Archives, Knowledge, and Information

Two things from my social feeds this week:

First, James Somers’ “Keepers of the Secrets” in the Village Voice reflects provocatively on the value of archival materials that fall between the cracks of digital search algorithms, accessible only by physical presence. NYPL archivist Thomas Lannon serves as the story’s central figure, displaying both a vast knowledge of the contents of box after box of documents, but also an equanimity about the significance of any one in particular:

That is the paradox of being an archivist. The reason an archivist should know something, Lannon said, is to help others to know it. But it’s not really the archivist’s place to impose his knowledge on anyone else. Indeed, if the field could be said to have a creed, it’s that archivists aren’t there to tell you what’s important. Historically momentous documents are to be left in folders next to the trivial and the mundane — because who’s to say what’s actually mundane or not?

That humility reflects that research in the archives is ideally a symbiosis of archivist and historian. One makes materials accessible, and the other brings contextual knowledge to find meaning in them, relating them to other documents, other narratives, other questions:

Diving into this well is one of the positive side effects of a less-than-detailed finding aid. “The best the finding aids give you is ‘Letters, 1921–1937’,” Syme said. “‘I guess I have to look at every single letter?’ Yeah, you do.” The need to pore through boxes forces you to connect with them. Syme described this as one of the few kinds of formal research left. You can’t google — you have to think about what you want. You have to talk to an archivist, and find the right box, and go through that box.

What I liked best about Somers’s article was the way that, without having to state it directly, he showed the poverty of our present conception of knowledge as mere information. What can be Googled isn’t all that matters.

The information age, unfortunately, has not left archival practices alone. While the volume of paper finding its way to archives after its bureaucratic utility is exhausted has grown, the development of archival best practices for rendering that paper accessible to researchers has purged most qualitative or critical analysis from the work:

A 2005 paper titled “More Progress, Less Process” was a wake-up call to the field. “Truly, much of what passes for arrangement in processing work is really just overzealous housekeeping, writ large…. Pointing out that as much as 80 percent of the archivists’ time was spent “refoldering,” the paper offered shortcuts that, it claimed, would make more collections available without sacrificing much in the way of intellectual accessibility.

“MPLP,” as the paper’s doctrine became known, went on to be the rallying cry of the field, even as it seemed to transform the archivist from an assiduous historian into a corner-cutting technocrat, rushing to get linear feet of record out the door (“linear feet” is an obsession in the world of archives; one standard box of folders is just over one linear foot). Indeed, most archivists got their start because they liked poring over archives. The ethos of MPLP was to read as little of a collection as you possibly could, while still ensuring that you made it usable for research.

As a former practicing historian, I recall a great frustration when my research “productivity” was evaluated by quantitative social scientists whose working assumption was that “data” is standardized and available, awaiting analysis. Maybe not everybody gets this work.

Of course, researchers can do great things make the knowledge in archives accessible in the digital stream of information. My second read to pass along is a great example, the 80s.nyc project by Jeremy Lechtzin and Brandon Liu (described here) to digitize and geocode photos, taken for tax assessment purposes, of virtually every building on every block in New York City in the 1980s. It’s easy to say that the city’s changed since the 1980s; this kind of work, by starting with archives to make information, helps you to see it too.

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Municipal Identity as Property?

I wrote a relatively long piece last week about the effort to carve out a new, majority-white Gardendale school district out of the Jefferson County district in metropolitan Birmingham, Alabama. There’s been a great deal of attention to this issue lately, which is welcome as it touches on what many people would consider a major concern–the re-segregation of American schools–as well as an issue that is frequently less visible–the influence of local boundaries on access to resources and perceptions of community in America.

This has been the principal concern of my academic research, so I’m intrigued when i see an article like Alvin Chang’s “explainer” of evolving school segregation in Vox. All in all, it’s an effective and brief explanation of how boundaries work to structure access to a resource like education, and why, following a history of white flight spurred by school integration, and subsequent differentiation among wealthy and poorer suburbs, residents of affluent communities are less likely to seek “flight” than to build boundaries around their neighborhoods. Chang also explains briefly how legal deference to this kind of localism makes it appear normal and natural, rather than as political.

If you’ve read Chang’s explainer, follow up by reading Christopher Tyson’s law review article “Municipal Identity as Property,” which Chang linked in the piece. Tyson’s central argument is that, while municipal boundaries are political creations, residents of particular municipalities think of them as a form of property right:

The extent to which residing in a particular municipality is understood as highly consequential for wealth building, quality of life, family security, and status is a key feature of the contemporary suburban identity and experience. Battles over municipal boundaries reveal the ways in which suburban residents express what amounts to a deeply felt entitlement to separate government.

Based on my research on the secession movement in north Fulton County suburbs, where suburban activists worked to incorporate cities as a precursor to a hoped-for separation from the larger county, I find this description apt. The concept of “municipal identity as property” is a neat summation of a set of linked ideas. First of all, incorporation–creating cities out of broader jurisdictions–creates governments that can act to address local concerns. Second, they frequently do this in ways that are negative and exclusionary–keeping bad stuff out is easier for many municipal governments, particularly small ones, than developing good stuff. Third, the work of keeping out bad stuff has historically been aimed, if not always overtly, at people. Fourth, the public perception of protection by exclusionary power is akin to a property relation to local government, enfolding both material and emotional investment.

Going back to key works like George Lipsitz’s The Possessive Investment in Whiteness (with its provocative and apt subtitle “How White People Profit From Identity Politics“) and Cheryl Harris’s seminal 1993 critical legal studies analysis of “Whiteness as Property,” we can see that having public authorities recognize this property right, by upholding one form of dividing metropolitan space and rejecting another, is a real and significant form of white privilege.

Consider the controversial reasoning of Judge Madeline Haikala in the ruling allowing the establishment of the Gardendale district. Despite acknowledging that forming the new district would adversely impact educational opportunities available to black students who had been users of Gardendale schools, and despite acknowledging that white animus toward racial outsiders was a motivating factor, the judge ruled that those white Gardendale families who hadn’t been caught publicly expressing racist sentiments had a material interest in local control of their schools and school district boundaries that would exclude some non-local children who had previously been entitled to use them. Essentially, the right to property in a bounded local area–first in the sense of defining a spatially exclusionary right of access to a public school, and second in the legal recognition of the idea of community that the boundaries of town and school district mirror as something entitled to protection.

Clarissa Rile Hayward in How Americans Make Race aptly describes the process of boundary work supporting exclusion as a stealthy form of privatization, wherein public schools effectively require “tuition” paid in the form of home prices. Hayward also describes how community boundaries, which are, after all, set through nakedly political processes, become part of “institutionalized identity stories” wherein the work done through boundaries to exclude help to establish the legitimacy and normalcy of that exclusion as an expression of community will. An example of this process in action are Facebook posts in support of forming the Gardendale school district, which were exposed, as Nicole Hannah-Jones explained, by the NAACP’s Legal Defense Fund as evidence of racial exclusionary intent:

The Legal Defense Fund also argued that it was racism, not the desire for local control, that was behind the secession effort. They pointed to a Facebook page that Focus activists had created. The very first post stated that forming their own school system would give Gardendale “better control over the geographic composition of the student body.” In another post, an organizer noted that the Jefferson County school district was busing children into “our schools … from as far away as Center Point” and that “a look around at our community sporting events, our churches are great snapshots of our community. A look into our schools, and you’ll see something totally different.”

It’s only natural that the residents of Gardendale would embrace this sort of “institutionalized identity story,” but it’s somewhat discouraging that a federal judge would, even recognizing the exclusionary nature of the story, still find it compelling. To have the legislatures and courts of the nation validate your group’s demand to arrange school district boundaries in the particular way you favor, disregarding harm to others and the possible illegality of the boundaries, is an exemplar of privilege.

Of course, it’s also quite likely that Judge Haikala, like most affluent whites, severely misjudges the extent of economic inequality along racial lines in the United States, which could diminish a sense of urgency for protecting desegregation.

 

Housing Crisis in New York

Michael Greenberg in NYRB identifies the lack of affordable housing as a humanitarian crisis.

The cause of the crisis is the removal of rent stabilized apartments,

among the city’s most precious resources, as critical to its well-being, I would argue, as its transit system and public parks. In view of this extraordinary level of regulation, it may seem surprising that New York faces a crisis in affordable housing. But rent-stabilized apartments are disappearing at an alarming rate: since 2007, at least 172,000 apartments have been deregulated. To give an example of how quickly affordable housing can vanish, between 2007 and 2014, 25 percent of the rent-stabilized apartments on the Upper West Side of Manhattan were deregulated.

Although rent caps are eliminated when the rent of an apartment exceeds $2,700 monthly, owners purchasing buildings at boom prices increasingly prefer to push out a building’s tenants in order to raise rents to cover astronomical financial costs to ownership. Indeed, sellers of buildings expect this to happen:

The clearing out of rent-stabilized tenants has become such a common real estate practice that it is added to a building’s value even before the fact. Landlords have found enough loopholes in tenant protection laws to make widespread displacement a viable financial strategy. A building in Crown Heights with one hundred stabilized units and a rent roll of $1.2 million might now fetch $40 million or more—and every tenant must be forced out for the investment to be recouped.

Perhaps not surprisingly the players in this game, with access to sufficient cash and credit to buy whole New York buildings, and to pay lawyers and court costs to see evictions through, are private equity investment firms, which makes Greenberg seem almost longing for the days of the “individual slumlord” of the outer boroughs.

Landlord-tenant relations are totally out of whack. One of the most perverse mechanisms Greenberg identifies is “preferential rent.” When landlords opt not to increase rents on stabilized apartments up to the full limit of the law, they effectively accrue the potential to ask for sudden, large increases of the sort that can induce tenants to move. After that, vacancy and capital improvements are often sufficient to raise rents above the $2,700 ceiling for rent controls. There are about a quarter million rent-stabilized apartments in New York where the tenants are paying preferential rent, and Greenberg makes clear that the residents of all of them are at risk.

These rent machinations throw the housing stock of affordable outer borough neighborhoods into the maw of the political-economic-cultural storm of gentrification, as apartment finding services create new frontiers for young, educated, and often white tenants. The cultural cachet of hipness, however, is less attractive to longtime tenants who perceive it, correctly, as a harbinger of pressure to move. Greenberg helps us to understand clearly that gentrification of this sort is not simply a “market” process. Financially interested actors intervene daily in the lives of tenants (not just when a building sells or a vacant apartment is leased) in ways that are often explicitly oriented toward pushing them out. Landlords harass tenants:

Some landlords bring tenants to court for putting up bookshelves (which may violate the letter of a lease that prohibits renters from drilling into walls) or for having a roommate or, in one case I know of, a pet canary. “Most people here don’t believe in the courts because they’re used to it working against them,” said Nefertiti. “That’s what landlords count on.” Many renters are unaware of the laws protecting them and have little knowledge of how New York’s intricate housing bureaucracy works, so they are easily intimidated by determined owners. A court date is also a missed day at work. Landlords don’t expect to win all of these skirmishes, but the barrage of lawsuits helps set the stage for a buyout: financially and emotionally ground down, the tenant agrees to relinquish his rights and depart.

An artist I know in South Williamsburg took flight after her landlord paid a homeless man to sleep outside her door, defecate in the hallway, invite friends in for drug-fueled parties, and taunt her as she entered and left the building. In East New York a mother tells of a landlord who, after claiming to smell gas in the hallway, gained entry to her apartment and then locked her out. In January, a couple with a three-month-old baby in Bushwick complained to the city because they had no heat. In response, the landlord threatened to alert the Administration for Children’s Services that they were living with a baby in an unheated apartment. Fearful of losing their child, they left, leaving the owner with what he wanted: a vacant unit.

If any of that sounds farfetched, here’s one San Francisco building owner’s confession: He conspired to burn his own building down to renovate it without the burden of its tenants. Of course not all landlords are criminals, but the market in “hot” cities gives even honest property owners strong incentives to push their tenants out.

So what can be done? As Greenberg notes, the city currently does work to preserve affordable housing under certain provisions, and offers tax incentives to developers to include below-market apartments in new buildings. The problem with 421-a is that it contributes to the oversupply of high-end housing, which might, under ordinary conditions of glut, slow down. The program also is projected to deprive New York of more than $10 billion in property tax receipts by 2020. And, perhaps most troubling, developers in partnership with the city have secured an expansive definition of need for housing assistance, such that a grossly disproportionate share of 421-a apartments are priced to cost the requisite 30 percent of the income of a household taking in the low six figures. Once developers have skewed the median rent of a neighborhood to approach five figures, it’s reasonable to declare that the modestly well-off can’t afford market rate rents. But the approach does little to help the lowest income New Yorkers. Nearly 3 million New Yorkers filed applications for a lottery to rent 4,174 apartments in 2013-15. One in 700 were successful, overall, but the count disguises a much lower rate of success, owing to low supply, of placing low-income tenants:

In a rush to rack up “affordable” units and get to the 80,000 he promised, de Blasio appears to have stocked the program with housing for upper-middle-income tenants who don’t need it. It costs more to subsidize the poor because they can pay so little themselves; the logical fiscal alternative is to subsidize those who can pay more.

This approach accounts for the hostility Greenberg reports between residents of neighborhoods like East New York and East Harlem for rezoning plans that would allow high-rise apartment towers. Residents feel, with ample reason, that the net effect of the projects, even with subsidized apartments, will be to displace the poor, leaving the city’s public housing system, with a waiting list of more than 255,000 families for 176,000 apartments as the last, inadequate, refuge for poor New Yorkers.

The political economy of housing is profoundly shaped by a problem that is familiar to me: the conflict between urban constituencies and suburban- and rural-dominated state legislatures. In Albany, representatives of suburban districts are prime targets for developer lobbyists, as they can oppose tenant protections and rent controls that affect New York City without political risk. Perhaps New York City should secede from New York State.

Short of that solution, Greenberg suggests a simple, yet radical solution: a significant local-option sales tax for New York City dedicated to actually providing housing. The proposal would allow New York to generate fiscal resources to create and preserve low-income housing independent of Albany and Washington, and would also, hopefully, bind New Yorkers together around two core ideas: affordable housing is a problem at many income levels, and, since New Yorkers are all affected by public policies toward private developers, an aggressive public commitment to affordable housing is not a special interest but a public interest.

With a sales tax devoted to housing, affordable buildings needn’t be confined to land the city already owns; enough money would be available to purchase lots all over the five boroughs, not just in poorer districts. The buildings could be woven into the fabric of the city, rather than clumped together in self-enclosed enclaves that promote a kind of psychological as well as physical segregation. New affordable housing would no longer be contingent on giving tax exemptions to the builders of private, market-rate projects: luxury developers would be free to charge whatever the market will bear for all of their units, not just 70 or 80 percent of them, and the city, in turn, could collect from these developers the billions in property taxes that it now forfeits under 421-a. Housing built with money from a special tax fund would be 100 percent affordable. Over time homelessness would decrease—especially among low-wage working families—as would the amount (currently about $1.6 billion per year) that the city spends on homeless services.

This would be an overturning of three decades of urban housing policy, repudiating the shrinking of the public sector and the corresponding turn toward the market. It would overturn the Bloombergian political economy of the city. It would be extreme. It may be the only thing that can help another generation of working class New Yorkers afford to live decently in the city.

Boundary Politics In Jefferson County, Alabama

Everyone should read Nikole Hannah-Jones’s article in the recent New York Times Magazine education section. Hannah-Jones describes the efforts of mostly white residents of Gardendale in suburban Birmingham (Ala.) to create a new school district carved out of the larger Jefferson County district. Local voters have approved the creation of the district, and a federal judge has affirmed that forming the new district does not violate a decades-old desegregation order affecting the Jefferson County schools, though appeals are pending.

Although most of the advocates of the new district claim to desire more local control over their schools, the practical consequence of a new district will be to drastically reduce racial integration in the area’s schools. As part of Jefferson County, Gardendale schools serve, largely through busing from outlying parts of the county, a majority black and Latino student population. The population of Gardendale proper, however, is about 80 percent white, and the new district would deny access to many current students:

The town of Gardendale is 88 percent white, but its schools are now 25 percent black, in part because students bused in from North Smithfield, a working-class black community a few miles away, are zoned to schools located in Gardendale. Gardendale’s secession would not eliminate black students from their schools, but by ensuring only students who lived in Gardendale could attend in the new district, it would significantly decrease their numbers.

This is not uncommon, as Hannah-Jones writes:

Laws in 30 states explicitly allow communities to form their own public-school systems, and since 2000, at least 71 communities across the country, most of them white and wealthy, have sought to break away from their public-school districts to form smaller, more exclusive ones.

It’s a very compelling read about the ways that the rhetorical power of local control and the institutional influence of political boundaries can thwart efforts to achieve racial justice. In particular, Hannah-Jones shows that school district secession emerged in the particular context of court-ordered desegregation. Alabama’s law enabling any municipality of more than 5,000 population to form an independent school district was a response to rulings requiring substantive integration across countywide school systems:

In reaction to the Brown ruling, Alabama passed its school-secession law, and in 1959 Mountain Brook, an all-white, wealthy Birmingham suburb, withdrew from the Jefferson County school district. But the feared mandated desegregation did not occur, and so the other white towns stayed put until Clemon and the Legal Defense Fund secured the rezoning of the county’s schools by court order in 1969. Pleasant Grove, a white, working-class town immediately moved to set up its own school district. The mostly-white towns of Homewood, Midfield and Vestavia Hills followed suit. Their strategy was simple: There could be no forced integration if there were no black children in the school system to integrate with.

Later school secession advocates adopted color-blind rhetoric of local control as earlier appeals to preserving white schools became politically toxic:

This race-neutral language championed the pursuit of individual rights and, importantly, freedom of association, which provided cover for their efforts to preserve the whiteness of their schools. Local control “was, in a sense, the individualized equivalent of arguing that the Civil War had been fought over states’ rights and not slavery,” Joseph Bagley, a professor at Georgia State University, wrote in a dissertation about the Jefferson County school district. After all, school systems lost local control in the first place because they refused to integrate schools, forcing the courts to usurp their authority and dictate school attendance zones, assignment policy and teacher placement from the federal bench. This form of opposition “became all the more powerful,” Bagley wrote, “by denying its roots.”

Unfortunately much of Hannah-Jones’s report shows the rising effectiveness of this rhetorical position. While secessions that undermined a county district’s desegregation efforts were supposed to be illegal, courts allowed them with increasing frequency since the 1980s. And, while any individual secession of a mostly-white district could arguably have preserved desegregation elsewhere, the cumulative effect was to reduce the percentage of white students in Jefferson County schools toward a threshold where integration would be impossible. And, while lawyers working with the NAACP Legal Defense Fund to oppose the secession were able to draw on posts from pro-secession Facebook pages demonstrating racial motives sufficiently to convince Judge Madeline Haikala that the secession was motivated by racism, the judge nonetheless granted Gardendale the opportunity to make a good-faith effort to operate a desegregated school district under federal oversight. The contrast between the scathing indictment of racists in Gardendale and the decision to give those same people a school district to operate is wrenching, and I can’t imagine being one of the black Gardendale students or parents that Hannah-Jones interviews, who fought for educational equity only to be told that they must accept defeat to salve the feelings–quelling both anger and sadness–of local whites:

In her original ruling, and then in an unusual second, clarifying one that she issued two weeks later, Haikala made it clear she was attempting a Solomonic solution. If she ruled against Gardendale, Haikala worried that Gardendale residents would place the blame on the black students bused in because of the desegregation order, and those students could face marginalization and mistreatment. She also said that not every Gardendale resident who supported the secession did so for racist reasons and that a flat-out denial would be unfair to them.

The latter point is historically incoherent; perfect unanimity among whites in support of segregation has never been a requirement for courts to block policies that enforce segregation. And the former point concedes racist harassment and makes its potential victims suffer to serve the interests of their harassers. I can’t think of a better example of white privilege operating in the law.

Yet, the ruling is in some respects a half-loaf. Haikala later wrote to explain her reasoning, noting that allowing Gardendale to form a school district under the terms of her ruling might preserve oversight of the district; if, as seems likely given the disinterest of the Justice Department in enforcing desegregation orders, Jefferson County might be removed from oversight in the near future, allowing Gardendale to form an even more segregated district. This is the most sobering aspect of the ruling: that, given the current legal climate around school desegregation, it may be the best anyone could have done.

As Emmanuel Felton reports in The Nation, Jefferson County is not unusual in the fragmented geography of its school districts, but is unusual in that the federal Department of Justice has oversight of the county’s compliance with school desegregation. The Department had largely stood by during the George W. Bush administration, despite the influence of some, uh, colorful characters in the movement:

Scott Beason, a longtime state representative and senator, brought the idea out of Gardendale living rooms when he began talking about the split in the halls of the Capitol in Montgomery. Beason, a Gardendale resident, is one of Alabama’s most controversial figures. He was a driving force behind the state’s infamous 2011 immigration crackdown, which required police to inquire about the legal status of anyone they had a “reasonable suspicion” was in the country unlawfully. Beason has said that Republican lawmakers need to “empty the clip” on “illegal immigrants” or risk losing the state. In 2011, in a voting-rights case, a federal court found that Beason had displayed outright racial bias, citing, among other examples, the time he called black people “aborigines.” His “statements demonstrate a deep-seated racial animus,” the judge in the case wrote.

As Felton notes, even during the Obama administration, oversight of school districts under federal supervision was lax; districts with enough racial balance in aggregate to operate integrated schools nonetheless frequently operated segregated facilities. It would be difficult to blame advocates for breakaway school districts for concluding that the federal government had no stomach for the fight. More gallingly, the racial stakes are widely understood. Despite finding that the Gardendale secession effort was motivated by racial bias and the desire to control racial demographics in the school district, Judge Madeline Haikala effectively granted a preemptive veto to racists:

Haikala said she ultimately sided with Gardendale because she understood the merits of local control and because she feared that black kids in Gardendale would be targeted if she ruled against the white residents.

The stakes of this movement are high. Schools are becoming more segregated with each passing year, and the cumulative effect of fragmentation in local school districts is to strip resources away from districts and schools with the greatest need. Gardendale, for example, stands to inherit a state-of-the-art high school from the Jefferson County district, a school which Gardendale advocates lobbied for after learning from a feasibility study that the lack of a high school facility was the principal obstacle to forming a viable local school district. This is a war, and one side has been implementing a strategy for victory. As U.W. Clemon, the African-American attorney who secured Jefferson County’s original desegregation order and leads the fight to block the Gardendale district notes,

“If Gardendale is successful… every other majority-white community that wishes to withdraw from a metro system under [court] order can do so.”

Metropolitics and the Psychology of White Victimhood

Let me open this post with a caveat. The violent display of white supremacist mobilization in Charlottesville, mobilization organized around a set of white grievances and a narrative of white persecution, is disgusting and, as the philosopher Jules Winnfield might say, not in the same league as some more mundane expressions of white grievance around property taxes or school boundaries or other aspects of metropolitics. But, parting ways from the esteemed Mr. Winnfield, I would suggest that the grievance narratives of metropolitics are indeed the same sport.

How so? Let’s begin with Olga Khazan’s August 15 piece at The Atlantic. Summarizing the scholarly work of sociologist Mitch Berbrier, Khazan concludes that there are in fact carefully crafted and relatively well codified narratives of victimization which white supremacists (aka nationalists, race realists, or advocates of European heritage) consistently seek to propagate through the mass media. Berbrier and Khazan would ask us to put aside the legitimacy of these narratives (i.e. whether whites are in fact victims of racial prejudice) and understand their ubiquity and function (i.e. white supremacists seek to mobilize white attitudes and political behavior through the most politically expedient framings). The work reinforces the findings of social psychologists like Michael Norton and Samuel Sommers that white Americans interpret racial dynamics in zero-sum terms in which gains for nonwhites are necessarily offset by harm to whites. It seems probable that increased media attention for white supremacists may mainstream these narratives. But it’s important to understand that these narratives, in attenuated form, have been circulating in the far more respectable terrain of suburban politics, particularly where residents of affluent, white, and/or politically conservative suburbs have sought to limit the power of urban politicians and minority voters over their property, schools, and tax bills.

Let’s examine the typology of victimhood narratives, which Khazan presents in a roughly escalating order of virulence and severity. Step one is to claim that whites are victims of discrimination. Step two is to argue that whites are denied basic rights. Step three is to contend that whites are punished for expressing pride in their own identity. And, step four is to contend that this treatment is legitimately damaging to white psychology. Ultimately, these narratives support the conclusion reflected in step five, claiming that whites face “genocide”  through multiculturalism and racial integration. Khazan’s examples in support of this typology of victimhood claims are generally drawn from the ranks of white supremacist media icons like David Duke and Richard Spencer, and are appropriate evidence for the way that white nationalists build support for the extremist claim of white genocide through more anodyne statements about identity, pride, and rights.

Here’s where I highlight a few examples from my own scholarship (articles addressing suburban secession and tax revolt), by way of illustration. They come out of the context of long-stewing conflict between African American and Democratic voters and their representatives in Atlanta and south Fulton County and wealthier, mostly white, and mostly Republican voters and their representatives on the north side of the city of Atlanta and in north Fulton suburbs. This conflict was expressed in a series of border wars as Atlanta tried unsuccessfully to annex the northern suburbs and many northern suburbs fought, unsuccessfully at first, then with dramatic success in the 2000s, to incorporate new cities and limit the power of county government over service and tax levels in north Fulton. These border conflicts were frequently bitter and often freighted with racial assumptions and resentments on both sides of the divide, and have been aggravated by a series of property tax revolts that galvanized the state Republican party around a suburban and metropolitical agenda. What was relevant for our purposes is that the northern suburbs of Fulton County are significantly more affluent than the county average, and indeed were among the most affluent in the nation. Yet, many of their complaints reflected these narratives of victimization.

Let me be clear: I am not (in general) suggesting that suburban tax protesters or advocates for incorporation are the same as white nationalists. Nor am I suggesting that tax revolts lead to or flow from white supremacy (though Nancy MacLean’s recent Democracy in Chains makes a provocative, and perhaps not fully supported, claim that property-rights libertarianism springs from the same soil as massive resistance). But the element of grievance, while differing by degree, is common to both.

To the first narrative: whites are victims of discrimination. This narrative appeared frequently in the movement to incorporate a city in the Sandy Springs area of north Fulton. From the point of view of Sandy Springs partisans, the problem was that the legislation they needed could be squelched by the veto power of the Fulton County delegation, including a strong contingent of black Democrats, in the state house. Frustration grew to the point where activists like Eva Galambos, an economist and the eventual first Mayor of Sandy Springs, interpreted the resistance not to practical (i.e. that those legislators wanted to preserve Atlanta’s ambitions to annex the area) or principled politics (i.e. that opponents believed north and south Fulton constituted a community of mutual obligation that should be preserved), but to racial resentment on the part of black politicians. Galambos went so far as to petition (unsuccessfully) the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights to investigate legislature for anti-white discrimination (see page 17). Another prominent activist, attorney Robert Proctor, crusaded against both tax increases and affirmative action programs, declaring the former evidence of corrupt self-dealing by black political leaders and the latter an unlevelling of an otherwise level playing field (see page 16).

The second narrative, that whites have been denied basic rights, has not been as directly proclaimed in the metropolitics that I’ve studied, though it has audible echoes in demands for local community control (which suburban separatists have neatly appropriated from black and latino militant groups). Here, exercising a voice in local government through a (majority white) city is depicted as inherently preferable to exercising that voice as part of a broader community of interest. Localism is, of course, a deep-rooted tradition in American politics, so it’s futile to claim that its roots are exclusively racist. But it’s also true that frustrated efforts to carve out independent suburban cities (or, more recently, school districts) have arisen in a particular context of hostility toward developing black political power.

As regards the third narrative, that expressions of white pride are punished, metropolitics generally skirts the concept of race, but is rich with invocations of pride in community, which betray a sense of, as George Lipsitz describes it, the white suburban neighborhood as a “privileged moral geography” in American society. This valorization of place can be expressed in terms of desirable quality of life elements, but comes into sharper relief when a set of emotional rewards attached to identifying with a community or a racial group–what critical race scholar Paula Ioanide calls an “affective economy”– seem to be threatened. Ioanide bases her argument on a set of case studies that implicate American nationalism with implicit and explicit whiteness that may be threatened by perceptions of crime, terrorism, immigration, or economic decline, but I’ve written that understanding an “affective economy” of community is highly relevant to understanding metropolitics, too. For that matter, Ioanide’s book is a vital scholarly resource for anyone who wants to dig deeper into the questions that Khazan raises, crafting a compelling explanation for, in Ioanide’s terms,

How can people who possess so much believe themselves to be victims? (28)

The answer lies in the way that emotion, commonly held within a social and cultural (indeed, spatial) milieu, enables the identification of “persecutory enemies” that threaten significant sources of good feelings. For affluent whites in Atlanta’s northern suburbs, those enemies have figured as the black poor and politicians seen to represent them.  Emotional structures further encourage whites to develop strategic ignorance about the construction of their communities, such as a belief, for example, that the quality of life in an affluent, advantaged place stems from the good qualities of its residents, independent of the exclusion of poor people, social outcasts, or undesirable land uses from local space and their necessary consignment to other places. These structures are strained when community outsiders, for example, criticize the uneven distribution of wealth or educational opportunity.

The fourth narrative, that whites are harmed psychologically by antiracist rhetoric and policies, likewise emerges in quite attenuated form in typical metropolitics, but can be expressed in a renunciation of “shame” or “guilt” presumably enforced upon the residents of affluent areas. The conservative anti-tax crusader Robert Proctor described to a New York Times reporter in 1994 a feeling that he believed his white neighbors shared (see page 16):

Interviewed in 1994, he argued that Atlanta’black political leadership, when not busy being “wasteful of taxpayer dollars”and “trad[ing] political favors with each other,” raised the cry of racism to shield themselves from criticism. Proctor further dismissed arguments for government programs to aid black businesses or employment, asking,“Should we take 50 percent of the wealth of white America and . .. pay reparations, as some of them are urging? When does it end? I think … if we’re truly interested in dealing with quote,unquote, racism … we need to stop talking about race all the time’” (Applebome, 1994). AlthoughProctor identified black politicians and, indeed, African Americans generally, as his adversaries, he nonetheless framed his own position as the race-neutral one (saying “I’m not a member of the KuKlux Klan”), insisting that minorities were responsible for racial strife.

Thus, residents of even (and maybe particularly) affluent suburbs can declare themselves victims of persecution, and can shade that sense of grievance with the claim that their political opponents’ interest in redistributing a bit of their wealth is inextricable from an illegitimate racial solidarity against whites. Metropolitics doesn’t encourage declarations of “white genocide,” but neither are the structures of feeling central to white nationalism alien to it. Khazan writes,

[i]t may seem puzzling that the racism of these white men—the most powerful group of people in the world—is motivated by a sense that they’ll be wiped away somehow. But according to research on white supremacists, a sense of victimhood is exactly what groups like these use to grow their cause.

And, while it is hopefully true that only a tiny fraction of white Americans will be receptive to the full range of victimhood appeals, it bears repeating that many more may be further along the trail than is readily obvious. The suburbs, after all, are Trump country.

City Power and Resistance in the Reagan Era

Cities have become a focus of hope and attention since the inauguration of Donald Trump as President. Academic and non-academic urbanists, activists, and politicians have noted the eruption of large scale protest marches, smaller organized acts of resistance to anti-immigration measures, and declarations by municipal leaders of opposition to Trump initiatives to punish sanctuary cities. Beyond these actions, the tendency for cities to house large and diverse populations offers a symbolic rebuke of implicit and explicit white nationalism in the Trump base and administration. Cities, at risk of hyperbole, seem to be the best hope for preserving a diverse, inclusionary, and small-d-democratic society.

I’ve written about this before in an award-winning article prompted by the Supreme Court decision in Citizens United. I argued that with many legal limits on the volume of money in electoral politics ruled unconstitutional, it was crucial for anyone concerned with democratic participation to think hard about the next step. I challenged one strain of liberal response to Citizens United, the call for more small-donor contributions to advocacy organizations to balance out possible surges of corporate and individual cash (while also disputing a pillar of the liberal dissent in the decision, i.e. that “corporate” spending in politics was more corrosive to democracy than spending by rich individuals). Rather than fight a futile battle to outspend antidemocratic forces, those supporting an inclusionary and egalitarian society should look to cities as a class of corporation that, per the Citizens United decision, could (and should) exercise their own speech rights.

Not to toot my own horn but, in an essay that I began writing in 2010 (and had to keep revising to accommodate new anti-urban and anti-democratic developments) and finally saw in print in 2015 (thanks American Quarterly for your 18-month delay in sending it for review between 2012 and 2013!), I was kind of prescient. I noted, incorporating arguments made by law prof Heather Gerken, that cities as corporate bodies could exercise some small powers allotted to them by state governments to effectively engage in wide-ranging speech–what Gerken called “dissent by decision.” I used the examples of San Francisco’s explicitly declared sanctuary city policies (glad that issue’s gone away!) and Los Angeles’s decision not to spend municipal funds with Arizona firms in the wake of that state’s notorious “papers please” law entitling local law enforcement officers to demand proof of citizenship from brown suspicious people they stopped for traffic or because they felt like it other offenses (which has, since January 2017 evidently become federal policy). Indeed, the number of mayors, city councils, and other local officials denouncing aggressive ICE action has grown in proportion to the agency’s aggression against all  undocumented persons in the country, above and beyond a criminal minority.

Now, it’s important not to oversell “dissent by decision” and its impact. Municipal boycotts by themselves don’t change policy at the state or federal level. But they do spark deliberation and debate. And, as I argued, when they follow and are pushed by social movements, as by immigrants and their allies in San Francisco and Los Angeles, these actions establish clearly that immigrants have a stake in and are in fact parts of the cities they inhabit. The growth, vitality, and economic power of cities depends on their openness, with the corollary that urban leaders cannot simply ignore workers, taxpayers, students, parents, or consumers in their cities simply because they lack national citizenship (though of course some places that are legally incorporated as cities have done precisely this, under the influence of the national right-wing Federation for American Immigration Reform/FAIR, sent up memorably by Samantha Bee this week, but I’m referring here to the larger, more diverse, complex places commonly connoted by the term “city”).

If I were writing that essay over again, I’d do a few things differently. I would probably not be so cavalier about the surge in Super PACs and “dark money” being simply the continuation of money politics by new means. The opacity of those organizations offer great potential for mischief, even if many rich individuals like Sheldon Adelson or Foster Friess pridefully advertise their individual financial backing of candidates and causes as ego displays. I’d also dispense a bit with some of my analysis of legal doctrine and political theory and go to more historical examples. What can we learn about successes and failures for this kind of urban and municipal intervention in national politics?

That’s why I’ve been interested in a report (full report here as .pdf, summary here) from the transit infrastructure advocacy group Jobs to Move America and the Center for Media and Democracy on the legacy of municipal anti-Apartheid protests in the Reagan era. As a small-town child, my knowledge of the anti-Apartheid movement was sadly limited to its symbolic representation in the wardrobe and set decoration of The Cosby Show. But the movement had been pushed to a level of visibility such that the General Electric corporation’s NBC network would allow an affluent and aspirational black family to tout it because of public action, including urban protests and boycott decisions by 92 municipal and 28 state governments that confronted the Reagan administration’s appeasement of Pretoria and earned harsh federal retaliation, embodied by efforts to withhold infrastructure funds from rebellious cities and to involve business and ideological groups opposed to boycotts in an alliance to push for legislation to limit local authority to engage in boycotts or related activities.

So what can we learn? The authors of Reagan vs. Cities note that pushback against municipal boycotts can, today as in the 1980s, take four main forms:

  1. Adopting national policy to deter independent actions by Congress, cities and states.
  2. Collaborating with the business lobby to oppose sanctions.
  3. Interpreting federal law to justify withholding federal funding from cities and states adopting sanctions and divestment policies.
  4. Actively organizing support for litigation to challenge city divestment and sanctions laws.

Suppressing local power to dissent works hand in hand with austerity politics. Justice Department analysts in the 1980s identified their most compelling rationale to block local divestment efforts in the fiscal responsibility of local governments. If making a stand against apartheid resulted in higher costs for contracts, it could be invalidated:

federal grantees were prohibited from adopting laws or procurement requirements that placed a “burden on competition” by either limiting the pool of bidders vying for a federally funded contract or by raising the price of the federally funded contract.

This points to a critical division in thinking about what cities are and their function in a democratic society. Are they vehicles for residents to participate in political debate, or simply service delivery systems? While no one would doubt that cost is a concern for municipal contracting, it is far from the only one.

Among the more than 250 pages of primary documents reproduced in the .pdf of the report are memoranda showing the emerging influence of the American Legislative Exchange Council as a broker between business interests and state legislatures, influence that has only increased and has been reflected in a host of efforts by state governments to preempt local decisionmaking. It’s also worth knowing that ALEC is already strategizing against urban resistance to its agenda, not only engineering state-level preemption of city legislation on environmental, wage, civil rights, and immigration issues, but seeking to seed city halls with copacetic politicians, as Nicholas Ricciardi notes (AP, here as published in San Francisco Chronicle):

The city council project is the brainchild of Jon Russell, a councilman from the Virginia town of Culpepper, population 18,000. He was dissatisfied that the traditional, nonpartisan municipal groups, like the National League of Cities, seemed to constantly think more government was the answer to problems.

“Now we can communicate with 2,500 elected officials across the country that we know share our values and push back against some of the progressivism that’s gotten into cities,” Russell said.

Though the group is still young, it’s notched some significant accomplishments – most prominently helping distribute model legislation to end the automatic deduction of union dues from paychecks that 12 Kentucky counties implemented in 2014 as a precursor to that state becoming the 28th “right-to-work” state.

The American City County Exchange also distributes model legislation on everything from a taxpayer bill of rights that would require a supermajority to raise property taxes to measures requiring that cities explore all available materials to build sewer pipelines. An official at the city council project, Bruce Hollands, is head of the PVC pipe association.

Perhaps the best indicator of the growing role of cities in encouraging democratic action is the extent to which reactionary elements have rallied to control what cities do.

Fulton County Elections

The ACLU is suing the Fulton County Board of Registration and Elections for voting on changes to polling places in predominantly African American communities after providing insufficient notice to the public of its intentions.

This is one consequence of something I pointed out in previous posts. The Georgia legislature in 2013 approved changes to several aspects of Fulton County government. They approved changes to the apportionment of the Board of Commissioners, converting an at-large seat to a districted seat in north Fulton, increasing the power of affluent Republican suburbanites. They hamstrung the county’s ability to raise property taxes. And they shifted the power to staff the Board of Elections from the Board of Commissioners (controlled by Democrats) to the state legislature (controlled by Republicans). These changes were enabled by gerrymandering state legislative districts so that parts of the north Fulton suburbs were joined with parts of other conservative-leaning counties. Accordingly, a county that voted for Barack Obama by approximately 2-1 over Mitt Romney has a legislative delegation with Republican majorities in both houses.

I wrote at the time that this might prove to be the most consequential of these moves. As the metro Atlanta area becomes the decisive battleground in the state, conservatives will face certain temptation to make it more difficult for Democratic constituencies to vote.