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.


One comment on “Municipal Identity as Property?

  1. […] court recently overturned a prior ruling in their favor, a ruling in which Judge Madeline Haikala controversially wrote that secession was partly justified because black students might face harassment from resentful […]

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