Local Voting Rights?

I’ve written before about the ways that metropolitan fragmentation affects not only the ability of citizens to cast ballots, but on the effects of those votes. Regarding metro Atlanta, I’ve argued that the formation of affluent and majority-white suburbs in north Fulton County has both removed significant resources from a countywide public where voters of color hold a slight majority and denied those voters the ability to influence the decision to form cities. The dismissal of the voting rights suit Lowery v. Deal in 2013 (which I wrote about in a study of metropolitan fragmentation and contemporary racism in Atlanta) closed the door on that line of argument, but the question of voting rights within the nested jurisdictions of states, counties, and localities, and the effects of those geographies on urban democracy, looks to become even more significant in coming years as states like Michigan (emergency management) and North Carolina (state pre-emption of local civil rights ordinances) allow state voters to override the will of locals–particularly when race, class, and partisan identifications separate an urban constituency from the rest of the state (this article by Campbell Robertson and Richard Fausset about the perilous position of gays and lesbians and social liberals in southern cities is a great example).

In Citylab, Brentin Mock points out some of the mental gymnastics required for a federal judge to accept the State of Michigan’s argument that its emergency manager law does not violate the Voting Rights Act. In essence, that argument is that as long as Flint residents have the ability to cast ballots for their preferred municipal officeholders, the nullification of those officeholders’ power by state voters is immaterial.

Public Act 436 transfers all governing powers from mayors and city councils to an appointed emergency manager for cities that Michigan has determined to be in financial crisis. This effectively erases residents’ voting rights in those cities, the lawsuit argued, since the politicians who residents elected to run the city no longer have any authority. A U.S. District Court disagreed, however, in its November 2014 ruling. Judge George Caram Steeh wrote that there was nothing wrong with Michigan replacing an elected mayor in a city like Flint with an un-elected, state-appointed custodian because city residents have no real voting rights in this manner. From Steeh’s order:

Public Act 436 seeks to put local governments on better financial footing. It does this by appointing an [emergency manager] in jurisdictions where the Governor and State Treasurer have determined that the local government was experiencing a financial emergency. The Act does not take away a fundamental right to vote, because such a right has never been recognized by the courts.

What Mock tartly points out is, that if this ruling stands, it would mean that

If Michigan’s argument holds up—that city residents have no such right—then that means the state could appoint the cast of Saturday Night Live in charge of a city. And the state would be legally covered in doing so as long as it still allows people to vote for the officials who they actually want in office—even if those elected officials would have no governing power whatsoever and would have to defer to the SNL cast.

The initial ruling in the case is under appeal, and seems headed for rehearing. Unfortunately for residents of Michigan cities with significant populations of poor minorities (52 percent of Black Michiganders have lived under emergency management, versus two percent of whites), the Flint water crisis, which has demonstrated the negligence and indifference of state authorities, constitutes evidence that emerged after the filing of the original lawsuit. It should be technically inadmissible in court, though Mock notes that it would be difficult to imagine the events in Flint not influencing a judgment.

What is more unfortunate is that the lower court’s judgment is well in line with Dillon’s Rule, the 1872 doctrine that municipalities are “creatures of the state,” without independent constitutional status and subject to limits on their operations determined by the state governments that created them. I’ve written (an award-winning article!) about the ways that this state-city conflict impacts democracy in the age of austerity, and how today’s city-state conflicts reflect a century-old conflict, expressed in urban reformers’ demands for home rule powers to deal with the stresses of industrialization, immigration, and growth.

It’s Dillon’s Rule that constructs municipal voting rights as a category apart from, for example, voting rights at the state level. Per Mock’s summary of the plaintiff’s appeal, Michigan’s policies “dilute and debase” the votes of local voters under emergency management in comparison to residents of other municipalities in the state, who can vote to govern their own communities and those under emergency management through the election of the state’s Governor. Michigan’s response (per Mock)

doubles down on the notion that city residents have no established voting rights when it comes to local elections. It also reinforces the idea that Charney referenced: that the right to vote only means you have the right to physically cast a ballot, nothing more and nothing less. Reads the brief:

Here, Plaintiffs are still free to vote in federal and state elections. And they offer no adequate support for the proposition that the right to vote in local elections, once extended, becomes a fundamental right as opposed to simply a right to participate on equal footing. …Nor do Plaintiffs’ cited cases offer support for a recognized right to participate in local political processes, even where the local unit is a legislative body.

Plaintiffs’ alleged injury really rests on the fact that the local government elected officials may not (at least temporarily) perform the duties of their elected office while under emergency management. This alleged injury is not a recognized violation of the right to vote.

Before the Roberts Court’s Shelby County decision, when the United States had a functioning Voting Rights Act, the political work of making ballots cast meaningless was known as vote dilution. When it was practiced by a municipal government in creating its own legislative districts, it could be prosecuted (although, as with most voting rights jurisprudence, the application of strict scrutiny doctrines have been used, as Heather Gerken writes in Harvard Law Review, to limit the use of racial statistics for the purposes of ensuring minority empowerment). It’s a situation unique to the structure of American federalism that similar work can be performed by the imposition of a state government onto a city with impunity.

It’s worth revisiting a quote from the legal scholar Gerald Frug, who wrote in City Making: Building Communities Without Building Walls that

A city is the only collective body in America that cannot do something simply because it decides to do it. Instead, under American law, cities have power only if state governments authorize them to act.

Normalizing this proposition by extension means that the residents of cities can’t expect to exercise normally protected rights if that exercise conflicts with the prerogatives of state governments (and I’d be remiss in not pointing out the great influence of Frug’s scholarship on my work, notably his attention to the ways that the relative powerlessness of cities can reinforce racial and class inequalities in metropolitan America).

An irony of Michigan’s insistence on disciplining the governments (and indeed the voters) of cities like Flint and Detroit is that the seizure of power that emergency management represents is ultimately contrary to the stated goal of ensuring responsible local government. As Frug and David Barron write in City Bound: How States Stifle Urban Innovation,

Cities can retain their ability to enable people to learn the skills of self-government only if they are given sufficient power to make decisions that have tangible consequences. (49)

I’d suspect, of course, that beneath the rhetoric of responsible government, emergency management and state austerity regimes have little intention of allowing such power in the future.

Perlstein on Chicago School Grifters

This piece by Rick Perlstein at Jacobin is a fantastic exegesis of the dense and incestuous network of non-profits, for-profits, and mayoral appointees that have spent the last two decades preparing to essentially privatize Chicago’s public schools. I had known that Illinois’ austerian Republican Governor Bruce Rauner gave current Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel his start in investment banking between Congress and City Hall. I hadn’t known that Rauner was a member of an education committee of the Chicago Commerce Club which, ignoring reports by local universities that charter schools did not outperform neighborhood public schools, demanded the expansion of charters in a 2009 policy brief. It was after this report came out that, Perlstein writes,

a set of interlocking institutions quite more self-interested, ideologically stubborn, and sclerotic than the educational establishment it sought to “disrupt” had come into being to do just what the iron law of bureaucracy predicted they would do: grow, grow, grow.

You can read the rest. Make sure your kids are out of earshot.

Infrastructure

From James Surowiecki at The New Yorker

Infrastructure was once at the heart of American public policy. Works such as the Los Angeles Aqueduct, Hoover Dam, and the Interstate Highway System transformed the economy. Today, we spend significantly less, as a share of G.D.P., on infrastructure than we did fifty years ago—less, even, than fifteen years ago. As the economist Larry Summers has pointed out, once you adjust for depreciation, the U.S. makes no net investment in public infrastructure. Yet polls show that infrastructure spending is popular with a majority of voters across the income spectrum. Historically, it enjoyed bipartisan support from politicians, too. If it’s so popular, why doesn’t it happen?

The answer (surprise) is politics, significantly, though not exclusively, of the conservative anti-government variety. But Surowiecki also points out that there have been veto points added in to the process for environmental protection and community empowerment goals. This is historically important, because, as numerous works in urban history point out, large-scale infrastructure projects have often been carried out in profoundly undemocratic and environmentally cavalier ways.

Perhaps more than reviving a tradition of infrastructure spending, we need to cultivate practices of democratic infrastructure development. So, while I’m in general agreement that, since bridge collapse or lead poisoning now threaten me more than ISIS does,

The U.S. needs to approach infrastructure the way it does national defense: come up with a long-term strategy, make sure it gets the money it needs, and hold the government accountable for making that strategy work. Infrastructure is the ultimate public good. It would be nice if ours was actually good for the public,

I don’t know if national defense is the best metaphor.

If Both Sides Do It, No One Has to Understand How (New) Federalism Works

Ron Fournier at National Journal is upset that the Flint water crisis has become a partisan issue. Sure, residents of a majority-Black and heavily Democratic city are being lead poisoned as a result of what John Patrick Leary calls “bottom line” (or perhaps more ideological?) decisions made by an emergency manager, appointed by a Republican governor, on the authority of a law passed by a Republican state legislature (and re-authorized by the same after being rejected by the state’s voters in a referendum), and in the throes of a budgetary crisis exacerbated by drastic cuts in aid from Lansing to Michigan cities authorized by that same Republican legislature.

Most reasonable people would, in the face of these facts, insist on a bit more exactitude from an author in an article describing “How Government… Failed Flint.” Fournier doesn’t provide it. Because there is a Democrat in charge of the federal executive branch (forget Congress. It doesn’t exist, isn’t controlled by Republicans, and does nothing to affect the EPA’s methods or budgets or rules.), Fournier can seize an opportunity to play Both Sides Do It, the game that has delighted Washington dinner parties for decades.

The latest in­dig­nity to plague this city of nearly 100,000 is lead pois­on­ing via their drink­ing wa­ter, a man-made dis­aster cre­ated by the ar­rog­ance and in­com­pet­ence of gov­ern­ment of­fi­cials in Flint, Lans­ing, and Wash­ing­ton—Demo­crats as well as Re­pub­lic­ans.

Any­body angry enough to call for GOP Gov. Rick Snyder’s resig­na­tion should also want the scalp of an Obama ap­pointee at the En­vir­on­ment­al Pro­tec­tion Agency who sat on lead test results.

It’s true that the regional EPA office doesn’t look good. The agency has announced the resignation of Region 5 Administrator Susan Hedman (Fournier’s tit-for-tat “scalp”) and acknowledged that they had failed to aggressively publicize findings by EPA staff in 2015 that Flint river water was a risk for lead contamination and that Flint’s state-supervised safeguards for lead were nonexistent (see the Michigan ACLU).

But to argue, as Fournier has done on NPR’s “The Takeaway,” that hypothetical calls for Barack Obama’s resignation over the Flint crisis are as reasonable as calls for Governor Rick Snyder’s resignation, and that federal culpability for the crisis is as great as the state’s, is absurd. To argue, as Rebecca Leber does in Mother Jones, that the EPA is guilty, because

Like every other agency facing criticism for the water crisis, it has shifted the blame elsewhere—to Michigan’s state officials

is also ridiculous. Leber’s implication is that the EPA has simply refused its obligation to act to protect Flint, making for an even distribution of responsibility between local, state, and federal authorities and between Republicans and Democrats. Fournier’s working assumption is that such a state of affairs is a prerequisite for the sort of bipartisan forgiveness and comity that will allow for healing and progress.

For a rebuttal, I refer you to the partnership of Cleese and Palin:

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This fake bipartisanship is not only wrong but destructive to the prospect of avoiding future calamities like Flint, because it presumes against evidence that the EPA had a course of action available to it that would have meaningfully changed the outcome in Flint. And, honestly, while it’s perfectly fair to fault the EPA for cowardice in not publicly challenging the Michigan DEQ, it doesn’t make sense to argue that such a challenge could have improved a situation already created and left to fester by the state as part of an effort by leaders in Michigan and other states to diminish the power of the EPA.

To understand why that is, it’s absolutely essential to understand how Flint’s local government, the EPA, and Michigan’s DEQ relate in the context of the reactionary New Federalist movement. Congress, under continuing pressure from conservative and industry groups operating at the state level, have moved regulatory and particularly enforcement responsibilities to state governments, even as those state governments, like Michigan’s, have been pulling back home rule powers from local governments and aggressively challenging federal oversight of their regulatory practices. The power and responsibility for protecting local residents from, for example, lead poisoning in their drinking water, has been vested in the level of government that is least likely to uphold it (note: I wrote about this here).

In practical terms,  the enforcement of provisions of the Safe Drinking Water Act as it pertains to “Public Water System Supervision” lies with the states:

 PWSS (Sec 1413) = Public Water System Supervision. The office of Drinking Water in each state environmental agency has the authority to implement the program, if the state has primary enforcement responsibility (primacy).

States have such primacy in 49 of 50 states. So, what Fournier dismisses as “interagency protocol” is in fact “the law” (it might seem pretty stupid, but it is the law). Unfortunately, Michigan’s priority in using the power delegated to it was exercised to avoid taking action. Michigan’s state agencies were briefed by the EPA about the hazards of corrosive water releasing lead into the water supply.Faced with this information, Michigan’s environmental authorities denied and stonewalled. They refused to acknowledge the legitimacy of test results, and they suborned departures from testing protocol to minimize the tested concentration of lead.

The timeline of events shows a clear progression of decisions made by Michigan authorities that resulted in Flint residents’ exposure to lead, and a pattern of denial and defiance by the state.

Notably, after the EPA’s Miguel Del Toral first warned state officials about the danger of lead in February 2015, it appears that the State suborned Flint water officials to improperly manipulate water samples to avoid triggering federal involvement. In testing conducted between January and June 2015, MDEQ officials manipulated the selection of homes for testing to include residences along a roadway where water mains had been replaced in 2007, reducing the exposure to lead, rather than the required protocol of testing areas at greatest risk. Again, state primacy meant that, by violating testing protocols, Michigan could shield itself from more active EPA intervention. Part of the problem for the EPA in this circumstance was that publicizing Del Toral’s warnings would have certainly antagonized Michigan officials, without any clear mechanism through which publicity could guarantee action.

Indeed, after Del Toral’s internal memo leaked in June 2015, arguing that corrosive water traveling through lead-containing pipes constituted a threat that MDEQ was unprepared to test or remedy, Michigan’s Department of Environmental Quality went on attack and called him a “rogue employee.” As I will explain below, this political attack was really the tip of a large iceberg: an organized movement to defame federal regulatory authorities in the court of public opinion and to challenge their legal authority in federal court. To suggest that Hedman’s office “buried the report” in this circumstance–when aggressive action would have predictably triggered further defiance and perhaps a legal challenge– is very different than suggesting that she buried it so that the EPA could avoid doing its job. Fault the EPA for timidity or cowardice. But don’t equate the EPA’s failure to exercise minimal leverage with Michigan’s willful action to expose Flint residents to lead and their active efforts to shield those decisions from higher scrutiny, with the backing of federalist principles of law.

The Flint crisis is not the first moment of state-federal conflict over environmental regulation in Michigan politics. Michigan’s Attorney General Bill Schuette is a member of the Republican Attorneys General Association, an entity formed to pool contributions from wealthy donors and corporations to be distributed to support the party’s candidates for election to state Attorney General posts.Schuette and his wife in fact hosted a “Jewel in the Straits Welcome Cocktail Reception” for lobbyists and donors attending the RAGA’s 2013 summer meeting on Mackinac Island. The Association’s members also participate in a spinoff called the Edmund Randolph Club, which charges “membership fees” of $125,000 to donors interested in gaining access to the Attorneys General at exclusive resort conventions. This is hardly a secret, having been covered by the New York Times’s Eric Lipton in a series of articles published in 2014 which won a Pulitzer Prize in 2015 for investigative journalism.

What’s the upshot of this access to the top state lawyers in the country? Not surprisingly, it’s often to enlist state Departments of Justice in campaigns against federal regulation. As the RAGA’s own documents indicate, the Association

was formed because an inadequate number of state Attorneys General were committed to defending federalism, adhering to the law during the course of multi-state litigation and applying a common-sense, free market approach to governing.

The “adhering to law during multi-state litigation” refers to the tobacco industry settlement and antitrust litigation against Microsoft, by the way. The attorneys general leading those efforts were not “applying a common-sense, free market approach.”  But, according to Lipton, under the leadership of Oklahoma’s RAGA member Scott Pruitt,

attorneys general band together to operate like a large national law firm… to back lawsuits and other challenges against the Obama administration on environmental issues, the Affordable Care Act and securities regulation. The most recent target is the president’s executive action on immigration.

In 2013, members of RAGA under Pruitt’s leadership were presented with letters drafted by Devon Energy, but represented as coming from Pruitt’s office, protesting proposed Bureau of Land Management rules for hydraulic fracturing on federal lands. Schuette’s office was copied on this “sign-on opportunity,” though he did not ultimately join other state AG’s in protesting BLM rules.

The BLM campaign, however, presaged something broader than simply a lobbying effort by the fracking industry against a particular set of regulations. Former Virginia Attorney General Andrew Miller, who had moved on to political lobbying and organizing while ensconced at the libertarian Mercatus Center at George Mason University, envisioned a larger effort that would be “not client-driven” but, according to documents assembled by Lipton, systemically transformative,  focused on

how the General and his colleagues might have an even greater impact on national public policy. The concept I have in mind builds on the momentum created by the States’ leadership in challenging Obamacare….

The touchstone of this initiative would be to organize the States to resist federal “overreach” whenever it occurs. I am not really focusing on “overreach” with respect to an issue involving a single state. Instead where the effort I envision would have the greatest impact is on subjects of national importance to federalism.

Note the convergence of an ideological critique of “overreach” with a broad systemic focus on disrupting the federal regulatory state. Miller further proposed a “strike force” of state officials, AGs in particular, convened on an invitation basis from those “sympathetic to our cause.” Michigan was certainly on his list. Schuette sent deputy Peter Manning (Division Chief, Environment and Natural Resources) to attend a closed-door “Summit on Federalism and the Future of Fossil Fuels” organized by George Mason, but held in Oklahoma City for the convenience of the energy industry representatives speaking at it.

Manning and Assistant AG Daniel Sonneveldt then participated in the development of a strategy to challenge multiple aspects of Obama Administration regulations, most often through the means of multi-state lawsuits filed by Attorneys General representing their states as harmed by federal intrusion on state prerogatives.

Here are some of the multi-state lawsuits joined or supported by Bill Schuette:

  • Halbig v. Burwell, challenging the legality of Affordable Care Act subsidies for policies purchased on a federal, rather than a state, exchange (this was a SCOTUS appeal of the Circuit Court’s refusal to consider what has been called the “Moops” argument that the omission of the phrase “or federal” in one section of the ACA should be taken to invalidate the manifest intent of Congress in passing the rest of the law) .
  • United States v. Texas, headed to the Supreme Court on appeal of the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals ruling in 2015 that Obama administration executive actions on immigration are lawful (overturning an injunction from the Southern District Court of Texas).
  • American Farm Bureau Federation v. EPA, decided in favor of the EPA by the 3d Circuit Court of Appeals in July 2015, involved a suit by officials and agricultural interests in many states (most outside of the Chesapeake Bay region) contesting the authority of the EPA to manage the volume of pollutants flowing into the Chesapeake.
  • Michigan v. EPA, filed 2014, arguing that the EPA improperly executed its mandate to enforce the Clean Air Act by implementing rules for states to reduce CO2 pollution without considering “cost” (to wit, costs to the energy industry) in determining the standards. Schuette led a group of officials representing 24 states in this suit. The Supreme Court upheld the suit by a 5-4 margin in June 2015. In announcing his skepticism about the EPA’s Clean Power Plan, Schuette denounced “yet another executive action taken by President Obama and the EPA that violates the Clean Air Act and causes the price of electricity to increase, placing jobs at risk and costing Michigan families more.”

All of these share the common element of aggressive hostility toward the federal regulatory state. However, another recent action perhaps best demonstrates how Schuette’s activities link the abstract principle of federalism to the concrete interests of businesses at the expense of the safety of urban water supplies. Nominally representing the people of Michigan, Schuette filed suit in June 2015 with Ohio AG Mike DeWine, challenging the EPA’s claim to jurisdiction through its “Waters of the US” (WOTUS) rule over transient standing water (such as a flooded or heavily irrigated farm field) and over soil and materials that reach navigable waterways as runoff.  As the lawsuit progressed, joined through consolidation of similar cases to challenges made by eighteen states in all, Congress passed legislation barring enforcement of the rule.  The 6th Circuit Court of Appeals in October issued a stay in the implementation of the rule, impeding the enforcement of the law until the rule is clarified.

This suit has been framed as a battle against federal overreach and excessive regulation. But the real issue at stake is whether the EPA can compel states to restrict the runoff of agricultural fertilizer from dispersed farmland into waterways that provide drinking water to cities like Toledo, where phosphorous pollution has fed algae blooms over the city’s Lake Erie drinking water intake, resulting in toxic, undrinkable municipal water in the summer of 2014. As Michael Wines reported in the NYT, the recurrent contamination of Lake Erie and its tributary streams by phosphorous is enabled by the gaps in regulatory coverage that the WOTUS rule seeks to address:

The federal Clean Water Act is intended to limit pollution from fixed points like industrial outfalls and sewer pipes, but most of the troublesome phosphorus carried into waterways like Lake Erie is spread over thousands of square miles. Addressing so-called nonpoint pollution is mostly left to the states, and in many cases, the states have chosen not to act.

Beyond that, the Supreme Court has questioned the scope of the Clean Water Act in recent years, limiting regulators’ ability to protect wetlands and other watery areas that are not directly connected to streams, or that do not flow year-round.

Wetlands, in particular, filter phosphorus from runoff water before it reaches rivers and lakes. A federal Environmental Protection Agency proposal to restore part of the Clean Water Act’s authority has come under fire in Congress, largely from Republicans who view it as an infringement on private rights and a threat to farmers.

The essentially political nature of this problem was noted by EPA head Gina McCarthy in 2014.

Critics of the Environmental Protection Agency’s water jurisdiction rule are spreading misinformation, the agency’s chief said Monday.

McCarthy said the rule was proposed in March to clarify Clean Water Act protections for 60 percent of the nation’s streams and wetlands, since two court decisions made it unclear.

“As with everything EPA does these days, there is some misinformation out there, confusing what our plan is all about,” McCarthy said at a conference of water quality officials in New Orleans.

Indeed, misinformation seems to be exactly the point, as political opposition or confusion that delays effective enforcement of regulation effectively negates it, and leaves cities without allies in defending the quality of their water.

This is the climate in which the EPA was operating in Michigan. The state attorney general, a political ally of the governor, has been an active participant in broad efforts to discredit the agency, to legally limit its authority, and to entangle it in lawsuits, as employees of the DEQ have practiced deception to prevent EPA action. The state of Michigan and its DEQ clearly welcome federal involvement only when it comes to sharing blame.

Given all this, it seems a pretty large leap to presume, as Fournier and Leber seem do, that Susan Hedman and Gina McCarthy (adequately staffed through the healthy budget that Congress has given their agency) would have a cakewalk in seizing control from the state authorities and asserting their will. There’s no way that Bill Schuette would have tied the entire agency up in Federal Court over that, given how reluctant he’s been to sue the EPA in the past, right?

In conclusion, let’s not bicker and argue about who poisoned who in Flint, and let’s certainly not bother to understand how the New Federalism works, or for whom.

Democracy, Disposability, and the Flint Water Crisis

This is a great analysis, and points out some of the ways that my work, by focusing on the question of emergency management vs. urban democracy, obscures some of the larger ways that the Flint story is embedded in capitalist political economy.

The Third Coast Conspiracy

flint 2

First there was Detroit, and now there’s Flint. After more or less staying under the radar for over a year, in the last few weeks the water crisis has become national news. The overall story is pretty clear. Back in April 2014, the city stopped getting its water from the system that serves the Detroit metropolitan area, which it had been doing since 1967, and switched over to the Flint River instead. Residents immediately noticed the difference, complaining about the water’s taste, smell, and color. City and state officials ignored or dismissed them, insisting that the water was safe—and trying to hide evidence to the contrary. In fact, the corrosive river water had caused lead in the city’s aging pipes to leach into the water supply. A year and a half after switching to the Flint River, the proportion of children with above-average levels of lead in their blood…

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Flint Water Protests hit Lansing

The Flint Water Crisis reflects a progression of what I’ve written about, more theoretically than empirically, in my American Studies article on urban democracy in the age of austerity and money politics. Michigan’s emergency manager law, which represents a difference of degree rather than kind among state actions to limit urban home rule and public democracy, has enabled bottom-line decision-making that risked the health of Flint residents to save relatively trivial amounts of money in the city’s water service. These decisions were made in the absence of locally accountable elected officials, but Flint residents are not going to let the story end there. Protests have hit the state capitol in Lansing, demanding the resignation of Governor Rick Snyder, the champion of the state’s emergency manager law.

The Daily Show has jumped on this in a way that highlights the fundamental cruelty of the cost-cutting decision, though it doesn’t address the emergency management element of the story.

It’s worth mentioning that the emergency manager who made the decision to switch Flint’s water supply from Detroit’s Lake Huron water to the Flint River has been recently named the emergency manager of the Detroit Public Schools.

Thinking About Urban Sociology, Somewhat Historically

I haven’t had much to say about the controversy over Alice Goffman’s On the Run. I do here, but for a rather different purpose. To state my positions on the core of the matter, I find the critiques of Goffman’s veracity compelling, and defenses of her work considerably less so, but I’m more interested in thinking about how the affair illuminates the way that knowledge about cities gets produced. Since Goffman’s book was praised by many non-academic reviewers as being like The Wire but (ostensibly) true, I’m reminded of the last season of that show, particularly since I probably rate that season much higher than the typical fan. What I found most compelling about the arc of the season was its reflection on the way that a wide range of imperatives–Scott’s compulsion to fabricate, his bosses’ encouragement of his pursuit of “Dickensian” aspects of Baltimore life–make a newspaper a grossly limited source of understanding. The assassination of one of the most important men on the west side, after all, gets cut. Because it doesn’t mesh with what some people think they already know about Baltimore, Omar’s death, which actually caps a truly Dickensian story arc, gets lost to the history that’s fit to print.

And, while the problem is most definitely larger than a single book, the On the Run controversy should be cause for some deep thinking about how we know what we’re talking about, and what the prior assumptions of our methods and theories are, particularly for academic ideas associated with Chicago School sociology that have been profoundly influential to other academic fields, to public policy, and even to public common-sense about metropolitan communities. It’s beyond me to offer a critical history of an entire academic discipline in a blog post, though thankfully it’s not beyond others. And it seems to me that On the Run intersects with another sociological bombshell offered by a critical history of the discipline. Which I’ll discuss below.

But first, a few (admittedly half-cooked) thoughts about urban ethnography. Paul Campos, both for himself in the Chronicle of Higher Education (paywalled) and blogging at Lawyers, Guns & Money, has been one of the more tenacious and acute critics of Alice Goffman’s On the Run and of Goffman’s defenders. Campos, among others, raised serious questions about the plausibility or veracity of several of the key incidents that Goffman recounted as evidence of the pervasive reach of the criminal justice system into the lives of young Black men in a low-income Philadelphia neighborhood.

[Note: To be sure, that reach is a serious problem for social justice, and a problem which many powerful interests in American society would prefer to conceal. Which is all the more reason why academic and popular analysis of it should be rigorous and diligent, and why the apparent “truthiness” of Goffman’s book may prove detrimental to efforts to meaningfully reform rules of probation, parole, and criminal detention.]

Campos’s critique met with praise and counterattacks, but it strikes me that most of Goffman’s defenders have engaged with (and indulged in) metacritical debates–is the intrusiveness of policing on Black men’s lives a core truth that stands regardless of the veracity of the evidence used to demonstrate it? Is it legitimate for a young white woman with academic pedigree and Ivy League credentials to relate the stories of poor Black people? Does the scholarly imperative of concealing respondents’ identities (or IRB rules requiring such concealment) make accuracy impossible? Is sociology losing influence as a discipline and desperate to restore it by supporting more “dangerous” ethnographies? Are sociologists overly impressed by the social distance traversed by the researcher to observe her subjects? Are attacks on Goffman attempts to silence the voices, conveyed through her, of low-income urban Black men?–and ignored the rather large elephant in the room: Did Alice Goffman make a bunch of stuff up?

Gideon Lewis-Kraus’s recent NYT Magazine piece on the Goffman controversy performs this dance, acknowledging the publication of Campos’s and others’ critiques but, by and large, ignoring their substance. Lewis-Kraus shields Goffman from questions about her integrity by painting her basically as an autistic-savant who forgets to plug in her phone or what year major life events occurred, who also makes keen and reliable observations of other people’s lives. One supposes the intention is to encourage the inference that Goffman confused her field notes rather than fabricating them, since unless the question of deliberate deception were in play, no ethnographer would probably want to be portrayed this way in the Times. Elsewhere, he focuses on “discipline,” implying on one hand that Goffman has been a victim of jealousy on the part of some fellow sociologists who resent her success and pooh-pooh her methods, which eschew much of the reflexivity on the social distance between observer and observed that characterizes contemporary ethnography, and on the other, that Goffman has been unable to rebut charges against her because of her strict adherence to methodological safeguards of her subjects’ identities. Since this is the way this story goes, there’s also a third hand, on which Lewis-Kraus argues that the controversy’s spread outside of the academy reflects a gap between the methodologies of journalism and sociology (a formulation that would make Goffman a brave interdisciplinary boundary-crosser, assuming that there’s a significant difference in each discipline’s toleration for making stuff up).

To be fair, Lewis-Kraus tries to write about the inherent difficulties and contradictions of outsider ethnography as communication across social divisions, though his reluctance to consider the veracity of Goffman’s accounts of the lives of her associates undermines that effort considerably–the charge of making stuff up speaks directly to Goffman’s credibility as a conduit of those associates’ experiences and views and to the premise that Goffman was guided by imperatives determined by her solidarity with her associates rather than by the expectations of her audience. If, ultimately, Goffman and her defenders want to base the legitimacy and importance of her work on the premise that Goffman became part of the Sixth Street community, described it accurately, and thus gave voice to its inhabitants, the veracity of her accounts could not be more important to judging her work.

Campos wrote an interesting reaction at LGM yesterday. Part of it is a critique of Lewis-Kraus’s account. But Campos closes with a perspective that, I think points us productively away from thinking about the internal politics of a discipline or the particularities of events Goffman described, and toward thinking about the way that academic research has and may shape what we “know” about urban America, particularly the parts of it that are, for all intents and purposes, foreign to the kind of people who inhabit the sociology departments of Hyde Park and Penn, increasingly separated from south Chicago or west Philadelphia by demilitarized-by-redevelopment zones.

As Campos writes in a follow-up today:

This is another example of how Goffman seems to constantly confuse her “positionality.” The whole point of the anecdote [in which Goffman stiltedly describes her efforts to exchange a “look of solidarity” with a young brown man detained by TSA at the airport] is that she (supposedly) has white privilege in this particular context, so there isn’t any solidarity here between her and him, much as she might want there to be. But Goffman has a habit of forgetting that she’s a very privileged person in a wide variety of ways: hence her complaints that doubts about her veracity are attacks on the credibility of low-status informants, such as the residents of Sixth Street.

This line of defense echoes a certain strain of cultural masquerading by the young, white, and privileged seeking authenticity, as Campos argues.

Any reader who has gotten this far is by this point probably as sick of the Alice Goffman saga as I am. What continues to intrigue me, however, is her apparent ability to get supposedly hard-headed journalists to believe her. Part of the reason for this, I suspect, is that what makes On the Run an initially compelling read is, ironically, its apparent authenticity — the glimpse it provides into a demi-monde that has fascinated upper class white people for a long time, as captured most memorably in Norman Mailer’s 1957 essay “The White Negro.” That Goffman explored and chronicled this world was, above all, really cool.

This has shown up in prominent stunt-ethnographies, indicating that neither academics nor peri-academic audiences are immune, the contempt with which they might treat the blatant racial essentialism of Mailer’s essay notwithstanding.

But the twist that occurs when these immersions are presented as scholarly research is that the imprimatur of the academy positions the researcher as an authority uniquely able to research the story (by sharing the experiences of the subaltern) and to tell it. It’s this elasticity of positionality, more than whatever tendency toward vicarious danger might excite the hipsters of the sociology department, that are problematic. And, to be sure, though contemporary sociology certainly teaches critical reflection on positionality, this development is a relatively recent adjunct to the core of the discipline. If a high-impact work like Goffman’s can exhibit such a slippage, sociologists may be inconsistently examining an important aspect of racism–not the presence of different groups or the observation of differences in their experiences, but the maintenance and nature of the boundaries among them–both social and spatial (Douglas Massey refers to “boundary work” in the abstract, while George Lipsitz describes “racism taking place” to call attention to the practices that inscribe boundaries, rather than presumably bounded identities).

This point leads me to an article by Julian Go in the Berkeley Journal of Sociology. Both a review of Aldon Morris’s 2015 book The Scholar Denied, a history of the concealed and quarantined influence of WEB DuBois on the development of American sociology, and a reflection on Go’s own training as a sociologist, the post does two things. First, it makes me determined to get my hands on Morris’s book (and not just the online metacommentary) ASAP. Second, it should make anyone concerned with urban and metropolitan studies consider very seriously the dialectical relationship between knowledge and the implicit premises of research methods. What we know about urban and metropolitan life and communities after all depends quite a bit on the core premises of our investigations, and sociological perspective–that is to say, a particular sociological perspective, embracing both the scholarly authority of the ethnographer and the ethnographer’s ability to transparently observe and describe an otherwise distinct community–has been tremendously influential.

What if this perspective has been narrowed and constrained? As Go argues, summarizing Morris, the gravest limitation of canonical sociological methods has been the diminishment of DuBois’s role (and the role of his “Atlanta School” of researchers working from the city’s historically Black colleges) as the discipline’s most important founder.

In short, the elevation of the Chicago School has served to marginalize Du Bois, even as Du Bois was profoundly influential for his time. Narrating this tension is one of the many virtues of Morris’ book, and it marks the tragedy that The Scholar Denied writes for us – that we have erased the history of Du Bois’ profound influence upon sociology from our most influential histories of sociology. We assume Weber taught Du Bois. We herald Frazier as the most influential black sociologist. We herald Robert E. Park as the innovator.

The intentionality of this erasure, as well as its effects, concern Morris greatly. The pervasive racism of the early 20th century mattered of course, but so did institutional factors. Robert Park and others obviously secured prestige for themselves as their discipline’s leading lights, but by marginalizing DuBois, they also marginalized a scholar whose purpose as a sociologist stemmed significantly from his famous observation that “the problem of the 20th Century is the problem of the Color Line.” While Park’s sociology emphasized ethnicity and difference, his school’s presumptions tended to naturalize difference, to identify racial conflict as a matter of friction between different and incompatible groups sharing space, and to evade DuBois’s call to recognize the construction and policing of color lines as the fundamental and indeed generative core of race and racism. Go, again summarizing Morris:

Still, there is another explanatory current amidst the flow. It is not only that Du Bos was black and other sociologists were white, or that Du Bois suffered from lack of capital, it is also that he had dangerous ideas. To be sure, Du Bois innovated by his empirical orientation and methodology. But Du Bois also innovated substantively, birthing a sociology of race that aimed to wrestle discourse on race away from the Darwinistic, biological and frankly racist sociological episteme of the day. Participants and promoters of that episteme included most all other white sociologists, and Morris pulls no punches when pointing out how the Chicago School was at the center of sociologically racist thought. In riveting swaths of The Scholar Denied, we learn about Robert Park’s racist sociology, for example, a sociology that “portrayed African Americans” as “handicapped by a double heritage of biological and cultural inferiority.”[19] These views compelled Park to side with Booker T. Washington in suggesting that the best route for African-Americans was to become manual laborers rather than to try overcome their “savage” origins (in Park’s own terminology). These views also compelled Park to conclude that blacks should stay away from cities, for there they would “only succumb to the vice, disease, crime, and other evils rampant in city life.”[20] And Park’s own famous theory on the cycle of race relations was underwritten by Darwinistic thought on the inferiority of non-whites. Park’s thought was merely the “conceptual framework” that could explain and hence legitimate why the whites of Europe and the US were dominating the world through colonialism –and why race relations throughout the globe were so tumultuous.[21]

Du Bois would have none of this…. Du Bois’ work, using systematically and painstakingly collected data on communities about which Park had little inkling, instead showed the social production of racial inferiority rather than its biological or even cultural determination.

While these ideas have been most commonly associated with the work of Franz Boas and his students, Morris’s argument is that they were earlier propounded by DuBois in works and correspondence that influenced the later anthropologist. The obscuring of the link turns not only the history of the discipline but critical understanding of its purposes on their heads. Here’s what Lewis-Kraus writes about the development of sociology as a liberal and anti-hierarchical discipline.

People in Goffman’s camp trace their work to Robert E. Park and the so-­called First Chicago School, which set itself to the project of understanding the new vigor and clash of the American city, then driven by the dynamism of industrialization and immigration. Park had spent 10 years as a journalist and was working for Booker T. Washington at the Tuskegee Institute when he was asked, in 1914, to join the young sociology department at the University of Chicago. This was a Chicago that would produce new sorts of Americans, characters like Saul Bellow’s Augie March, and Park’s team went on to put together canonical, sympathetic studies of the city’s black, Jewish, Chinese and Polish neighborhoods…. Their painstaking empirical efforts, modeled on the anthropology of Franz Boas, were carried out in the hope that they might refute the reigning theoretical paradigm of the day, which looked to eugenics and social Darwinism to explain racial inferiority and the ‘‘social problems’’ introduced by immigration. The project was explicitly liberal and meliorative, of a piece with the work of journalists like Jacob Riis and early social workers like Jane Addams.

Although that’s what Robert Park may have claimed for himself, Aldon Morris would strongly disagree. Yet, the easy slipping of such a characterization into what passes for a deep journalistic account of sociology demonstrates how pervasive the assumption is, and the ease with which studies rooted in this paradigm, of discrete cultures bumping against each other in the space of the city, and trained observers acquiring privileged insight through immersion, has been among people who have sought to regulate, reform, or renew urban spaces and communities (I’ve touched on that here, for example).

It’s beyond the scope of this post to put forward a counterfactual of what would have happened if DuBois’s proto-constructionist interpretation of racism (which highlighted the role of white institutions and governments, and the relationship of color lines to capitalist exploitation as well as social segregation) had been the theory to influence immigration policy, urban renewal, housing, or employment law in the middle of the twentieth century. I’m going to go out on a limb and suggest that much of our world would be unrecognizable, and probably for the better. And, in a disciplinary climate more interested in understanding boundaries than in transgressive crossings of them, Alice Goffman’s efforts and talents may have produced a very different book and understanding of the criminal justice system’s role in reproducing racial oppression.