New study: “How Well-Intentioned White Families Can Perpetuate Racism”

A new sociology study followed 36 white ten to thirteen year olds to see how they approached race. Sociologist Margaret Hagerman describes her findings in an interview:

I use the phrase bundled choices because it seemed to me that there were some pretty striking patterns that emerged with these families in terms of how they set up their children’s lives. For example, I talk in the book about how choosing a neighborhood leads to a whole bunch of other choices—about schools, about the other people in the neighborhood. Decisions about who to carpool with, decisions about which soccer team to be on—you want to be on the same one as all your friends, and all these aspects of the kid’s life are connected to the parents’ choices about where to live.

I’m trying to show in the book that kids are growing up in these social environments that their parents shape. They’re having interactions with other people in these environments, and that’s, I think, where they’re developing their own ideas about race and privilege and inequality…

In my book, I’m trying to highlight this tension between the broad, overarching social structures that organize all of our lives and the individual choices that people make from within these structures. So yeah, if we had equal educational opportunities, people would not be able to make choices that would confer advantages to their child over someone else’s child, right? That wouldn’t even be a possibility. Certainly, the structural level really matters.

But the best answer I can really give is that the micro level potentially could shape what goes on at the institutional or structural level. I really think—and this might sound kind of crazy—that white parents, and parents in general, need to understand that all children are worthy of their consideration. This idea that your own child is the most important thing—that’s something we could try to rethink. When affluent white parents are making these decisions about parenting, they could consider in some way at least how their decisions will affect not only their kid, but other kids. This might mean a parent votes for policies that would lead to the best possible outcome for as many kids as possible, but might be less advantageous for their own child. My overall point is that in this moment when being a good citizen conflicts with being a good parent, I think that most white parents choose to be good parents, when, sometimes at the very least, they should choose to be good citizens.

Based on the interview, this sounds pretty consistent with existing research. Families with economic means will often choose good things for their children while either thinking little of the consequences for others or rationalizing their choices as being a good parent for putting their children first. This sounds like much of suburbia that emphasizes helping your children get ahead or the idea of “dream hoarders.”

This also sounds like Thomas Schelling’s work about how preferences for certain kinds of neighbors can aggregate to larger patterns of residential segregation. If everyone is just looking out for their own children, then larger structures develop.

These findings suggest Americans have limited understandings of how to address the public good. Many such decisions seem to be binary: pursue what is good for your family versus what might be good for everyone. What about options that could be good for everyone in the long run? Does it always have to be a zero-sum game?

 

Reasons why five south Chicago suburbs lead the way in black homeownership rates

A report from Pew Charitable Trusts ranks five suburbs south of Chicago – Olympia Fields, South Holland, Flossmoor, Matteson, and Lynwood – in the top ten nationally for homeownership rates for blacks. Here is how this happened:

“We took a strong approach to diversity back in the 1970s and 1980s,” De Graff said. “We passed the strongest fair housing ordinance in the nation.”…

Flossmoor and South Holland are among towns where policies embrace values of diversity. On Aug. 20, the Flossmoor Village Board adopted a set of “Guiding Principals for Diversity & Inclusion.”…

“The white population of this area shrank dramatically from a majority of 62.6 percent in 1990 to 37.6 percent in 2000,” his report said…

Mayors offered other analysis about the Pew report that sheds light on why several south suburbs lead the nation in black homeownership rates. Burke and De Graff said Olympia Fields and South Holland have few multi-family housing units and that their communities consist mostly of single-family homes.

On one hand, this would seem to signal progress. Many suburbs were closed to blacks and other minorities for decades. Only in the last few decades decades have blacks been able to move into more communities and the population shift has picked up in recent years. On the whole, the suburbs are now more non-white.

On the other hand, the story hints at ongoing difficulties. The homeownership rate for blacks on the whole in the United States is still low: 41%. The suburbs just to the west of these suburbs – categorized in the story as southwest suburbs – have a very low percentage of black residents. Finally, the white population dropped in these suburbs in the 1990s as blacks moved in. White flight continues.

Does this all represent success – access to the suburban American Dream for blacks – or an ongoing story of exclusion as whites flee and limit black homeownership to a relatively small portion of a large metropolitan area?

Suburban schools (“institutions that are supposed to be the best”) and race (“the deeper systematic issues of race in this country”)

The new documentary America To Me looks at race in a well-funded suburban high school in the Chicago area:

“When you look at institutions that are supposed to be the best, and look at where they fail, you get a deeper understanding of where we’re failing as a whole, everywhere,” James said in a telephone interview.

James and three segment directors spent the 2015-16 academic year embedded inside the high school to follow 12 students in what appears to be a challenging, model educational environment for a highly diverse student body…

“What I hope people take away is a much more complete and full understanding of some of the deeper systematic issues of race in this country,” James said, “even in liberal communities like Oak Park. Even in well-funded school systems like Oak Park’s.”…

“Just because you live in suburban America,” James said, “if you’re black or biracial, it doesn’t mean everything’s cool.”

The setup is a good one: the suburbs are supposed to the places where the residents who live there can together share in amenities like nice single-family homes and local institutions, including schools, that help their children get ahead. If you live in the suburbs, many might assume you have a pretty good life.

But, of course, race and ethnicity matters in the suburbs as well. Historically and today, suburbs can work to exclude certain kinds of residents, often along race and class lines. Suburbs can have some of the same residential segregation issues as big cities. This means that students may be near each other in schools but may not necessarily live near each other or share other settings. Suburban poverty is up in recent decades. All together, just because someone lives in the suburbs does not guarantee a good job or a white middle-class lifestyle.

Regardless of where the documentary ends up at the end, perhaps it can help show what the suburbs of today often look like. The image of white, postwar suburban homes may match a few communities but many others are more diverse and face occasional or more persistent issues.

“One Naperville” sticker, more diverse suburb

While recently at a rest stop in Indiana, I saw a minivan with an Illinois license plate and this sticker on the back:

No automatic alt text available.

Given the uniqueness of the sticker and my scholarly interest in Naperville, I almost snapped a picture of the vehicle but did not feel so inclined with its passengers standing not too far away. Instead, I found the image on the Internet. I do not know if there are ongoing “One Naperville” efforts but I found an event from September 11, 2016 commemorating 9/11 put on by the Naperville Interfaith Leadership Alliance. The similarities in style to the “Coexist” bumper stickers are due to the makers of this sticker (see bottom right). The peacemonger.org people are the same ones behind the original “Coexist” design.

Naperville is known for a number of features including its wealth, its high ranking in a number of listings of quality places (examples here, here, and here), its fast-growing population at the end of the twentieth century, its vibrant downtown, its office space along I-88, and, more recently, its diversity. According to QuickFacts from the U.S. Census Bureau:

NapervilleQuickFacts

That this large and wealthy suburb is only 68.1% white alone is notable. The diversity is noticeable in different retail establishments, those using the city’s Riverwalk, the local government naming liaisons to minority groups, and the presence of different religious groups (including mosques).

However, Naperville was not always this way.

Why Americans love suburbs #3: race and exclusion

The most difficult choice in ranking the reasons Americans love suburbs came between this reason – which I ultimately put at #3 – and the #2 reason involving families and children. The reason this choice was so difficult is that race is a foundational factor in American life. I have argued before that race should be considered a factor until proven otherwise, rather than the other way around where it is easy to limit discussion of race to blatant racism or discrimination.

While the suburbs are a central feature of American life, they from the beginning reproduced one of the other central features of American life: the suburbs were primarily intended for white people. The segregation was more obvious and protected in the past. This included sundown towns, Levittown not allowing black residents, and restrictive covenants excluding a variety of racial and ethnic groups. Blacks did have separate suburbs. The separation between white and non-white residents, particularly whites and blacks, is still present today in suburbs through residential segregation. The more recent segregation is due to factors like a lack of affordable housing (often challenged by wealthier and whiter suburbanites – see examples here and here), exclusionary zoning, housing discrimination, and unequal lending practices such as predatory lending. This can be illustrated by one Chicago suburb that claimed to be “home to proud Americans,” words that hint at a largely whiter and wealthier population.

It is therefore not a coincidence that a factor that contributed to the postwar suburban boom in the United States was a phenomena known as white flight. As millions of blacks moved to Northern cities in The Great Migration, government policies (changing mortgage guidelines, redlining, the construction of interstate highways) and desires to avoid blacks led many white Americans to move to the suburbs.

But, this was not necessarily a new phenomena. As cities expanded in size in the late 1800s, fewer and fewer suburbanites wanted to be part of the big city. Until roughly the 1890s, many big cities annexed nearby suburbs (such as Chicago with Hyde Park, Boston with Roxbury, and New York City with Brooklyn) as there were still benefits to being part of the big city (such as tapping into sewer systems). However, this stopped around this time as suburbs could better afford their own public improvements and cities became less desirable. What were the urban problems that pushed suburbanites away? A combination of factors played a role including overcrowding and dirtiness but immigration and new groups moving to the city also mattered.

While all of this could also be couched in terms of Americans preferring small-town life (and there is plenty of evidence to suggest this is true), it is worth thinking about what that small-town feel is really about. Americans like urban amenities, even if they do not want to live near them, and the suburbs offer easy access to many amenities within metropolitan regions. Americans do not want to live in rural small towns – even if Americans are nostalgic for such places, over 80% of Americans live in urban areas. Yet, many suburbs are not small (even as large ones, such as Naperville, claim to still have a small town feel). I suspect part of the small-town feel is really about racial and ethnic homogeneity.

Throughout all of this, the American suburbs have recently become more racially and ethnically diverse. More blacks are moving to the suburbs, whether outside Chicago, Seattle, Kansas City, or elsewhere. Many new immigrants are moving directly to suburbs. But, it could be a long time before non-whites achieve parity of location in suburban areas.

(Of course, social class also plays a role in all of this as race/ethnicity and social class are intertwined throughout American history. Non-white suburbanites who are middle-class or upper-class may be more palatable to white suburbanites. For example, it is interesting to see responses to increasing suburban poverty: will more suburban communities address the issue, such as through offering social services, or will they try to limit lower-income residents?)

Chicago aldermen: from selecting public housing sites to blocking affordable housing

Even as Chicago’s mayor suggests more interest in affordable housing, a new report from the Chicago Fair Housing Alliance shows how Chicago aldermen used “aldermanic prerogative” to slow down, water down, or reject certain kinds of housing projects:

Much of the City Council’s power over development is unwritten and informal.

Typically, if a development in a ward needs a zoning change or permit, and the development is not supported by the alderman of that ward, the proposal is voted down if it ever reaches the full City Council. In some cases, a developer can make a proposal, and the presiding alderman or zoning advisory council will dictate changes — such as how many of the apartments will be condominiums and how many should be set aside for lower-income residents. Those negotiations have to be navigated before the proposal can reach the City Council. The development proposal can also linger in the zoning committee, which is another way it eventually dies from inaction…

The study’s authors examined how zoning laws were used to keep low-income public housing residents confined to certain communities and how private market rate housing has been engineered to confine lower-income residents to specific neighborhoods. They also reviewed case by case what happened with most recent efforts to create affordable housing across Chicago…

The report suggests that in order to ensure affordable housing, the city has to take steps to change the way business is conducted and develop a citywide protocol. That plan would have to force each ward to bear some of the weight of producing affordable housing.

Given Chicago’s long history of residential segregation, I would suggest this is primarily about race: wealthier and whiter neighborhoods do not want black and non-white residents to be able to move in. While the issue may seem to be housing with cheaper values or the preference that neighborhood residents have for local control, at the root, this is about controlling who can live in certain places. If given the opportunity, local officials will claim they are simply representing the interests of their constituents.

And this aldermanic power regarding housing has a long history. Here is part of the tale regarding the early days of public housing in the city retold in Alex Kotlowitz’s There Are No Children Here (p. 21-22):

The city’s aldermen first bullied the state legislature into giving them the power of selecting public housing site, a prerogative that had previously belonged to the local housing authority.

Then a group of leading aldermen, who were not above petty vindictiveness, chartered a bus to tour the city in search of potential sites. On the bus ride, they told reporters that they were out to seek vengeance against the Chicago Housing Authority and the seven aldermen who supported public housing, and they chose sites in neighborhoods represented by these aldermen. Like prankish teenagers, they selected the most outrageous of possibilities, including the tennis courts at the University of Chicago and a parcel of land that sat smack in the middle of a major local highway. The message was clear: the CHA and its liberal backers could build public housing but not in their back yards.

The complexes were not, in the end, built at these sites. Instead, they were constructed on the edges of the city’s black ghettoes.

In many instances, the primary way black and other non-white residents have been able to move into new city neighborhoods or suburbs is when whites are willing to leave.

 

Bill O’Reilly, growing up in Levittown, and experiences with race

While doing some research on suburbs and race, I ran into a 2014 exchange between Jon Stewart and Bill O’Reilly about the latter growing up in Levittown, New York:

Of Levittown, Stewart riffed, “It gave you a nice stable, a cheap home — there was no down payments. It was this incredible opportunity … Those houses were subsidized … It wasn’t lavish,” said Stewart.

The back-and-forth that followed is essential to understanding the Fox News celebrity:

O’Reilly: No, they weren’t subsidized. They were sold to GIs, and the GIs got a mortgage they could afford.

Stewart: Did that upbringing leave a mark on you even today?

O’Reilly: Of course. Every upbringing leaves a mark on people.

Stewart: Could black people live in Levittown?

O’Reilly: Not in that time — they could not.

Stewart: So that, my friend, is what we call in the business “white privilege.”

O’Reilly: That was in 1950, all right.

Stewart: Were there black people living there in 1960?

O’Reilly: In Levittown? I don’t know.

Stewart: There weren’t.

O’Reilly: How do you know?

Stewart: Because I read up on it.

O’Reilly: Oh, you read up! You don’t know that. I can find somebody…Why would you want to live there? It’s a nice place, but it’s not a place like … Bel Air, come on!

The paradigmatic suburb of the post-World War II era did not allow blacks in the community for years. This influenced thousands of residents in Levittown, thousands of black residents who instead had to move to other suburbs, and many more who lived in similar suburbs across the country that had similar exclusions.

While the conversation above is about Bill O’Reilly, it hints at a broader connection that many would like to make: growing up in a more diverse community in terms of race and ethnicity (less is made here of social class) will lead to more tolerance and acceptance of difference for those same adults. Because O’Reilly lived in a white community at a critical age, he had fewer opportunities to engage people of different racial and ethnic backgrounds and develop relationships and understanding.

Even if the stereotype of the white and wealthy suburb continues (and for some good reasons), suburbs today are less homogeneous and this can lead to a variety of experiences.