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

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

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

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

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

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.

Segregation, Policing, and St. Louis

I’ve been horrified by the recent events in the segregated and disadvantaged St. Louis suburb of Ferguson, Missouri. A half century after the passage of the Civil Rights Act, the essential civil liberty of being in public space is far from secure for Black people in particular and racial minorities in general, who can be killed by the police while unarmed on a public street (women face a different set of restrictions on their ability to be in public that are privately enforced but sanctioned by state inaction against sexual violence).

I’m preparing to teach a course on race in America as an interdisciplinary study, and the social psychology of implicit bias and threat perception are highly salient to this question. One internet commenter has poignantly noted that Black men appear to possess a magical ability to convince white police officers and vigilantes that they are holding deadly weapons. Perhaps many of these white agents of public safety harbor genuine animus against Black people (it’s possible). Yet, another possibility, not a mutually exclusive one, exists: that whites’ responses to Black people in public represent a convergence of the psychological phenomenon of implicit bias through the ideological constructs of self-defense by armed force promoted by the gun industry.

The habitus of whites in America–the everyday conditions under which most white people live, and the ideas they draw from those conditions, constitute a pedagogy about race and danger that, despite the growing disrepute of racial supremacy in public speech, is nonetheless powerful. It affects whites’ support of policing, and it sustains their support for harsh sentencing and longer incarceration when they are made aware that Black people are disproportionately incarcerated.

These and other social science perspectives on race are valuable; integrated, they point to what Barbara Reskin calls a “race discrimination system” in which the interaction of diffuse parts of society–institutions, ideologies, and accumulated legacies of past discrimination–produce emergent and ongoing racial disparities. It’s important to understand racism as something alive that is being reproduced every day rather than as something inert and dead that is being eroded slowly and gradually.

I of course want to think about how a series of systemic moments link across space and across time. That is, I want to do history with this. George Lipsitz has a useful term, the “public pedagogy” to describe how the spaces created by racial segregation channel opportunity, embed existing prejudices, and create the conditions under which today’s “color-blind” or “laissez-faire” racism can flourish as whites identify the local social and economic traumas of systemic racism with the presumed cultural attributes of Black or other nonwhite people. Lipsitz’s book How Racism Takes Place is a lucid and compelling account of this process across time, and how interventions in urban planning, the law, and ideological production, among other factors, have sustained a public pedagogy that puts over the lesson with stunning effectiveness that Black people are dangerous and must be contained. Coincidentally, Lipsitz writes a great deal about St. Louis in parts of this book, and it’s all very urgent in light of current events.

Another historian whose work should get significant attention as a way of understanding the tragedy in Ferguson is Colin Gordon, whose book Mapping Decline shows the spatial reallocation of real estate wealth and insurance coverage in metro St. Louis in the post-WWII Era, and exposes the evolving pedagogy of place that informed and grew out of bureaucratic decisions made by planners, urban renewal experts, bankers, and insurance agents. These processes seem dry and technical, but they sustained, with profound consequences, the idea that Black people’s presence in St. Louis’s neighborhoods was dangerous to the personal and economic safety of whites and the health of the body politic, and needed to be contained by mapping the metropolitan area and delineating whose bodies would be welcome and whose would not. These decisions drove white flight but they also determined that more affluent Black St. Louisans would run on a treadmill of property, acquiring suburban residence as white neighbors left, taking access to credit and insurance, as well as social esteem with them. One of Gordon’s interviewees would call the transition of University City and Ferguson among other close-in suburbs “Ghetto spillover,” which dramatically misconstrues the social agency involved, placing, as so often happens, blame for the area’s perceived decline on the people most directly affected by it.

You can see some of those maps here.


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.

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

“Creative Class” as Euphemism

Courtesy of Creative Loafing Atlanta, a repost of an Atlantic Cities post by Richard Florida making the observation that Atlanta’s “creative” and “service” classes exist in stark separation from one another.


Atlantic Cities

This reminds me of something else I’ve seen, but I can’t quite put my finger on it…..

FultonCountyWhite2010Oh, yeah. That.

Want to keep with the pretty colors theme? A student sent me this just today:


Map Eric Fisher

The Creative Class enterprise reminds me of the kinds of epicyclical sub-orbits that geocentric astronomers used to explain “retrograde motion” in planets they assumed were revolving around the earth. It’s got more moving parts than it needs, and makes things far more complicated than they need to be because it puts the wrong object at the center. A “creative class economy” is a historical product of educational outcomes and of a harmonious relationship between financial capital and certain forms of human, social, and cultural capital that make those kinds of capital pay for the people who possess them. Given what we know about differential access to that financial, human, social, and cultural capital in Atlanta, and the overlays of place, race, and opportunity structures, who would expect a pattern any different from the one Florida observed?

The other problem with creative class analysis is that it’s not only too complicated, it’s also too simple, and indeed, circular. If an analysis starts with the human capacity for creativity, which is universal and whose sum is theoretically limitless, it seems quite easy to make the places that are low on the creative class rankings look more like those that are high. Just have more creativity. Corporate lawyers in Buckhead, rap videographers in Bankhead, it’s essentially the same (except for the pay, the benefits, and the life expectancy), and the more the merrier!

But centering the region’s history of racial division in our analysis actually forces us to consider the stickiness of these forms of capital in places, and how the material and social preconditions of a functioning creative class economy are contingent on a distribution of resources that white people in the region have for generations chosen to construe as a zero-sum competition. I’m currently teaching Kevin Kruse’s White Flight to my “Making Modern Atlanta” class, and two things about this Atlantic Cities piece strike me as remarkable: First, the highest ranking “service class” areas include the West End, Adamsville, and Lakewood Heights (all primary points of origin for white flight in the 1950s and 1960s), along with longstanding black ghettoes like Vine City and working-class suburbs like College Park that have passed racial tipping points. Second (and hold onto your hats when I tell you), some of the highest ranking “creative class” areas include Sandy Springs, a major receiver of white flight and white inmigration during the boom of the 1990s, along with the Midtown and Druid Hills communities near Georgia Tech and Emory, and the historically wealthy section of Buckhead, which even though it sits within the city limits of Atlanta remains the whitest part of Fulton County. I suppose a third thing that strikes me is that Florida apparently doesn’t consider any of the racial dimensions of Atlanta’s social divisions noteworthy.

Atlanta as a region needs a lot of things. But it doesn’t need paeans to the curative properties of creativity when generations of stratification organized by race and through place pervade the entire opportunity structure of the region. It needs political movements for equity. If a lucrative economy in possum skinning or tightrope walking emerged tomorrow, you’d probably find its practitioners settling in Buckhead and Sandy Springs, and paying out for Kaplan Possum Prep courses and summer circus camp to ensure the next generation’s advantage.

And  even in the favored precincts of the creative economy, things aren’t looking so rosy these days.