The Urbanist Musings of Pete Saunders

Repost: "The Machinery of Black Pariahdom", at the Metro Level

Residents expressing their tenant preferences in Detroit, 1942.  Source:

(Note: The more I think back on older posts, the more I realize that recent events over the last few years, from Trayvon Martin to Baltimore, could’ve been predicted.  I wrote this piece in February 2014, and it speaks to the shunning of African-American neighborhoods and cities throughout the nation, and the price they’ve paid as a result.  If there’s anything I’ve learned, it’s that while exclusionary zoning, redlining and urban renewal did their damage to black communities, the final and most damning blow was the shunning by all other groups that came afterwards.  -Pete)

Yesterday, I read a gut-wrenching blog post from one of my favorite bloggers, Ta-Nehisi Coates of The Atlantic.  He wrote about his interview of Lucia McBath, the mother of Jordan Davis.  She lost her son in November 2012 in Jacksonville, FL, when he was shot and killed at a gas station by Michael Dunn.  Dunn, 47, argued with young Davis (17) about the volume of rap music emanating from the SUV he was sitting in with three friends.  Dunn told them to turn the music down, and initially they did.  However, they turned it back up, words were exchanged, and Dunn said he felt threatened.  He reached into his car to retrieve his gun and fired ten shots into the SUV, saying he thought a gun was pulled from inside the SUV (no gun was found).  Dunn was found guilty of attempted murder for the three young men who survived, but a mistrial was declared on the murder of Davis.

Coates has been writing extensively about the event and the trial at The Atlantic for some time, and was angered but not surprised by the verdict.  He had this to say:

A thought came to me that had been swirling for days: Dunn might win on appeal. I considered the possibility of him walking free. I considered the spectacle of George Zimmerman walking free. I considered the great mass of black youth that is regularly interrupted without any real reckoning, without any consideration of the machinery of black pariahdom. 

The machinery of black pariahdom.  What a beautifully evil phrase.

Since the start of this blog two years ago, I’ve been trying to articulate the notion that economics alone does not explain the totality of the collapse of a select group of Rust Belt cities.  There are several Rust Belt cities, some large (Detroit, Cleveland), some medium-sized (Gary, Flint, Saginaw, Dayton), and some small (Benton Harbor,  East St. Louis), whose economic failure was equal to that of other cities, but whose social failure went far deeper.  There are other Rust Belt cities, some large (Chicago, Milwaukee), some medium-sized (Indianapolis), and some small (Akron) that appear to be on the cusp of rebirth like that of cities on either coast, but it continues to evade their reach.  Why?

In part, the machinery of black pariahdom.

A lot of this has been expressed as the value of individual black lives, like in this case as well as Trayvon Martin.  Writers like Coates have talked about the “relatability” of African-Americans by whites, and how biases have been drummed into our general consciousness by stories about crime and drugs on the evening news.  But this plays out at the community level, the city level and the metro area level as well.  And it impacts the ability of a community, city or metro to reach its potential.

Need an example?  Look at what I recently wrote about a fantastic video about East Cleveland, OH.  In that video current residents remark about how the community is isolated from the channels that fuel growth, and realize that any hope at rebirth must come from within.  There are many other stories like that, in dozens of cities, in hundreds of neighborhoods across the country.

A lot of people are sensitive to the phenomenon of “white flight” and its impact on cities.  I don’t know, maybe people don’t want to indict their parents or grandparents as “racists” in the same sense that Klan members are racists.  I don’t, and you shouldn’t.  But I do believe that many people looked at new neighbors, heard stories of crime (fake, exaggerated or real), saw signs of disrepair and said, “I don’t know this place anymore,” and left.  In other words, race played a significant role in the expansion of suburbia,particularly in the Rust Belt, and that expansion created a physical footprint that is an economic drag on Rust Belt metros.

A couple months ago I brought this up in a blog post, but this should be brought up again, with charts.  I’ve done some analysis on central city black population and metro area economic performance, as measured by median household income and GDP.  First, I looked at the relationship between central city black population in 1970 and central city population growth through 2010, for the 50 largest metro areas in 2010, starting in 1970 because that would be the generally acknowledged end of the African-American Great Migration that brought many blacks out of the South to other regions of the country. 

The analysis found that there was a negative correlation between 1970 central city black population and subsequent population growth.  For example, Las Vegas, a city with a modest black population in 1970 (11.2 percent) grew 364 percent between 1970 and 2010, but its black population was steady throughout the period (it’s 11.1 percent today).  Las Vegas is the city at the top left.  On the other hand, Detroit, which shrank by nearly 53 percent between 1970 and 2010, and had a black population of 43.7 percent in 1970.  Detroit is at the bottom right.  The chart shows a trendline that illustrates that the higher the black population of a city in 1970, the more population that city lost in the intervening decades.

The same relationship holds true for metro level median household income.  The top left are San Jose, San Francisco/Oakland and Boston, while the bottom right are Detroit, Birmingham and Memphis:

And the pattern holds as well for metro level GDP per capita:

So, using this data (taken from the U.S. Census), an argument could be made that the presence of significant black populations in major cities, or in metros, has had a dampening effect on metro area economic success, at least as established through median household income and GDP per capita.

Conventional analysis seems to suggest that poor economic performance among blacks is due to poor connections with the economic wellsprings of a given metro area, bringing down overall income and GDP figures.  However, I’m putting another spin on this.  Wherever there were substantial central city black populations in 1970 (say, 25 percent or more), demographic churn seems to have progressed at a significantly slower rate than in cities with lower black populations, often stopping altogether.  Relatedly, cities and metros with higher black populations saw greater suburban expansion, aka “sprawl”, which also dampened economic performance.  

I’m suggesting that the lack of churn following blacks in major cities has hurt not only the economic prospects of the metro areas, but of blacks themselves.  

And that is in part due to the machinery of black pariahdom.

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