The Urbanist Musings of Pete Saunders

Part of the Calculus

Segregation patterns in the Chicago metropolitan area.  Source:
Rarely in America are we exposed to reasoned discussions and frank admissions when it comes to the topic of race.  Many minorities want to draw attention to their concerns, but often feel they run the risk of coming across as whiny or victimizing to whites.  Perhaps an even greater obstacle to the vaunted “discussions on race” is (from my perspective as an African-American) the fear that many whites have that any comment on race they make will be misconstrued as racist in its intent, thereby stigmatizing them in a politically correct society.  That’s why the frank admission I came across at the website The Root is refreshing.
The Root, a politics and culture website geared toward African-Americans, runs a regular feature entitled Race Manners.  Writer Jenée Desmond-Harris takes an advice columnist approach to answering legitimate questions regarding race from anonymous readers.  The questions run the gamut, from “could my racist grandfather raise my biracial child?” to “is my white boyfriend fetishizing me?”  Desmond-Harris provides well-researched and thoughtful answers to sensitive questions.
A question from last July was brought to my attention, and I think it may just characterize the opinion of many whites in America (again, solely from my perspective as a black man).  The question in its entirety is below:
“I’m a racist, and I don’t want to be. I’m a white man in my very early 40s, and for years I’ve been extremely awkward and anxious around African Americans, especially men. At some point in my early teens, I became very self-conscious about the racial divide. And about that time, I moved to a much more homogeneously white area, and I guess gradually black people became abstractions to me or something. When I moved back to a more mixed neighborhood in college, I found I was afraid of them. Horrible thoughts and associations — of crime, violence, whatever — would spring to mind.

“Now it’s reached the point where I can’t encounter any African-American person without these thoughts cropping up, along with this seizure of panic that I’m racist, I’m giving off a funny vibe, I’m making that person feel uncomfortable and he or she can see through me and knows what’s going on. It’s a complex of shame and humiliation and fear that for two-plus decades I haven’t been able to think my way out of, and if anything, it’s only getting worse with age.

“When I look for some suggestions online, they recommend going out and meeting the people I’m afraid of — trying to make the abstract particular, humanizing who I’m imagining, etc. But come on. How is that not just turning people into my little self-betterment project? It’s hard for me to imagine something more condescending and objectifying. Of course, I’m also just flat-out scared of being exposed, of being seen for who I am.

“I have no patience with apologists who would argue that there’s a legitimate justification for being racist. But I also have had no success in eradicating this side of my personality that I find so repellent.” –Ready to Get Rid of Racism

First, I would commend this man for confronting this part of his makeup.  I may be speaking for many black people when I say I recognize this anxiety because I sense it.  Acknowledging this is the first step toward conquering it.  Desmond-Harris offers what I feel is strong, reasoned advice without being condescending at all.
But, you may say, Pete – you write about cities.  What does this have to do with cities?  The key is the section I’ve put in bold above.  The questioner freely admits that moving to a more homogenously white area allowed him to make blacks become an abstraction in his life, thereby making himself prone to stereotypes and negative images. 
Blacks as an abstraction.  Irrational panic and fear.  Rather than explore this and confront it, many whites may elect to move to places where they do not have to think about this.  This is a factor in the way our cities are built today and is an obstacle in reaching the full development potential of our metro areas.
In fact, this phenomenon is most acute in the Rust Belt cities I most often write about.  Shifting economic fortunes in Rust Belt cities certainly played a role in the growth of suburbia and the Sun Belt.  A desire to move out of antiquated homes in older neighborhoods and relocate to comfortable existences in outlying areas also played a role in the spread of sprawl.  But I don’t think our nation has ever fully acknowledged that the kind of thinking expressed by the questioner here has always been part of the calculus of sprawl.  Indeed, as I’ve mentioned before, Rust Belt cities have been uniquely impacted by this phenomenon.  It has been part of the fuel for Rust Belt sprawl.  It has weakened the core of Rust Belt cities.
Let’s be clear on this.  Most Sun Belt and coastal cities have not been as affected by this phenomenon as the Rust Belt cities of the Midwest.  Southern cities like Atlanta or Charlotte, while being the location of significant historical African-American populations, had growth that was fueled (until recently) by Northern white migration.  Western cities like Phoenix, Denver or Las Vegas, or even Los Angeles and the Bay Area, have traditionally had much smaller African-American population bases to begin with, and while they grew proportionally with the rest of the metro area, they often remained a minor feature on the metro landscape.  On the East Coast, cities like New York and Boston also attracted a proportional level of black migrants, but blacks are less of a demographic factor on the metro scale there than in many Rust Belt cities (a few key exceptions to East Coast cities – Philadelphia, Baltimore and Washington, DC have historical black populations more akin to many Southern cities, as they were often the first stops of free black men and women since the 19th century.  I consider Baltimore and Washington in particular to being Southern cities that have joined the East Coast megalopolis only in the last 50-60 years).
By contrast, the growth of Rust Belt cities was often reliant on African-American migration.  The labor demands of the 20th century industrial economy – coupled with mid-century restrictions on international immigration – made cities like Chicago, Detroit, Cleveland, Milwaukee and Buffalo quite reliant on the African-American labor pool streaming north from the Deep South. 
Comedian and civil rights activist Dick Gregory once made this distinction about Southern and Northern racism – “In the South, they don’t care how close you are to them, but they’ll never let you get too big.  In the North, they don’t care about how big you get, but they’ll never let you get too close.”  And the exponential growth of African-Americans in Rust Belt cities during the Great Migration between 1910 and 1970 – and its aftermath — became part of the calculus in suburban sprawl and Sun Belt migration decisions by white residents. 
This has had detrimental impacts on the economic fortunes of the Rust Belt.  Metros with little African-American migration, like Seattle, Portland or Austin, have boomed.  Metros that were less reliant on African-American migration, like New York, Boston and Pittsburgh, have rebounded well from deindustrialization.  Metros that were a little more reliant on African-American migration, like Chicago and Philadelphia, have also rebounded but still face significant obstacles.  Metros that were most reliant on African-American migration, like Cleveland and Detroit, have lagged.
I want to do the research on this, but the damn government shutdown prevents me from gathering the data on this.  But I believe there is a negative correlation between core city African-American population in 1970 and metro area GDP growth.  Meaning, I believe the higher the core city African-American population in 1970, the lower the metro area GDP per capita today, with some exceptions. 
The Northern/Rust Belt urge to “never let us get too close” has stretched the fabric of Rust Belt cities.  Chicago’s Metropolitan Planning Council famously stated in the 1990s that the Chicago region’s population grew by only four percent between 1970 and 1990, yet its urbanized area grew by 46 percent.  This pattern is characteristic of Rust Belt cities – their fabric has been stretched, any economic benefit is concentrated in favored areas or diluted to miniscule levels throughout the region, and job opportunities move away from those living in urban cores. 
Which brings us back to the questioner in the Race Manners column.  The economic realities of Rust Belt cities cannot be denied.  However, the social realities of our Rust Belt cities must be given full consideration, too.  There are many people who have similar opinions as the questioner.  What impact does it have?  A reluctance to live in areas with significant minority populations for one, creating lower property values due to reduced demand.  Detroit is a perfect example of this.  As the Detroit Free Press noted in its profound series on Detroit’s bankruptcy, property values plummeted in Detroit during the ‘60s and ‘70s.  In constant 2012 dollars, Detroit’s peak property value was $45 billion in 1950, the same time it reached its population peak of 1.9 million.  Property values dropped by two-thirds by 1980, to $15 billion.  Values have continued to decline since then, and are only $9.6 billion today.  No wonder the city is broke.
If a person with similar preconceptions is a hiring authority, will they hire a minority for a given position?  What perspective would that person bring the negative impacts of “stop and frisk” or the “War on Drugs”?  What is the risk that that person would simply view a city like Detroit as “empty”, because there is no one they know who lives there, when in fact there are still more than 700,000 residents?
I think we know the answer to all those questions.

I don’t view persons who hold similar opinions as racists per se, just that they are oblivious to the structural racism that impacts everyone in our society.  The first Rust Belt city that directly confronts this phenomenon will establish the template for dealing with this, and will also be the first to reach its fullest post-industrial development potential.

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