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.”


Interview: Nikole Hannah-Jones

Here is an interview with Nikole Hannah-Jones, the MacArthur-winning journalist whose reporting on school resegregation I’ve discussed here.

Interestingly, there is recent news on the school resegregation issue in metro Birmingham, where mostly white parents in an affluent area had sought, and seemingly won approval, to secede from the county school district. A federal appeals court recently overturned a prior ruling in their favor, a ruling in which Judge Madeline Haikala controversially wrote that secession was partly justified because black students might face harassment from resentful white members of the community if whites’ demands were denied (to be fair, Haikala also offered a compelling case that allowing secession within the framework of Jefferson County’s desegregation order was the best possible, though flawed, way of maintaining judicial oversight).


Subways are the Life of Big Cities

Jonathan Mahler’s article in the New York Times Magazine is a great read, and speaks beyond New York to the problems facing virtually all metropolitan transit systems in the United States. Simply put, political leaders at the state, local and federal levels in this country do not conceive of mass transit as an essential component of economic and social life:

Most countries treat subway systems as national assets. They understand that their cities are their great wealth creators and equality enablers and that cities don’t work without subways.

Yet, the subway in New York is plagued by archaic machinery, understaffing, and political maneuvering that prevents addressing its problems, abetted by a political culture that hypes ride sharing and other private (and inadequate) substitutes for the mobility needs of millions of New Yorkers.

Even if you don’t have time to read the whole thing, you should scroll through to look at the photos of actual in-use controls for the nation’s largest subway system. They barely qualify as Steampunk.

It’s possible to disagree with some of Mahler’s prescriptive conclusions. In particular, he suggests that the solution to MTA’s funding problems is for the agency to aggressively leverage its expansion plans to entice developers in currently underserved areas to share the profits of speculative investment; if subway expansion can make outlying landowners rich by enabling more profitable development on their land, they can return the favor to MTA. Historically, of course, this has been the model of transit-enabled graft and profiteering and, in the case of 1920s Los Angeles, wholly inadequate to secure the long-term viability of transit systems.

Indeed, New York’s problem is certainly not that the city lacks a pool of wealth sufficient to operate a world class subway system. The problem is that the owners of that wealth refuse to accept an obligation to contribute sufficiently to a public good without being rewarded.

Fulton County Sues Opioid Manufacturers

Charging that the distribution of opioid painkillers is delivering profits to the pharmaceutical industry and public health and criminal justice costs to local governments, Fulton County (GA) recently announced that it is suing a group of companies in the industry.

As federal aid to local governments has declined, and states have become stingier allocating limited block grant funds for social services, someone has to pay for the costs of overdose deaths, treatment, and jail. Under the principles established by the state settlements with tobacco companies, it should be those who profit. This is a fine example of the way that localities can use their power to push for equity (until, of course, state legislatures pass preemption laws to make such suits illegal).

Archives, Knowledge, and Information

Two things from my social feeds this week:

First, James Somers’ “Keepers of the Secrets” in the Village Voice reflects provocatively on the value of archival materials that fall between the cracks of digital search algorithms, accessible only by physical presence. NYPL archivist Thomas Lannon serves as the story’s central figure, displaying both a vast knowledge of the contents of box after box of documents, but also an equanimity about the significance of any one in particular:

That is the paradox of being an archivist. The reason an archivist should know something, Lannon said, is to help others to know it. But it’s not really the archivist’s place to impose his knowledge on anyone else. Indeed, if the field could be said to have a creed, it’s that archivists aren’t there to tell you what’s important. Historically momentous documents are to be left in folders next to the trivial and the mundane — because who’s to say what’s actually mundane or not?

That humility reflects that research in the archives is ideally a symbiosis of archivist and historian. One makes materials accessible, and the other brings contextual knowledge to find meaning in them, relating them to other documents, other narratives, other questions:

Diving into this well is one of the positive side effects of a less-than-detailed finding aid. “The best the finding aids give you is ‘Letters, 1921–1937’,” Syme said. “‘I guess I have to look at every single letter?’ Yeah, you do.” The need to pore through boxes forces you to connect with them. Syme described this as one of the few kinds of formal research left. You can’t google — you have to think about what you want. You have to talk to an archivist, and find the right box, and go through that box.

What I liked best about Somers’s article was the way that, without having to state it directly, he showed the poverty of our present conception of knowledge as mere information. What can be Googled isn’t all that matters.

The information age, unfortunately, has not left archival practices alone. While the volume of paper finding its way to archives after its bureaucratic utility is exhausted has grown, the development of archival best practices for rendering that paper accessible to researchers has purged most qualitative or critical analysis from the work:

A 2005 paper titled “More Progress, Less Process” was a wake-up call to the field. “Truly, much of what passes for arrangement in processing work is really just overzealous housekeeping, writ large…. Pointing out that as much as 80 percent of the archivists’ time was spent “refoldering,” the paper offered shortcuts that, it claimed, would make more collections available without sacrificing much in the way of intellectual accessibility.

“MPLP,” as the paper’s doctrine became known, went on to be the rallying cry of the field, even as it seemed to transform the archivist from an assiduous historian into a corner-cutting technocrat, rushing to get linear feet of record out the door (“linear feet” is an obsession in the world of archives; one standard box of folders is just over one linear foot). Indeed, most archivists got their start because they liked poring over archives. The ethos of MPLP was to read as little of a collection as you possibly could, while still ensuring that you made it usable for research.

As a former practicing historian, I recall a great frustration when my research “productivity” was evaluated by quantitative social scientists whose working assumption was that “data” is standardized and available, awaiting analysis. Maybe not everybody gets this work.

Of course, researchers can do great things make the knowledge in archives accessible in the digital stream of information. My second read to pass along is a great example, the project by Jeremy Lechtzin and Brandon Liu (described here) to digitize and geocode photos, taken for tax assessment purposes, of virtually every building on every block in New York City in the 1980s. It’s easy to say that the city’s changed since the 1980s; this kind of work, by starting with archives to make information, helps you to see it too.

Municipal Identity as Property?

I wrote a relatively long piece last week about the effort to carve out a new, majority-white Gardendale school district out of the Jefferson County district in metropolitan Birmingham, Alabama. There’s been a great deal of attention to this issue lately, which is welcome as it touches on what many people would consider a major concern–the re-segregation of American schools–as well as an issue that is frequently less visible–the influence of local boundaries on access to resources and perceptions of community in America.

This has been the principal concern of my academic research, so I’m intrigued when i see an article like Alvin Chang’s “explainer” of evolving school segregation in Vox. All in all, it’s an effective and brief explanation of how boundaries work to structure access to a resource like education, and why, following a history of white flight spurred by school integration, and subsequent differentiation among wealthy and poorer suburbs, residents of affluent communities are less likely to seek “flight” than to build boundaries around their neighborhoods. Chang also explains briefly how legal deference to this kind of localism makes it appear normal and natural, rather than as political.

If you’ve read Chang’s explainer, follow up by reading Christopher Tyson’s law review article “Municipal Identity as Property,” which Chang linked in the piece. Tyson’s central argument is that, while municipal boundaries are political creations, residents of particular municipalities think of them as a form of property right:

The extent to which residing in a particular municipality is understood as highly consequential for wealth building, quality of life, family security, and status is a key feature of the contemporary suburban identity and experience. Battles over municipal boundaries reveal the ways in which suburban residents express what amounts to a deeply felt entitlement to separate government.

Based on my research on the secession movement in north Fulton County suburbs, where suburban activists worked to incorporate cities as a precursor to a hoped-for separation from the larger county, I find this description apt. The concept of “municipal identity as property” is a neat summation of a set of linked ideas. First of all, incorporation–creating cities out of broader jurisdictions–creates governments that can act to address local concerns. Second, they frequently do this in ways that are negative and exclusionary–keeping bad stuff out is easier for many municipal governments, particularly small ones, than developing good stuff. Third, the work of keeping out bad stuff has historically been aimed, if not always overtly, at people. Fourth, the public perception of protection by exclusionary power is akin to a property relation to local government, enfolding both material and emotional investment.

Going back to key works like George Lipsitz’s The Possessive Investment in Whiteness (with its provocative and apt subtitle “How White People Profit From Identity Politics“) and Cheryl Harris’s seminal 1993 critical legal studies analysis of “Whiteness as Property,” we can see that having public authorities recognize this property right, by upholding one form of dividing metropolitan space and rejecting another, is a real and significant form of white privilege.

Consider the controversial reasoning of Judge Madeline Haikala in the ruling allowing the establishment of the Gardendale district. Despite acknowledging that forming the new district would adversely impact educational opportunities available to black students who had been users of Gardendale schools, and despite acknowledging that white animus toward racial outsiders was a motivating factor, the judge ruled that those white Gardendale families who hadn’t been caught publicly expressing racist sentiments had a material interest in local control of their schools and school district boundaries that would exclude some non-local children who had previously been entitled to use them. Essentially, the right to property in a bounded local area–first in the sense of defining a spatially exclusionary right of access to a public school, and second in the legal recognition of the idea of community that the boundaries of town and school district mirror as something entitled to protection.

Clarissa Rile Hayward in How Americans Make Race aptly describes the process of boundary work supporting exclusion as a stealthy form of privatization, wherein public schools effectively require “tuition” paid in the form of home prices. Hayward also describes how community boundaries, which are, after all, set through nakedly political processes, become part of “institutionalized identity stories” wherein the work done through boundaries to exclude help to establish the legitimacy and normalcy of that exclusion as an expression of community will. An example of this process in action are Facebook posts in support of forming the Gardendale school district, which were exposed, as Nicole Hannah-Jones explained, by the NAACP’s Legal Defense Fund as evidence of racial exclusionary intent:

The Legal Defense Fund also argued that it was racism, not the desire for local control, that was behind the secession effort. They pointed to a Facebook page that Focus activists had created. The very first post stated that forming their own school system would give Gardendale “better control over the geographic composition of the student body.” In another post, an organizer noted that the Jefferson County school district was busing children into “our schools … from as far away as Center Point” and that “a look around at our community sporting events, our churches are great snapshots of our community. A look into our schools, and you’ll see something totally different.”

It’s only natural that the residents of Gardendale would embrace this sort of “institutionalized identity story,” but it’s somewhat discouraging that a federal judge would, even recognizing the exclusionary nature of the story, still find it compelling. To have the legislatures and courts of the nation validate your group’s demand to arrange school district boundaries in the particular way you favor, disregarding harm to others and the possible illegality of the boundaries, is an exemplar of privilege.

Of course, it’s also quite likely that Judge Haikala, like most affluent whites, severely misjudges the extent of economic inequality along racial lines in the United States, which could diminish a sense of urgency for protecting desegregation.