The Urbanist Musings of Pete Saunders

Seeking Advantage or Seeking Equity


Even though I’ve developed a reputation for writing about things at the intersection of race and urbanism, I’ve written rather obliquely about race.  Today I’m going to write much more directly.

In recent weeks there’s been a lot of ink spilled about shifting migration patterns in U.S. metro areas.  A month ago the Washington Post noted one aspect: the growing numbers of white residents in large cities, effectively reversing decades of “white flight” to suburbia or Sun Belt locations.  From the Post’s Wonkblog:

“Among the 50 largest cities in the U.S., nearly half gained a statistically significant number of whites from 2010-2014 (the change isn’t significant in 21 of these 50 cities). Just 5 lost whites. That’s compared to 35 cities where the white population shrank in the 2000s, and 31 in the 1990s. In Detroit, New Orleans, Washington and Denver, the white share of the population also rose over this same time.”

Prior to understanding this new phenomenon, there was plenty of evidence of another one: the growth of minorities in suburbs.  CityLab noted this last July when writing about demographer William Frey’s book Diversity Explosion.   Using data from the 2000 and 2010 U.S. Census (rather than the more recent 2014 American Community Survey data that highlighted white city population growth), Frey found:

“…that white populations accounted for just 9 percent of the population growth of the suburbs (in the 100 largest metro areas) between 2000 and 2010. The Metropolitan Policy Program at Brookings just launched a fascinating map that shows where white cities and suburbs gained and lost populations. It shows that some metro areas are already breaking from the population pattern that has fueled the last half-century of growth: white losses in cities, white gains in suburbs.”

Strangely, at least to me, there were many urbanists who understood the data to reflect their understanding of new metro migration patterns, but little effort to understand its deeper meaning and implications. Why?  One guess might be that many urbanists are so wedded to a “suburbs bad/cities good” mantra that they’re quite willing to focus on what supports their worldview, the growth of whites in cities, while glossing over that which doesn’t, the growth of minorities in suburbs.  Indeed, the former is touted as the next place for opportunity, while the latter is understood as a triumph for efforts at reducing segregation and inequality.

I’ve tried to reconcile this shift myself, going back several years.  Back in March 2012 I wrote that the movement of African Americans to the suburbs or the Sun Belt might lead to being “on the outside, looking in,” without any statistical evidence yet of changes within cities.  In February 2014, I noted how changes within the Chicago area were playing out, lending credence to my thesis that this migratory shift was underway.  I elaborated on the implications of my thesis herehere, and here, and even considered the specific implications of this shift on my hometown of Detroit here and here.  I wrote about it again just three weeks ago.  So my thoughts on this are fairly well developed.

In a nutshell — whites are returning in larger numbers to urban cores.  Ultimately they will bring with them jobs, services and amenities that previously had not existed in urban cores.  Minorities — more specifically, blacks — are moving to suburbs in greater numbers.  They will be looking for jobs, services and amenities, but will search in vain as those qualities slowly evaporate from the suburban landscape.

Not all suburbs will collapse, just as all cities will not revitalize.  But the trend is strong enough to be noticeable, and it’s not difficult to extrapolate its implications.

Ihy, as cities are on the cusp of receiving investment that’s eluded them for decades, are blacks moving away from them?  Ultimately I think it comes to differing worldviews held by whites and blacks — whites seek advantage while blacks seek equity, and as long as we as blacks seek equity in this society, we lose.

Our society is premised on benefiting those seeking advantage, even when societal rules are structured to be fair and equitable.  Look at the last century of urban development in American cities.  Restrictive covenants that exclude blacks from buying homes?  Seeking advantage.  Redlining that freezes mortgage financing from black neighborhoods?  Seeking advantage.  Urban renewal projects and interstate highway construction that destroys black neighborhoods?  Seeking advantage.  Exclusionary zoning in the suburbs that artificially inflates suburban home values by making anything beyond single family homes illegal?  Seeking advantage.  Making public education a purely local responsibility, thereby keeping those artificially inflated dollars at work in socially engineered environments?  Seeking advantage.  A War on Drugs program that leads to “tough on crime” measures, vastly disparate sentencing, and mass incarceration?  Seeking advantage.  The creation of magnet and charter schools in urban school districts to provide more educational choice?  Seeking advantage.

Seeking advantage defines larger society.

Meanwhile, blacks have been engaged in a centuries-long search for equity.  While the rest of society has been defining success as “better than…”, we’ve been defining success as “as good as…”.  We want job opportunities as good as others.  We want housing choices as good as others.  We want school quality as good as others.  We want services and amenities as good as others.  We want to be treated in the criminal justice system as well as others.

One can see this played out in the current debate over the Black Lives Matters movement.  Ever since the chant of “Black Lives Matter” arose in Ferguson, MO, it’s been clear that many whites hear that chant as “Black Lives Matter more.”  As if blacks are seeking advantage.  That’s why there have been counter chants of “Police Lives Matter” or “All Lives Matter”, addressing either the specific role of police in serving our cities, or in an attempt to say we’re equal in the law’s eyes.  But that’s not at all what the movement has been about, nor what the movement has been trying to convey.  It’s more accurate to say the chant is ‘Black Lives Matter too” — the same as others.  Not more or less, but equal to others who haven’t been subjected to the same scrutiny and stigmatization.

Today’s urban revitalization could be read as another attempt to seek advantage.  Urban pioneers moved to city neighborhoods when values were low, hoping to capitalize on increasing values.  They did.  Calls by second- and third-generation urban newcomers for zoning reform that would allow greater density and (hopefully) more affordable housing, particularly within the most in-demand urban neighborhoods, could strengthen advantage where it already exists.  It would.

On the other hand, the growth of blacks in suburbia could be read as an another attempt to seek equity.  They’re seeking better school quality, services, job opportunities, amenities — the same that others enjoy.  Many blacks, like myself, will be fortunate enough to find themselves in a suburban community that maintains all of those qualities.  Any suburb that keeps, or brings in, enough positive development to appeal to those seeking advantage, will continue to benefit.  But there will also be suburbs that lose that appeal, and their decline could be swift.

Sadly, shortly after many blacks settle into their new homes, they may just find that all the things they seek are now located in the place they just left.

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