Good News, Bad News

A recent article by Issi Romem points toward the importance of historical perspective in urban policy arguments. By which I mean that not only are there historical patterns to the creation of exurban sprawl and its attendant social pathologies, but a useful understanding of how to reverse these effects requires policymakers (starting with the President!) to recognize that the political and cultural contexts of sprawl matter as much as land economics (indeed, are intrinsic to land economics). Romem offers a summary of key takeways that is pretty clear:

  • The link between housing production and outward expansion is unmistakable: cities that expand more produce proportionally more new housing.

  • Throughout the country, housing production is skewed towards low density areas.

  • Densification has slowed down across the board, and especially in expensive cities, undermining their ability to compensate for less outward expansion.

  • Unless they enact fundamental changes that allow for substantially more densification, cities confronting growth pressure face a tradeoff between accommodating growth through outward expansion, or accepting the social implications of failing to build enough new housing.

The good news is that articles like this point to the phenomenon beginning to be treated less as an artifact of “choice” and more as a product of a sequence of political decisions that have left the majority of Americans with suboptimal housing situations, on top of a historical support for racial and economic segregation and drastically different communities of opportunity.

To be sure, though, Romem looks first to the market:

Why has the pace of densification decreased? One reason is national in scope: despite some fluctuations, the total amount of new housing built each decade in the U.S. has remained fairly constant since the 1950s, but because of urban expansion the area absorbing it has grown much larger. Thus, new housing is spread more thinly, which amounts to less densification. Another way of putting it is that the demand for new housing – or growth pressure – per unit of developed land is less intense than it used to be.

But, a better way of putting it might be that the costs in terms of time, driving miles, and traffic-related social alienation have been gradually shifted onto home buyers and that costs in terms of infrastructure expansion have been shifted onto taxpayers. Despite what sprawl apologists argue (for instance, Wendell Cox at Joel Kotkin’s New Geography embraces a futility thesis critique of “forced density”lateral growth controls), this is not a case of housing priorities being set by rational consumers in a free market, or of liberal-urbanist social engineers tilting in futility against sprawl that is both inevitable and beneficial. Rather, a set of politically motivated and administratively maintained subsidies and incentives to banks, builders, and (in a more conflicted sense) buyers has created sprawl (see Dolores Hayden’s classic Field Guide to start), without the consent of the majority of the people whose daily lives are affected by it. Does not “forced” apply as well to a housing market that imposes a hundred driving miles a day on a home buyer? The equity effects of this form of development are severe; though there are exceptions, mobility in highly decentralized metro areas is a severe impediment to economic opportunity for the poor.

Elsewhere, Romem acknowledges the limits of the market as an explanatory scheme for sprawl, noting that in a real-world setting, markets are affected by choices about resource allocation, and whatever the potential preferences of free agents in the marketplace, the claims made on limited transportation and infrastructure funds by exurban highway expansion are at odds with the expansion of mass transit that is necessary to prevent people from simply bringing their cars into denser developments.

It would also require a leap of faith that in the chicken-and-egg conundrum of density and transportation infrastructure, density can come first.

It’s welcome to see discussions of housing that dig beneath the superficially cheaper houses for sale in sprawling metro areas to consider costs to people, the environment, and the quality of social life.

The bad news stems from Romem’s fourth bullet point: the political (and I’m talking about institutional and cultural forms here) difficulty of enacting densification reforms in already-urbanized areas. While there have been a spate of accounts touting The End of the Suburbs as a seeming market-based response–a back-to-the-city movement based on millennials’ distaste for buying and sitting in cars and Generation X’s reaching an upper limit for commuting endurance–is at best a partial solution, because urban housing is increasing in desirability without a concomitant increase in supply because of land use regulations, cultural norms, and uncoordinated planning and development. The prospect of car-free or car-lite living may be attractive, but as a Brookings Institution report from 2014 indicated, the reduction of car commuting by young workers, while significant, represents a small reduction (workers aged 25-54 showed a 0.9 percent reduction in car commuting between 2007 and 2013).

Romem’s conclusions are intriguing, but there are significant political-economic impediments to achieving them. As Richard Florida notes, Romem describes aptly a “trilemma” of development imperatives, in which cities and metros must balance three objectives, where at least one necessarily suffers.

But this view, as apt a description of the forward-looking policy problems of density and affordability as it might be, leaves out the politics of the trilemma, and the ways in which policies that create sprawl are less a sacrifice of the desire to prevent sprawl for the sake of affordability and growth, but an affirmation of the priorities of political interest groups (real estate developers, home builders, automobile manufacturers, oil companies) in a “sprawl lobby.” Where neither Florida nor Romem quite go is to the conclusion that making density more economic effectively means making sprawl more expensive. We’ll keep waiting for that, I guess.


Of course, there is a role to play for ideas and values in the political arena, and perhaps this seemingly impossible political shift could be enabled by a powerful normative shift around lifestyle. Romem calls, among other things, for an effort to normalize multi-family housing as a child-rearing environment. Again, thinking historically, multi-family, cooperative, and other housing models have been envisioned as not only acceptable, but preferable to the domestic isolation of the single-family house. The problem is, as Dolores Hayden has written, that while the suburban single-family house was a spatial fix for the needs of the real estate, construction, and banking interests of mid-century America as much as those of working families, it met many of those families’ material and emotional needs well enough to become established, and to make alternatives appear impossible.

I’ve shown this 1957 industrial film In the Suburbs to my students for several years in the past, and it always provokes interesting responses. Lizabeth Cohen wrote about it in A Consumer’s Republic, suggesting that it heralded a transformative moment in the public embrace of consumerism. I’m a little less sure of that. The film is only incidentally touting consumer goods; it’s really selling Redbook magazine as a marketing tool to tap the wallets of “young adults” moving to the suburbs. I’ve always been struck by the amount of cultural work needed to normalize what the film subtextually portrays as a new and bewildering lifestyle.

There’s no reason to think that density can’t be as effectively sold, if there is the will to do it.


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.

More Ferguson (Update)

There has been a lot of good writing and a lot of bad writing to come out about Ferguson. I’ll try and compile some of it here soon. In the meantime, this piece by Peter Coy in Bloomberg BusinessWeek is neither good nor bad writing, I guess, but it does point to the relationship of metropolitan fragmentation and the political disempowerment of African Americans in St. Louis County as well as suggest that the proliferation of jurisdictions makes goals like economic coordination for development quite a bit more difficult.

Coy tends to overstate the case a bit; the dynamics of the real estate market, employment, and educational inequality can operate to disadvantage minority group members within the borders of large jurisdictions just as much as in small fragmented ones. And no one who has been paying attention to the LAPD or the NYPD, for example, would suggest that things automatically improve for minorities when control of policing is carried out at a large scale.

But, there are important dynamics that do unfold in a metropolitan context, in the relationship among jurisdictions. And the more jurisdictions there are, the greater the force of those dynamics. One of these is the cutthroat competition for revenue-producing businesses. Coy writes:

Businesses choosing where to locate can play the tiny municipalities off against one another for tax incentives, prompting a race to the bottom that robs them all of desperately needed revenue. “There’s a tremendous opportunity and incentive to just poach from one municipality to another,” says University of Iowa historian Colin Gordon, author of Mapping Decline: St. Louis and the Fate of the American City.

Coy makes a couple of contradictory points: that the race-to-the bottom effect of competitive localism disadvantages some jurisdictions, and he implies that this is the case with Ferguson. Yet, Ferguson is not exceptionally impoverished nor is it distant from many centers of economic activity. Its residents may have to cross municipal borders to go to work, but that’s not illegal (at least not yet).

There’s another piece of the puzzle that links competitive localism to the situation in Ferguson, and specifically to the mutual hostility between the city’s Black residents and the police. Local public defender Thomas Harvey (with ArchCity Defenders) has written a paper addressing this specific linkage (h/t Vox and Sarah Kliff).

In Ferguson, court fees and fines are the second largest source of funds for the city; $2.6 million was collected in 2013 alone. That’s become a key source of tension. There is a perception in the area, Harvey says, that the black population is targeted to pay those fines. Eighty-six percent of the traffic stops, for example, happen to black residents — even though the city is 67 percent black.

The key that ArchCity Defenders report is that

the amount collected through the municipal courts seems to be inversely proportional to the wealth of the municipality.

Put simply, when cities lose in the race to the bottom, many turn to fining their own citizens as a revenue measure. And paradoxically, those with the least means to pay traffic tickets and fines will find themselves targeted for this kind of enforcement because they are also the people with the least means to leave a city that’s oppressively policing them.

Update: See Peter Dreier and Todd Swanstrom, two of the authors of the updated classic Place Matterscomment on this issue in the Washington Post. By publishing this sort of analysis on its Post Everything online venue, Kaplan Test Prep partly makes up for publishing last week’s truly execrable “Do what the cops tell you or it’s your fault if you get shot” post. Read it if you think I’m being ungenerous in my summary.

OAH Reading: Carlton Basmajian on the Atlanta Regional Commission

I’m here at the OAH meeting in Atlanta, getting ready to give a talk on the complexities of black political positions on metropolitan consolidation and annexation in the 1970s. The typical discussion on the matter frames it as a conflict between the need to take in more territory and tax base and the black political imperative to avoid diluting the black vote as it became a majority in the city electorate. This framing is too binary and simplified, because it ignores the way that taking positions and advancing policies on annexation was a strategic maneuver that could demonstrate the bona fides of black politicians to compromise “black” interests and support policies the business elite favored. It also conceals the fact that many black politicians believed that a properly tailored annexation plan could both expand the city’s fiscal base and preserve black power even if it took in tens of thousands of affluent whites. And, even more subtly, black politicians had to avoid playing up that belief in order to make it look like they were actually making a political sacrifice.

My talk sort of tails off at the point where black city and state politicians drift apart on the annexation question. After the 1970s, a window closes, and the region and the state government become less interested in annexation and political boundaries (until relatively recently, with the push to split Fulton County).

A new book, Carlton Wade Basmajian’s  Atlanta Unbound: Enabling Sprawl Through Policy and Planning (Temple, 2013) helps to explain why in a clever and provocative way. The reason that the metropolitan area has fragmented more and momentum for consolidation has failed, Basmajian contends, is successful regional planning.

Wait, you might say. Successful regional planning in Atlanta, the land of sprawl? Yes. In fact, that landscape of sprawl is the purposeful creation of the Atlanta Regional Commission, chartered by the state in 1971 to coordinate the planning required to secure state and federal funding for the key infrastructural supports of growth: water and transportation. In both areas, the ARC managed information, planning, and political lobbying to create infrastructure that supported sprawl beyond Atlanta and Fulton County. This cemented a growth coalition that was not dependent on either the downtown business and financial leadership or the black political regimes that followed Maynard Jackson’s election. It also ensured that the demographics of Georgia shifted decisively. Instead of Atlanta becoming a dominant bloc in the legislature, its suburbs grew to hold significant power.

ARC was particularly effective in steering growth, Basmajian argues, by representing itself as an objective analyst of growth (presumably a natural process), and not as an advocate for any particular pattern. Technology was a key tool not only for planning, but more importantly for politics. In a section that should be eerily familiar to anyone concerned with the vogue for “big data” and “analytics” today, he demonstrates that the ARC constructed its 1976 Regional Development Plan with computer modeling, and stressed this fact as a source of credibility. This technology, at the cutting edge at the time,

reduced the complexity of a metropolitan region to a comparatively small set of variables, perhaps a necessary step in modeling complex social systems, [but] their popularity lay in their ability to provide seemingly precise, objective projections of the distribution of the population, employment, and land use at defined intervals of years with apparent objectivity (91).

The consequence, however, was a set of growth models that embedded faulty assumptions and prevailing conventional wisdom to “project” a demographic donut with a hollowed-out Atlanta at its center. This projection justified the formation of water and transportation planning to serve the edges of the donut,

privileging policies that matched projections of sprawling growth while hiding meaningful alternatives (86).


ARC and its 1976 RDP illustrate how federal policy merged with state and local politics to create a regional planning agenda marked by a self-fulfilling prophecy of sprawl (87).

This, as Basmajian ably shows, resulted in drastic changes not only in the region’s landscape, but in its political economy too. The book is well worth a read.


As it ever was?

In 1972 the American Civil Liberties Union represented a group of plaintiffs, many members of the Atlanta chapter of the National Welfare Rights Organization, in a suit that demanded the adoption of a metropolitan school integration plan that would have functionally consolidated the school systems of the city of Atlanta and Fulton and surrounding counties. The US Supreme Court’s decision in Milliken v. Bradley, which overruled the Michigan Supreme Court and declared that suburban school districts could not be compelled to join in a similar metropolitan desegregation plan for Detroit, essentially rendered Armour v. Nix moot. You can and most definitely should read about Armour within the long and contentious context of school desegregation in Atlanta in Tomiko Brown-Nagin’s outstanding book The Courage to Dissent

I’d like to focus a bit on how the defendants in Armour invoked the differentiation of metropolitan space as a foundation of freedom and liberty. In a 1973 motion asking for dismissal, the defendant school systems invoked an understanding of federalism worthy of junior high social studies, in which

the far greater worth of strong city and county government really lies in keeping that ultimate reality of all political life, “the power to decide,” as close to the people as possible in as many areas affecting their daily lives as possible.

What the Armour plaintiffs pointed out was that one person’s or community’s power to decide to maintain a political division between their school district and neighboring ones severely impinged on others’ power to realize integrated and quality education for their children. This observation was glaringly obvious, even in a cultural context where local control carried the ideological weight for segregation. The defendants were compelled to admit that 

In education, as elsewhere, of course, the price (if it can be called a price) of keeping government close to the people is lack of uniformity. When the power to decide is in the hands of the many rather than the few, it is to be expected that decisions will differ….

Needless to say, county to county and city to city diversities of this sort permeate local governmental activities generally. The differences are accepted as an inherent consequence of the very existence of local government (the power to decide obviously being inclusive of the power to differ). Nor have these diversities ever been thought of as posing problems under the “equal protection clause” of the Fourteenth Amendment.

This blithe dismissal of the consequences of political fragmentation as the outcome of decisions the residents of different localities made represents an opportunistic application of public choice theory to rationalize deep spatial inequalities (a subject I’ve addressed here), but it also signals a particular historical turning point for American racism toward the strategic embrace of color-blindness. Just as public choice as a theory evolved in dialogue with changing spatial practices in suburbanizing America, the invocation of individual choice to explain away glaring racial inequities was an ideological maneuver rooted in the metropolitanization of America and the adaptation of white supremacy to a new spatial form and a mode of expression characterized by privilege more than oppression.

Indeed, one of the most effective rhetorical maneuvers of color-blind racism–placing the burden of proof on claimants of racism–was in full effect in the defendants’ motion:

The fact that there is a concentration of black citizens in Atlanta, New York, Chicago, Detroit, Los Angeles, and virtually all other major urban centers of the United States is generally known. Yet there seems to be little if any agreement as to the reasons for this demographic pattern. We think it unlikely that any precise, all-inclusive answer, will ever be arrived at to replace the present speculation.

Since there was absolutely no way to ever reach the conclusion that racism accounted for this admittedly severe deviation from random population distribution, then courts supporting metropolitan desegregation would be engaging with social engineering that, for dubious benefits, risked not the particular prerogatives of the region’s white suburbanites but liberty itself:

plaintiffs would deprive the State and its citizens of a long established political liberty (i.e. the right to establish and maintain autonomous city and county governments for the control of public education, police power, and the numerous other functions and services in which local governments have traditionally been engaged)….

One of the difficulties I have as a historian with much of the sociological literature on color-blind racism is that, for all its sophistication in identifying rhetorical constructions and their usefulness in particular social contexts, that literature tends to assume a sweeping change in the dominant ideological expression of white supremacy without exploring how that change took place–i.e., after the Civil Rights movement, it was no longer socially acceptable to invoke biological racial difference as a justification for white supremacy, necessitating subtler ideological constructs. But if ideologies are in one sense interpretive frames through which one makes sense of the world, they are also strategies for getting what one wants. Ideologies don’t work in the abstract; they can reproduce and spread only to the extent that they work in repeated iterations of similar circumstances. In this case, what the defendant school systems in the counties around Atlanta and their nearly all-white constituencies wanted was to avoid integration, and they could get it by invoking local control, exercised through their county school systems, as a pillar of Americanism while simultaneously playing dumb about why the metro area’s black residents overwhelmingly lived in Atlanta.

One of the things that Armour helps us to understand, then, is that shifts to color-blind expressions of white racism quite literally took place–that is, they took the kinds of places, and the kinds of material and social privileges and interests organized by place, that suburbanization created across the nation after World War II.

Voting Rights Challenge to Metro Atlanta Municipal Incorporations Dismissed (and the right wing notices!)

A three judge panel of the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the dismissal of the voting rights suit Lowery v. Deal on February 4. This decision was not unexpected, but skirts many questions about the suit, the historical context of racial (and “post-racial”) conflict under which the cities in question incorporated, the ethics of allowing residents of a small privileged locality to decide unilaterally to incorporate without regard to the effects on the metro area as a whole, and the proper interpretation of vote dilution in a metropolitan context. Continue reading