At the Urban History Association Meeting

Posting’s been light lately because I’ve been preparing for this conference, and specifically for this panel (link to program .pdf):

Places, Pasts and Policies: Asserting History’s Role in Urban Studies

Chair and Comment: Richard Harris, McMaster University

Christopher Bonastia, Lehman College and CUNY Graduate Center

Urban Studies in Historical Context: The Case of School Desegregation

Andrew Highsmith, University of Texas at San Antonio

Ghetto Suburb: Federal Policies and the Transformation of Beecher, Michigan

Michan Connor, James Weldon Johnson Institute, Emory University

Fulton and Milton: Voting Rights, Metropolitan Inequality, and the Political Spaces of “Color-Blind” Racism

Guian McKee, University of Virginia

The Urban History of Health Care Policy: Baltimore’s Health Care Industry and the Costs of History’s Exclusion from the Social Sciences

I’m excited to have Professor Harris commenting, since his article “The History in Urban Studies” (with Michael Smith in the Journal of Urban Affairs) was my primary provocation to organize the panel, and I’m also very intrigued by the other papers.

Rothstein on Joel Klein’s Historical Distortions

This piece cuts to the heart of Joel Klein’s fundamental dishonesty as a school reformer–using his own biography, and an implicit argument contrasting the urban histories of European ethnic Americans to those of African Americans and Latinos, to create a straw man argument (known elsewhere as “the soft bigotry of low expectations”) that helps shift attention from structural inequality and the material impact of poverty on learning.

The whole thing is worth a read, and while it goes chapter and verse through the distortions of Klein’s political self-mythologizing, this section points to the heart of the matter, and helps us to understand the school reform debate better by reminding us that the ever present, if unacknowledged, frame is defined by white privilege:

Klein’s most egregious autobiographical distortion is that he grew up in public housing. That’s because, as Klein must know, the words “public housing” evoke an image of minority unemployment, welfare dependence, unwed motherhood, truancy, gangs, drug dealing, addiction, and violence. Klein, though, grew up in racial privilege, dramatically different from the segregated world of most youngsters in public housing today. (Click here to read Richard Rothstein’s related piece on the role of public housing in racially segregating communities.)

Klein did live in public housing after his family moved to Queens in 1955 when he was nine years old. But he fails to say—perhaps because he truly doesn’t realize—that some public housing in New York in the 1940s and 1950s, including the Woodside Houses project where his family resided, was built for white, middle-class families. The poor and the problems poverty causes were unwelcome. This distinction is critical to understanding Klein’s history and why it undermines his current policy prescriptions.

Returning World War II veterans like Klein’s father confronted a housing shortage. To address it, New York erected projects like Woodside Houses, an attractive six-story development with trees, grassy areas, and park benches. Residents were not on the dole but paid rent that covered their housing costs; apartments were not subsidized and were not part of the national low-income housing program.

Rather, for prospective tenants in Woodside Houses and its sister projects, the New York City Housing Authority enforced 21 disqualifying factors. Excluded were single-parent families and those with irregular employment history, out-of-wedlock births, criminal records, narcotics addiction, or mental illness—in other words, any family with the qualities we now associate with public housing. Couples had to show marriage licenses to apply. To filter out undesirables, inspectors visited applicants’ previous homes to verify good housekeeping habits, sufficient furniture, and well-behaved children. Neighborhood public schools serving complexes like Woodside Houses thus didn’t have to contend with unruly adolescents; they had already been weeded out by the Housing Authority.

School “reform” advocates will probably see Rothstein’s deconstruction of Klein’s autobiography as churlish (they weren’t poor because they went to the Catskills on vacation), but so much of Klein’s moral authority as a reformer rests on his biography (certainly not on his nonexistent experience as an educator) that it’s fair game. Here’s the punch line:

It would be obscene for me to claim I overcame severe hardship and was rescued from deprivation by schoolteachers. It is more obscene for Klein to do so, because his claim supports attacks on contemporary teachers and a refusal to acknowledge impediments teachers face because of their students’ social and economic deprivation. It’s a deprivation that he never suffered but that many children from public housing do today.

I think it’s essential to underscore that this is not only personal, though it certainly is in part. Klein’s self-mythologizing also taps into a deep vein of reactionary thought about urban minority communities that uses a contrast with the upward mobility of white ethnics to suggest that something is wrong with racial minorities. The twist here is that Klein is implicitly attacking not minority school children but minority school teachers, but the dishonest tactic is the same: ignore the special privileges granted to white ethnics by virtue of being white, ignore the withdrawal of support for public housing, public schools, and the public sector generally that occurred when the face of that public sector became black or brown, ignore the macroeconomic forces that, in combination with embedded racism, produce poverty and economic isolation. Above all, ignore that these social changes make the jobs of teachers in poor communities more difficult than ever.

Is Anti-Urbanism Anti-Minority?

A friend and colleague pointed me to this piece by Mike Manville in Urban Studies.

Manville, M. “People, Race and Place: American Support for Person- and Place-based Urban Policy, 1973-2008.” Urban Studies 49, no. 14 (February 2, 2012): 3101–3119.
Manville seeks, successfully in my view, to test the proposition that people’s attitudes toward cities and place-based urban aid are strongly correlated with (if not determined by) racial attitudes. This sounds like a thesis that, at least in academic circles, is self-evidently true–that “the cities” is a form of racial code word for “the minorities” in American political discourse (i.e. when one accuses the Obama Administration of “robbing the suburbs to pay for the cities”).  There is no doubt that opportunistic politicians have attempted to hunt for votes among white, conservative, and suburban demographics through code word tactics including anti-urbanism. What Manville seeks to test is the implicit premise that these rhetorical gambits are effective: 
the fact that political entrepreneurs attempted to create (or tap into) a latent association between Blacks and cities does not mean they were successful, or that such an association exists (3102).
In a more modest way, this effort recalls Matt Lassiter’s work in The Silent Majority which demolished the political myth that Richard Nixon won election on a “Southern Strategy” that pandered to arch segregationists and race-baiters, showing instead that Nixon’s success, like Bill Clinton’s afterward, was better understood as a “Suburban Strategy” appealing to moderates who disdained outright segregationist sentiments but supported only moderate and limited efforts to advance meaningful integration.
As Manville concludes, though, the link between opinions about African Americans (for reasons related to survey structure they are the paradigmatic minority in this study) and urban aid is a strong one; negative attitudes toward minorities in public opinion surveys are connected as strongly to opposition to urban aid as to opposition to public assistance. Given the careerist benefits of producing a paradigm-shattering or otherwise “interesting” article, I hope that Manville is not overly disappointed that he confirms this bit of common sense, because the piece is well-argued, and makes contributions to important debates about the merits of place-oriented versus person-oriented aid programs. Since public assistance and other forms of aid to the poor have become politically toxic under the banner of “welfare reform,” aid to troubled places, seen as an alternative, is unlikely to be a low-conflict alternative model for social provision:
Investing in troubled cities, then, could sidestep political landmines associated with racial attitudes, including White suburbanites’ fear about the arrival of racial minorities. Yet investing in cities only offers this advantage if racial attitudes do not influence support for place-based urban policy, or if they influence it less than they influence support for person-based policy (3103).
Of course, to the extent that the suburban center of gravity of public opinion views both as illegitimate aid to minorities, the outlook for either paradigm of urban aid is grim. We are very comfortable in our policy debates talking about remediating poor people’s supposed deficiencies, at the expense of structural analysis of poverty and economic distress. But we can’t even talk about cities in the biggest reality TV event of the year. Manville provides a provocative thesis about why that is.
Manville also makes the important observation that even people who do not express racial hostility in surveys still associate aid to cities with aid to African Americans. To the extent that we live in a time dominated by “colorblindness” as a dominant racial ideology, it may be very likely for the (white, suburban) median voter to express (perhaps genuinely) positive sentiments about minorities as people, but be equally adamant that aid to communities where minorities live is an illegitimate form of racial preference.

Irregularly Posted Quote of the Day

“Too much public policy is justified on the basis of casual analogies, crude caricatures of facts and trends, and ignorance, willful or otherwise, of even the immediate past. The history of policy is too important to leave to lawyers, judges, and social commentators.”–J. Morgan Kousser, Colorblind Injustice: Minority Voting Rights and the Undoing of the Second Reconstruction. (University of North Carolina Press, 1999), 8.

GOP to Cities….

Another provocative polemic by Kevin Baker in the NYT yesterday (I linked to another of his pieces in this post). Baker could, I think, hit on the point a bit more directly that the GOP platform doesn’t so much institutionalize neglect of cities per se as the people in them, but he offers a concise overview of the fall of urban Republican politics from the New Deal forward, a process that was further accelerated by the suburbanization of the nation’s electoral center of gravity (in terms of ideology, policy, and demographics).

But it’s not just malign neglect; despite the role of anti-urban federal policies past, present, and future in supporting suburban expansion at the expense of cities and the environment, conservatives, racial reactionaries, Tea Partiers, and the rest of the current GOP coalition have developed an insistent posture of victimization to explain and justify their policy choices, as Baker shows:

The Obama administration, the Republicans conclude damningly, is “replacing civil engineering with social engineering as it pursues an exclusively urban vision of dense housing and government transit.”

If you think the phrase “social engineering” means more than just apartment buildings and bike lanes, claim your cookie. The ideological fusion of race and place provides much of the support for suburban grievance politics against cities.

In my ongoing research on Atlanta’s suburban secession movement, which gained steam as Republicans won control of the state legislature in 2004 with members from north Fulton County suburbs making up a key voting bloc), one thing that’s struck me is that secessionists don’t often try to make the case purely on the ground of rational self-interest, though it’s undeniable that secession would have tremendous benefits for affluent north Fulton County.

This stacked bar chart represents the number of households at each income level in Fulton County. The lighter top section represents the households in the five north Fulton cities that propose to secede, and the dark lower section the households in the remaining parts of the county.

From American Community Survey 5 Year Estimates, 2006-2010 (Once Congressional Republicans defund the ACS, we can ignore social facts like these!)

Alternately, we could look at the median household income of the five cities versus the county at large (also from the ACS 5 Year Estimates for 2006-2010).

Fulton County

Sandy Springs



Johns Creek








Even the poorest of the north Fulton cities is more than $10,000 above the county median. It’s pretty much impossible to think about secession without considering this disparity and what it would mean for the ability of Fulton County to serve the needs of its poor.

There are lots of arguments for secession that could apply abstract principles of local control and small government to skirt the equity implications. Some secessionists make such arguments, but many also take the resource distribution implications head on, and commit to the argument that they are the ones being robbed. Interestingly, the antagonist that they identify is not only the city of Atlanta, but the largely African American suburbs and unincorporated areas in south Fulton (suburbs are more diverse than Baker acknowledges, though the GOP policy reflects a more affluent and whiter section of suburbia). My guess right now is that there are two factors at work. First and most evidently, the modern conservative movement, its denunciation of “the race card” and the “phony war on women” and other instances of liberal attention to injustice aside, loves to pick up the cross of victimhood. They’re also particularly invested in the idea that black political rule will inevitably be used to exact reparations from white America (see Limbaugh, Rush). But I think it’s also worth considering the way that partisan politics, and particularly the organized anti-urbanism of the contemporary GOP, are driving a policy agenda that would cut Atlanta and black majority south Fulton out of the loop politically. The fact that material interest, racial prejudice, and partisan advantage align overdetermine this outcome.

Despite the facts that wealthy suburbs have used state, federal, and local power to cordon themselves off from low-income housing, derive unfair benefits from racist mortgage lending and homeowners insurance schedules that transfer wealth from  low to high income areas, and hoard opportunities and resources while benefitting from regional economies organized by urban institutions, they argue that black-led governments, from Atlanta and Fulton County to the Obama Administration are conspiring to rob the suburbs to pay for the cities. On “the internets” I’m told that “the kids” refer to this as “butthurt.” I’m trying to find a more scholarly description, but I suppose that will do for now.

There is one issue, though, where I’ve got to disagree quite strongly with Baker. He bemoans the lack of a Republican interest in cities, arguing, with some justification, that bipartisan competition for urban votes might incentivize better urban polices. Baker looks to Cory Booker as an example of an urban politician disgruntled with one-party rule whose discontent represents a potential for political innovation:

At a moment when Republican Party’s “dog whistles” are more racially pitched than ever, this may sound crazy. Yet one got the impression this election season, for instance, that Cory A. Booker, the mayor of Newark, would like some new place to turn. Mayor Booker has battled valiantly against the sclerotic, black political establishment in his own city as well as outside white indifference. A Mayor Booker who had someplace to go besides the Democratic Party with his city’s votes would be immediately empowered as never before.

Booker’s approach–fiscal conservatism, entrepreneurial social activism in lieu of a comprehensive safety net, and a voice for Wall Street bond investors–already has its ideal patrons in the contemporary Democratic Party, typified by Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel, whose social vision for cities I’ve already discussed. Rahm isn’t telling the city of Chicago to drop dead, but he’s not interested in helping 90% of its population live well. Booker’s a rising star in the party, and it’s not because he’s out of line with its urban policy.

UPDATE: And I’m not sure that this adds up:

Republicans in turn could show on a very human level that they are more than the mere radio ranters who constitute so much of what urban voters get to hear of the right wing. They would have to vie for votes in a manner that reflects urban realities instead of fantastical theories. Imagine a serious, practical discussion of educational reform or mass transit, instead of more heavy-handed attempts to demonize teachers’ unions or privatize the rails.

I agree that reality-based urban policy is in order, but we need reality-based political analysis too. The national Democratic Party and members of its neoliberal star system are driving the train (privatized, natch) of education reform and the privatization of services, down to the parking meters. I’m not holding my breath for the GOP to move several notches to the left of right-trending Democrats to hunt for votes among the demographics their base holds in contempt (though without funding for clean mass transit service, holding one’s breath might be a good idea in general).