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.