Is The Suburban Persecution Complex Having Its Moment?

I wrote here a couple of years ago about a book published by Stanley Kurtz called Spreading the Wealth: How Obama Is Robbing the Suburbs to Pay for the Cities (and quoted at length a well-written takedown of same). Kurtz’s book generally used the spatial frame of city vs. suburb, which can be selectively interpreted as a set of spatial referents that help articulate a variation of the common core of the right-wing message: “regular Americans” are getting screwed over by liberals, bureaucrats, and social engineers to help minorities, which is futile because of the deficiencies of the recipients (they’ll waste the aid) and the inerrant truth of the market (which demands homogenous neighborhoods).

There is a strong basis for the appeal of this message. The suburbs are home to the largest number of Americans, and, while suburbs tend to be internally homogenous and differentiated from one another by racial, ethnic, class, and occupational distinctions, our most common image of the suburbs is of affluence and whiteness. The differentiation of suburbs from each other and from cities helps perpetuate economic inequality, organizes racial segregation spatially, and, most importantly, encourages affluent white suburbanites to develop deep emotional investments in the “quality” of their communities. Quality is very often defined by racial homogeneity as much as by uniform levels of affluence–recent research using video-based sociological experiments shows that whites subjects’ perception of the quality of the same neighborhood changed significantly for the worse when the otherwise identical scene included black people. When members of minority groups (and to a lesser extent, the white poor) challenge the identity of a community through their presence, those emotional investments are threatened–people perceived as “outsiders” can, by their presence in the community, trigger intense resentment and even repression by the authorities.

Which is why the timing of the Supreme Court’s recent decision (halfheartedly) supporting the application of disparate impact standards under the Fair Housing Act was so serendipitously timed with the release of the tape of the McKinney, Texas pool party police riot. McKinney was identified by the fair housing advocacy group that sued the State of Texas over the practice of distributing low-income housing tax credits in ways that concentrated low-income housing options (and thus, virtually by definition and certainly by design, racial minorities) in a small number of urban and suburban neighborhoods. The segregation of the community and the organization of public policy to consign affordable housing to one side of the city are essential contexts for understanding the McKinney police riot, which in turn graphically illustrates what happens without the aggressive pursuit of housing integration.

The Supreme Court’s decision by itself was by no means a mandate for an aggressively integrationist low-income housing policy. Anthony Kennedy’s opinion suggested that “redevelopment” was a goal equal in merit to “integration,” and that local housing authorities could satisfy the requirements of FHA by revitalization projects that set aside a number of affordable housing units in projects that otherwise gentrify and displace existing low-income populations (where the displaced are to live is unanswered). But by upholding the disparate impact standard, the decision did send the message that the practices favored by local and state governments with regard to distributing low-income housing can no longer expect to concentrate the poor and minorities in ways that protect property value, “character,” and emotional investments in affluent and mostly white communities with complete impunity.

What may potentially give the Supreme Court’s decision teeth was a subsequent policy directive from HUD that the department would require communities receiving HUD funds to “affirmatively further fair housing.” This language has been part of the legislation creating HUD from the beginning, though it’s been mostly ignored until now. It should be noted that HUD’s plan to promote an AFFH agenda is not unduly radical, requiring the creation of a central database of community-level socioeconomic and racial and ethnic data, which will be used by communities receiving HUD funds to set targets for reducing segregation. In extreme cases, HUD could withhold funding from communities that don’t participate or don’t succeed in reaching desegregation targets. Which, technically, the department has always had the authority to do.

So, while AFFH is hardly the fulfillment of the Black Panther Party’s Ten Point Program demands for “Land, Bread, Housing, Education, Clothing, Justice And Peace,” Kevin Drum notes that the rather clunky acronym of AFFH has begun to catch on as a boogeyman.

Mostly I just wanted to let everyone know that this thing called AFFH is the latest outrage among the conservative base. It fits in perfectly with their hysteria over Agenda 21 and their general belief that Obama wants to round up every well-off white person in the country and pack them like sardines into high-rise buildings in big cities. Now you know.

Drum’s not exaggerating much here. Kurtz, perhaps eager to have his book receive the attention it missed three years ago, writes at the National Review’s “The Corner” that

the regulation amounts to back-door annexation, a way of turning America’s suburbs into tributaries of nearby cities.

I wouldn’t otherwise link to the article on general principle, but you might otherwise think I’m making this up.

For Kurtz, there are two types of people: urbanites and suburbanites. Many of the latter used to be the former, the window of legitimacy for city-to-suburb migration has closed; indeed, while past migration was apparently democratic and free, any movement of current “urbanites” to the suburbs could only occur through the dread Government Social Engineering.

If you press suburbanites into cities, transfer urbanites to the suburbs, and redistribute suburban tax money to cities, you have effectively abolished the suburbs.

Revenue sharing, public or non-highway transportation infrastructure, and particularly dispersed affordable housing programs are, of course, not really tantamount to “abolishing the suburbs.” There have always been many kinds of suburbs, and different kinds of public policies, hand in hand with the market, have made some kinds of suburbs predominant at different times–the affluent enclaves enabled by road-building and the validation of exclusionary zoning at the turn of the twentieth century, the industrial suburbs enabled by municipal utility building and lax zoning outside the city limits, black and latino suburbs shaped by racial segregation and community-building efforts (by the way, read here for a story about how Hamilton County, Ohio essentially stole the wealth of a black suburb by annexation), and today’s inner-ring suburbs bypassed by successive waves of highway development, for example.

It’s more accurate to say that AFFH represents a threat to the particular sort of suburbs that Kurtz values: those in which the cost of housing ensures social homogeneity and protects privileged access to the networks of educational opportunity and social capital that develop there. Of course, it’s no longer entirely acceptable to declare one’s preference to exclude. Ideals like local control, harnessed to the slippery-slope fallacy, become useful:

It will take time for the truth to emerge. Just by issuing AFFH, the Obama administration has effectively annexed America’s suburbs to its cities. The old American practice of local self-rule is gone. We’ve switched over to a federally controlled regionalist system.

Michael Barone contributes an obtuse effort at defining “segregation” as complete exclusion, which would virtually define segregation out of existence while labeling actually-existing segregation through the market and “color-blind” institutional practices as something else entirely.

An approach more appropriate for a society where there is no significant forcible resistance to desegregation was advanced by Justice Clarence Thomas in his dissent. “We should not automatically presume that any institution with a neutral practice that happens to produce a racial disparity is guilty of discrimination until proven innocent,” he wrote. “The absence of racial disparities in multi-ethnic societies has been the exception, not the rule.”

Keep in mind, Thomas’s opinion in dissent from the Inclusive Communities decision included the rhetorical gem that, since the majority of NBA players are black, disproportions in other industries must be above suspicion.

Nolan Finley uses his Detroit News column to rail against the specter of quotas and forced integration.

The intent here is to make every neighborhood “look like America,” the popular buzz phrase for arranging society by racial percentages.

More likely, the rule will make every neighborhood look like Detroit.

The Motor City should have settled the question of whether forced integration works. Its abandonment was accelerated by court-ordered school busing and government efforts to reorder neighborhoods.

These objections to AFFH are based in a highly selective and ahistorical interpretation of the development and settlement of metropolitan America: white and affluent suburbanites are innocent players in the market who have secured valuable property through their own efforts, property that would be unjustly devalued by government mandates for inclusive housing (as it was by the prior bogeyman of “forced busing”). My own work on the blog and in published work has touched on the ways in which this innocence narrative is bunk. But I’m certainly not the only scholar on that beat.

One of the most relevant recent books for illuminating this issue is UC-Irvine Assistant Professor of History Andrew Highsmith’s Demolition Means Progress: Flint, Michigan and the Fate of the American Metropolis (University of Chicago Press, 2015). Highsmith’s thesis is that while Flint is often understood as a cautionary example of what happens when industrial elites and white workers abandon a city, the reality is more complex and both more hopeful and more frustrating. Rather than a product of abandonment and indifference, Flint’s current struggles are products of a series of efforts to improve the city and the metropolitan area. The problem of course being that the discourse of progress and improvement is fragmented; victorious plans for progress did not reconcile, but only temporarily concealed deep structural conflicts among metropolitan constituencies. The results of improvement initiatives have institutionalized the faults and omissions inherent of different actors’ vision of progress.

If we take Highsmith’s argument seriously (and we should), the fatal moment for metropolitan Flint was not when General Motors undertook workforce cutbacks in response to oil shock and recession in the 1970s, but when a plan for large-scale metropolitan government consolidation in the late 1950s was defeated by suburban voters. When General Motors lost faith in its ability to organize and order metropolitan government according to its understanding of progress, its commitment to keeping metro Flint as its center of production also waned (although dispersal to the Sun Belt and conflicts with the UAW contributed, Highsmith makes clear that the effects of the failed consolidation were more immediate). While one group of “suburban capitalist” property owners protected their immediate interests by preventing the central city from annexing their suburban neighborhoods (and consolidating school districts), they ultimately lost the war because the region’s truculent localism proved to be economically dysfunctional in the long run. This is an argument made by many New Regionalist social scientists, and Highsmith puts some historical meat on those conceptual bones.

I can’t do full justice to Highsmith’s argument here, but his book is a great achievement. It’s truly metropolitan in scope, linking the actions of Flint, Genesee County, and suburban politicians, the spatial practices of General Motors executives who distributed production around the metro area in the hopes of leveraging their economic power to consolidate metropolitan government, and the regional effects of federal housing policies on the distribution of property wealth in the region. Highsmith also draws connections between institutions that are frequently studied in isolation (schools, industry, lending, urban renewal) to construct a complex narrative of how and why a relatively small metropolitan area dominated by one employer still developed deep sociospatial divisions. The effects of GM’s contraction of its Flint workforce are only the final act of this story, and Highsmith never lets the dramatic end of industrial prosperity in the Vehicle City obscure the very serious problems that that prosperity helped create.

Notably, and quite relevant to the AFFH controversy, Highsmith argues that segregation in Flint was not just tolerated as a de facto consequence of the market, nor was it an unfortunate consequence of communities falling through the cracks of prosperity. Rather, segregation was encouraged as a development strategy and adopted as an administrative priority by government, philanthropy, and capital, both before and after the passage of the Civil Rights and Fair Housing Acts. Indeed, political leaders both in the city of Flint and in surrounding Genesee County worked actively to preserve white neighborhoods, even after Flint voters became the first electorate in the country to support open housing in a referendum. Sadly, fair housing law in Flint did little to change what Highsmith terms “popular” segregation–the preferences of white individuals, families, and neighbors to maintain homogeneity–or “administrative” segregation–the enforcement, implementation, and crafting of policies that may be race-neutral, but work to expand and protect segregation–including the location of public housing, urban renewal, and the actions of organized real estate boards. Highsmith describes decisions about the construction, form, and location of public housing, urban renewal, and highway construction as examples of administrative segregation that shaped Flint’s segregated housing market. At the federal level, the decision not to enforce the AFFH mandate of fair housing laws is an excellent example of administrative segregation. And, in particular, the application of affordable housing policies in the 1970s through administrative decisions that concentrated low-income housing in a small number of inner suburbs and offered ostensibly “subsidized” mortgages that turned into predatory debt traps for lower-middle class black buyers in Flint predicted the effects of the 2000s subprime lending bubble in combination with the distribution of low-income housing tax credits in conformity with “popular” segregation mandates to preserve affluent and majority-white communities across the US. Although Kurtz or Finley might look to Beecher or any number of similar “suburban ghettoes” and conclude that forced desegregation was the cause of decline, Highsmith shows how deeply both federal and local policies were implicated in the extension of segregation beyond the city limits.

In Highsmith’s account, these two modes of segregation worked alongside “legal” segregation in the city until judicial decisions outlawed public segregation or segregation by private contract, but also continued well afterward. Highsmith relies on the interplay of administrative and popular segregation to demolish (pardon the pun) a false binary between “de facto” and “de jure” segregation. This binary is precisely the false dichotomy that Kurtz, Barone, and Finley apply to attach the AFFH initiative–if there is no explicit law requiring segregation, or no declared intention to discriminate, then patterns in the housing market, whether they be the architectural style of a neighborhood or the wealth or complexion of the people in it, are innocent and legitimate.

Highsmith offers a compelling historical account of why this isn’t so. Read the whole book.


3 comments on “Is The Suburban Persecution Complex Having Its Moment?

  1. […] I wrote recently, part of what makes Andrew Highsmith’s new book Demolition Means Progress so compelling is his attention to schools, and particularly to the intersection of the […]

  2. […] a very significant point that I’ve been thinking about lately, in response to some insightful academic and non-academic writing on the relationship of schools to urbanization. Cities are habitats for […]

  3. […] Americans live in areas with greater social resources and educational opportunities, as I’ve written here before (and Raj Chetty, Nathaniel Hendren, and Lawrence Katz demonstrate […]

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