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?)

No, the Milwaukee Bucks’ new arena will not solve residential segregation in Milwaukee

The CEO of the Milwaukee Bucks says their new arena may or may not help the city:

Perhaps no NBA city is in greater need of a melting-pot meeting point than Milwaukee…

Feigin told the Wisconsin State Journal in 2016 that Milwaukee was “the most segregated, racist place I’ve ever experienced.” While he didn’t want to revisit those comments this week, Feigin said the new arena could help transform the city’s downtown.

“I don’t think this (arena) is a solution for racial harmony,” he said. “But Milwaukee doesn’t have a centralized meeting place. There are no parks in the middle of the city. By building this plaza, you’ve kind of orchestrated a meeting place.

“There are certainly obstacles and certainly a long way to go, but our message is this is a wonderful city. We are an organization that will speak out about injustice, and we are also an organization that is focused on how we can solve problems.”

It sounds like the Bucks CEO hopes the stadium becomes a cosmopolitan canopy site where people of different backgrounds can gather together and find common ground around the city’s basketball team. I am generally skeptical of claims that sports teams can help revive cities or heal cities. See this earlier post about whether the Cleveland Cavaliers winning an NBA championship would revive the fortunes of Cleveland. For an arena, will a few hours of watching basketball help fans truly cross race and class boundaries? A general civic pride might develop but I would guess many sports fans can compartmentalize their love for a winning team and their relationships, abstract or otherwise, with the other.

Suburban residential segregation and ongoing effects on voting and prejudice

A long New York TImes op-ed summarizes the findings of the 2017 book The Space Between Us by political scientist Ryan Enos:

Enos then looked at results from 124,034 precincts, almost every precinct in the United States. Again:

“A white voter in the least-segregated metropolitan area was 10 percentage points more likely to vote for Obama than a white voter in the most-segregated area.”…

These voting patterns, according to Enos, reflect what might be called a self-reinforcing cycle of prejudice.

“Prejudice may have helped cause segregation, but then the segregation helped cause even more prejudice.”

In other words, it is not just problematic that people of different racial/ethnic groups and social classes choose to (possible more often for whites and those with more financial resources) or are pushed to live in different places from each other. The residential segregation then has a feedback loop where those differences reinforced by spatial arrangements are perpetuated and perhaps even amplified.

As more of the op-ed explains, simply putting people together (such as suggested by Allport’s contact hypothesis or in the train experiment described in the essay) is not a silver bullet for forging relationships, networks, and reduced prejudices. Even as attitudes toward other groups have improved over time, what would push wealthier whites to sacrifice or put themselves into uncomfortable positions when they do not have to?

Naming a street for MLK could influence attitudes and behaviors

A debate in Kansas City about naming a road in honor of Martin Luther King, Jr. involves asking how the name might affect people:

Some residents argue that choosing a street in a disinvested, mostly black neighborhood would perpetuate stereotypes of thoroughfares that are already named for him in other cities, and would fail to force white people to consider Dr. King’s legacy and the racism that still exists so long after his death. Others, though, say that choosing a street in a white area would be an affront to the city’s black residents and disrespectful of the fact that Dr. King fought primarily for the rights of black people…

Mr. Lucas said he leaned toward giving the name to a street where white people tend to venture more often, because it could have a greater impact there. “There’s something to be said for the fact that you need to make sure the entire community honors it, instead of saying, ‘That’s something the black folks are doing for the black folks in a black area.’ ”…

Complicating this naming fight is a simple truth: Kansas City, like much of the country, struggles with segregation.

For two years, advocates have lobbied the parks board, which oversees the city’s boulevard system, to change the name. Jean-Paul Chaurand, the board president, responded last month with a letter stating that longstanding policy has been to name streets after local residents who made significant contributions to the city. He suggested creating a commission to discuss the renaming further.

This sounds like a ready-made research question: do honorary roads affect attitudes and behaviors over time? Major cities have many such roads, in various neighborhoods, and designated at various times which would give researchers plenty of variation to work with. I wonder if such research would show minimal positive effects in a city overall (though it could be more important in particular locations, as noted in the discussion above) but then it might be argued that not naming such roads – particularly in a case like Martin Luther King, Jr. – would have negative repercussions.

See an earlier post where Illinois legislators discussed creating a Barack Obama roadway. If Reagan has a highway (the Ronald Reagan Memorial Highway in Illinois among others in the United States), shouldn’t Obama get one as well?

The ongoing stark inequality of Chicago and other major cities

Alana Semuels discusses the inequality present in the global city of Chicago but it reminds me that (1)  sociologists have studied this for roughly 100 years even (2) as conditions have both changed and stayed the same.

The contrast between a seemingly prospering city and groups and individuals who cannot access this prosperity is an old theme in the Chicago School of urban sociology. In The Gold Coast and the Slum, Zorbaugh explains how some of the wealthiest and poorest Chicagoans can live in such proximity. Two neighborhoods that are geographically close are worlds apart socially. This is little different from descriptions of industrializing cities in England in the mid-1800s (which helped prompt the work of Marx and Engels) or examining today’s megacities in developing nations where a wealthy core is surrounded by slums and shantytowns.

The reasons for this disparity are both similar and different. Semuels sums up the two major issues:

Why are large swaths of Chicago’s population unable to get ahead? There are two main reasons. The first and most obvious is the legacy of segregation that has made it difficult for poor black families to gain access to the economic activity in other parts of the city. This segregation has meant that African Americans live near worse educational opportunities and fewer jobs than other people in Chicago. City leaders in Chicago have exacerbated this segregation over the years, according to Diamond, channeling money downtown and away from the poor neighborhoods. “Public policies played a huge role in reinforcing the walls around the ghetto,” he told me.

The second factor is the disappearance of industrial jobs in factories, steel plants, and logistics companies. Half a century ago, people with little education could find good jobs in the behemoths that dotted Chicago’s south and west sides. Now, most of those factories have moved overseas or to the suburbs, and there are fewer employment opportunities here for people without much education. Chicago underscores that it’s not just white, rural Americans who have been hard hit by the disappearance of manufacturing jobs.

The segregation of one hundred years ago is still with us, even if it has changed form (from overt discrimination to more covert means). The business district of Chicago was a thriving place 100 years ago as many of the poorer and less white neighborhoods languished. The job front has changed; yet, it is not as if the manufacturing jobs that started appearing in cities with the Industrial Revolution were all that helpful for the lower classes at the time (again think of Marx and Engels).

On the whole, it is helpful to regularly remind people of the complexities of cities. Cities should not be viewed solely as their impressive skylines or booming economies. Even the leading cities of the world are home to many less advantaged residents. Whether the gaps in cities themselves could go a long ways toward determining whether broader social inequalities can be successfully addressed.

More evidence of discrimination in mortgages by race and ethnicity

The Center for Investigate Reporting went through 31 million records created by the Home Mortgage Disclosure Act and found disparities:

The analysis – independently reviewed and confirmed by The Associated Press – showed black applicants were turned away at significantly higher rates than whites in 48 cities, Latinos in 25, Asians in nine and Native Americans in three. In Washington, D.C., the nation’s capital, Reveal found all four groups were significantly more likely to be denied a home loan than whites.

Reveal’s analysis included all records publicly available under the Home Mortgage Disclosure Act, covering nearly every time an American tried to buy a home with a conventional mortgage in 2015 and 2016. It controlled for nine economic and social factors, including an applicant’s income, the amount of the loan, the ratio of the size of the loan to the applicant’s income and the type of lender, as well as the racial makeup and median income of the neighborhood where the person wanted to buy property.

Credit score was not included because that information is not publicly available. That’s because lenders have deflected attempts to force them to report that data to the government, arguing it would not be useful in identifying discrimination. 

This is an ongoing pattern. While I was in graduate school, I had a little experience working with the millions of HMDA records since my advisor, Rich Williams, had published on the topic. For example, see his 2005 article in Social Problems.

And lest we think that this is just about applicants of different races or ethnicities with equal standing receiving different treatment (generally the point of audit studies), it was even worse before the housing bubble burst:

In 2006, at the height of the boom, black and Hispanic families making more than $200,000 a year were more likely on average to be given a subprime loan than a white family making less than $30,000 a year…

Relative to comparable white applicants, and controlling for geographic factors, blacks were 2.8 times more likely to be denied for a loan, and Latinos were two times more likely. When they were approved, blacks and Latinos were 2.4 times more likely to receive a subprime loan than white applicants. The higher up the income ladder you compare white applicants and minorities, the wider this subprime disparity grows.

Or another study:

According to the study’s authors, the economists Patrick Bayer, Fernando Ferreira, and Stephen L. Ross, race and ethnicity were among two of the key factors that determined whether or not a borrower would end up with a high-cost loan, when all other variables were held equal. According to them, even after controlling for general risk considerations, such as credit score, loan-to-value ratio, subordinate liens, and debt-to-income ratios, Hispanic Americans are 78 percent more likely to be given a high-cost mortgage, and black Americans are 105 percent more likely.

Or see the $175 million fine leveled at Wells Fargo for steering minorities to worse loans.

This reminds of the conclusion of American Apartheid where the sociologists Doug Massey and Nancy Denton argue that Americans lack the will to enforce existing laws about housing discrimination. Even with a variety of laws and regulations intended to eliminate discrimination in housing, there is not a completely level playing level field.

Defining a social problem: “transit gaps” or “transit deserts”

One skeptic of the concept of transit gaps explains his concerns:

The Chicago-based nonprofit Center for Neighborhood Technology recently unveiled its AllTransit Gap Finder—an online mapping tool designed to point out areas with “inadequate” transit service. It’s a good effort, and it’s certainly good that we have more tools for understanding transit demand…

A transit gap is some kind of difference between transit service and transit need or demand. But need and demand are different things. A need means that there are people whose lives would be better if they had transit. A demand is an indication that transit service, if it were provided, would achieve high ridership.

These terms correspond to the two opposing goals of transit service. If the goal of service is ridership, then it should provide excellent service where there is demand. On the other hand, many people who need transit wouldn’t be served if transit agencies ran only high-ridership service. So transit agencies run a certain amount of service for the non-ridership goal of coverage, which responds to need. In other words, they spread service out so that everyone has a little bit, even though low ridership is the predictable outcome. This critical distinction is explained more fully here. It’s a difficult budgetary choice about dividing resources between competing goals, one that local governments need to think about…

Although AllTransit’s claims are framed in misleading terms, the idea of being able to accurately see exactly how well any given neighborhood is served by transit is a laudable one. Over the years I’ve written about other efforts to get this right. An especially important idea, buried deep in the overly complex methodology, is that a transit quality index should be about where you can get to in a given amount of time, rather than what transit is available. In my own work I routinely use this measure to describe the human benefits of transit service changes, because getting to destinations, and having a choice of more destinations, is what makes for a great life.

There seems to be two issues here: separating community values from possibilities as well as how to best measure transportation options. No city has an endless pot of money with which to fund mass transit. Yet, I imagine proponents of transit deserts would note that the general American orientation is toward driving and roads while mass transit has to regularly scrap for money. The measurement issue is hopefully an ongoing conversation as researchers with different decisions and aims work to find measures that both reflect the social realities as well as provide helpful information for residents and local governments.

But, I also suspect that this is critique is missing a key concern of some of those working in the food/transit/grocery stores/parks/medical care desert literature: the key is which groups are most affected by these deserts or have less access to these necessities. Many of the deserts – however defined and regardless of the goals of the community – seem to affect lower class and non-white residents. One could argue that a community might not have the resources or vision to extend mass transit to a particular area but this does not necessarily address the issue of residential segregation that is alive and well in the United States.