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.


Contemporary Segregation from the Side of the Privileged (Update)

Note: This post has been updated with the correct name for the land use institute cited–it is the Lincoln Institute of Land Policy.

Alana Semuels has a cool piece on The Atlantic today, approaching metropolitan segregation as a problem of self-segregation of the white and affluent rather than of exclusion of the poor and black or brown. Obviously, there are still plenty of practices that exclude the poor (exclusionary zoning, the retreat from enforcing affordable housing requirements, a housing market spatially organized and segmented by price) and racial minorities (steering, differential service by realtors, good old fashioned community prejudice).

Nonetheless,  approaching the phenomenon as one driven by the desire of the affluent for a separate society, and supported by public policies, helps us to understand that this self-segregation is not simply individuals pursuing the rewards of success. It is a distribution of resources and advantages toward what University of Minnesota researchers Edward G. Goetz, Tony Damiano, and Jason Hicks, in a working paper presented to the Lincoln Institute of Land Policy, call  “Racially Concentrated Areas of Affluence.” That distribution inevitably and inherently impacts “Racially Concentrated Areas of Poverty” through fiscal impact, uneven development, educational inequity, and, less quantitatively, a diminished understanding of shared fate and mutual obligation among parts of the metro area.

For scholars, and particularly those seeking to apply scholarly theory to policy, taking RCAAs seriously might be very necessary to reverse the tendency of policy interventions to normalize white/affluent segregation and focus intervention on the deficiencies of the minority poor. Semuels writes:

Public policy has “focused on the concentration of poverty and residential segregation. This has problematized non-white and high-poverty neighborhoods,” said Goetz, the director of the Center for Urban and Rural Affairs at the University of Minnesota, when presenting his findings at the Lincoln Institute of Land Policy. “It’s shielded the other end of the spectrum from scrutiny—to the point where we think segregation of whites is normal.”

Indeed, one of the things I try to uncover in my research is the historical production of that segregation, and the political and cultural work that has enabled and protected it as a sociospatial production. I’ve been looking at Atlanta, and specifically north Fulton County, to make that case, so I was interested to see that Semuels includes a table of data for representative metro areas studied by Goetz, Damiano, and Hicks.

Edward G. Goetz, Tony Damiano, Jason Hicks (University of Minnesota): American Urban Inequality: Racially Concentrated Affluence

Edward G. Goetz, Tony Damiano, Jason Hicks (University of Minnesota): American Urban Inequality: Racially Concentrated Affluence

Compared to other metro areas, Atlanta seems to have fewer “Racially Concentrated Areas of Affluence.” But, based on my research on the growing political power of affluent north suburbanites in the recent past, and the connections of their real estate-based affluence and their political agenda to white privilege, this report drastically understates the influence of affluent whites in near-RCAAs over politics in metro Atlanta counties and in the state. One would suspect that the low number of RCAAs recognized in the study is a result of many areas in the East Cobb/North Fulton/Buckhead/North DeKalb/Gwinnett area having nonwhite populations that exceed a certain threshold. Perhaps normalizing the definitions of RCAA against the composition of the metro area might show Atlanta to have a greater proportion of areas that are more affluent and much whiter than the rest of the metro area. In any case, political dynamics engendered by the creation and preservation of RCAAs are a major driver of politics in metro Atlanta and in Georgia.

As I’ve written in the Journal of Urban Affairs, one of the most important political issues in Georgia, particularly since the 1990s, has been the attempt by residents of north Fulton to separate themselves from the rest of the county. At stake are the property values residents enjoy as a consequence of the area’s status as a predominantly white area. The principal threat residents have identified to that property have been reforms to the property tax system that rectified systemic and illegal undertaxation of affluent areas. Because acknowledging that sort of advantage is difficult, residents reimagined the higher taxes imposed by correction of the tax appraisal system to be the result of wasteful spending, chiefly by governments in Atlanta and Fulton County, governments run by Black elected officials and supported by either majority- or near-majority-Black electorates. The incorporation of new cities has served to put white electorates and white officials in charge of decisions affecting property owned by affluent whites. The use of the state legislature to manipulate legislative districts and redistrict the county commission has reduced the ability of Black residents to influence decisions affecting Fulton County. The county legislative delegations for Fulton and DeKalb county have disproportionate representation of RCAA areas, because Republicans in the legislature have created district boundaries that cross county lines. Although Republicans from RCAAs have been aggressively fighting a voter fraud problem that exists largely in their imaginations, some of them multiply their influence by voting in two or three legislative delegations.

Elsewhere, there is a second wave of city incorporation efforts in north DeKalb County, which would also be the beneficiary of a controversial charter school law that would, in practice, help affluent parents avoid enrolling their children in the county’s diverse public schools. And the process may be reaching a peak in East Baton Rouge Parish, Louisiana, with the effort to incorporate a city called St. George along with a new school district carved out of the existing Parish district. Frontline covered that one, and I’ll have more to say about that in the future.

I would expect that the terminology of RCAA/RCAP will become a useful, if occasionally too rigid, schema for writing the history of post-civil rights metro areas.

Irregularly Recurring Quote of the Day

From Clarissa Rile Hayward’s How Americans Make Race: Stories, Institutions, Spaces (Cambridge, 2013):

By the later decades of the century, NAREB’s narrative of Americans as a home-owning people–a people whose good is served by state support for private, profit-driven development–functioned as a frame to many ordinary stories. When prospective home buyers considered moving to Wexner’s New Albany, they did not tell themselves “I plan to take advantage of public subsidies for private housing for the privileged, which I endorse as legitimate,” but instead, “It’s in my interest to move here,” and “I like this place.” (167)

Hayward’s most insightful observations in a work that is provocative throughout are that, contrary to some PoMo ideas that identities are fluid narrative constructions, certain narratives, rooted in individual and group interests, can be materialized and institutionalized so that even when elements of the narrative become “bad stories” that (if we’re being optimistic about society) violate contemporary ethical norms (“blacks lower property values and should be excluded”) or are internally incoherent (“the private market built the suburbs without help from the government”), they continue to frame the stories the privileged tell about their situations, thus depoliticizing what are in fact highly political decisions about the allocation of resources.

Chapter 5, “White Fences,” from which this quote is drawn, is really an impressive piece of scholarship, integrating a critical legal analysis of private school subsidy jurisprudence, a takedown of public choice theory, and a cogent set of thought experiments that demonstrate that public schools in elite suburbs are the functional, moral, and political equivalent of “segregation academies” though of course are unrecognized as such.

“Unspoken” By Whom?

Today’s Atlanta Journal-Constitution reflects on the fact that virtually all–45 of 46–of the elected officials in recently incorporated metro Atlanta cities are white. Reporters Johnny Edwards and Bill Torpy tiptoe around the racial unbalance of the new cities, affluent and white-majority portions of counties where whites are not a majority. They note that the disproportionate whiteness of local government is causing some people to wonder if race was a motivating factor, while giving equal time to officials of the new cities and advocates for incorporating more white-majority cities who claim a color-blind racial innocence.

What’s more galling, however, than this brand of wishy-washy balance, is the way that Torpy and Edwards construe the controversy as new:

But one impact of new cities in metro Atlanta has gone largely unspoken: all have led to elected governments that are almost entirely white in counties where whites are no longer a majority.

The problem with the “largely unspoken” claim is that it’s utter and complete bull. Georgia’s Legislative Black Caucus opposed the incorporation of Sandy Springs for years, charging that the incorporation was an effort to create a white-controlled city and to protect the affluent area from annexation by Atlanta’s black-majority government. The incorporation only passed in 2005 after the Republican takeover of both houses of the General Assembly. After the affluent and white-majority cities of Milton, Johns Creek, and Chattahoochee Hills in Fulton County and Dunwoody in DeKalb County incorporated, the Legislative Black Caucus and the Reverend Joseph Lowery sued under the Voting Rights Act to demand that the cities be legally dissolved precisely on the grounds that the new cities would make it impossible for minority residents of those cities to have effective political representation.

The suit, Lowery v. Deal, was dismissed by the district court and an appeal failed to win in the Circuit Court. I’ve written about the suit here, and will have an article published at some point in the future in the Journal of Urban Affairs dealing with the racial dynamics of local government in Fulton County. I won’t spoil the plot, but I argue that white suburbanites have, just as much as they resisted residential integration out of fear of having black neighbors on their block, resisted political community with African Americans because of stereotypical understandings of black-led government as profligate, corrupt, and accountable exclusively to black interests. This form of racial antipathy, which focused on the presence of black people in city hall, undergirded resistance to annexation of Sandy Springs by Atlanta in 1966 and a three-decade movement to incorporate the area. Today it undergirds efforts to reduce the scope and power of Fulton County government and to separate north Fulton in a new Milton County. Color-blind rhetoric about efficiency and responsiveness of local government are intelligible to voters in the context of this racialized set of assumptions about black-led governments. So my argument is that the whiteness of local government in these cities is, if not the whole point of incorporation, a major motivating factor. It’s unfortunate that the AJC gives equal time to disingenuous denials of this political reality. 

But it’s more disappointing that the AJC fails to acknowledge its own complicity in making the charge of racial exclusion “unspoken”. The paper offered no substantive coverage of the claims made in Lowery while the suit was pending. If the arguments of the most influential group of black elected officials in the state, along with one of the most influential leaders of the ongoing movement for black freedom and civil rights, have been ignored by a major metropolitan paper, it is a clear indication that arguments on race made by nonwhites are not unspoken so much as unheard.

Another Urban Secession Movement

This time in Baton Rouge, where the south side of town would like to become “Saint George.”

I’m sure that there will be a host of well-articulated arguments about how splitting the affluent and white side of town from the poorer and blacker side is Not About Race. I’m also sure that the fiscal devastation wreaked on Baton Rouge by secession would be merely an unfortunate side effect and not the whole point.

I can’t comment much on this movement at the present, but I notice three things that are pretty significant and resonate with what I’m studying in Atlanta and what I’ve written about in Los Angeles.

For one, the battle evidently began as an effort to create a new school district. The color-blind rhetoric from proponents of the new district holds that creating a smaller and more affluent district will keep wealthy people from leaving Baton Rouge Parish. The movement to create “Saint George” was a response to the state legislature’s refusal to establish, then to fund, the new district. I’m actually kind of surprised that the Louisiana state legislature wouldn’t support this wholeheartedly, but I suppose that’s another research question.

Second, this territorial battle is also closely linked to the effort to destabilize a wider scale of government (the consolidated city-parish government of Baton Rouge) by creating a competing municipality. Much like the 2000s effort to municipalize Fulton County by incorporating cities in affluent north Fulton, incorporating Saint George would fit a devolutionary strategy of disempowering the parish-scale government in order to create competitive (and possibly zero-sum) relations between the municipalities and reduce redistribution.

Lastly, incorporating Saint George is a decision with parish-wide (and metropolitan) implications that will likely be made with input only from the residents of Saint George, whose interests are opposed to the rest of the parish, a fact acknowledged by the Baton Rouge Area Chamber in a study of the issue:

The study urges St. George supporters to listen to input from those outside the proposed city limits: “Perhaps the most important point to be made is that the institution of this proposal will not affect the residents of the proposed geography alone. This is a decision that will impact the entire parish.”

There may be few options for those outside the proposed city limits who want to prevent the St. George incorporation from moving forward.

If enough signatures are gathered, only those who live within the proposed boundaries will be able to vote in the special election on incorporation.

This is what George Lipsitz describes as the institutionalization of defensive localism: basic institutions of government are set up to allow the wealthy and privileged (who in Louisiana tend overwhelmingly to be white) to assert their will over the interests of the wider, interconnected metropolitan community, while justifying this defense of special interests in terms of the general interest of local community control.

This local news video is a pretty rich example of this discursive frame:

WBRZ Baton Rouge