the racial wealth gap in the United States. We contend that a number of ideas frequently touted as “solutions” will not make headway in reducing black-white wealth disparities. These conventional ideas include greater educational attainment, harder work, better financial decisions, and other changes in habits and practices on the part of blacks. While these steps are not necessarily undesirable, they are wholly inadequate to bridge the racial chasm in wealth.

These myths support a point of view that identifies dysfunctional black behaviors as the basic cause of persistent racial inequality, including the black-white wealth disparity, in the United States. We systematically demonstrate here that a narrative that places the onus of the racial wealth gap on black defectiveness is false in all of its permutations.

I’ve written a bit here about the ways that discussions of poverty in segregated urban communities tend to focus on internal organization instead of surrounding and pervasive structures, on behavior, values, and education instead of property, employment, and investment.

The authors do intervene in an emerging debate among sociologists and historians, about the significance of home ownership for wealth building. While recent scholarship by Matthew Desmond and others has argued for closing the wealth gap by promoting minority home ownership, the authors of this study demonstrate that property owned by black Americans does not build the kind of wealth that property held (and passed to heirs) by white Americans does. Historian Carl Nightingale’s study of segregation uses the phrase “racist theory of property value” to explain how American markets embed race in exchange value, and policy scholar Richard Rothstein’s recent Color of Law summarizes a raft of recent work examining government support for a racially divided housing market and its consequences for home equity wealth inequity. Plus, as Darity and Hamilton show, racial gaps in home equity wealth reflect gaps in all classes of assets. While the exclusion of minorities from home ownership is a problem, it’s not the whole of the problem by a long shot.

“Buying Black,” education, entrepreneurship, thrift, and financial literacy initiatives get their turn, too. Perhaps most satisfying, the authors call out the recent pop-anthropology and model-minority mythmaking of Tiger Mom Amy Chua and Jed Rubenfeld, who claimed to identify a set of group cultural traits that separate relatively successful minority groups from struggling ones, while ignoring differences in the material circumstances and political incorporation of different ethnic groups.

This report is a comprehensive debunking. It’s not long, and it’s clearly written in plain English. It’s well worth an hour’s time to read.

Metro Atlanta Cityhood

This post is very interesting for me to write, though bittersweet at that. In my late career as an urbanist, I studied the movement to split Fulton County in metro Atlanta. This movement consisted of a “municipalization” phase, in which new cities, almost always in affluent and mostly-white areas incorporated with the approval of the state legislature. This phase was, I argued, intended as a precursor to the secession of the affluent suburbs north of the city of Atlanta.

Since I published my work on the subject, the secession movement has moved to the back burner, largely because residents of north Fulton county found many of their grievances–notably the perceived excessive taxation of the affluent north to fund services for Atlanta and south Fulton–were solved by municipalization. With less unincorporated territory in Fulton County, fewer people remained as clients of county local services (the county still provides many large-ticket services, including courts, jails, public health, and social welfare). This both lessened the perception that north Fulton tax dollars were being redistributed southward, and justified actions by the state legislature to limit Fulton County’s taxing powers.

The municipalization movement exerted powerful pressure on unincorporated areas of the county to form cities themselves. While the first wave of incorporations involved very affluent areas like Sandy Springs and Johns Creek in north Fulton and Chattahoochee Hills in south Fulton, it culminated with the incorporation of a city of South Fulton in an area with higher poverty, a majority-minority population, and less economic development than the north. While the northern cities incorporated with the goal of hoarding their ample tax base (a result of geographically and racially biased planning and investment decisions), South Fulton’s incorporation was much more ambivalent and defensive. Seeing that Chattahoochee Hills had cordoned off an affluent area, and that the city of Atlanta eyed annexing high-value industrial property, South Fulton residents feared remaining the sole local service clients of a diminished county government.

This distinction between incorporating from a position of advantage or disadvantage is often swallowed up by the rhetoric of the incorporation movement; the choice of voters in South Fulton to form a city justifies the decision of voters in Chattahoochee Hills or Sandy Springs to do so, because the appeal of “local control” seems universal. Furthermore, perhaps the establishment of local government will enable areas previously excluded from prosperity to thrive (a formula that ignores that prosperity was the basis of early adopters).

The municipalization process has proceeded in adjacent DeKalb County, but at an even faster pace. Beginning with the city of Dunwoody, parts of affluent north DeKalb (which shares in north Fulton’s prosperity as a result of a segregated housing market and development along the northern arc of the Perimeter Highway) also municipalized. And, as in Fulton County, residents of the less advantaged southern half of the county have considered forming a city of Greenhaven, though they failed to advance legislation to hold a local referendum this year.

Brentin Mock has written a series of recent articles in Citylab addressing the DeKalb cityhood controversy, which highlights debates among prospective Greenhaven residents, 87 percent of whom are black. These debates don’t hinge on the question of whether south DeKalb’s underdevelopment is racist. Rather, they hinge on understandings of how racism in local government works. Is it racist that the legislature denied south DeKalb residents the chance to vote on incorporation (a goal white residents in the north valued highly)? Or, is racism evidenced by the underdevelopment of south DeKalb, or the devaluation of residential property there (the area includes many very affluent and mostly black neighborhoods, though property values lag north DeKalb neighborhoods with comparable housing stock and similar per capita incomes)? And even among those who hold to the latter view, the question remains whether forming a city would constitute a solution.

On the optimistic side, businessman Ron Bivins described his conversion to favoring cityhood:

He came around, however, after he found he couldn’t get the county to bite on any of his economic plans for South DeKalb. Those plans included pitching Amazon to set up its new headquarters there and also possibly a new Major League Baseball team and stadium, since the Atlanta Braves took its facilities out of Atlanta to a northern suburb in Cobb County.

It’s not clear how these types of deals, which typically involve extensive public subsidies, would favor an area which struggles to provide public services with an inadequate tax base. That issue of underdevelopment in south DeKalb points to questions of racism:

Formal opponents of the proposal include Ed Williams, the chair of a group called Citizens Against Cityhood in DeKalb. Williams said in an interview that he does not believe south Dekalb would suddenly attract new companies just because it turns into a city, and he says the reason is because of a theory called “Black belt economics.”

According to this theory, “If the population of a neighborhood or community goes over 40 percent African-American, then significant investments tend not to be made in that community,” said Williams. “You won’t get a Radisson or a Hilton hotel or any of the top-line food stores, and that’s just a fact.”

As Mock notes in another article, the cityhood debate clearly comes from a position of desperation, with choices constrained by the prior incorporation decisions of more affluent areas:

Proponents of Greenhaven, led by Rice, believe achieving cityhood is South DeKalb’s last chance for survival, after being starved for economic resources for decades by the county. Greenhaven’s opponents—and there are many—believe the entire Greenhaven proposition is a ruse that would only further ruin South DeKalb’s economic prospects. For them, joining the cityhood movement is not the answer, but South DeKalb is running out of solutions, and time and land are not on their side.

Untangling this debate requires a bit more analytical power, though. Here, I find Coleman Allums’s discussion in Atlanta Studies useful (and compatible with my own published arguments) that it contextualizes cityhood as a political project rooted in metropolitan spaces inherently shaped by what Allums calls “overlapping histories of white supremacism and capitalist development.” To shift claims for cityhood to the grounds of economic development or tax bases is to engage a sort of “anti-politics” that strips communities out of their histories and reduces cities to a role as managers of property value.

This is not a question of academic significance alone; the overlapping histories of white supremacism and capitalist development are embedded in ongoing spatial practices of residential choice, investment, and exchange. Imagining cityhood as a remedy for black disadvantage (whether it’s the disadvantage of the black poor or of black professionals relative to their white counterparts) doesn’t grapple with the sources of disadvantage, and displaces responsibility from deep and systemic processes (white prejudice, capital investment, redlining, intergenerational wealth transfers, opportunity hoarding in wealthy cities) to the technical question of how local government is organized to tax and spend. In critiquing the incorporation of Stonecrest (a majority-black city in south DeKalb that is both smaller and wealthier than the proposed city of Greenhaven), Allums writes:

[w]hile a black middle class city does, at least nominally, challenge legacies of racialized capitalism and uneven development, it simultaneously advances a form of class warfare wherein a racially marginalized black middle class rejects solidarity with those they perceive as beneath them in order to compete. Thus, not only does black cityhood fail to challenge racial power structures, it also actively reproduces in a classist mode the exclusionary and extractive systems that create and exacerbate inequality in black communities.

 

I’m gratified to see popular media embrace questions that were central to my own research. How does municipal formation reflect or create inequality in metro areas? How much is racism involved in the institutional politics of city formation and the symbolic values attached to local government? Is “local control” a universal political good, or an ideological cover for protecting the interests of economically and racially privileged groups? I do, however, wish that the discussion had opened up sooner. But, if anyone writing on the resurgence of cityhood wants to talk about it, drop a note in the comments!