Suburban Strategies and SCOTUS

Brentin Mock writes about the SCOTUS decision approving Ohio’s “use it or lose it” voter disqualification program. Much ink has been spilled about the program’s self-evident partisan and racial basis. By design, it disqualifies African American and Democratic voters far more than it does white Republicans. Mock points out that the program also has the effect of disenfranchising urban voters and thereby reducing the influence of cities in elections (and the responsiveness of elected officials to cities). Ohio’s purges relied on two components: generating a list of registered voters who didn’t participate in a federal election, then mailing those voters response cards, with failure to reply entitling the state to terminate their registration.

Mock notes that this pinches urban voters from two directions. City residents are less likely to vote in many elections because partisan districting dilutes the influence of city voters and (see below) parties have targeted suburban voters. City residents experiencing rent increases, gentrification, redevelopment, eviction, or foreclosure are also likely to move and miss the opportunity to respond or to have an address mismatched to their registration. This is all well-known, of course. Vote caging is a longstanding strategy used to disqualify voters who fail to respond to a certified mailer, and inconsistencies in postal and other address databases (updates to which are frequently underfunded and delinquent) often create an opportunity to purge voters according to a Brennan Center report.

Given that state voter purges will continue to target urban, minority, and low-income communities, must the Democratic party focus on other constituencies, such as affluent suburbanites? An excellent op-ed by historians Matt Lassiter and Lily Geismer in the Times suggests otherwise. Lassiter and Geismer charge that the recent effort by the national Democratic Party to focus attention on suburban swing voters is misguided, both because those voters are unreliable Democrats at best and because adopting policies favored by the affluent, professional, and highly educated residents of northern Virginia, Silicon Valley, or Route 128 in Massachusetts makes Democrats less likely to mobilize the working class coalition they need to win consistently (note: the authors occasionally adopt the media frame of “white working class” voters swinging to Trump, a frame that ignores the above-average demographic profile of Trump voters. However, they make clear that a robust redistributive agenda is also needed to engage voters of color and low-income voters).

The reason is that the residents of those suburbs, while they may publicly object (or not) to Trump’s truculence and overt pandering to bigotry, in fact benefit from an inegalitarian political economy that is buttressed by the political and social boundaries that divide metro areas:

The political culture of upscale suburbs revolves around resource hoarding of children’s educational advantages, pervasive opposition to economic integration and affordable housing, and the consistent defense of homeowner privileges and taxpayer rights. Indeed, unlike traditional blue-collar Democrats, white-collar professionals across the ideological spectrum — for example, in the high-tech enclaves of California and Northern Virginia, which combined contain eight of the 15 most highly educated congressional districts in the nation — generally endorse tough-on-crime policies, express little interest in protections for unions and sympathize with the economic agenda of Wall Street and Silicon Valley.

These “Atari Democrats” (to use Geismer’s phrase) just aren’t sympathetic to a broadly progressive agenda that is the most vital source of interest in policy on the left, and there aren’t enough of them to make wooing them a good political proposition, especially looking ahead to a time when Republicans will have a more disciplined and less orange person at the symbolic helm of their party.

It is rather baffling, then, that Democrats have made relatively little fuss about voting rights. As Ari Berman predicted, SCOTUS has just given a green light to any state that cares to apply similar methods to purge its voting rolls and engineer an electorate that Democrats can’t consistently win. Although it’s tempting in the era of Trump to attribute Republican political strategy to a combination of bluster, graft, and bigotry, vote suppression has been a core conservative strategy for decades, and if the GOP wants an electorate that is dominated by the suburbs, Democrats should probably think about why that is, and whether they want to jump into that particular pool (I’ve noted this here and here and here). As an alternative, I’d suggest that a full-bore defense of voting rights as a campaign issue is a good place to start.



Metropolitics and Work Requirements

As Emily Badger writes in the New York Times, state legislatures have hit upon a not-that-clever but maybe clever enough plan to make racial discrimination in the allocation of Medicaid legal. States including Michigan will subject Medicaid applicants to work requirements, but offer exemption to residents of counties where unemployment is above a certain level.

This is, by any reasonable person’s analysis, an effort to discriminate using superficially color-blind means. Counties where unemployment is high enough to trigger the exemption are largely rural and white, while poor residents of disadvantaged urban or older suburban areas are subjected to work requirements because, while very unequal, urbanized counties are economically more dynamic.

The proposal taps into longstanding anti-welfare myths about urban cultural pathology, while offering the excuse of structural unemployment to explain the woes of rural whites. Of course, the gross inequalities of places like Genesee County, Michigan (where Flint is located) are in fact historically structured by the decisions of major industrial employers like General Motors to locate production outside the city limits, the efforts of white suburban residents to resist annexing industrial areas to the city, and public administrators who engineered segregated schools and communities as a matter of policy. Andrew Highsmith’s book Demolition Means Progress covers this ground compellingly (I reviewed it here).

In the contemporary moment, Badger quotes Urban Institute employment expert Heather Hahn, who notes a crude geographical determinism in Michigan’s legislation. Assuming that the proposal is, in fact, innocent of racial bias (we’re being charitable), it nonetheless ignores the complexity of regional employment markets:

“This is trying to thread that needle between ‘are you poor because of structural reasons, where you live,’ or ‘are you poor because of your own choices?’” said Heather Hahn, a senior fellow in the Center on Labor, Human Services and Population at the Urban Institute.

The problem, Ms. Hahn and others say, is that geography captures just one kind of barrier to employment. “If you’re taking only the geography as the structure,” Ms. Hahn said, “it’s really overlooking the much more obvious racial structure.” African-Americans who face racial discrimination in the job market are more likely to have a hard time finding work….

Policies that exempt high-unemployment places, but not people who face other obstacles to work, selectively acknowledge barriers for only some of the poor. In effect, they suggest that unemployment is a systemic problem in struggling rural communities — but that in poor urban neighborhoods, it’s a matter of individual decisions.

The political implications are also crystal clear. No one, Badger contends, is in the dark about the motive:

“What’s so galling here in Michigan is the social meaning of this exemption could not be more clear to people who live here,” said Nicholas Bagley, a professor at the University of Michigan Law School, who has argued in a series of blog posts and in a New York Times op-ed that the policy would run afoul of civil rights laws. “It is a way of extending solicitude to people who live in the hard-bitten white rural counties,” he said, but not to black residents in poor urban neighborhoods.

This is not a new story, but its revival is nonetheless disturbing.

Will Megan McArdle Ever Be Arrested for Trespassing at Starbucks?

Washington Post Opinion Page Merit Ideological Diversity Hire Megan McArdle recently opined that being openly conservative in liberal dominated arenas is the functional equivalent of being part of a racial minority group.

Here’s the crux of the argument:

A person of color in a white space spends a great deal of time noticing they are a person of color, and that they are in a white space. The white people are very rarely conscious of the glistening pink skin surrounding them on all sides. Something similar holds for liberals and conservatives in American cultural institutions. People on the right may be well-treated in liberal domains (I generally have been); their institutions may try hard to be fair (mine certainly have). But they will always be conscious of their difference, that their presence in those spaces is unusual, and cannot be taken for granted.

I’ll note again that she expressed this opinion on the Washington Post opinion page, which hired her expressly to create “diversity of opinion,” and she was paid for it. McArdle further contends that conservatives outside of the media are in fact surrounded constantly by “liberal cultural hegemony” that “barrages them daily with their ‘otherness’.” Which, she reasserts, is the same as the experience of racial minorities.

After drawing this equivalency, she head-fakes to suggest that conservatives should be able to experience empathy for aggrieved minorities, since they experience the same thing every day (hey, #BLM, don’t be alarmed about the #MAGA guys with guns showing up at your march, they GET IT!). With that accomplished, McArdle’s ready to declare that the rhetorical excess and rage-trolling that constitute the bulk of conservative discourse are, in fact, liberals’ fault for making right-wingers feel bad all the time:

If [feeling oppressed because the culture does not reflect all of your preferences, prejudices, or dogmas] happened to you, probably you’d be pretty mad. You might even become occasionally intemperate in your speech. Heck, you might even say “to hell with respectability politics,” and vote for a loudmouthed reality television star whose signature campaign move was telling cultural hegemons to take a long stroll off a short pier.

It’s time, once again, to reiterate that Megan McArdle was paid money to write this on the opinion pages of the Washington Post.

It’s perhaps unfortunate for McArdle that days after this poorly conceived essay, two black men were arrested for trespassing in a Philadelphia Starbucks while waiting for a colleague to join them (reports indicate a manager called the cops after the men were in the store for two minutes). Their waiting-around-without-ordering was deemed “suspicious.” Here’s a Slate forum on being black in public occasioned by the arrest. Note that “public” pretty much means “everywhere” and considerably more police get involved than when a conservative sees a gay couple in a cereal ad. The participants are Slate writers Jamelle Bouie and Aisha Harris, Gene Demby of NPR, and sociologist Tressie McMillan Cottom. The whole thing is worth it, but here’s an exchange that locates the incident in a set of historical and spatial practices characteristic of contemporary urban life, and calls out the normalcy of using the police to regulate black people’s use of public spaces (or, technically, public accommodations):

McMillan Cottom: In a broken-windows approach to policing, being black is the broken window. It is just cause for aggressive policing. The Philadelphia police commissioner wasn’t wrong when he said the officers did their job. They did. And that’s the problem.

Harris: Yes. While Starbucks is getting this image makeover, no one is questioning why this is a justified method for regulating space in the first place. Maybe the cops don’t have to arrest these guys for not ordering fast enough.

Demby: I was talking to Phillip Atiba Goff, the co-founder of the Center for Policing Equity and a Philly dude, who said it’s a mistake to partition the public’s racial bias off from the police’s racial bias. The police were called into this situation, as a colleague said, to mediate a misunderstanding, like they were RAs in a dorm and not armed agents of the state with broad discretion to use violence and detain people. And so there’s this way that the reasonableness of white people’s fears about black people is backed up by institutions. Folks call the cops to back them up in disagreements with other members of the public in ostensibly public spaces open to everyone.

I’m trying to imagine the cops dragging McArdle away in handcuffs from her laptop and a long-empty latté  as she drafts her column in a coffee shop. I guess my liberal privilege is still unchecked, because I can’t.

New Wealth Gap Research

A new report by a group of economists led by William Darity, Jr. and Darrick Hamilton identifies misguided approaches to understanding and rectifying the gap in wealth between white and black Americans (note: I came across this in the Twitter feed of Chicago sociologist/poet/polymath Eve Ewing. I posted about her New Republic report on the Chicago Housing Authority’s perverse refusal to build housing a while back. Follow @eveewing).

The picture is grim, with black households averaging less than ten percent of white household wealth (depending on which data is used, due to sampling variations). And, while a typical white household at the poverty line has about $18,000 in net worth, the typical black family with similar income has net worth of approximately zero. Whites are disproportionately represented among the wealthy and constitute nearly all of the top percentile. Within racial groups, a black family at the 99th percentile has just one eighth the wealth of a white family at the 99th percentile ($1.5 vs $12 million).

The authors offer a pointed rebuke to conservative and neoliberal policy prescriptions, which they content fail to grapple with the importance of intergenerational wealth transfers and instead blame dysfunction in the here-and-now among black Americans for their lagging wealth:

In this report, we address ten commonly held myths about the racial wealth gap in the United States. We contend that a number of ideas frequently touted as “solutions” will not make headway in reducing black-white wealth disparities. These conventional ideas include greater educational attainment, harder work, better financial decisions, and other changes in habits and practices on the part of blacks. While these steps are not necessarily undesirable, they are wholly inadequate to bridge the racial chasm in wealth.

These myths support a point of view that identifies dysfunctional black behaviors as the basic cause of persistent racial inequality, including the black-white wealth disparity, in the United States. We systematically demonstrate here that a narrative that places the onus of the racial wealth gap on black defectiveness is false in all of its permutations.

I’ve written a bit here about the ways that discussions of poverty in segregated urban communities tend to focus on internal organization instead of surrounding and pervasive structures, on behavior, values, and education instead of property, employment, and investment.

The authors do intervene in an emerging debate among sociologists and historians, about the significance of home ownership for wealth building. While recent scholarship by Matthew Desmond and others has argued for closing the wealth gap by promoting minority home ownership, the authors of this study demonstrate that property owned by black Americans does not build the kind of wealth that property held (and passed to heirs) by white Americans does. Historian Carl Nightingale’s study of segregation uses the phrase “racist theory of property value” to explain how American markets embed race in exchange value, and policy scholar Richard Rothstein’s recent Color of Law summarizes a raft of recent work examining government support for a racially divided housing market and its consequences for home equity wealth inequity. Plus, as Darity and Hamilton show, racial gaps in home equity wealth reflect gaps in all classes of assets. While the exclusion of minorities from home ownership is a problem, it’s not the whole of the problem by a long shot.

“Buying Black,” education, entrepreneurship, thrift, and financial literacy initiatives get their turn, too. Perhaps most satisfying, the authors call out the recent pop-anthropology and model-minority mythmaking of Tiger Mom Amy Chua and Jed Rubenfeld, who claimed to identify a set of group cultural traits that separate relatively successful minority groups from struggling ones, while ignoring differences in the material circumstances and political incorporation of different ethnic groups.

This report is a comprehensive debunking. It’s not long, and it’s clearly written in plain English. It’s well worth an hour’s time to read.

Metro Atlanta Cityhood

This post is very interesting for me to write, though bittersweet at that. In my late career as an urbanist, I studied the movement to split Fulton County in metro Atlanta. This movement consisted of a “municipalization” phase, in which new cities, almost always in affluent and mostly-white areas incorporated with the approval of the state legislature. This phase was, I argued, intended as a precursor to the secession of the affluent suburbs north of the city of Atlanta.

Since I published my work on the subject, the secession movement has moved to the back burner, largely because residents of north Fulton county found many of their grievances–notably the perceived excessive taxation of the affluent north to fund services for Atlanta and south Fulton–were solved by municipalization. With less unincorporated territory in Fulton County, fewer people remained as clients of county local services (the county still provides many large-ticket services, including courts, jails, public health, and social welfare). This both lessened the perception that north Fulton tax dollars were being redistributed southward, and justified actions by the state legislature to limit Fulton County’s taxing powers.

The municipalization movement exerted powerful pressure on unincorporated areas of the county to form cities themselves. While the first wave of incorporations involved very affluent areas like Sandy Springs and Johns Creek in north Fulton and Chattahoochee Hills in south Fulton, it culminated with the incorporation of a city of South Fulton in an area with higher poverty, a majority-minority population, and less economic development than the north. While the northern cities incorporated with the goal of hoarding their ample tax base (a result of geographically and racially biased planning and investment decisions), South Fulton’s incorporation was much more ambivalent and defensive. Seeing that Chattahoochee Hills had cordoned off an affluent area, and that the city of Atlanta eyed annexing high-value industrial property, South Fulton residents feared remaining the sole local service clients of a diminished county government.

This distinction between incorporating from a position of advantage or disadvantage is often swallowed up by the rhetoric of the incorporation movement; the choice of voters in South Fulton to form a city justifies the decision of voters in Chattahoochee Hills or Sandy Springs to do so, because the appeal of “local control” seems universal. Furthermore, perhaps the establishment of local government will enable areas previously excluded from prosperity to thrive (a formula that ignores that prosperity was the basis of early adopters).

The municipalization process has proceeded in adjacent DeKalb County, but at an even faster pace. Beginning with the city of Dunwoody, parts of affluent north DeKalb (which shares in north Fulton’s prosperity as a result of a segregated housing market and development along the northern arc of the Perimeter Highway) also municipalized. And, as in Fulton County, residents of the less advantaged southern half of the county have considered forming a city of Greenhaven, though they failed to advance legislation to hold a local referendum this year.

Brentin Mock has written a series of recent articles in Citylab addressing the DeKalb cityhood controversy, which highlights debates among prospective Greenhaven residents, 87 percent of whom are black. These debates don’t hinge on the question of whether south DeKalb’s underdevelopment is racist. Rather, they hinge on understandings of how racism in local government works. Is it racist that the legislature denied south DeKalb residents the chance to vote on incorporation (a goal white residents in the north valued highly)? Or, is racism evidenced by the underdevelopment of south DeKalb, or the devaluation of residential property there (the area includes many very affluent and mostly black neighborhoods, though property values lag north DeKalb neighborhoods with comparable housing stock and similar per capita incomes)? And even among those who hold to the latter view, the question remains whether forming a city would constitute a solution.

On the optimistic side, businessman Ron Bivins described his conversion to favoring cityhood:

He came around, however, after he found he couldn’t get the county to bite on any of his economic plans for South DeKalb. Those plans included pitching Amazon to set up its new headquarters there and also possibly a new Major League Baseball team and stadium, since the Atlanta Braves took its facilities out of Atlanta to a northern suburb in Cobb County.

It’s not clear how these types of deals, which typically involve extensive public subsidies, would favor an area which struggles to provide public services with an inadequate tax base. That issue of underdevelopment in south DeKalb points to questions of racism:

Formal opponents of the proposal include Ed Williams, the chair of a group called Citizens Against Cityhood in DeKalb. Williams said in an interview that he does not believe south Dekalb would suddenly attract new companies just because it turns into a city, and he says the reason is because of a theory called “Black belt economics.”

According to this theory, “If the population of a neighborhood or community goes over 40 percent African-American, then significant investments tend not to be made in that community,” said Williams. “You won’t get a Radisson or a Hilton hotel or any of the top-line food stores, and that’s just a fact.”

As Mock notes in another article, the cityhood debate clearly comes from a position of desperation, with choices constrained by the prior incorporation decisions of more affluent areas:

Proponents of Greenhaven, led by Rice, believe achieving cityhood is South DeKalb’s last chance for survival, after being starved for economic resources for decades by the county. Greenhaven’s opponents—and there are many—believe the entire Greenhaven proposition is a ruse that would only further ruin South DeKalb’s economic prospects. For them, joining the cityhood movement is not the answer, but South DeKalb is running out of solutions, and time and land are not on their side.

Untangling this debate requires a bit more analytical power, though. Here, I find Coleman Allums’s discussion in Atlanta Studies useful (and compatible with my own published arguments) that it contextualizes cityhood as a political project rooted in metropolitan spaces inherently shaped by what Allums calls “overlapping histories of white supremacism and capitalist development.” To shift claims for cityhood to the grounds of economic development or tax bases is to engage a sort of “anti-politics” that strips communities out of their histories and reduces cities to a role as managers of property value.

This is not a question of academic significance alone; the overlapping histories of white supremacism and capitalist development are embedded in ongoing spatial practices of residential choice, investment, and exchange. Imagining cityhood as a remedy for black disadvantage (whether it’s the disadvantage of the black poor or of black professionals relative to their white counterparts) doesn’t grapple with the sources of disadvantage, and displaces responsibility from deep and systemic processes (white prejudice, capital investment, redlining, intergenerational wealth transfers, opportunity hoarding in wealthy cities) to the technical question of how local government is organized to tax and spend. In critiquing the incorporation of Stonecrest (a majority-black city in south DeKalb that is both smaller and wealthier than the proposed city of Greenhaven), Allums writes:

[w]hile a black middle class city does, at least nominally, challenge legacies of racialized capitalism and uneven development, it simultaneously advances a form of class warfare wherein a racially marginalized black middle class rejects solidarity with those they perceive as beneath them in order to compete. Thus, not only does black cityhood fail to challenge racial power structures, it also actively reproduces in a classist mode the exclusionary and extractive systems that create and exacerbate inequality in black communities.


I’m gratified to see popular media embrace questions that were central to my own research. How does municipal formation reflect or create inequality in metro areas? How much is racism involved in the institutional politics of city formation and the symbolic values attached to local government? Is “local control” a universal political good, or an ideological cover for protecting the interests of economically and racially privileged groups? I do, however, wish that the discussion had opened up sooner. But, if anyone writing on the resurgence of cityhood wants to talk about it, drop a note in the comments!

History and Housing Policy

Here’s a post on LA Streetsblog by David Levitus, an urban history PhD doing interesting work as leader of a policy and civic engagement nonprofit focused on metropolitan California. Housing is a big deal in the Golden State, with a barbell-shaped income distribution stressing housing affordability and intense debate erupting over what to do about it.

Levitus is mostly concerned here with the emergence of “YIMBY” advocates for deregulated housing construction. YIMBY is a generally developer-friendly position, holding that density, height, and other restrictions make the production of sufficient volume of housing impossible. With what Levitus calls

clear villains and Econ 101 logic at work

YIMBY arguments have gained considerable traction, and are reflected in state legislation that seeks to vigorously enforce local housing production goals and remove restrictions, particularly on large, dense developments near transit. The bill’s sponsor claims an equity and social justice rationale, claiming that this will reverse the exclusion of the working poor from desirable and transit-accessible neighborhoods, as Levitus notes:

In Wiener’s telling, the bill is about equity. He writes “The only way we will make housing more affordable and significantly reduce displacement is to build a lot more housing and to do so in urbanized areas accessible to public transportation.” More audaciously, he frames S.B. 827 as a measure that “tackles head on the ugly reality that mandated low-density zoning excludes poor people and—per the intent when low-density zoning was created 100 years ago—people of color.”

Yet, as Levitus argues, confidence that a simple approach of fostering an increase in the volume of housing stock available will reduce inequity or increase low-income Californians’ access to good housing, depends on a misreading of metropolitan history. Levitus examines several waves of US housing policy to conclude that growth has been perfectly compatible with exclusion, and that long-wave cycles of disinvestment and gentrification show that

There is a lot of money to be made by moving the color line

as investment of housing capital in poor areas bears no necessary connection to housing the residents of those areas (I blogged a while back on Michael Greenberg’s outstanding NYRB article on New York’s deficient plan to supply affordable housing through incentives to high-end developers).

Levitus calls for a revival of past housing movements that sought to build housing not as a commodity but as habitation within networks of employment and social support.

The housing justice movement by and large understands the concept of supply and demand, despite YIMBY’s complaints otherwise. Yet housing justice movements — part of a long line of “housers” and progressives interested in equitable transit-oriented development — are able to see that left alone to produce housing, the market will not meet the needs of a large proportion of the population. That was true in the late 19th century, as slums emerged. It was true in the mid-twentieth century heyday of redlining and subsidized suburbanization and urban redevelopment. And it is true today when redlining and other forms of discrimination and exploitation of the less privileged continue. The market alone does not produce good outcomes for communities who were denied the ability to accumulate wealth in previous housing booms, through redlining and because of an overall economy that has grown increasingly unequal over the last four decades.


Kerner Commission at 50

The surviving member of the Kerner Commission, convened by Lyndon Johnson to study the causes of unrest in America, has written an op-ed (supported with multiple topical graphics) for the New York Times for the occasion. Fred Harris (with Alan Curtis) observes that the commission’s core conclusion, that

our nation is moving toward two societies, one black, one white–separate and unequal

is disturbingly as true today as in 1968. Graphics accompanying the essay demonstrate the resegregation of public schools, particularly showing that the retreat of federal courts from imposing or enforcing desegregation orders (as Nikole Hannah-Jones has argued) has given school districts license to segregate. They also demonstrate socioeconomic inequality, incarceration, and housing inequality on scales that would have been outlandish to the members of the Commission.

The key point is that regression from greater equality is not a product of culture, or of family breakup, or (certainly not) of a natural sorting according to racial capability. It is a product of a political retreat from equality, a political rollback of the Second Reconstruction. As Harris and Curtis conclude:

Policies based on ideology instead of evidence. Privatization and funding cuts instead of expanding effective programs.

We’re living with the human costs of these failed approaches. The Kerner ethos — “Everyone does better when everyone does better” — has been, for many decades, supplanted by its opposite: “You’re on your own.”