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.

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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.

Yeah, But…. Or, Economists do Postwar Metropolitan Segregation

Leah Boustan, an economist at Princeton and the National Bureau of Economic Research, published an Op-Ed in the New York Times last weekend that distilled the essence of her new book, Competition in the Promised Land: Black Migrants in Northern Cities and Labor Markets, described thusly by Princeton University Press:

Traditionally, the Great Black Migration has been lauded as a path to general black economic progress. Leah Boustan challenges this view, arguing instead that the migration produced winners and losers within the black community. Boustan shows that migrants themselves gained tremendously, more than doubling their earnings by moving North. But these new arrivals competed with existing black workers, limiting black–white wage convergence in Northern labor markets and slowing black economic growth. Furthermore, many white households responded to the black migration by relocating to the suburbs. White flight was motivated not only by neighborhood racial change but also by the desire on the part of white residents to avoid participating in the local public services and fiscal obligations of increasingly diverse cities.

I’m going to offer two caveats for my analysis right off the bat: First, the whole book is ambitious in scope, and proposes a provocative thesis that migration was less clearly a Good Thing for the interests of Black advancement (reading the blurb, one might approach the book asking “compared to what?” but….). And second, it’s quite difficult to express complex research findings in short form. The book seems highly worth reading, among other reasons because of the kind of media traction it’s getting through, well, NYT Op-Eds.

That said, I found the article to be flawed in its basic assumptions about the definition and nature of racism in American urban areas, particularly as related to metropolitan real estate markets in the 20th century, and not very informed about the historiography of that phenomenon. Continue reading

Tom Price and Metropolitics

First, off, regrets for the delay between starting this post when Tom Price’s appointment was news and publishing it today, when no one in the media has got time for Tom Price at all. Just pretend that Russia, Exxon, and the Electoral College don’t exist and that Tom Price still matters. Because he most certainly does, if you plan to get Medicare or Medicaid or have paid taxes on the premise that your payments might entitle you to partake of those social services someday.

(Ahem)

Most of the attention paid to Donald Trump’s naming of Georgia Congressman Tom Price as his prospective Secretary of Health and Human Services has focused on Price’s adamant opposition to the Affordable Care Act and social services in general.

Amy Goldstein and Philip Rucker reported in the Washington Post that Price is a loyal Trumpist, a foe of Obamacare, birther-curious, and, perhaps most importantly,

supports major changes to both Medicaid and Medicare, health insurance pillars of the Great Society programs of the 1960s. Under his vision, both programs would cease to be entitlements that require them to provide coverage to every person who qualifies. Instead, like many House Republicans, he wants to convert Medicaid into block grants to states – which would give them more latitude from federal requirements about eligibility rules and the medical services that must be covered for low-income Americans. This plan would also require “able-bodied” applicants to meet work requirements in order to receive health care benefits — an idea that the Obama administration has consistently rebuffed.

No doubt, all of those concerns are legitimate and important. I echo all of them. But I think it’s worth pointing out that where Price is coming from is important; his extremism on social services reflects not simply fiscal conservatism but also a politics of (sometimes) veiled (and sometimes not) racial resentment formed in (but hardly unique to) post-1970s metro Atlanta. And, as I’ll discuss below, Price’s brand of politicized racial resentment has been disguised as principled concern for the fate of democracy with the help of words attributed to, but most likely never written by, a Scottish Enlightenment scholar of little significance outside of That Uncle’s email forwards and, unfortunately, the United States Congress.

By happy coincidence, I’ve published some articles about the part of metro Atlanta that contains Price’s 6th Congressional District. As I noted recently, Price won a landslide re-election hand in hand with an overwhelming (edit: atypically narrow 48.3-46.8% ) vote for Trump in his district. North suburban Atlanta, hardly a bastion of the working class (white or otherwise), was the type of affluent and educated area strategists expected to swing to Clinton. (edit: the neighboring 7th and 11th districts returned Republicans to Congress and went for Trump 51.1% to 44.8% and 60.3% to 35.3%, respectively. Many 2012 Romney voters clearly defected, but given the magnitude of Democratic hopes for more crossovers, the real story is how many affluent suburbanites in Cobb, Cherokee, Fulton, and Gwinnett Counties Trump held on to). The vote (in the most populous part of the state) monkeywrenched Clinton’s predicted win in Georgia into something the Georgia Bulldogs might choke up in a big game against ‘Bama.

Here’s the map of the district.

6th Congressional District of Georgia

6th Congressional District of Georgia

While many national Democrats were looking toward Fairfax County, Virginia as a model of a winning Clinton coalition of post-partisan educated professionals and service workers horrified by Trump (and post-election analysts like Matt Karp have compellingly argued the narrowness of that vision), north Fulton didn’t act like Fairfax. Which reflects the region’s relatively recent history.

Note that Price’s district contains all or part of several cities incorporated within the last 12 years, including Sandy Springs, Johns Creek, and Milton in Fulton County, and Dunwoody in DeKalb County. The story of those incorporations, while spun by proponents as an effort to achieve accountable, efficient, and responsive local government ostensibly denied by the county governments that previously served the areas, is, I’ve argued, part of a broader campaign to shield affluent and majority-white suburban areas from political control, and specifically control of property taxes, by Black elected officials or elected officials accountable to Black constituents.

This is partly evident in the fact that the local governments established by recent incorporations have been neither honest nor inclusive, though they have been notable for their roster of white elected officials.

from "New Cities Ignite Debate Over Race", Johnny Edwards and Bill Torpy, Atlanta Journal-Constitution, January 25, 2014

from “New Cities Ignite Debate Over Race”, Johnny Edwards and Bill Torpy, Atlanta Journal-Constitution, January 25, 2014

Now, I would avoid characterizing the drive for incorporation as a product of simple bigotry. It’s impossible to know the mindset of residents, those who voted for or against creating new cities, and the officials they elected to govern them. However, it is possible to understand the particular ways in which suburban governments operate as instruments to defend property rights and values and to hoard economic resources embodied in real estate against claims made by those residing outside the local boundary. It’s further possible to understand, as New Regionalist scholars have, that metropolitan areas are substantially integrated economies, despite extensive political fragmentation. It’s finally possible to understand that social processes, notably housing segregation, income inequality, and racial discrimination can work to place people in particular parts of the metropolitan area, while political fragmentation creates different levels of access to resources.

Accordingly, there is a profound connection between racism, property value, and the stakes of local politics. As Atlanta’s northern suburbs began to boom in the 1960s, and the city of Atlanta sought to annex some of them, the prospect of Black elected officials making decisions involving taxing suburban property and spending the proceeds fueled movements for defensive incorporation. Suburban voters fought Atlanta’s city government to a stalemate over annexation, until a movement for suburban municipal incorporation emerged, gaining considerable momentum from a 1991 property tax revolt.

A substantial irony of the tax revolt was that the property of many of these suburbanites had been grossly undertaxed for years. As I wrote in the Journal of Urban History, drawing on contemporary public sector economists’ analysis of late 1980s and early 1990s tax receipts, the market value of north suburban property was galloping ahead of tax appraisals and, accordingly, tax assessments were lagging far below levels mandated by state law. This was not a racially innocent process. As Kevin Kruse has most notably observed, Atlanta’s housing market had, since the desegregation of Atlanta’s city schools, created a premium for property in mostly white communities. Further, following Paula Ioanide’s discussion of affective economies, many white Atlantans’ perceptions of positive use value (aka “quality of life”) in their suburban communities has hinged on whiteness, adding an additional set of political stakes around both integration and local control, with the facially race-neutral values of good schools and quality of life dominant in public discussions.

Despite the evidence that many north Fulton homeowners had received a double whiteness dividend (increased property value plus a tax discount), when Fulton County conducted a countywide reappraisal to put the tax rolls in line with the market, those homeowners rebelled, with both Black County Commissioners and countywide public services (notably, for the purposes of our discussion, Grady Hospital, which serves the poor of Atlanta and Fulton County) taking the heat.

In my article, I identified a key conflict around social services. Embattled County Commission Chair Michael Lomax, who was nearly recalled in a 1991 petition campaign, attacked the perception that Atlanta’s public services were a benefit only to Atlanta’s poor residents and an unjustified burden to others, specifically arguing in a May, 1991 Commission meeting that while metro Atlanta residents outside of Atlanta enjoyed the benefits of the institutions and infrastructure paid for by the city and county, outlying areas were not contributing adequately to maintaining those facilities, including the care for the indigent provided at Grady. Other commissioners were more blunt, insinuating that racial animosity inspired austerity.

Things were probably not quite that simple, but in the context of a sudden tax reassessment, affluent white homeowners were quick to shift responsibility from their previous free ride to the presumed wastefulness of public services. A year after the 1991 tax revolt, a north Fulton realtor named Mark Burkhalter launched a political career that would take him to the state legislature by leading LOGTAX (Lower Our Grady Taxes), a group that openly framed the public hospital as a rip-off of north Fulton taxpayers. One of LOGTAX’s mailers presented a leading True/False quiz, which included such “questions” as “North Fulton homes are unfairly taxed for a hospital that doesn’t serve them.” The questions were misleading on a number of levels. As Creative Loafing (Atlanta’s longstanding alt-weekly) notes in a brief history of the politics of Grady Hospital, the facility in fact does serve residents of the entire metropolitan area through its trauma center, though its image as a facility for the black and poor obscures it:

When he first started working as a paramedic, Lunney remembers the stigma certain Atlantans attached to the hospital. He recalls instances in which affluent people such as a “soccer mom from Alpharetta” involved in a car crash on I-75/85 would “flip” at the suggestion of going to Grady, despite the fact that the level-one trauma center offered the best possible care.

Grady’s service to the whole region works indirectly, too. The indigent receive care there, making the for-profit facilities in the region more profitable, allowing middle-class Atlantans to afford private health care by shunting the cost of caring for the poor off the books, and benefitting the not insubstantial number of homeowning doctors and healthcare executives in north Fulton County. One of the ironies of Grady’s recent history is the extent to which local private hospitals panicked at Grady’s financial problems, fearing that they might be forced to absorb them. This proved to be of little consequence in the political arena, however, where aggrieved taxpayers and their spokespersons could make hay.

As the tax revolt matured and institutionalized within the Fulton County Republican Party, north Fulton tax hawks readily embraced a theory that Black elected officials were using the public budget for redistribution and racially-motivated reparations against white homeowners. I describe the response of a local reactionary columnist to the 1991 recall of Lomax, which evinces a particularly racialized take on taxing and spending:

Dick Williams likewise accused [Commission Chair Michael] Lomax of “playing the racial card,” asking “where is the racism in struggling for breath after finding a 100 percent or more property re-evaluation?” In the very same column, however, Williams blamed black politicians and voters for the crisis. Since “a greater percentage of whites own homes and businesses,” he wrote, “black lawmakers are freer to lay the tax burden off on people who didn’t vote for them anyway.”

If this formulation sounds familiar, it should. The idea that using the institutions of representative democracy to meet the needs of the largest number of people is not only improper but fatal to democracy itself is a contemporary favorite. Its purest form is reflected in this meme:

At about the time our original 13 states adopted their new constitution, in the year 1787, Alexander Tyler (a Scottish history professor at The University of Edinborough) had this to say about “The Fall of The Athenian Republic” some 2,000 years prior:

“A democracy is always temporary in nature; it simply cannot exist as a permanent form of government. A democracy will continue to exist up until the time that voters discover that they can vote themselves generous gifts from the public treasury. From that moment on, the majority always votes for the candidates who promise the most benefits from the public treasury, with the result that every democracy will finally collapse due to loose fiscal policy, which is always followed by a dictatorship.”

“The average age of the worlds greatest civilizations from the beginning of history, has been about 200 years. During those 200 years, these nations always progressed through the following sequence:

From Bondage to spiritual faith;
From spiritual faith to great courage;
From courage to liberty;
From liberty to abundance;
From abundance to complacency;
From complacency to apathy;
From apathy to dependence;
From dependence back into bondage.”

In case That Uncle ever sends you this over email or posts it to social media, I will suggest as a service a few critical approaches to rebuttal. We could, as historians, nitpick the neat teleology of progression from “Bondage” to “Abundance” and back again, or the blatant artificiality of a two-century rule for civilizational collapse, or note that the parties in bondage tended to stay that way under Anglo-American settler government. We could even question whether the failure to consider warfare as a contributing factor to Athenian decline calls into question Tytler’s knowledge of shit from shinola. We could, as political scientists, be astounded at how Tytler’s quotation utterly mistakes the extent to which the Constitution purposefully separates the citizenry from the treasury. Think Electoral College. Think whether your vote counts as much as your Congressman’s. Think about what would happen if you demanded trillions of dollars to build an F-35 in your garage. Think about every Gadsden Flag waver who ever brayed “it’s a republic, not a democracy.” I think we’re actually safe from the masses voting themselves Obamaphones. We could, as rhetoricians, note the use of anachronistic phrases like “loose fiscal policy” that, with these other analytical errors, contribute to the propounding of a historical doctrine coincidentally suited to the exact needs of Tea Party conservatives today.

And, we could wonder why, if this Alexander Tytler was so goddamn smart and important, nobody’d ever heard of him until the invention of the email forward. Indeed, it appears that while an Alexander Tytler did exist, his authorship of scholarship on Athenian democracy is, to say the least, lacking in evidentiary support:

The “Alexander Tyler” quoted at the head of the article is actually Lord Woodhouselee, Alexander Fraser Tytler, a Scottish historian/professor who wrote several books in the late 1700s and early 1800s. However, there is no record of a Tytler’s having authored a work entitled The Fall of the Athenian Republic (or The Decline and Fall of the Athenian Republic), and the quoted material attributed to him above is likely apocryphal.

Would it surprise you to learn that Ronald Reagan was an important figure in catapulting this bit of propaganda into our collective consciousness? If it does, you should read Rick Perlstein’s Invisible Bridge as soon as possible (though the fact that the Trump campaign could have used it as a how-to manual is distressing).  Their historical fraudulence notwithstanding, the words attributed to Tytler have been mouthed with disturbing frequency by Republicans in Congress, usually while advocating policies of upward wealth redistribution (and often after having been forwarded the quote by a constituent!).

I’m just not lucky enough that Tom Price himself ever read this quote into the Congressional Record– although his Republican colleague Mark Sanford (whose judgment is unquestionable) did, in a debate on the FY 2015 budget for which Price was the Republican leader. Here’s Sanford’s conclusion:

Ultimately, what I think that this budget is about is avoiding that very bondage that that historian and many others have talked about over the years.

To sum up, then: Mark Sanford thinks the federal budget should be written based on the fabricated musings of a non-expert on ancient Athens, who, even had he offered comment on that democracy’s failure, made no observations of republican government in the United States or anywhere else in the nineteenth, twentieth, or twenty-first centuries. The case is airtight.

And, if Price never offered the Tytler quote, he certainly channeled its spirit in his own remarks in the same session:

Remember, Mr. Chairman—the American people know this—every dollar that is taken for taxes and every dollar that is borrowed, stealing from the next generation, is a dollar that can’t be used to pay the rent, to buy a car, to buy a home, to send a kid to college, to open a business or to expand a business and create jobs. We think there is a better way.

Social expenditure is theft, from the deserving (you) to the undeserving (them). But, to make it sound less like whining and more like principle, Price and his colleagues have continued to dress this essentially political mantra in the universalist robe of obscure enlightenment figures to make Obamacare, or Medicaid, or SNAP the equivalent of an attack on democracy itself and the supporters of such programs the equivalent of the Barbarians.

Even when Tytler isn’t dragged into it, the formula jumps up repeatedly. It echoed in Rick Santelli’s call for a Tea Party to protest a tiny proposal for mortgage relief, aptly described by Ian Haney Lopez as a dog-whistle of group antagonism:

Dog Whistle Politics: How Coded Racial Appeals Have Reinvented Racism and Wrecked the Middle Class (Oxford, 2013)

Dog Whistle Politics: How Coded Racial Appeals Have Reinvented Racism and Wrecked the Middle Class (Oxford, 2013)

Paul Ryan turned the Tytler formula around to pretend to care about poor people’s own good, calling social services a “hammock” that could trap people in poverty by eroding their self-reliance. The Tytler formula animated the Tea Party attack on the 47 percent of Americans who don’t pay income taxes, suggesting a tidal wave of moochers threatening the Republic. And, in a March 2010 debate over legislation that would become the Affordable Care Act so loathed by Tom Price, Republican Congressman Tom Posey of Florida (a birther whose professional life has unfolded in the federally supported industries of aerospace and real estate) trotted it out once more, though this time not even bothering to attribute it to anyone, noting “it has been said….”

So, this fabricated quotation from a figure of no authority on modern governance is so entrenched in the culture of right-wing Washington as to hardly require attribution, let alone critical reflection on its merits as a guide to policy. But, its core premises are also deeply entrenched in metropolitics, where the politics of taxing and spending are just as contentious but often more immediate.

As I’ve argued in another article (available through Journal of Urban Affairs) that links the tax revolt to prior and subsequent politics of suburban separatism in north Fulton County, the racialized tax politics of the 1990s were critical to building political support for incorporating Sandy Springs in 2005, which sparked a wave of new cities formed in the next decade and was part of a campaign to split north Fulton from Fulton County, which would have substantial benefits for wealthy north Fulton residents and dire consequences to the (poorer and majority-Black) remainder of the county. As I wrote,

As the near absolute segregation of [north Fulton] has receded in the new century, so have overtly racial declarations of community interest given way to public appeals to efficiency, local control, and privatization as rationales for Sandy Springs’s political independence. Yet, black voters and officeholders remain the prime symbol of threat to the interests of white homeowners and taxpayers, who seek, as their predecessors did, to organize political space to avoid the influence of black officials and common obligations to black fellow citizens.

Throughout, the theme of zero-sum conflict was sounded. As I wrote, no one in Atlanta politics exemplified this better than attorney and anti-tax activist Robert Proctor, described by a local columnist as “Rush Limbaugh with a law license.” Proctor’s rhetoric merged the concepts of social services as theft and black political leadership as an illicitly race-conscious enterprise:

Proctor, described as “Atlanta’s Rush Limbaugh with a legal license” (Pendered, 1994a), became the director of the conservative Southeastern Legal Foundation (SLF), and initiated a series of lawsuits that demonstrate the deep intersections of the tax revolt and white political grievances. Proctor and SLF challenged affirmative action policies of the City of Atlanta, the Atlanta and Fulton County school systems, DeKalb County, and Grady Memorial Hospital, as well as Atlanta’s policy of extending health benefits to the same-sex partners of city employees (Campos, 1999; Helton, 1996). Proctor frequently described affirmative action as reverse discrimination, arguing “the playing field has been leveled for at least 30 years [but now] is being made unequal” (Kimbrough & Daniels, 1997) to the detriment of taxpayers. Proctor only implicitly identified “taxpayers” as white, but was willing and eager to identify their oppressors as black. Interviewed in 1994, he argued that Atlanta’s 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). Although Proctor 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 Ku Klux Klan”), insisting that minorities were responsible for racial strife.

Public expenditures took from us to give to them, on the sole basis of them commanding more votes. The necessary rhetorical step is to turn democratic outcomes (and Democratic victories) into attacks on democracy; they’re not content to just take your taxes, they’re trying to take your freedom.

So, to summarize and bring thing back to the present. We can understand a bit more what’s driving Tom Price if we can understand the specifically metropolitical context of his career. The Fulton County Republican Party, mobilized around property taxes, became a key bloc in an ascendant conservative and suburban Republican caucus in the legislature that thrived not only by preaching austerity, but by specifically attacking Black-serving institutions like public hospitals. Rather than providers of key services, they were corrupt vehicles for self-dealing, wasting taxpayer money to give others something for nothing.

This is the context in which Tom Price, representing north Fulton County, became the Georgia Senate Majority Leader in 2002 before jumping to fill Johnny Isakson’s open Congressional seat in 2005. If you are looking for principles that might predict Price’s actions as HHS Secretary, “screw them, we’ve got ours” is probably as good a place as any to start.

Thinking About Urban Sociology, Somewhat Historically

I haven’t had much to say about the controversy over Alice Goffman’s On the Run. I do here, but for a rather different purpose. To state my positions on the core of the matter, I find the critiques of Goffman’s veracity compelling, and defenses of her work considerably less so, but I’m more interested in thinking about how the affair illuminates the way that knowledge about cities gets produced. Since Goffman’s book was praised by many non-academic reviewers as being like The Wire but (ostensibly) true, I’m reminded of the last season of that show, particularly since I probably rate that season much higher than the typical fan. What I found most compelling about the arc of the season was its reflection on the way that a wide range of imperatives–Scott’s compulsion to fabricate, his bosses’ encouragement of his pursuit of “Dickensian” aspects of Baltimore life–make a newspaper a grossly limited source of understanding. The assassination of one of the most important men on the west side, after all, gets cut. Because it doesn’t mesh with what some people think they already know about Baltimore, Omar’s death, which actually caps a truly Dickensian story arc, gets lost to the history that’s fit to print.

And, while the problem is most definitely larger than a single book, the On the Run controversy should be cause for some deep thinking about how we know what we’re talking about, and what the prior assumptions of our methods and theories are, particularly for academic ideas associated with Chicago School sociology that have been profoundly influential to other academic fields, to public policy, and even to public common-sense about metropolitan communities. It’s beyond me to offer a critical history of an entire academic discipline in a blog post, though thankfully it’s not beyond others. And it seems to me that On the Run intersects with another sociological bombshell offered by a critical history of the discipline. Which I’ll discuss below.

But first, a few (admittedly half-cooked) thoughts about urban ethnography. Paul Campos, both for himself in the Chronicle of Higher Education (paywalled) and blogging at Lawyers, Guns & Money, has been one of the more tenacious and acute critics of Alice Goffman’s On the Run and of Goffman’s defenders. Campos, among others, raised serious questions about the plausibility or veracity of several of the key incidents that Goffman recounted as evidence of the pervasive reach of the criminal justice system into the lives of young Black men in a low-income Philadelphia neighborhood.

[Note: To be sure, that reach is a serious problem for social justice, and a problem which many powerful interests in American society would prefer to conceal. Which is all the more reason why academic and popular analysis of it should be rigorous and diligent, and why the apparent “truthiness” of Goffman’s book may prove detrimental to efforts to meaningfully reform rules of probation, parole, and criminal detention.]

Campos’s critique met with praise and counterattacks, but it strikes me that most of Goffman’s defenders have engaged with (and indulged in) metacritical debates–is the intrusiveness of policing on Black men’s lives a core truth that stands regardless of the veracity of the evidence used to demonstrate it? Is it legitimate for a young white woman with academic pedigree and Ivy League credentials to relate the stories of poor Black people? Does the scholarly imperative of concealing respondents’ identities (or IRB rules requiring such concealment) make accuracy impossible? Is sociology losing influence as a discipline and desperate to restore it by supporting more “dangerous” ethnographies? Are sociologists overly impressed by the social distance traversed by the researcher to observe her subjects? Are attacks on Goffman attempts to silence the voices, conveyed through her, of low-income urban Black men?–and ignored the rather large elephant in the room: Did Alice Goffman make a bunch of stuff up?

Gideon Lewis-Kraus’s recent NYT Magazine piece on the Goffman controversy performs this dance, acknowledging the publication of Campos’s and others’ critiques but, by and large, ignoring their substance. Lewis-Kraus shields Goffman from questions about her integrity by painting her basically as an autistic-savant who forgets to plug in her phone or what year major life events occurred, who also makes keen and reliable observations of other people’s lives. One supposes the intention is to encourage the inference that Goffman confused her field notes rather than fabricating them, since unless the question of deliberate deception were in play, no ethnographer would probably want to be portrayed this way in the Times. Elsewhere, he focuses on “discipline,” implying on one hand that Goffman has been a victim of jealousy on the part of some fellow sociologists who resent her success and pooh-pooh her methods, which eschew much of the reflexivity on the social distance between observer and observed that characterizes contemporary ethnography, and on the other, that Goffman has been unable to rebut charges against her because of her strict adherence to methodological safeguards of her subjects’ identities. Since this is the way this story goes, there’s also a third hand, on which Lewis-Kraus argues that the controversy’s spread outside of the academy reflects a gap between the methodologies of journalism and sociology (a formulation that would make Goffman a brave interdisciplinary boundary-crosser, assuming that there’s a significant difference in each discipline’s toleration for making stuff up).

To be fair, Lewis-Kraus tries to write about the inherent difficulties and contradictions of outsider ethnography as communication across social divisions, though his reluctance to consider the veracity of Goffman’s accounts of the lives of her associates undermines that effort considerably–the charge of making stuff up speaks directly to Goffman’s credibility as a conduit of those associates’ experiences and views and to the premise that Goffman was guided by imperatives determined by her solidarity with her associates rather than by the expectations of her audience. If, ultimately, Goffman and her defenders want to base the legitimacy and importance of her work on the premise that Goffman became part of the Sixth Street community, described it accurately, and thus gave voice to its inhabitants, the veracity of her accounts could not be more important to judging her work.

Campos wrote an interesting reaction at LGM yesterday. Part of it is a critique of Lewis-Kraus’s account. But Campos closes with a perspective that, I think points us productively away from thinking about the internal politics of a discipline or the particularities of events Goffman described, and toward thinking about the way that academic research has and may shape what we “know” about urban America, particularly the parts of it that are, for all intents and purposes, foreign to the kind of people who inhabit the sociology departments of Hyde Park and Penn, increasingly separated from south Chicago or west Philadelphia by demilitarized-by-redevelopment zones.

As Campos writes in a follow-up today:

This is another example of how Goffman seems to constantly confuse her “positionality.” The whole point of the anecdote [in which Goffman stiltedly describes her efforts to exchange a “look of solidarity” with a young brown man detained by TSA at the airport] is that she (supposedly) has white privilege in this particular context, so there isn’t any solidarity here between her and him, much as she might want there to be. But Goffman has a habit of forgetting that she’s a very privileged person in a wide variety of ways: hence her complaints that doubts about her veracity are attacks on the credibility of low-status informants, such as the residents of Sixth Street.

This line of defense echoes a certain strain of cultural masquerading by the young, white, and privileged seeking authenticity, as Campos argues.

Any reader who has gotten this far is by this point probably as sick of the Alice Goffman saga as I am. What continues to intrigue me, however, is her apparent ability to get supposedly hard-headed journalists to believe her. Part of the reason for this, I suspect, is that what makes On the Run an initially compelling read is, ironically, its apparent authenticity — the glimpse it provides into a demi-monde that has fascinated upper class white people for a long time, as captured most memorably in Norman Mailer’s 1957 essay “The White Negro.” That Goffman explored and chronicled this world was, above all, really cool.

This has shown up in prominent stunt-ethnographies, indicating that neither academics nor peri-academic audiences are immune, the contempt with which they might treat the blatant racial essentialism of Mailer’s essay notwithstanding.

But the twist that occurs when these immersions are presented as scholarly research is that the imprimatur of the academy positions the researcher as an authority uniquely able to research the story (by sharing the experiences of the subaltern) and to tell it. It’s this elasticity of positionality, more than whatever tendency toward vicarious danger might excite the hipsters of the sociology department, that are problematic. And, to be sure, though contemporary sociology certainly teaches critical reflection on positionality, this development is a relatively recent adjunct to the core of the discipline. If a high-impact work like Goffman’s can exhibit such a slippage, sociologists may be inconsistently examining an important aspect of racism–not the presence of different groups or the observation of differences in their experiences, but the maintenance and nature of the boundaries among them–both social and spatial (Douglas Massey refers to “boundary work” in the abstract, while George Lipsitz describes “racism taking place” to call attention to the practices that inscribe boundaries, rather than presumably bounded identities).

This point leads me to an article by Julian Go in the Berkeley Journal of Sociology. Both a review of Aldon Morris’s 2015 book The Scholar Denied, a history of the concealed and quarantined influence of WEB DuBois on the development of American sociology, and a reflection on Go’s own training as a sociologist, the post does two things. First, it makes me determined to get my hands on Morris’s book (and not just the online metacommentary) ASAP. Second, it should make anyone concerned with urban and metropolitan studies consider very seriously the dialectical relationship between knowledge and the implicit premises of research methods. What we know about urban and metropolitan life and communities after all depends quite a bit on the core premises of our investigations, and sociological perspective–that is to say, a particular sociological perspective, embracing both the scholarly authority of the ethnographer and the ethnographer’s ability to transparently observe and describe an otherwise distinct community–has been tremendously influential.

What if this perspective has been narrowed and constrained? As Go argues, summarizing Morris, the gravest limitation of canonical sociological methods has been the diminishment of DuBois’s role (and the role of his “Atlanta School” of researchers working from the city’s historically Black colleges) as the discipline’s most important founder.

In short, the elevation of the Chicago School has served to marginalize Du Bois, even as Du Bois was profoundly influential for his time. Narrating this tension is one of the many virtues of Morris’ book, and it marks the tragedy that The Scholar Denied writes for us – that we have erased the history of Du Bois’ profound influence upon sociology from our most influential histories of sociology. We assume Weber taught Du Bois. We herald Frazier as the most influential black sociologist. We herald Robert E. Park as the innovator.

The intentionality of this erasure, as well as its effects, concern Morris greatly. The pervasive racism of the early 20th century mattered of course, but so did institutional factors. Robert Park and others obviously secured prestige for themselves as their discipline’s leading lights, but by marginalizing DuBois, they also marginalized a scholar whose purpose as a sociologist stemmed significantly from his famous observation that “the problem of the 20th Century is the problem of the Color Line.” While Park’s sociology emphasized ethnicity and difference, his school’s presumptions tended to naturalize difference, to identify racial conflict as a matter of friction between different and incompatible groups sharing space, and to evade DuBois’s call to recognize the construction and policing of color lines as the fundamental and indeed generative core of race and racism. Go, again summarizing Morris:

Still, there is another explanatory current amidst the flow. It is not only that Du Bos was black and other sociologists were white, or that Du Bois suffered from lack of capital, it is also that he had dangerous ideas. To be sure, Du Bois innovated by his empirical orientation and methodology. But Du Bois also innovated substantively, birthing a sociology of race that aimed to wrestle discourse on race away from the Darwinistic, biological and frankly racist sociological episteme of the day. Participants and promoters of that episteme included most all other white sociologists, and Morris pulls no punches when pointing out how the Chicago School was at the center of sociologically racist thought. In riveting swaths of The Scholar Denied, we learn about Robert Park’s racist sociology, for example, a sociology that “portrayed African Americans” as “handicapped by a double heritage of biological and cultural inferiority.”[19] These views compelled Park to side with Booker T. Washington in suggesting that the best route for African-Americans was to become manual laborers rather than to try overcome their “savage” origins (in Park’s own terminology). These views also compelled Park to conclude that blacks should stay away from cities, for there they would “only succumb to the vice, disease, crime, and other evils rampant in city life.”[20] And Park’s own famous theory on the cycle of race relations was underwritten by Darwinistic thought on the inferiority of non-whites. Park’s thought was merely the “conceptual framework” that could explain and hence legitimate why the whites of Europe and the US were dominating the world through colonialism –and why race relations throughout the globe were so tumultuous.[21]

Du Bois would have none of this…. Du Bois’ work, using systematically and painstakingly collected data on communities about which Park had little inkling, instead showed the social production of racial inferiority rather than its biological or even cultural determination.

While these ideas have been most commonly associated with the work of Franz Boas and his students, Morris’s argument is that they were earlier propounded by DuBois in works and correspondence that influenced the later anthropologist. The obscuring of the link turns not only the history of the discipline but critical understanding of its purposes on their heads. Here’s what Lewis-Kraus writes about the development of sociology as a liberal and anti-hierarchical discipline.

People in Goffman’s camp trace their work to Robert E. Park and the so-­called First Chicago School, which set itself to the project of understanding the new vigor and clash of the American city, then driven by the dynamism of industrialization and immigration. Park had spent 10 years as a journalist and was working for Booker T. Washington at the Tuskegee Institute when he was asked, in 1914, to join the young sociology department at the University of Chicago. This was a Chicago that would produce new sorts of Americans, characters like Saul Bellow’s Augie March, and Park’s team went on to put together canonical, sympathetic studies of the city’s black, Jewish, Chinese and Polish neighborhoods…. Their painstaking empirical efforts, modeled on the anthropology of Franz Boas, were carried out in the hope that they might refute the reigning theoretical paradigm of the day, which looked to eugenics and social Darwinism to explain racial inferiority and the ‘‘social problems’’ introduced by immigration. The project was explicitly liberal and meliorative, of a piece with the work of journalists like Jacob Riis and early social workers like Jane Addams.

Although that’s what Robert Park may have claimed for himself, Aldon Morris would strongly disagree. Yet, the easy slipping of such a characterization into what passes for a deep journalistic account of sociology demonstrates how pervasive the assumption is, and the ease with which studies rooted in this paradigm, of discrete cultures bumping against each other in the space of the city, and trained observers acquiring privileged insight through immersion, has been among people who have sought to regulate, reform, or renew urban spaces and communities (I’ve touched on that here, for example).

It’s beyond the scope of this post to put forward a counterfactual of what would have happened if DuBois’s proto-constructionist interpretation of racism (which highlighted the role of white institutions and governments, and the relationship of color lines to capitalist exploitation as well as social segregation) had been the theory to influence immigration policy, urban renewal, housing, or employment law in the middle of the twentieth century. I’m going to go out on a limb and suggest that much of our world would be unrecognizable, and probably for the better. And, in a disciplinary climate more interested in understanding boundaries than in transgressive crossings of them, Alice Goffman’s efforts and talents may have produced a very different book and understanding of the criminal justice system’s role in reproducing racial oppression.

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.

Win for Fair Housing Act! (updates: How Much of a Win?)

The Supreme Court’s decision in Texas Department of Housing and Community Affairs Et Al v. Inclusive Communities Project, Inc. Et Al has just been announced. By a vote of 5-4, the application of a disparate impact standard to determine violation of the federal Fair Housing Act by state housing authorities was upheld. As recent events in McKinney, Texas (one of the communities under scrutiny by the Inclusive Communities Project in the cases leading up to this decision) demonstrate, the Fair Housing act is still urgently needed, and cannot function to promote even a meager measure of housing integration without the disparate impact standard. Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote the decision, joined by Ginsburg, Breyer, Sotomayor, and Kagan, while Samuel Alito authored a dissent joined by Scalia, Thomas, and Roberts, with Thomas authoring a separate dissent. I’ll be looking forward to reading that one (update: holy cow he argues Griggs is illegitimate and therefore disparate impact standards in civil rights law should be thrown out) and reporting a bit more on the whole business later.

update 1: 

Thoughts on the impact of the ruling: It still won’t do to get too excited, because of the inherent limits of the Fair Housing Act. The majority decision indeed affirms that courts applying a disparate impact standard to determine the legality of a public or private practice must respect legitimate business interests, and places the burden of proof on plaintiffs (those charging discrimination) to show that there is an alternative practice that also serves the needs of the entity in question. Why? because

Disparate-impact liability must be limited so employers and other regulated entities are able to make the practical business choices and profit-related decisions that sustain the free-enterprise system.

This becomes inherently problematic in the area of housing because in the vast majority of housing procured through private production and financing, the profit-related decisions that occur under “free enterprise” are inherently racialized. For a suburb like McKinney, which depends fiscally on maintaining the taxable value of privately owned housing, cordoning off low-income housing from more valued properties is exactly such a decision. For a developer, racism likewise makes profit dependent on conformity to the racism embedded in the real estate market, which is elastic enough to accommodate some integration, but only up to very low limits. This has been explored by Reynolds Farley. As Maria Krysan (with Mick Couper, Farley, and Tyrone Forman) found, white opinion of Black Americans and of Black-inhabited neighborhoods was influential independent of social class in setting white neighborhood preferences. This fact of the housing market–that social class creates buying power, but racism helps define desirability and therefore value, helps to create racially isolated islands of affluence as a characteristic socio-spatial form of contemporary metropolitan America (as I’ve written about north Fulton County, Georgia). Seminal works like Arnold Hirsch’s Making the Second Ghetto and more recent ones including Carl Nightingale’s Segregation: A Global History of Divided Cities emphasize this as a key part of American and global urbanization.

Accordingly, when Anthony Kennedy writes for the Court’s majority that

Courts should avoid interpreting disparate-impact liability to be so expansive as to inject racial considerations into every housing decision

a glaring asymmetry is evident. Racial considerations already affect housing decisions. The question is merely which racial considerations can be acknowledged.

In the years ahead, pressure to find other means of accomplishing the goal will doubtless continue. Given that the ruling was only 5-4 in favor of maintaining even a standard so deferential to what Nightingale calls the “racist theory of property value” as a core business practice, the Fair Housing Act will continue to face jeopardy. This is reflected in what Kennedy offers as a statement of purpose for the decision, which waters down the core purpose of the Fair Housing Act–preventing racial discrimination–to place it on equal footing with other public and private goals in the housing market:

Were standards for proceeding with disparate-impact suits not to incorporate at least the safeguards discussed here, then disparate-impact liability might displace valid governmental and private priorities, rather than solely “remov[ing] . . . artificial, arbitrary, and unnecessary barriers.” Griggs, 401 U. S., at 431. And that, in turn, would set our Nation back in its quest to reduce the salience of race in our social and economic system.

Here, what Kennedy is doing (with deliberate obtuseness, I think), is separating the normal operation of “valid governmental and private priorities” from illegitimate barriers to housing access and housing outcomes. The reason that a much stronger Fair Housing Act is needed, and the reason that it must be superior to some of those profit- and fiscally-driven priorities, is that the normal achievement of those priorities has historically entailed, and continued to entail, racial segregation.

update 2:

There is some particularly significant language used by the Department of Housing and Community Affairs (the defendant) that bears some attention. That is the attempt to draw a distinction between actions taken “because of race” and racially impactful actions. What the Department wanted the Court to accept was that only decisions driven by racial bigotry, apart from any consideration of property value, development interests, the cost of land for low-cost housing, or the housing market, could create legal liability:

Emphasizing that the FHA uses the phrase “because of race,” the Department argues this language forecloses disparate-impact liability since “[a]n action is not taken ‘because of race’ unless race is a reason for the action.” Brief for Petitioners 26.

Kennedy’s decision rejects this argument, but it does it on statutory grounds, noting the consistency of usage in the Fair Housing Act as amended with other civil rights legislation upheld by the courts. This ignores a much better criticism, which is that, from the first invention of racial classification, race itself has not been the reason for racial discrimination. Race as a socially constructed category has been invented and deployed in the interests of allocating material, social, and symbolic resources. Racism as a social system coheres in the intersection of identification and differential allocation. Race itself is never “the reason” for anything. But to say that a group of neighbors organizing to keep Black residents out is not racism because the neighbors are seeking to defend property value would be complete idiocy. People have never discriminated because of any intrinsic power of “race” but because racial categorization is instrumental in preserving advantage and institutionalized as a set of social cognitions.

I’m critiquing Kennedy’s opinion here because it displays a troubling tendency to fudge, per Barbara J. Fields and Karen Fields’ discussion in Racecraft, this distinction between race and racism. In describing permissible (because ostensibly non-racial) criteria for evaluating the appropriateness of allocating housing credits, Kennedy drops this:

If a real-estate appraiser took into account a neighborhood’s schools, one could not say the appraiser acted because of race.

It simply strains credulity that a Supreme Court Justice would blithely separate the questions of school quality, property appraisal, and racial segregation; schools have been central to the dynamics of white flight and metropolitan segregation, which was exactly what the Michigan Supreme Court found before the US Supreme Court created the atrocious doctrine that segregation patterns that cross school district boundaries are an innocent coincidence.

update 3: 

There’s something weird going on in this passage, too:

If the specter of disparate-impact litigation causes private developers to no longer construct or renovate housing units for low-income individuals, then the FHA would have undermined its own purpose as well as the free-market system.

First of all, Kennedy seems to be suggesting that the fear of a Fair Housing lawsuit, rather than the lack of profitability, is the main deterrent to the construction of low-income housing. I’ll wait for you to stop giggling and read on.

Second, is Kennedy really asserting that the purpose of the Fair Housing Act is to encourage the construction or renovation of low-income housing units? Federal low-income housing policies are aimed at doing that, but the language of the statute, around which the entirety of the opinion resolves, and as the opinion itself states,

addresses the denial of housing opportunities on the basis of “race, color, religion, or national origin.”

At first I thought that Kennedy had switched to refer to the Federal Housing Administration as an agency, which would make sense in terms of the focus on LIH as a policy goal, but no. FHA as an acronym refers to the Fair Housing Act throughout the opinion. So, is Kennedy conflating the civil rights statute with the federal agency? Why would he do that? I couldn’t say for sure, but I think what’s going on here is that Kennedy wants to keep disparate impact, but define huge areas of relief from liability from a judgment based on disparate impact. He does that by fudging the core purpose of the Act–preventing racial discrimination in housing and, under disparate impact, encourage housing integration–with a sometimes-but-not-always related purpose of creating more low-income housing.

And specifically, this links back to Kennedy’s suggestion that reviving inner-city housing and integrating the suburbs are both equally valid and commensurate policy goals:

From the standpoint of determining advantage or disadvantage to racial minorities, it seems difficult to say as a general matter that a decision to build low-income housing in a blighted inner-city neighborhood instead of a suburb is discriminatory, or vice versa.

As a matter of fact, though, this isn’t exactly true. Urban revitalization frequently displaces low-income residents and accompanies racial transition that pushes people of color out, even when a quota of units is set aside for low-income residents (who are frequently made to feel completely unwelcome). And, while suburban integration is not itself a complete path to racial justice, it does tend to integrate minority youth into more complete communities of opportunity. And Kennedy seems to be hinting that if the State of Texas encourages enough of the former, it does not have to do very much of the latter. That makes this a very troubling victory indeed.