The difficulty in removing racial covenants from deeds

Many properties in the United States had racial covenants written into their deeds where it was stated that the property could not be sold to people of particular racial and ethnic groups. Removing those statements on deeds today can be a difficult task:

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Cisneros, who is white, said she wanted the covenant removed immediately and went to the county recorder’s office. What she thought would be a simple process actually was cumbersome, expensive and time-consuming. She took time off work and had to get access to a private subscription service typically available only to title companies and real estate lawyers. There were forms to fill out that required her to know how property records work. She also had to pay for every document she filed…

In the end, Cisneros learned that the offensive language couldn’t be removed. That is often the case in other cities if officials there believe that it’s wrong to erase a covenant from the public record. Instead, the county agreed to attach a piece of paper to Cisneros’ covenant disavowing the language…

Sullivan knew the only way to rid the language from the record was to lobby elected officials. She teamed up with a neighbor, and together they convinced Illinois Democratic state Rep. Daniel Didech to sponsor a bill. The lawmaker found an ally in Democratic state Sen. Adriane Johnson. The bill allows property owners and homeowners associations to remove the offensive and unlawful language from covenants for no more than $10 through their recorder of deeds office and in 30 days or less, Johnson said. Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker, a Democrat, signed the bill into law in July. It takes effect in January 2022…

Illinois becomes the latest state to enact a law to remove or amend racially restrictive covenants from property records. Maryland passed a law in 2020 that allows property owners to go to court and have the covenants removed for free. And in September, California Gov. Gavin Newsom, a Democrat, signed a bill that streamlines the process to remove the language. Several other states, including Connecticut and Virginia, have similar laws.

I could see how many Americans today would want to strike the racial covenant from their current property but their ability to do so depends on local laws. Righting past wrongs is no quick task, even when later actions have nullified the effects of the earlier language in these deeds.

And there could be a lot of racial covenants out there:

It’s impossible to know exactly how many racially restrictive covenants remain on the books throughout the U.S., though Winling and others who study the issue estimate there are millions. The more than 3,000 counties throughout the U.S. maintain land records, and each has a different way of recording and searching for them. Some counties, such as San Diego County and Hennepin County, which includes Minneapolis, have digitized their records, making it easier to find the outlawed covenants. But in most counties, property records are still paper documents that sit in file cabinets and on shelves. In Cook County, Illinois, for instance, finding one deed with a covenant means poring through ledgers in the windowless basement room of the county recorder’s office in downtown Chicago. It’s a painstaking process that can take hours to yield one result.

The deeds and the potential racial covenants contained therein highlight how land and property is acquired, obtained, and passed along in the United States. There is much to consider there: how was the land acquired and from whom? Who does it benefit now and in the future?

The academic rabbit trails to watching a particular TV show for fun/analysis

In a recent trip to the campus library, I checked out the first season of a television show. I briefly interacted with the checkout clerk who remarked that I was in for a good viewing experience. My path to this show was not a straightforward one; rather, it involved reading, my own research, and a lot of time. Here is the path to this one TV show:

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  1. I develop an interest in the sociology of culture as an undergraduate studying both sociology and anthropology. The study of the “processes of meaning-making” becomes one of my primary graduate school interests and I continue to work within this subfield today. In my daily life, any cultural product or expression can then be both experienced and analyzed. This can be applied both to cultural activity as well as places, connected to my interest in suburbs and cities.
  2. Even as I continue with the sociology of culture, I also run into media studies, a field that combines insights from multiple fields and tackles all sorts of media. I teach a class titled “Culture, Media, and Society” where we consider multiple media and cultural forms including documentaries, films, television, comics, theater, music, art, news coverage, social media, and other phenomena. In conducting research on social media (several studies here, here, and here), I also encounter media studies research and journals.
  3. Several years later, I combine an interest in places and media by publishing two studies: one considers television shows set in suburbs and one examines the role of McMansion on The Sopranos. These works straddle the lines between sociology and media studies.
  4. In the summer of 2021, I read the book Divine Programming by television studies scholar Charlotte Howell. I watch one television shows Howell points out treats religion seriously (see posts here and here).
  5. With a little more flexibility in my schedule as we reach the holidays and approach the end of the semester, I decide to watch a second show featured in Howell’s book to continue to explore and enjoy how religion is depicted in television.

There are certainly other ways to come to a television show, including receiving recommendations from friends and family, reading a review, browsing or receiving a recommendation on a streaming service, and more. My path is probably not a typical one. But, I am also reminded of the ways that knowledge and studies develop as an academic: there is not necessarily a linear path toward a predetermined goal and a guaranteed outcome plus there can be a lot of time involved as ideas and projects wax and wane.

Wrestling with the ongoing – and increasing – numbers of pedestrian deaths in the United States

After a pedestrian death in her neighborhood, one writer considers the issue in the United States:

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My neighborhood isn’t unique. So far this year, 15 pedestrians have been killed by drivers in the nation’s capital, and total traffic fatalities are up to 37-the highest number since 2008. This is all despite Mayor Muriel Bowser’s goal to end traffic deaths by 2024 as part of the Vision Zero program signed on to by leaders of D.C. and other major U.S. cities. The District Department of Transportation has made some changes to protect walkers and cyclists, such as reducing speed limits and installing more bike lanes. Ironically, total traffic fatalities have increased steadily since the program began.

The same trend is reflected in cities across America. Part of the increase in pedestrian deaths is probably because our vehicles are bigger than ever. “Our pickup trucks and SUVs are gigantic compared to the sizes they used to be,” giving drivers less visibility and a greater sense of security, which makes them more aggressive on the road, says Rohit Aggarwala, a fellow at the urban Tech Hub at Cornell Tech and the former director of long-term planning and sustainability for New York City. During the pandemic’s early days, as fewer Americans drove to work or school, it seemed safe to assume that fewer pedestrians would die Instead, fatalities have jumped. Conclusive research isn’t out yet, but the increase is likely at least in part due to a drop in traffic congestion and an ensuing increase in speed: “People were still walking around their neighborhoods during lockdown, and you had a [small] number of people on the streets driving very, very fast,” Aggarwala told me. Older adults, people walking in low-income areas, and Black and Native Americans are all overrepresented in pedestrian-death statistics.

Most pedestrian deaths are preventable, and experts believe that the solutions are straightforward. Aggarwala and his team at Cornell Tech are pushing for three major changes to America’s driving infrastructure: more robust traffic-camera enforcement, to capture not just speeding but all kinds of moving violations; road redesign that would decrease lane size and add speed bumps to nudge drivers to slow down; and finally, upping the standards for vehicle safety. Car manufacturers in Europe are required to test cars for pedestrian impact; they design hoods to slope downward so that drivers can see anyone who might wander into the road. American automakers could do the same, or add pedestrian-detection systems or speed limiters to cars. Many of these changes would not only make roads safer for pedestrians but also could reduce police violence at the same time. “The U.S. hasn’t considered any of this,” Aggarwala said. “We have a tradition of focusing on vehicle safety as only being about the occupant.”

This is an ongoing issue as long as roads are primarily for cars and vehicles. The priority for decades in the United States has been to make roads optimal for vehicles. Pedestrians and other street level activity is, on the whole, not as important.

When I read this, I thought about the efforts to include equipment in all new cars that would test to see if the drivers was driving impaired. How did this come about? Drunk driving has been a recognized issue for years with organized groups making sure it was on the public’s radar screen. Is a social movement against pedestrian deaths and promoting pedestrian safety necessary to make significant changes? The solutions might be straightforward but the political and societal will is lacking.

Where is the construction of cheaper homes in the United States?

One recent analysis suggests a major contributor to the lack of homes for sale is limited construction of new homes:

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Earlier this year, Realtor.com estimated the gap between the number of homes needed and the number of homes available at 5.24 million. That estimate in June represented an increase of 1.4 million above the estimated 3.84 million gap in 2019, primarily because residential construction hasn’t kept up with household formations.

From January 2012 to June 2021, 12.3 million new American households were formed, but just 7 million new single-family houses were built, according to Realtor.com.

The housing shortage is particularly acute in the more-affordable range. Newly built houses with a median sales price of $300,000 represented just 32 percent of builder sales in the first half of 2021, compared with 43 percent during the first half of 2018, according to Realtor.com. To close the gap between demand and supply, builders would need to double their pace of construction for five or six years, Realtor.com economists estimate.

I have been trying to keep track of this for several years now: where are the new cheaper homes? If home builders are interested in selling homes, why not also create products for this part of the market?

There could be lots of reasons for this present state. But, this is not just a problem of 2021; this has been going on for at least a few years. Who can or will act to address this? Is this a pressing social concern that requires attention or just something to note every so often?

Imagine a time in the near future after this trend of the last ten years or so has truly piled up. How will younger adults pursue homeownership, a goal many Americans still say is desirable? Will a lower end of the housing market simply disappear to be overshadowed by more expensive, larger homes that truly generate profits?

If this continues, I would not be surprised to see more calls for housing interventions beyond the market.

Acknowledging that a building proposal from a religious group can lead to a “painful” process

Religious groups regularly propose changes for land and buildings and I have studied this both in the western suburbs of Chicago and the New York City region. After a City Council vote to approve changes to land owned by the Islamic Center of Naperville (see earlier posts on the unusual amount of attention this drew and approval by the planning and zoning commission), the mayor of Naperville acknowledged that it had been a difficult process:

A large crowd in the city council chamber erupted in applause when the vote was completed. Each council member and Chirico expressed gratitude for the work put in by all parties throughout the process that played out over nine months in the city’s planning and zoning commission with 500 speakers in 15 meetings.

“We all know it was painful,” Chirico said. “There were times where I was entertained. There were times where I was angry. There were times where I was throwing my shoe at the TV. Every emotion it seemed like it went through.”

Even as life will now continue with the different actors involved, acknowledging the difficult process is noteworthy. In my study of such proposals, the religious groups do not always reach the outcome they desire nor do communities and residents always get what they want. Here, describing the process as “painful” could refer to a number of things – the time it took, figuring out the particulars, working with all of the interested parties, etc. – and very involved may have attained exactly what they wanted at the beginning.

It is also worth noting that the same group and site may be up for conversation again in the future. In order to help the proposal succeed, the Islamic Center of Naperville agreed to submit future changes for the building and property for review:

The final step pushing the proposal over the finishing line was a concession by the Islamic Center to submit its third, fourth and fifth phase to additional city council review when the time comes. A group representing the nearby subdivisions of Ashwood Pointe, Pencross Knoll and Tall Grass agreed to accept the proposal with those conditions.

Will the process at that point be less painful? The group has made two proposals and both times has encountered numerous questions from neighbors and community members. Some of the particular actors involved in those two discussions may be gone but the underlying questions may not.

Connecting urbanization and the strong commitment to a seven day week

A historian with a new book on the creation of a seven day week suggests urbanization in the modern helped make this happen:

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If you were to single out one factor, I would say urbanization. This really is a social phenomenon: It’s about people wanting to be able to make schedules with others, especially strangers, either in a consumer context or socially. When most people lived on farms or in small villages, they didn’t need to coordinate many activities with folks whom they didn’t see regularly.

It’s become much more important to know what day of the week it is. Today, a lot varies between one day of the week and the next—entertainment schedules, violin lessons, custody arrangements, or any of the millions of things that we attach to the seven-day cycle.

This would go along with the creation of time zones which similarly attempted to standardize time for the benefit of all the people who were now interacting and traveling. I wonder if this is also related somehow to the earlier adoption of clocks in cities in the Middle Ages. With more people gathered in a single community, having a common time and calendar could be useful for organizing activity.

More broadly, the shift to cities had significant impacts beyond geography and physical locations. The change to city life, specifically big city life, prompted new ways of understanding the world plus new methods for organizing people and knowledge. How people related to each other changed. How government operated changed. Daily activities and the meaning of those changed.

This is why I often start my Urban Sociology course with highlighting how some of the first sociologists in Europe – Marx, Durkheim, Weber, and a few others – noted and commented on urban life. Could you have the capitalism described by Marx without big city life? Durkheim contrasted organic and mechanical solidarity. Weber defined cities as market centers. And so on. The big city as the center of social, economic, political, and religious life had numerous implications for society.

Doctors connecting health and land use policies

A recent document from the American Medical Association and the Association of American Medical Colleges asks doctors to address health inequities by prioritizing structural conditions. Here is one example involving land use which first asks the conventional question and then highlights a health equity perspective:

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How can we promote healthy behavior?

How can we democratize land use policies through greater public participation to ensure healthy living conditions?

The second perspective highlights a structural perspective in two ways.

  1. Healthy behavior leans more toward an individualistic perspective. A person who has health concerns should adapt their behavior in order to be more healthy. In contrast, healthy living conditions suggests there is a broader context for the individual’s health. Healthy living conditions can help lead to healthier individuals.
  2. With healthy living conditions in mind, the new question highlights two ways that healthy living conditions come about: land use policies and greater public participation. This likely refers to research and experiences certain communities have with decisions made about where to locate land uses – ranging from coal power plants to landfills to manufacturing facilities with toxic output and more – that then affect health. Such decisions involve power, race/ethnicity, and social class as well as decision-making processes.

More broadly, land use in the United States is often determined by zoning and profit-seeking. Zoning often has the goal of protecting single-family homes. Land and location can be turned into money. Health is not a primary concern in all of these decisions even as it can lead to better health outcomes for some compared to others.

h/t Conor Friedersdorf in The Atlantic.

Sociologist Oliver Cox and the intertwined analysis of race and class

I read Jamlle Bouie in the New York Times last week describing the work of sociologist Oliver Cox. Here is part of the summary of Cox’s analysis:

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Cox was writing at a time when mainstream analysis of race in the United States made liberal use of an analogy to the Indian caste system in order to illustrate the vast gulf of experience that lay between Black and white Americans. His book was a rebuttal to this idea as well as an original argument in its own right.

Over the course of 600 pages, Cox provides a systematic study of caste, class and race relations, underscoring the paramount differences between caste and race, and, most important, tying race to the class system. “Racial antagonism,” he writes in the prologue, “is part and parcel of this class struggle, because it developed within the capitalist system as one of its fundamental traits.”

Put differently, to the extent that Cox had a single problem with the caste analysis of American racism, it was that it abstracted racial conflict away from its origins in the development of American capitalism. The effect was to treat racism as a timeless force, outside the logic of history…

“Race prejudice,” Cox writes, “developed gradually in Western society as capitalism and nationalism developed. It is a divisive attitude seeking to alienate dominant group sympathy from an ‘inferior’ race, a whole people, for the purpose of facilitating its exploitation.” What’s more, “The greater the immediacy of the exploitative need, the more insistent were the arguments supporting the rationalizations.”

Analyzing single social forces, such as ones as powerful as race in the United States, without considering how they intersect with or are intertwined with other social forces leads to incomplete analysis. It can be tempting, particularly when considering particular policy options, to reduce social phenomena to a singular factor and try to address that. But, as Cox suggests, only thinking about race without considering how it is embedded in a powerful economic system is not reflective of how the society works.

Today, it can be relatively easy to do the same: address race all by itself and attack racial prejudice and discrimination. But, race in the United States has been and continues to be tied to many other areas that also need addressing. The one that I have studied the most is residential segregation. This is both a consequence of the outworking of race and spatial patterns as well as an ongoing contributor to their continued intersection. And because where people live has consequences for numerous areas of their life, organizing residences and communities by race affects a lot. Residential segregation also is tied closely to social class both in how class is linked to race and ethnicity in the United States but also in the system of land development that privileges profits and leads to uneven development.

Viewing liked public figures as flawed humans, Paul McCartney and Ben Franklin edition

As a kid, I had a difficult time seeing current or past public figures as heroes or people to emulate. Perhaps this contributed to why I study sociology and often think of people in a collective. As an adult, I wonder about the flaws of public figures and the cultural narrative we see/hear about them versus what is true. Two recent examples with figures I have heard/seen/read about my entire life came to mind.

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Paul McCartney. Reviewing a new publication about McCartney’s song lyrics, an author says:

Reading song lyrics on a page is a definitively incomplete endeavor and in Paul’s case more than most, given that he’s one of the most aurally gifted people to ever walk the face of the earth. McCartney’s best lyrics are marvels of musicality, so expertly fitted to their setting that you almost take them for granted. Consider the beginning of 1965’s “I’ve Just Seen a Face,” an intoxicating tornado of language and, finally, non-language: “I’ve just seen a face/ I can’t forget the time and place where we’ve just met/ she’s just girl for me and I want all the world to see/ we’ve met, mm mm mm mmm mm.” He wants all the world to see they’ve met; what a beautiful little sentiment. Take, also, “Close your eyes, and I’ll kiss you,” such a perfect opening line for a love song that we forget that someone actually thought it up. He can be a master of evocation—“changing my life with a wave of her hand”—and aphoristic bons mots that stick in your head: “Love has a nasty habit of disappearing overnight.” Even better: “You may be a lover but you ain’t no dancer,” one of those perfectly McCartney-an phrases that feels like so much more than it actually says.

Paul McCartney has been one of the most famous people on earth for nearly 60 years, and in many ways, he has served as the best model of how to be a celebrity: He’s disarmingly amiable, boundlessly energetic, gracious and graceful in the face of unimaginable fame. And yet, beneath the charm and composure, there’s always been a guardedness to him; it’s notable, for instance, that McCartney’s never written a proper memoir, a fact he acknowledges in the foreword to The Lyrics. He’s carefully curated his public persona on his own terms, a move that’s occasionally mistaken for phoniness, or worse. His seemingly flippant reaction to John Lennon’s death mere hours after John’s murder, for instance, earned McCartney widespread scorn from rock press and fans, a vilification he wouldn’t live down for years. But watching the clip today is just heartbreaking: Here’s a man clearly in the throes of grief, struggling to hold it together in the face of the most ghoulish extremities of celebrity media. In his eyes is a raw and terrified vulnerability that’s impossible to shake.

Yet, Paul has his flaws. After reading a lot about the Beatles, his band mates knew these flaws. By the end of the career, they wondered if his endless interest in showmanship was an act or real. He could be perfectionistic and too flippant with his music. He showed less interest in deeper subject material. That these came out could be chalked up to different personalities and conflict among the band but they have also dogged him throughout his public life.

Ben Franklin is a second figure I have encountered in several ways recently. In reading Max Weber’s The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism with several groups of students, Franklin features prominently as an exemplar of the Puritan work ethic. Franklin is largely reduced to a set of aphorisms, admittedly famous ones. I also read through a children’s picture book biography of Franklin and they highlighted several major contributions he made. Yet, Franklin was also a flawed character. He had several long-lasting unrepaired relationships. He was a philander. He seriously pursued self-discipline but he could not achieve everything.

By nature of being revered public figures, there may not be much room for revealing or discussing flaws. Many historical treatments emphasize high points or the better sides of the heroes of the narrative. Yet, all humans are flawed. Many of the greatest figures had traits or behaviors they did not want to share or people did not want to focus on. Figuring out ways to acknowledge this with both living and past figures could be helpful in developing figures that are worth emulating.

Sears in Illinois began as catalog, became a department store, and ends in a suburban shopping mall

Sears has come to the end of the retail road in Illinois at Woodfield Mall:

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The last Sears department store in Illinois, which closes Sunday in the Woodfield Mall nearly a century after the retailer opened its first store ever in the Merchandise building, looks very, very…beige right now, in its final hours. Like beige on beige. Like the color of back-to-school Toughskins in 1974, the color of your uncle’s Corolla in 1982 and the color of linoleum at the DMV in any decade.

It opened the same day that Woodfield — named for Sears executive Robert Wood and department store magnate Marshall Field — opened in 1971. It was the largest Sears then, boasting 416,000 square feet of sales floor. From the looks of it in late 2021, it’s hard to imagine anything changed in 50 years…

At its peak, Sears, once the largest retailer in the country, had 3,000 locations, so naturally this Woodfield store is far from alone. Also dead after Sunday are Sears department stores in Pasadena, California; Maui, Hawaii; and Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. Long Island recently lost its last Sears department store; Brooklyn loses its last Sears on Thanksgiving Eve.

Indeed, seeing a Sears department store still serve as the anchor for a large mall right now is like a window into just how stormy and unmoored from the 21st century the American shopping mall has become. Sears sits at the south end of Woodfield, while JC Penny is at the northern end; Macy’s and Nordstroms occupy port and starboard sides.

There is a lot that could be lamented here (and is suggested in the piece): the experiences of many shoppers and employees, the connection of Sears and Chicago, bustling shopping areas now languishing, memories of earlier eras.

I find it interesting that the last Sears department store in Illinois closes in a shopping mall. And this is not just any mall: this is Woodfield, one of the largest in the United States, center of the fast-growing edge city Schaumburg. Department stores hit their stride in central business districts in the United States where rapid urbanization helped fuel consumer activity. But, the geography of business shifted as the population shifted to the suburbs. Department stores continued but now as anchors for a full range inside shopping experience primarily accessible by car. While suburbs are still growing, shopping malls are struggling and the fate of their department stores have both contributed to this decline and been affected by it.

The Internet may have hastened the decline of department stores but I wonder how much the move to the suburbs already weakened them. Stores need shoppers and it makes sense to move department stores closer to those shoppers (and other consumption opportunities). At the same time, the department store in a mall is different than the multiple floor downtown department store. Thinking along the same lines, how different are local stores, Sears, Walmart, and Amazon over time – which is the bigger jump and which factors mattered the most for the shift?

Thinking ahead, could the experience be recreated by putting a new Amazon store in the same spot? The location and infrastructure of the current setting is hard to beat. Shopping in person is still an important experience for many people even with Internet sales.