Estimate of over 1 million Americans displaced by highway construction

As the United States constructed highways starting in the twentieth century, how many residents were displaced? Here are some numbers:

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The Times found that more than 200,000 people nationwide have lost their homes because of federal road projects during that time, and that some of the country’s largest recent highway expansions, including in California, have forced out residents in Black and Latino neighborhoods at disproportionately high rates. And that’s in addition to the more than 1 million people pushed out during the initial period of freeway building in the mid-20th century via routes that often targeted Black communities for demolition.

That is a lot of people moved just for highways. In addition to affecting particular groups at higher rates, highways broke through established neighborhoods with existing ways of life.

But, the era of highway construction through certain neighborhoods started facing more resistance decades ago. Jane Jacobs was involved in a movement against a highway that would have cut through the middle of Manhattan. Neighborhoods throughout the United States successfully fought against highways. And some of the highways that once plowed through neighborhoods were changed or removed.

This does not mean highways are on the way out. However, it does mean that constructing a new highway or widening a highway in densely settled locations is not a foregone conclusion.

More research on race and space from sociologist Elijah Anderson

Sociologist Elijah Anderson continues his study of race in spaces with a new book. Here is part of an excerpt of that work:

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When an anonymous Black person enters the white space, often the people there immediately try to make sense of him or her – to determine “who that is”, or to figure out the nature of the person’s business and whether they need to be concerned. When the Black person is unknown, stereotypes can rule perceptions, creating a situation that can estrange the Black person. In these circumstances, almost any Black person can experience distance, especially a young Black male – not as a measure of his merit as a person but because of his Black skin and its indication of “outsider” status in the white space. Thus, such a Black person is burdened with a deficit of credibility, especially in comparison with their white counterparts.

Strikingly, a Black person’s deficit may be minimized or tentatively overcome by a performance, a negotiation, or what some Blacks refer to derisively as a “dance”, through which individual Blacks may be inclined to show white people and others that ghetto stereotypes do not apply to them personally; in effect, they perform for credibility or for acceptance. This performance can be as deliberate as dressing well and speaking in an educated way or as simple as producing an ID or a driver’s license in situations in which this would never be demanded of whites…

In the minds of many of their detractors, to scrutinize and stop Black people is to prevent crime and protect the neighborhood. Thus, for the Black person, particularly young males, virtually every public encounter results in a degree of scrutiny that a “normal” white person would certainly not need to endure.

A more subtle but critical version of this kind of profiling occurs in the typical workplace. From the janitor to a middle-level manager, Black people, until they have established themselves, live under the tyranny of the command performance. Around the office building, the Black male worker comes to be known publicly as “the Black guy in my building”, and if there are a few such “Black guys” working there who “roam” the premises, white workers at times confuse one with another, occasionally misidentifying the person by name. Given such racial ambiguity, the string of white people standing in line to witness the Black person’s performance, or “dance”, may encourage those who were once approving or convinced to demand an encore. Thus, as long as the Black person is present in the white space, he or she is likely to be “on”, performing before a highly judgmental but distant audience.

While I have not read this forthcoming book, this strikes me as a companion work of sorts to The Cosmopolitan Canopy where Anderson examined spaces where people of different racial and ethnic backgrounds could regularly interact. In those relatively rare settings, people could encounter each other and generally enjoy it.

In contrast, Anderson now highlights the ways in which Black people are not welcomed in numerous spaces. This is not just about abstract spheres in society; this is about physical arrangements and the ways that race matters for who can be there.

There is a lot to explore here and I look forward to the book. In a typical city or suburb, how much space is primarily for whites and policed in the ways Anderson cites above?

Data on whether Americans are moving due to politics

NPR reports on Americans moving to new locations because of politics. Here is some of the evidence presented:

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Residents have been fleeing states like California with high taxes, expensive real estate and school mask mandates and heading to conservative strongholds like Idaho, Tennessee and Texas.

More than one of every 10 people moving to Texas during the pandemic was from California, according to the Texas Real Estate Research Center at Texas A&M University. Most came from Southern California. Florida was the second biggest contributor of new Texans…

Political scientist Larry Sabato posted an analysis on Thursday that shows how America’s “super landslide” counties have grown over time.

Of the nation’s total 3,143 counties, the number of super landslide counties — where a presidential candidate won at least 80% of the vote — has jumped from 6% in 2004 to 22% in 2020…

Bishop’s book explains how Americans sorted themselves by politics, geography, lifestyle and economics over the preceding three decades. Sitting in a Central Texas café, Bishop says that trend has only intensified in the 14 years since the book’s publication.

I have read a lot of similar stories in recent years. All of this data, at face value, seems to make some sense: population flows from one set of states to another, the concentration of politically similar people in certain locations, and an ongoing sorting by politics.

At the same time, I am not completely convinced that it is politics driving moves. How often does a person, family, or business move solely because of politics or politics is the clear #1 reason? Politics might factor in an ultimate decision but I suspect jobs, retirement, and the locations of family are more often prime movers and/or large factors. Plus, the organization or sorting or residents has been going on for decades due to race/ethnicity (see the example of the suburbs) and social class (again, the suburbs). And could we consider how political patterns are related to race and class?

We can always find at least a few people who will describe moves undertaken to be closer to their political allies. I am not sure we are at the point where many are moving primarily or solely because of politics.

Deaths and COVID-19 by groups, communities in Cook County

COVID-19 is big in its effects but I am surprised we have not seen more coverage all over the place about who specifically is affected more within regions and big cities. WBEZ looks at recent data in Cook County, Illinois:

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In the earliest weeks of the pandemic, Chicago’s Black residents were dying of COVID-19 at alarming rates. More recently, in the few weeks since the arrival of the omicron variant, Black Chicagoans are again dying at much higher rates than their Asian, Latino and white counterparts, shows a WBEZ analysis of data on COVID-19 related deaths from the Cook County Medical Examiner’s Office.

Since Dec. 7, 2021, the date when the state’s first omicron case was found in Chicago, the city’s Black residents are dying at rates four times higher than Asians, three times higher than Latinos and nearly two times higher than white residents, according to WBEZ’s analysis. A total of 97 Black Chicagoans died of COVID-19 during the seven-day period ending Jan. 9, 2022 — more than at any point since May 11, 2020.

Black Chicagoans aren’t the only demographic that has been particularly vulnerable since the arrival of omicron. Older suburban Cook County residents have also seen their seven-day COVID-19 death totals reach levels not witnessed in more than a year. According to WBEZ’s analysis, a total of 181 suburban Cook County residents 60 years and older died from COVID-19 during the week ending Jan. 9, 2022. That’s the highest seven-day total for that group since Dec. 24, 2020…

While several communities on Chicago’s South and West sides have been hit hard by COVID-19, the pandemic’s death toll has also weighed heavily in various parts of suburban Cook County. WBEZ’s analysis finds some of the county’s highest COVID-19 death rates in parts of northwest suburban Niles, Norridge and Lincolnwood, southwest suburban Palos Heights, Chicago Ridge, Oak Lawn and Bridgeview; and south suburban Hazel Crest, Markham, Harvey, Robbins and Country Club Hills.

I am sure there are already and will continue to be many academic studies that examine these differences. Even as COVID-19 has impacted many, the impacts of COVID-19 are not distributed evenly. It arrived at a time of inequality, including in health outcomes and experiences, and it exacerbated issues.

At least in the Chicago area, data on this topic is available online. For example, I have tried to keep track of the disparate effects of COVID-19 in DuPage County where there are significant differences across racial and ethnic groups, age groups, and communities (earlier post here).

Alternative cultural histories, Dvořák and American music

I have always enjoyed the music of composer Antonín Dvořák. I am familiar with most of his compositions, starting as a kid listening to Symphony #9 over and over to finding many favorites later.

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What if American music had followed his lead in weaving American songs, particularly Black music, into classical compositions? I am finishing up the recent book Dvorak’s Prophecy: And the Vexed Fate of Black Classical Music. The publisher’s description:

In 1893 the composer Antonin Dvorák prophesied a “great and noble” school of American classical music based on the searing “negro melodies” he had excitedly discovered since arriving in the United States a year before. But while Black music would found popular genres known the world over, it never gained a foothold in the concert hall.

Joseph Horowitz ranges throughout American cultural history, from Frederick Douglass and Huckleberry Finn to Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess and the work of Ralph Ellison, searching for explanations. Challenging the standard narrative for American classical music fashioned by Leonard Bernstein and Aaron Copland, he looks back to literary figures—Emerson, Melville, and Twain—to ponder how American music can connect with a “usable past.” The result is a “new paradigm” that makes room for Black composers including Harry Burleigh, Nathaniel Dett, William Dawson, and Florence Price to redefine the classical canon.

Horowitz argues American classical music ignored and sidelined Black composers and music. Is there an alternative history that could have occurred?

While this falls out of bounds of typical academic research, it can be useful at times to think about ways events and narratives could have gone. In “”Objectivity” in Social Science and Social Policy,” Max Weber said sociology is interested in “on the one hand the relationships and the cultural significance of individual events in their contemporary manifestations and on the other the causes of their being historically so and not otherwise.

Horowitz hints at least three ways an alternative timeline could have gone: (1) more classical musicians attuned to American songs and culture rather than turning to European forms and/or modernism; (1) more recognition and knowledge about Black composers; (2) the inclusion of jazz in classical music and American culture more broadly; and (3) more classical music attuned to and drawing on American songs and culture rather than turning to European forms and/or modernism.

If these things had happened, what might be different? As a big fan of the Beatles, I think of ways that their music was directly influenced by numerous American Black rock ‘n’ roll artists. And they were not alone; so did Elvis and the Rolling Stones and others. Yet, when they presented their music as white artists, would the reception have been different if Black music had a more prominent role in the classical world starting in the late 1800s?

There is a lot to consider here and I look forward to finishing the book and exploring more of the music Horowitz write about.

Benefiting from racial covenants several generations later

One white Chicago resident describes how racial covenants contributed to his ability to purchase a home in the city:

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I think that pride in accomplishment is healthy, but there’s another sense to my pride in homeownership that is, or was, harmful. It’s painful to admit this, but I think I had an unconscious sense that by navigating all the hurdles to home ownership, I proved myself to be “deserving.” That I am, perhaps, more clever, harder-working, more reliable, and somehow more “worthy” of owning my own home than others who haven’t accomplished that.

And to be clear, I knew that my ability to buy a house was, in part, the result of privilege, related to historical and ongoing racism. I have known for years, in an abstract, intellectual way, that my family had pathways to middle-class stability that were not available to others. That inequity was intentional, and racist. My family is white, and I know my grandparents benefited from subsidized mortgages and education benefits that were part of the GI Bill of Rights, which was structured in a way to exclude African Americans and other non-whites. I knew racial discrimination affected who gets jobs, compensation, or who gets mortgage loans.

But recently, when I became aware of an ongoing project by my WBEZ colleague Natalie Moore, my feelings about my house, and particularly that pride in homeownership, became more complicated. Natalie has been researching racially restrictive housing covenants in Chicago, and inviting WBEZ listeners to research their own home, to see if it was ever subject to racially restrictive covenants. Racial deeds and covenants have been getting a lot of attention recently, as more Americans are coming to understand this dimension of American racism. These deeds and covenants, which in most cases restricted white sellers to sell only to white buyers, enforced segregation, excluding millions of African Americans from living in certain neighborhoods. That exclusion limited their ability to access home ownership and the attendant opportunity to build wealth…

When I was seeking to purchase my house in McKinley Park, Linda and my father helped me with a gift that allowed me to afford the downpayment. It was a gift they may not have been able to make without the inheritance from Linda’s parents, which in turn began with her grandfather’s development that excluded Black people and Jews. The gift I received wasn’t enormous, but without it, I would have had to save for at least another year and may have missed the opportunity to buy into my neighborhood at a low cost, as prices are rising.

The Matthew Effect in action: homeownership and wealth begets more homeownership and wealth. More broadly, if you have wealth it can be invested to create more wealth while it can be difficult to start on a path to wealth with little or none to start with.

Even as Americans connect homeownership to responsible homeowners and hard work, those are not the only factors involved. Others include access to capital both for a down payment and for a mortgage and access to particular residential units and communities (whether through formal or informal reactions). And because homes can be expensive and institutions and communities can change slowly, it takes time to acknowledge, address, and change past patterns.

Illinois residents can now remove racial covenants from their deeds but this does not mean there is not more to do to address residential segregation and access to housing.

Focusing mass transit on those who need it or commuters

Looking at those who continued to use mass transit during COVID-19 helps raise the question of who public transit should serve:

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Yes, public transit ridership dropped like a stone after many places instituted stay-at-home orders. Americans took 186 million transit rides in the last week of February 2020, according to data compiled by the American Public Transit Association; a month later, that number had fallen by 72 percent, to 52.4 million. At the Port Authority of Allegheny County, which operates in the Pittsburgh area, ridership fell 68 percent.

Who kept riding? In a country where race is tied to economic opportunity and geography, transit riders have long been disproportionately low-income and people of color. Maybe it shouldn’t have been a surprise, but they were the riders who stuck around. An analysis from the APTA found that white men were more likely to have given up transit during the pandemic; people of color, people who spoke Spanish, and women did not…

But US public transit has generally focused on commuters, especially those with traditional 9-to-5 schedules, who travel between city fringes and downtown business districts—riders who are less likely to be low-income and more likely to be white. That’s despite the fact that, even in the biggest cities, where transit use is more common, just half of pre-pandemic trips were to and from work. In smaller systems, the share is even less. The Port Authority of Allegheny County isn’t an exception. “Our system is very downtown centric, and it has historically relied very much on the commuter,” says Brandolph, the spokesperson. As a result, service within cities, serving people with less-regular work schedules or who took transit for other purposes, got short shrift.

That age may be over, says Alex Karner, who studies transportation equity as an assistant professor at the University of Texas at Austin’s School of Architecture. “The pandemic really exposed the truth that there are people for whom public transit is a vitally important public service,” he says. He says agencies now realize they will no longer be able to rely on peak-period commuters. When Urban Institute researchers surveyed 73 US and Canadian agencies on what service might look like in a “post-pandemic” era, more than half said they thought “peak period” travel would decrease. Nearly 70 percent said white-collar workers would take fewer rides. So transit agencies must decide what the new normal will be—and who it will serve.

In a country devoted to driving, those who have alternatives to mass transit to get to work will use those. Additionally, there is a class element to how mass transit is used and regarded and COVID-19 made work from home possible for some and not others.

The underlying assumption here appears to be that public transit cannot or cannot easily serve both groups of users. One aspect of this is that underlying patterns of residential segregation in cities and urban areas mean potential riders live in different locations. Additionally, later parts of the story cited above highlight the money mass transit systems have at the moment due to federal funds.

In the long run, when wealthier residents are asked to devote more funds to mass transit for equity and those who need it, will they agree? In Chicago, this has manifest in limited mass transit service in some areas compared to others. The new federal money means the Red Line can be extended on the South side. How far can efforts go? In other metro areas in recent years, wealthier suburbanites (see Nashville) have rejected efforts to expand mass transit. When suburbs are increasingly diverse and home to poorer residents, is there will to have consistent mass transit service?

Chicago aldermen and affordable housing, public housing

HUD is examining the connection between the power of Chicago aldermen over zoning and development in their wards and affordable housing in the city:

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Housing activists and lawyers filed a complaint over aldermanic prerogative with HUD in 2018, alleging that allowing aldermen de facto veto power over most development proposals in their wards promotes housing discrimination by keeping low-income minorities from moving into affluent white neighborhoods.

The complaint against the city alleges that “aldermanic prerogative” helps residents who fear racial change pressure aldermen to block affordable housing projects by publicly raising concerns over school overcrowding, declining property values and other “camouflaged racial expressions.”

HUD officials continue investigating the matter and sent a letter to aldermen Dec. 1 asking them a series of questions about aldermanic prerogative, including how they define the term.

This reminded me of how aldermen helped shape the locations of public housing projects after World War Two. From the Encyclopedia of Chicago:

When Congress passed the Housing Act of 1949, which provided substantial funding for public housing, CHA was ready with a map of proposed sites for projects to be built on open land throughout the city, but the city council rejected this map altogether. White aldermen rejected plans for public housing in their wards. CHA’s policy thereafter was to build family housing only in black residential areas or adjacent to existing projects. This rejection explains the concentration of public housing in the city center on the South and West Sides.

In a city marked by residential segregation, numerous methods for keeping Black residents out of white neighborhoods, and white flight away from the city, the protection of certain areas has been a major emphasis. Affordable housing and public housing are typically viewed as unattractive land uses in whiter and wealthier communities with residents and leaders expressing concerns about property values, safety, and other matters with a sometimes stated and sometimes not underlying factor of race and ethnicity.

The need for affordable housing is great in Chicago, as it is in a number of major cities. But, who will compel neighborhoods or communities to accept that affordable housing should something everyone should bear responsibility for? Outside of some court cases and occasional legislative (Illinois and California as examples) or executive branch rumblings, the deck is stacked against affordable housing for multiple reasons. This includes an American emphasis on local government, particularly concerning local zoning and land use which is often set up to protect single-family homes. Americans often elect local representatives with the idea that they will protect the voter’s neighborhood and way of life.

Less clear from this article is what exactly HUD or others would if they find aldermen restricted affordable housing in the city.

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?

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.