Responding to “The Disturbing History of the Suburbs”

A recent episode of Adam Ruins Everything addressed how racism helped create the American suburbs. Here are my quick thoughts in response to “The Disturbing History of the Suburbs.”

-Using the Settlers of the Suburbs game as a visual tool is a clever technique with its Monopoly appearance (though I could also imagine linking it to Settlers of Catan). Urbanists over the years have developed numerous classroom activities involving games to help show students who development works. Like games, development tends to follow certain rules or patterns (even if from the outside those rules are hard to see or, in the case of the suburbs, it all looks fairly haphazard). Also, for a simulation of residential segregation, see the modeling of economist Thomas Schelling where the preferences of individual residents to live near people like them can add up to a racist system. For a good board game that gets at suburban development (though there is only a limited racial dimension), see my quick review of Suburbia.

-The main emphasis here is on redlining: federal guidelines for making loans based on the neighborhoods the home was in was then also picked up by private developers. There is a lot more to this story including what were the patterns already in place that make redlining seem logical to the government in the 1930s (the book Sundown Towns can help explain a lot as black Americans had truer geographic dispersion from roughly 1865 to 1890 but then were restricted in where they could live in the North) as well as what other groups were discriminated against with these policies. Redlining certainly did a lot but it was not the only technique used to limit where non-whites could live. Other options included restrictive covenants, provisions written into deeds, racial steering, blockbusting, and riots and bombings. And the groups targeted included blacks, Jews, Asians, Mexicans, and others. In other words, redlining was an important part of a large package used by white structures and individuals to keep their communities all white.

-The video then nicely suggests that the effects of redlining compounded over time: growing individual wealth for white homeowners, new development in whiter communities, limited wealth in redlined communities, and segregated schools in the long run. This is the Matthew Effect in action.

-At one point, Adam suggests Levittown is still mostly white. This may be the case yet minorities have moved in increasing numbers to suburbs in recent decades. At the same time, the legacy of housing discrimination lives on as racial and ethnic groups are not necessarily evenly dispersed across suburbs. And, as noted later, black and Latino residents still have a harder time obtaining loans and continue to face housing discrimination. This is despite the 1968 Housing Act which was intended to eliminate such discrimination; the sociologists who wrote American Apartheid suggested that we lack the political will to see the Housing Act through.

-Nikole Hannah-Jones of NYT makes an appearance to talk about school funding and how white suburbs can draw upon a larger property tax base. Yet, Hannah-Jones goes much further in a 2015 episode of This American Life titled “The Problem We All Live With.” I highly recommend this and have had multiple classes listen to the story of segregated schools in Ferguson, Missouri and other nearby suburbs of St. Louis. By a loophole in state law, Ferguson students were allowed to attend a wealthier white district and it worked…until the loophole was closed. School funding is not the major issue. The deeper issue is the segregation of schools which we know can help minority students. And we know that integration – the 1966 Coleman Report made this clear and busing was tried in a few places for a few years until the outcry was too great – would work but few suburbanites want to consider it as a legitimate option.

-The video closes with these two lines: “The suburb you live in was built on a foundation of segregation. And we can’t close our eyes to that.” I imagine many white suburbanites would still object. At least two good academic books addressing two different contexts (White Flight in Atlanta and Colored Property in Detroit) show how white suburbanites in the 1960s made a switch from race-based arguments for segregation to economic-based ones. Now, if you ask suburbanites about race and ethnicity in their community, they will tend to say that they do not know of any issues or do not contribute to the problem yet they are more willing to talk about quality of life, property values, and good schools. Additionally, suburbanites tend to associate certain classes with certain racial and ethnic groups, leading to different treatment. Of course, race and class are intimately intertwined in the United States and class can often be used as a proxy for excluding by race or ethnicity.

-Just a note on sources: the video uses an interesting mix of scholarly and journalistic sources. There is a lot of excellent academic literature on race and the suburbs and I have tried to point to some of those in this review.

In sum, this video could be a great start to a discussion of ongoing racial disparities in the suburbs. Residential segregation is not just present in large cities and it has long-lasting consequences. Even though the oft-cited histories of the American suburbs – such as Crabgrass Frontier – acknowledge redlining and discuss its implications, many Americans may be unaware of how race strongly influenced the creation of suburbs. (There were other influential factors present as well but that is a long story.) Going further, there are easy ways to go beyond this video and draw upon more complex studies of race in the suburbs.


Reading into a decreasing poverty rate, increasing median household income

Here are a few notable trends in the new data that shows the poverty rate is down in the United States and median household incomes are up:

Regionally, economic growth was uneven.
The median household income in the Midwest grew just 0.9 percent from last year, which is not a statistically significant amount. In the South, by contrast, the median income grew 3.9 percent; in the West, it grew 3.3 percent. “The Midwest is the place where we should have the greatest worry in part because we didn’t see any significant growth,” said Mary Coleman, the senior vice president of Economic Mobility Pathways, a national nonprofit that tries to move people out of poverty. Median household income was also stagnant in rural areas, growing 13 percent, to $45,830. In contrast, it jumped significantly inside cities, by 5.4 percent, to $54,834, showing that cities are continuing to pull away from the rest of the country in terms of economic success…

African Americans and Hispanics experienced significant gains in income, but still trail far behind whites and Asians.
All ethnic groups saw incomes rise between 2015 and 2016, the second such annual increase in a row. The median income of black families jumped 5.7 percent between 2015 and 2016, to $39,490. Hispanic residents also saw a growth incomes, by 4.3 percent, to $47,675. Asians had the highest median household income in 2016, at $81,431. Whites saw a less significant increase than African Americans and Hispanics, of 1.6 percent, but their earning are still far higher, at $61,858.

The poverty rate for black residents also decreased last year, falling to 22 percent, from 24.1 percent the previous year. The poverty rate of Hispanics decreased to 19.4 percent, from 21.4 percent in 2015. In comparison, 8.8 of whites, or 17.3 million people, were in poverty in 2016, which was not a statistically significant change from the previous year, and 10.1 percent of Asians, or 1.9 million people were in poverty, which was also similar to 2015…

Income inequality isn’t disappearing anytime soon.
Despite the improvements in poverty and income across ethnic groups, the American economy is still characterized by significant income inequality; while the poor are finally finding more stable footing following the recession, the rich have been doing well for quite some time now. The average household income of the the top 20 percent of Americans grew $13,749 from a decade ago, while the average household income of the bottom 20 percent of Americans fell $571 over the same time period. The top 20 percent of earners made 51.5 percent of all income in the U.S. last year, while the bottom 20 percent made just 3.5 percent. Around 13 percent of households made more than $150,000 last year; a decade ago, by comparison, 8.5 percent did. While that’s something to cheer, without a solid middle class, it’s not indicative of an economy that is healthy and stable more broadly.

Both of these figures – the poverty rate and median household incomes – are important indicators of American social and economic life. Thus, that both are trending in the right direction is good.

Yet, we also have the impulse these days to (1) dig deeper into the data and (2) also highlight how these trends may not last, particularly in the era of Trump. The trends noted above (and there are others also discussed in the article) can be viewed as troubling as the gains made by some either were not shared by others or do not erase large gaps between groups. Our understandings of these income and poverty figures can change over time as measurements change and perceptions of what is important changes. For example, the median household income going up could suggest that more Americans have more income or we may now care less about absolute incomes and pay more attention to relative incomes (and particularly the gap between those at the top and bottom).

In other words, interpreting data is influenced by a variety of social forces. Numbers do not interpret themselves and our lenses consistently change. Two reasonable people could disagree on whether the latest data is good for America or suggests there are enduring issues that still need to be addressed.

Diversity in a community does not necessarily lead to diversity in interaction

Having a diverse population within a municipality or neighborhood doesn’t guarantee the groups will interact or work together:

Although my neighborhood was majority-black for much of my life, most of my friends were white. The same held for most of my parents’ friends. The kids I played with on my block were white. Diversity segregation of this kind manifested in other ways too. Mount Rainier is divided between single-family homes and the WWII-era brick garden apartment complexes that house two-thirds of the population. By the 1990s, these were overwhelmingly populated by people of color, while almost all of the white population lived in the single-family homes…

“On paper we are so diverse, but we really are not integrated,” Christopherson, Miles’ opponent in the mayor’s race, told me in the spring. “Just because you are exposed to people from the West Indies or El Salvador, or African Americans and whites, that has only a little benefit. But what if you were also coming together in a city committee or city events?”…

At present, Mount Rainier is still majority-black, and there are plenty of Hispanic and black homeowners. But consider the most extreme scenario, in which the single-family housing stock largely becomes the preserve of white professionals while working-class people of color remain in the apartments. In that case, Mount Rainier would experience a dispiritingly familiar form of segregation, where urban design and geography separate races. The two housing stocks in town do not share the same commercial corridors. The residents of the apartments are often transitory, and they do not vote as often. They tend to not identify with the commercial corridor near U.S. 1, which contains the Glut Food Co-op and harbors much of the civic infrastructure. Instead, the residents of the brick, multifamily housing do their shopping on the high-speed autocentric Queen’s Chapel Road commercial corridor.

The proposed solution? More interaction across groups within the public school system:

“The important thing is consistent exposure over a long period of time,” says Camille Z. Charles, professor of sociology at the University of Pennsylvania and director of its Center for Africana Studies. “We are often friendlier with people we actually interact with. We do find there is lasting benefit to that, which is why we think it is important to have [diversity] in schools because kids spend so much time in classrooms and on school campuses.”

Four quick thoughts:

  1. This is where Census data can let us down and experience on the ground is helpful. From a macro level, a community or city can look very diverse. An obvious example is a major city like Chicago which is around 45% white but is one of the most segregated cities in America. However, this also happens in much smaller communities as well. Take Wheaton, Illinois. Starting in the late 1800s, a small population of blacks lived on the east side of the city. This was unusual: very few Chicago suburbs had any black residents. But, how much interaction was there between groups in Wheaton?
  2. The author notes that this community is unusual in that a sizable white population remained even as the black population grew. This doesn’t happen in many places: as minorities move in, whites leave.
  3. While race is highlighted here as the dividing force, it sounds like social class is also a factor. While the two areas are closely intertwined, addressing one without the other may be as profitable.
  4. The proposed solution in the public schools is not an unusual one. Yet, it does highlight how few social institutions in the United States really cut across racial or class lines. Where else might people of different groups interact when most other opportunities (from churches to local government to social clubs and civic groups) are segregated?

Race, ethnicity, ancestry – and which one people identify with

I have followed an interesting urban sociology listserv discussion involving a recent New York Times editorial by Herbert Gans where he notes several mistakes the Census Bureau makes in measuring race and ethnicity. It strikes me that sociologists and others really want to measure three different things and then a fourth piece of information we could gather would help us better understand which three traits are more important. Here is what we might measure:

  1. Race. Largely based on skin color in the United States. A long history of black and white with groups in between.
  2. Ethnicity. Largely based on cultural or national groups. Has become more prominent in recent decades with the Census moving in 2000 to a separate question about Hispanic or Latino ethnicity or discussions about a Middle Eastern or Northern African background.
  3. Ancestry. This could align with the two categories but not necessarily. This typically refers a country or people group in a family lineage.
  4. In addition to the three pieces of information, shouldn’t we ask which category is most important to people? It is true that race in the United States has dominated social relations for centuries. At the same time, race on its own is simplistic. A few examples might suffice. A white Jewish person with ancestry in Russia. A non-white Brazilian with ancestry in Africa. A Chinese person from Singapore. A white person from Tennessee who says their ancestry is American (though it may be in Wales and Germany). Different people will see different traits as more essential to their own understanding as well as how they would like others to see them.

Of course, having four categories like this would complicate the study of trends and groups. But, as more people marry across groups and new groups continue to come to the United States, we need a more nuanced understanding of how these traits come together and matter to people.

When a suburb is made out to be racist on a fictional TV show

Many Americans are protective about their own community so it is little surprise that leaders in Crown Point, Indiana were not happy with their portrayal on TV as a place where there is racial antagonism:

Crown Point Mayor David Uran says the city and its residents deserve an apology after the city was depicted as a racist community on the May 10 episode of the NBC drama “Chicago P.D.”‘…

He said the way show crossed a fictional storyline with a factual place gave the impression the incident is something that occurred or could occur in the city…

As mayor, he said he is always trying to promote inclusiveness in the community to attract people to live, work and play in Crown Point. He said he has reached out to NBC through different emails and is demanding an apology for the city and its residents.

In the episode, “Army of One,” a black man is killed after he was released from jail for a rape that occurred while he was a star high school athlete dating a white girl.

I wonder at the strategy here: would making this case on the website of the Chicago Tribune call more attention to the portrayal? Do people watching TV shows necessarily link the actions on the screen to the specific places named, particularly if the place is relatively unknown (Crown Point is at the edge of the Chicago metropolitan region)? (Police shows do this all the time and it likely influences how many viewers see big cities as cesspools of crime.) Perhaps the mayor is simply standing up for concerned members (and potential voters) of the community.

At the same time, northwest Indiana communities may have struggled with race. How do many of the white communities and residents view Gary? Or, what about the KKK: here is an overview of historical documents from the Crown Point KKK from 1913-1932, the Crown Point activity of the KKK is noted in the academic history Citizen Klansman: The Ku Klux Klan in Indiana, 1921-1928, and there were rumblings of KKK activity in Lake County in 2005. Additionally, a research project in Northwest Indiana suggests a number of bias incidents between 1990 and 2014. And these struggles wouldn’t be unique to northwest Indiana; this is part of the American story in many communities and suburbs.

Why are 62 acres so close to Chicago’s Loop even available?

There has been a lot of talk about a new project on 62 acres on the Chicago River just south of the Loop. Before we get to what will go there, why was such a big piece of property empty near one of the major centers of the world?

The South Loop property was used as a rail yard, but has sat unused for decades.

The scraggly land was later owned by Antoin “Tony” Rezko, a former fundraiser for imprisoned Gov. Rod Blagojevich who himself served a prison sentence after a fraud and money laundering conviction. The site was sold 10 years ago to Luxembourg-based General Mediterranean Holding, a firm led by Iraqi-born and British-based businessman Nadhmi Auchi. He was convicted in a French corruption scandal in 2003.

Last May, Related completed a city-approved deal to take over as lead developer, with Auchi’s firm remaining a joint venture partner.

From the city’s perspective, Related’s involvement brought credibility to the long-idle site. Related Midwest is an affiliate of New York-based Related Cos., which is building 18 million square feet in the Hudson Yards mixed-used development in Manhattan.

One thing that is striking about Chicago and some other Rust Belt cities is the amount of available or empty property. In particular, Chicago’s South Side has a number of large parcels including this site along the Chicago River, land southwest of McCormick Place with some small developments here and there, land on the Robert Taylor Homes site with a few buildings here and there, and the former US Steel site (and subject to a number of proposals in recent years – see the latest here) plus numerous empty or vacant properties scattered throughout neighborhoods. Even while development booms in certain neighborhoods (and the city trumpets the work taking place in the Loop), others have significant chunks of empty land.

The why: these properties are often available in poorer or more industrial neighborhoods and the properties are often located in or close to areas with higher concentrations of black residents. In other words, these properties are not desirable, even at cheap prices (such as $1 properties in Chicago), and the desirability is connected to the status of the location and the status of places in the United States is closely related to race and class. This particular 62 acres is a great example of how uneven development works; those who want to build (leaders and developers/those in the real estate industry) usually do so in order to profit as much as possible. Now, this 62 acre site is more desirable (meaning profitable) because the South Loop has done well in recent years and there are other new developments nearby.

“The most detailed map of the United States’ racial diversity”

Check out a new map that shows population by race and ethnicity at a very detailed level: SocScape. Curbed provides a brief description of the project:

Adapting a grid-charting system used for mapping the craters of Mars for NASA, Stepinski and his postdoctoral researcher Anna Dmowska, have created the most detailed map of the United States’ racial diversity—ever. The interactive tool displays enormous volumes of census information through more granular units, each representing 323 square feet. The result is a visual presentation that’s more accurate and useful to analysts interested in exploring geographic shifts in population and racial diversity.

Stepinski is already picking up on trends in the data from the 1990, 2000, and 2010 censes: Generally, white neighborhoods have become more diverse, Asian and Hispanic populations appear to be concentrating in distinct geographic pockets, while largely black neighborhoods have not increased in diversity.

Here is a view of much of the Chicago metropolitan region:


SocScape, Chicago MSA, 2010 Census by race and ethnicity

From this image, it looks like an improved version of the racial dot maps as it has more geographic specificity. The tool also has some added data layers – here is the same region with the 1990 race and ethnicity data:


SocScape, Chicago MSA, 1990 Census by race and ethnicity

Quite a bit of change over a twenty year stretch with increasing numbers of non-white residents living in the suburbs.