Repost: race matters in American life until we can show it does not

Watching police brutality and the response from all sides reminds me of a post I made on a similar topic on September 28, 2011:

I like how Harris-Perry flips this objection: looking at the broad sweep of American history, from its days of more overt racism to more covert racism today, why don’t we assume that racism plays a role in everyday life in this society? Can we really assume, as many seem to do, that the issues with race ended at some point, either in the Civil Rights legislation of the 1960s or in the election of minority politicians or the ending of segregationist society in the South? With plenty of indicators of racial disparity today, from online comments from young adults to incarceration rates to homeownership to wealth to residential segregation, perhaps we should we see racism as a default feature of American society until proven otherwise.

I would argue the story is not any different in 2020. The disparities are still present, police actions repeat themselves, and there are predictable disagreements about what it all means (with the calls to choose between opposing police violence and “law and order”).

Disproportionate COVID-19 cases among Latinos in the Chicago suburbs

The disproportionate impact of COVID-19 includes suburban Latinos in the Chicago area who have more cases than their percent of the population.

They are factory, service and restaurant industry workers; meatpackers; cashiers; grocery store clerks. They work in health care as housekeepers, nurses and doctors at hospitals and nursing facilities, increasing their risk of exposure. Close-quarter living in extended family groups also prevents proper social distancing, contributing to the virus spreading within poor families.

Many essential workers like Guerrero must go out “to earn their daily bread to feed their families,” as she said through a Spanish-language interpreter…

State data shows 54% of Latinos tested are confirmed to have the virus ­– the highest percentage among all racial and ethnic groups. The proportions are 14.4% for whites, 31% for blacks and 30% among Asians, as of Sunday…

Experts also say many low-wage earning Latinos delay seeking medical care when symptoms arise, possibly due to fears over immigration status, lack of access to health care and having poor or no health insurance.

Covid19AmongLatinos

COVID-19 data from DuPage County in early April hinted at this based on which zip codes had higher rates of cases.

I wonder if the findings about more cases among blacks in Chicago and Latinos in the Chicago suburbs are connected to more consistent patterns across places in the United States. The hypothesis would be that those who are more economically disadvantaged in a community or area have higher rates of infection. If true, this would suggest social class is a key factor in COVID-19 or heavily intertwined with race and ethnicity. I have not seen much about social class and COVID-19 exposure, rates, and death. At the same time, there are plenty of stories about people with means leaving New York City as well as statistical evidence that more wealthy residents left their neighborhoods.

Chicago’s rail and intermodal facilities, pollution, and COVID-19

One of Chicago’s advantages is its transportation sector, particularly the railroad and truck traffic that passes in and through the region. But, the railyards and intermodal facilities where rail and truck traffic converge can cause a lot of pollution, even during COVID-19:

But for reasons that have yet to be fully explained, people in Chicago and its suburbs aren’t breathing dramatically cleaner air during the pandemic…

Likely culprits include buildings, factories and diesel engines that burn coal, oil or natural gas. Diesel emissions in particular remain a chronic problem in Chicago, a racially segregated freight hub where rail yards, warehouses and intermodal facilities are concentrated in low-income, predominantly African American and Latino neighborhoods.

“We already have roughly double the amount of heavy-duty traffic than other major cities in the country,” said Zac Adelman, executive director of the Lake Michigan Air Directors Consortium, a group of state officials from Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, Ohio, Minnesota and Wisconsin…

During the past decade, scientists at the U.S. EPA have discovered daily spikes of soot pollution near intermodal facilities in Chicago and other cities that far exceed average urban concentrations.

The article primarily focuses on Chicago where intermodal and railroad facilities tend to be located near poorer residents. Leaders have sought to move traffic away from the center of Chicago and more to the edges of the region, but this means this is also a problem for the entire region. With numerous facilities far from Chicago, such as in Will County or as far as New Rochelle near Rockford, the air quality for millions is affected. It would also be worth looking at where the suburban and exurban facilities are located; what residents are most affected? How far away are these facilities from wealthier communities?

The article also suggests new regulations mandating cleaner locomotives and trucks would help. How this would play within a region that relies on the transportation industry – Chicago was not only the convergence center for Midwest commodities, it also developed the capacity to move those goods throughout the United States and world – would be interesting to watch. Suburbanites would not like the pollution if they knew about it or were concerned about it in their own neighborhoods or elsewhere nor do they like the inconveniences of a lot of rail and truck traffic. Yet, they like cheaper goods and jobs, perhaps even more so if the immediate problems of pollution are borne by other residents of the region.

Disparities in COVID-19 cases in DuPage County?

As news came out in recent days about disparities in COVID-19 cases and deaths by race in Chicago (and now the AP shows blacks are disproportionately affected in numerous American locations), I wondered how this plays out in DuPage County. The second most populous county in Illinois (after Cook County) has a reputation for wealth, conservative politics, and numerous jobs.

First, looking at COVID-19 cases across DuPage County communities as reported by the DuPage County Health Department on April 8:

DuPageCountyCOVID19casesCommunitiesApr0820

The numbers differ across communities, with some DuPage County municipalities still having no confirmed cases while others have 40+ (and Naperville, the largest community by population in DuPage County, leads the way with 71 cases). But, it would be useful to have rates as the populations differ quite a bit in DuPage County. The Chicago Tribune has an interactive map that shows cases by zip code and also provides rates of COVID-19 cases per 100,000 (but appears to be missing data compared to the DuPage County map). Across the zip codes in DuPage County listed, the rates of cases range from the 50s to the 140s per 100,000. Working with both the absolute numbers and the rates, a few communities stand out: Addison, Lombard, Carol Stream, and West Chicago.

DuPageCountyCOVID19ratesApr0820

DuPage County has a different population composition than Chicago or Cook County. For DuPage County as a whole, 66.3% are white alone (not Hispanic or Latino), 14.5% are Latino, 12.6% Asian, and 5.3% Black.Of course, these demographics can differ pretty dramatically across different communities (Oak Brook looks different than West Chicago which looks different than Glendale Heights). While the reported data does not have a breakdown across racial/ethnic groups (and without this it is impossible to see who has contracted COVID-19 in these communities), some of the higher rates of cases are in communities that are more diverse (Lombard is an exception): Addison is 40.6% Latino (44.7% white not Latino), Carol Stream is 19.3% Asian and 14.9% Latino (and 57.2% white not Latino), and West Chicago is 52.9% Latino (36.5% white not Latino).

Second, addressing age, there are several stories about COVID-19 cases in DuPage County senior homes. The most notable case was a center in Willowbrook (where as of April 7 eight of the county’s 26 deaths had occurred), it also hit a community in Carol Stream, and eight more deaths in the county were attributed to long term care facilities. As of yesterday afternoon, 17 of the 28 COVID-19 deaths in the county occurred among long term care residents.

People 65 years old or older make up 15.5% of the population in DuPage County. Lombard is right at the county average while the other three communities with higher rates are lower than the county average.

Third, all four of the communities with higher rates of COVID-19 cases are below the county median household income. While Lombard is just below the county poverty rate, the other three communities are higher. For DuPage County, the poverty rate is 6.6% and the median household income is $88,711. (A side note on social class: wealthier communities may have fewer households receiving stimulus checks. For example, “About 30% of Naperville households earn too much to COVID-19 stimulus money, study finds.” I imagine there would be similar results in other DuPage County communities with higher incomes.)

More detailed data would obviously enhance our abilities to examine patterns in COVID-19 cases in suburban settings. And the patterns could look different even in the Chicago region: wealthier DuPage and Lake counties might have different patterns compared to other Chicagoland areas. But, I do hope that data does come eventually; while much attention is now focused on big cities, COVID-19 is widespread throughout numerous metropolitan regions, individual suburban governments have limited resources and abilities to tackle the issue, and the risk of contracting and being harmed by COVID-19 could vary quite a bit across suburban residents and businesses.

Quick Review: Suburbicon

I try to keep up with movies, books, TV shows, and music about the suburbs. I recently watched the 2017 film Suburbicon. Here are three thoughts:

1. The basic plot of the film extends a decades-long emphasis on the underbelly of suburban life. The main focus is on what looks like a typical suburban family – white, middle-class with the father working in a corporate office, one kid, in a recently-constructed suburban community – but they turn out to have family issues. The question at the end of the IMDB summary – “Who would have thought that darkness resides even in Paradise?” – is one that dozens of works have considered.

2. The twist to this film is that the under-the-surface issues of the white family are juxtaposed with the experiences of a black family who moves into the home directly behind the white family. As soon as I heard the last name of the black family (Mayers), I thought of this incident from 1957 in Levittown, Pennsylvania:

It began on the afternoon of Aug. 13, 1957, when the Levittown Times newspaper (the precursor to the Bucks County Courier Times) reported “The First Negro Family to buy a Levittown home” had moved into a house at 43 Deepgreen Lane in the Dogwood Hollow section that morning. The family included William Myers, his wife, Daisy, and their three small children…

Day 1: Within hours after the newspaper hit the streets, small groups of agitated Levittowners are already gathering in front of the Myers home. Throughout the evening, the crowd continues to grow. By midnight, more than 200 shouting men, women and children cluster on the Myers’ front lawn. A group of teens throw rocks through the Myers’ front picture window, and 15 Bristol Township police officers are dispatched to the scene. Soon, the county sheriff arrives, and orders the crowd to disperse. By 12:30 a.m., two adults and three teens have been arrested. Now, with the violence increasing, the sheriff wires the Pennsylvania State Police asking for immediate assistance. His request states, ”…the citizens of Levittown are out of control.”…

Day 7: As darkness settles, a group estimated at about 500 men, women and children gather directly across the street from the Myers house. Despite repeated warnings to leave, many in the crowd stand defiant — screaming, shouting and cursing at police. Finally, 22 state troopers, swinging clubs, charge into their midst. Men are slapped across their backs and knocked down; women are slapped across their buttocks. Many in the crowd become hysterical. Curses, cries and shouts of “Gestapo” are hurled at the troopers. Following the melee, remnants of the crowd linger along Haines Road well into the early morning hours. At one point, they defiantly join together to sing “America” (better known as “My Country ’Tis of Thee.”).

Day 8: About 500 men, women and children gather along the Farmbrook section of Haines Road. A rock is thrown, striking a Bristol Township police sergeant on the head and knocking him unconscious. He is rushed to Lower Bucks Hospital, then transferred to Rolling Hills Hospital. He suffers a concussion and ear lacerations, but fortunately will soon recover. A 15-year-old boy is seized in the incident, but later released. State police inform the protesters, “A police officer has been injured … Absolutely no more crowds will be permitted in the area.”

By midnight, the crowd has disappeared.

There is no direct commentary about the contemporaneous fates of the two families but the connection is interesting to consider. The white family cannot hold themselves together while the black family simply wants to live a quiet suburban life? The two boys are able to interact even as the adults lose their heads? The community cares about skin color more than they do about violent acts?

3. I wonder how much narratives about the hidden negative aspects resonate with viewers. For those who already dislike the suburbs, perhaps it feeds the critiques. But, for suburbanites or for those who aspire to living in the suburbs, does a story like this seem credible? It reminds me of a quote from sociologist Bennett Berger after studying a working-class suburb:

The critic waves the prophet’s long and accusing finger and warns: ‘You may think you’re happy, you smug and prosperous striver, but I tell you that the anxieties of status mobility are too much; they impoverish you psychologically, they alienate you from your family’; and so on. And the suburbanite looks at his new house, his new car, his new freezer, his lawn and patio, and, to be sure, his good credit, and scratches his head bewildered.

If there are plenty of racists down the street in suburbia or families that fall apart, does this stop others from living in suburbia?

Racialized McMansions

When I examined the complexity of the term McMansion in New York City and Dallas newspapers, I did not run into this dimension from the San Gabriel Valley as detailed by Wendy Cheng in The Changs Next Door to the Díazes:

In early twenty-first-century multiethnic suburbs with a significant immigrant Chinese presence such as the West SGV, struggles over the landscape are still racially coded in terms of values and territory. For instance (as mentioned in Chapter 2), public discourse around McMansions or “monster homes” – a practice associated with wealthy ethnic Chinese immigrants of tearing down a newly purchased house in order to build a larger house, usually resulting in significant reduction of yard space – is one way in which Asian immigrants are depicted as being unable to conform to American values and ideals. Such practices render them unfit as neighbors and, by extension, as members of American civil society. In short, places coded as Chinese or Asian, like the nineteenth- and twentieth-century Chinatowns before them, continue to be seen either as threats encroaching on implicitly white, American suburban space or as autonomous foreign spaces that serve particular functions but are not to exceed their prescribed bounds. The prescription and negotiation of these bounds is a conflictual process, with both symbolic and material consequences. (133-134)

Here, the term McMansion is fulfilling two dimensions of the term McMansion I discussed: it is meant as a pejorative term and it applies to a situation where a property owner tears down a home and constructs a larger home. Both are common uses for the term.

Typically, McMansion concerns involve wealthier and white residents. The term can have classist connotations: the nouveau riche may purchase a McMansion to show off their wealth while those with more taste would purchase a modernist home or go a custom architect-designed home. In this particular context, McMansion is applied to a particular group of owners as well as their position in the community and the country. This is not just about a newcomer coming in with resources and disrupting a particular neighborhood character. This usage links McMansions to a broader history of race and ethnicity plus ongoing conflicts in many American communities, suburbs included, about who is welcome. Single-family homes are not the only feature of the suburban American Dream; this ideal also includes exclusion by race and ethnicity. And to welcome a new resident with the term McMansion is not intended to be a kind beginning.

I will look for further connections of McMansions to race and ethnicity. Are there other communities in the Los Angeles area where McMansion is used in similar ways? Is the term applied to other racial or ethnic groups in other places?

Presenting suburban growth and the role of race differently in high school textbooks

A longer look at state differences in history textbooks includes this bit about suburban growth:

HistoryTextbooksSuburbsJan1220no1

HistoryTextbooksSuburbsJan1220no2We cannot fully understand places and communities without knowing about how race and ethnicity plays a part in the story. It is clear that the past included a whole host of legal and informal structures existed from the beginning of suburbs to keep non-whites out. This included: redlining, sundown towns, refusing potential homeowners in Levittown, government policies that helped whites move from cities, and exclusionary zoning. I argue this is one of the reasons suburbanites like suburbs so much: they were able to exclude those they did not want to live near. Some of these techniques, and more recent ones, still work to help keep some suburbs more homogeneous even as more immigrants and non-white residents moved to suburbia and residential segregation has decreased.

Without widespread knowledge of how the American suburbs developed, perhaps this is why exist videos like “The Disturbing History of the Suburbs” exist. The suburbs may not be only about race – I list six other factors that matter as well though the seven factors are all intertwined – but suburbs are not simply the result of neutral free-market forces. Understanding what helped create the suburbs and gives social life in suburbs today its shape will help give future suburbanites, perhaps a majority of Americans, better operate within their context and potentially shape new kinds of suburbs.