The Ghetto Is Public Policy
July 12, 2014 9:15 AM   Subscribe

Ta-Nehisi Coates writes in The Atlantic:The Effects of Housing Segregation on Black Wealth. As the wealth gap widens between whites and blacks in America, and after reading this list and this list, he concludes The Ghetto Is Public Policy.

Terrorism Is Politics By Other Means
One of the great contributions of Arnold Hirsch's Making The Second Ghetto is the conception of racism not as deviancy, moral degeneracy, or stupidity, but as a political ideology whose employers' tactics differ according to class, but whose goals remain the same.

The goal of post-war white Chicago was to keep African Americans sealed in the ghetto. Working-class and ethnic whites worked toward this goal through what Hirsch calls "communal violence," which is to say entire communities angling toward terrrorism:
The Language of Segregation Under Social Sanction
Continuing from our conversation around housing segregation and the language employed by those with power I think it's worth thinking some about the text of this petition:

"As moral, religious and law-abiding citizens, we feel that we are unprejudiced and undiscriminating in our wish to keep our community a closed community ... to protect our own."
The petition was put out in 1957, as Levittown sought to stave off integration. What's important to note is that we are well into post-war America and there is some social sanction emerging against prejudice and discrimination. What the petition does is effectively endorse prejudice and discrimination while claiming not to.
Levittown is the most famous of the post-WWII suburbs, which contends with it's own legacy of bias.
''It's symbolic of segregation in America,'' he said. ''That's the legacy of Levittown."
Coates, again: The Ghetto, Public Policy, and the Jewish Exception
The other day I wrote about differences in how two sectors of Chicago's white community responded to the prospect of integration. I contrasted the response of Chicago's upper-class whites with its working class white ethnics. I am coming to hate all of these terms for their lack of precision. Chicago's white Jewish community demonstrates the problem. When I was researching my article on Detroit, African Americans generally told me that it was usually in the Jewish communities where desegregation began. Jews proved much more open to renting or selling to black families than other whites. I won't go so far as to say that there were no Jewish race riots in the mid-20th century, but I haven't read about a single one.
James Baldwin wrote in 1948: From the American Scene: The Harlem Ghetto: Winter 1948
Segregated From Its History, How 'Ghetto' Lost Its Meaning

Coates: The Ghetto Is Public Policy
But the most affecting aspect of the book is the demonstration of the ghetto not as a product of a violent music, super-predators, or declining respect for marriage, but of policy and power. In Chicago, the ghetto was intentional. Black people were pariahs whom no one wanted to live around. The FHA turned that prejudice into full-blown racism by refusing to insure loans taken out by people who live near blacks.

Contract-sellers reacted to this policy and "sold" homes to black people desperate for housing at four to five times its value. I say "sold" because the contract-seller kept the deed, while the "buyer" remained responsible for any repairs to the home.
A History of Liberal White Racism, Cont.
There is some sense that when we talk about the period leading up to the New Deal and beyond, that we are talking about progressives in the North making a tragic, yet necessary, bargain with white racists conservatives in the South. In fact what Ira Katznelson shows in Fear Itself is something a little more complicated. The white supremacists in his book are, indeed, for the most part, Southern. But they also are very much married to to the prospect of progressive liberal reform. It may break our brains a bit to imagine, say, a Southern white supremacist backing railroad unions. But that's actual history.
The Ghetto Is Public Policy - "The wealth gap is not a mistake. It is the logical outcome of policy and democratic will." and from a comment: I'd think about it like this: in Chicago at the time, there were two fundamental housing markets: one for whites, and one for blacks.

Chicago Magazine: How The Atlantic Discovered Chicago’s Troubled Past - "Ta-Nehisi Coates of the Atlantic, one of the best bloggers anywhere, reads his way through Chicago’s tense 20th century."
Les Segregated, But Still Really Segregated

Important in thinking about this is Hirsch's concept of the second ghetto: "the result of systemic public policy aimed at segregation".

Public Housing: Government-Sponsored Segregation
How We Built The Ghettos

Not just Chicago either: 'Apartheid, Baltimore Style' City Housing Suit and History of Bias
Living Apart: How the Government Betrayed a Landmark Civil Rights Law.
posted by the man of twists and turns (31 comments total) 132 users marked this as a favorite
Splendid, splendid post (as usual) - thank you. I'm sticking all the Coates' links on my kindle, for non-distracted reading.
posted by rtha at 9:52 AM on July 12, 2014

Thanks for this post, will be reading over the weekend and trying to thoughtfully absorb. Coates is on fire lately, writing some really important and challenging stuff.
posted by LooseFilter at 10:05 AM on July 12, 2014 [2 favorites]

Wow, so much to absorb here, and so relevant in terms of the earlier discussion on violence in Chicago. Bookmarking till later.
posted by emjaybee at 10:34 AM on July 12, 2014 [1 favorite]

I've only read the first few, but I found myself rolling my eyes a bit and thinking "all of these things are more about poverty than race", and then I hit this:

White liberals generally prefer to talk about a colorless wealth inequality haunting the country.

posted by qxntpqbbbqxl at 10:40 AM on July 12, 2014 [24 favorites]

One of the things I was struck by at the time of the housing crisis was how disproportionately it seemed to affect black families; indeed,
The Great Recession produced the largest setback in racial wealth equality in the United States over the last quarter century. (Political Economy Research Institute)
Coates's posts have really provided the background for understanding that, for me -- if you systematically exclude people from the housing market, while holding up home ownership as THE way to build wealth for middle-class families, then loosen up restrictions on mortgage lending so that people who previously hadn't been able to get a mortgage suddenly find themselves able to get mortgages they're just barely able to afford, suddenly start getting sold on mortgages they can barely afford (while being told "don't worry, you can just refinance later, housing prices always go up, if you don't buy now you won't be able to buy later") -- it's a toxic cocktail.

And I think none of it would have been able to happen (at least, not to the extent that it did) if we did not have decades of history of the ghetto as public policy.
posted by Jeanne at 10:44 AM on July 12, 2014 [13 favorites]

Great post - I look forward to reading these. (I like the minimalist tagging too.)
posted by joseph conrad is fully awesome at 10:46 AM on July 12, 2014

I've said it before, I'll say it again: Some day, the Pulitzers for the last decade or so are all going to have asterisks with "* -- Inexplicably, not Ta-Nehisi Coates" at the bottom. Calling him "one of the best bloggers anywhere" is like calling The Godfather "one of the best mob movies of the 1970s."
posted by Etrigan at 10:49 AM on July 12, 2014 [24 favorites]

I find this really fascinating now that I have moved right into the middle of it in Chicago. The South and West side CPS schools are being defunded under the pretense of fiscal requirements while an amount equivalent to this years savings is being spent on North Side CPS schools in affluent neighborhoods. The planned Obama magnet school is also being proposed for one of the richest neighborhoods in the city because reasons. Funny how smart rich folk, including liberals, can always come up with 'good' reasons to implement accidentally almost perfectly racist policies.

Normally this racism stays nicely politely submerged operating only at a structural policy level rather than overt in your face racism but holy crap did it ever leak out during the pride parade when people from other neighborhoods came to Lakeview for a day. The neighborhood message boards suddenly felt like stormfront forums. I now wonder which of my neighbors have hidden swastika tattoos.
posted by srboisvert at 10:58 AM on July 12, 2014 [10 favorites]

Dude should totally fuck off The Atlantic and do his own site. I get the feeling there are certain factors he'd like to cover that are Not Allowed in a respectable magazine.
posted by save alive nothing that breatheth at 11:08 AM on July 12, 2014 [3 favorites]

TNC is the entire reason I have a subscription to The Atlantic.
posted by shakespeherian at 11:45 AM on July 12, 2014

I get the feeling there are certain factors he'd like to cover that are Not Allowed in a respectable magazine.

What factors? I get the feeling he's laying a lot of foundations to go even further, and the Atlantic is fully behind him. TNC is certainly canny enough to see that the more thorough he is at the beginning, the better a launchpad he builds.
posted by fatbird at 11:58 AM on July 12, 2014 [5 favorites]

I used to live in Lexington Kentucky and had a very uncomfortable realization there: the ghetto is city planning. The use of one-way streets in that city had effectively created a kind of trap - several ways in, only one way out. It was labyrinthine, and basically all black. Maybe I was just naive about it before, but I had just never seen it so plainly before - the low income housing areas of that town were designed - it was no accident, or emergent condition - there was intention there.
posted by Golem XIV at 1:35 PM on July 12, 2014 [3 favorites]

Nope. If he ain't allowed to talk about it in the Atlantic, I sure as hell ain't allowed to talk about it here. And is speculatory anyway.
posted by save alive nothing that breatheth at 1:36 PM on July 12, 2014

It's not a coincidence that the big CTA cuts that happened right after I moved to Chicago primarily hit the South Side.
posted by PMdixon at 2:51 PM on July 12, 2014

We tend to think that the cities we live in took shape naturally. The theories of urban growth and development that guided planning and policy for much of the 20th century were borrowed from ecological sciences. Even today, you'll hear people comparing a city to an organism all the time, as if it's something that just grows. How does it grow? It's natural! Or it's the free market! Or whatever.

The organism metaphor of city growth allows us to overlook a lot of the segregation and social control that have existed and still exist in cities today. Post World War II white flight to the suburbs was only "natural" once the federal government, the real estate industry, and the mortgage banking industry colluded to exclude African American households, Latino households, and female-headed households from getting mortgages. Cities don't just grow and take shape by invisible processes. They're the result of decisions we make.
posted by mcmile at 3:23 PM on July 12, 2014 [5 favorites]

I'm thinking of the slum areas in East and West San Jose. Sandwiched by freeways, bracketed by commercial streets, they are effectively isolated from the greater community. Hell, I lived only a couple miles away in a mixed industrial/residential neighborhood, and I didn't really know about the slums for years, until as a social worker I was sent directly into those areas.
posted by happyroach at 4:13 PM on July 12, 2014 [1 favorite]

To finish my post that got interrupted; the arrangement of the slum is obviously intentional. The commercial streets like Alum Rock or San Carlos, in combination with the freeways effectively isolate the slums from the larger community. The internal network of narrow, cluttered, poorly connected streets effectively limits internal movement and breaks up the feeling of an organized whole.

It's obvious that the city planners felt a need for neighborhoods for families poor enough to share a single room, but they also wanted to make sure their access to the rest of the city was limited.
posted by happyroach at 4:37 PM on July 12, 2014 [2 favorites]

Nope. If he ain't allowed to talk about it in the Atlantic, I sure as hell ain't allowed to talk about it here. And is speculatory anyway.

Um, thanks for bringing it up, I guess?

Whether TNC is currently restraining himself at the Atlantic to please The Man while he arranges his pieces on the chessboard, he's currently the top blogger in the mainstream blogosphere. There's no more valuable writer to call your own, and James Fallows knows that, I'm sure, and is likely doing everything he can to keep Coates happy. And from the tilt of Fallows' blog and a couple emails with him, I'd guess Fallows is cheering TNC on.
posted by fatbird at 6:08 PM on July 12, 2014 [1 favorite]

I just spent the afternoon with three friends who grew up in Hyde Park, and the subject of racism in Chicago of course came up. One still lives in Hyde Park, having raised two sons, and she was saying that her colleagues can't believe she doesn't move to the suburbs - and we were talking about the defunding srboisvert referred to.

I'm looking forward to reading this and will be forwarding these links to my friends. Thanks for posting!
posted by maggiemaggie at 7:02 PM on July 12, 2014

One of the things I was struck by at the time of the housing crisis was how disproportionately it seemed to affect black families

One of the things that I was struck by at the time of the housing crisis was how anxious certain parties were to blame the crisis on people who (paraphrase) should never have been able to afford houses in the first place. While I was always aware of redlining, Coates has put the effect of the housing crisis on black families, and the blame they got for it, into historical context for me. How the blame was allotted once the crisis started was not accidental, but shaped by historical (and present) racism.
posted by immlass at 7:20 PM on July 12, 2014 [1 favorite]

Ta-Nehisi Coates is brilliant. This is why everybody down to the lowest level of society needs to be made aware of the public policy issues of the day and allowed to contribute meaningfully to the decision making process. It's also why political PR spin shouldn't dominate the news cycle and why we need good public education systems that accept science and historical reality for what they are.
posted by saulgoodman at 8:08 PM on July 12, 2014

Nope. If he ain't allowed to talk about it in the Atlantic, I sure as hell ain't allowed to talk about it here.

What the hell does this mean?
posted by asterix at 10:44 PM on July 12, 2014 [5 favorites]

Mod note: Let's drop this weird derail please?
posted by taz (staff) at 11:51 PM on July 12, 2014 [2 favorites]

From the "The Ghetto Is Public Policy":

But it also needs to be said (loudly) that black/white inequality has, for most of American history, been our explicit public policy, and today, is our implicit public policy.

It seems we are meant to read this as "The Ghetto, today is our implicit public policy". But he doesn't support this statement, at least in this piece... where is his argument for this? I'm seriously curious, I want to see how deep his argument goes.
posted by superelastic at 6:20 AM on July 13, 2014 [1 favorite]

It seems we are meant to read this as "The Ghetto, today is our implicit public policy". But he doesn't support this statement, at least in this piece... where is his argument for this?

From the second The Ghetto Is Public Policy piece linked (Coates had a whole series of short articles about this last year, so keep clicking):
The men and women who suffered at the hands of the FHA and the racist aspects of New Deal legislation are very much alive today. Furthermore, their children are alive and the effects of that policy on the country are fairly obvious. We know what we want to know. We believe the ghetto is manifestation of individual will and amorphous culture values because that is what we would prefer to think. It's not so much that we don't want to dwell on the past, so much as we want to choose our past.
See also his masterwork The Case for Reparations (as discussed previously on Metafilter), where he basically says that by dismissing the very recent explicit segregation as "in the past" and not even discussing it as a thing that still has tangible and measurable effects, Americans are allowing it to continue.
posted by Etrigan at 6:47 AM on July 13, 2014 [5 favorites]

...that by dismissing the very recent explicit segregation as "in the past" and not even discussing it as a thing that still has tangible and measurable effects, Americans are allowing it to continue

Thanks, Etrigan. I think you nailed it.
posted by superelastic at 8:43 AM on July 13, 2014

It's not just cities -- where I grew up, in north Arlington, Virginia, pretty much the entire black population lived in Hall's Hill, settled by freed slaves after the civil war. If you drive around there, you'll discover that there is no way out apart from the highway exit, despite the fact that it is now in a seamless area of suburban homes. Every road dead ends, save for a single road cut through at some point after desegregation.

Of course, you can't find 'Hall's Hill' anymore; Arlington renamed it Highview Park in the 80s, presumably to soothe real estate agents who didn't want to sell homes in the 'black neighborhood'. And you can't find it from the highway, either; for decades, a set of totem poles in a green patch marked the entrance, raised as a simple of black pride. Racists cut one of them down, and the stump was left defiantly there by the neighborhood, to show what they faced. A few years ago, Arlington removed the entire thing, as 'road maintenance'.

And Arlington prides itself as being *less* racist than the rest of Virginia, a liberal bastion.
posted by tavella at 2:43 PM on July 13, 2014 [1 favorite]

"I used to live in Lexington Kentucky and had a very uncomfortable realization there: the ghetto is city planning. ..."

I'm from central Kentucky, and while I would not argue with the idea that Lexington has a noticeable segregation problem, I really question whether one-way streets have anything to do with it. Blaming the traffic patterns seems overly simplistic. Sure, the north side (where low-income black residents are clustered) has some one-ways and weird street patterns, but heck, Main Street is one-way through downtown, and Limestone/Upper are one-way on the south side of Main, too, plus Main/Vine and High/Maxwell aren't really on the north side. Anyway, there are no one-way sidewalks, so if you're too poor to own a car, how can one-way streets trap you in?

According to this article those streets were made one-way in the first place in order to help downtown retail compete against suburban shopping centers, so it's possible white flight/gentrification/etc. factors were at play when changing the traffic patterns. Still, I think there are more obvious factors involved, such as (just recently) some Lexington parents' recent petition to de-prioritize socioeconomic diversity in school redistricting, even as the district's schools already suffer from huge disparities in terms of school funding.
posted by gobliiin at 6:00 PM on July 13, 2014

And it's worth thinking about how this country thought about black citizenship. William Levitt pitched homeownership as act of patriotism:

No man who owns his own house and lot can be a Communist. He has too much to do.

When a nation excludes a people from the process of patriotism, what is it saying to them?

In other words, when they won't let you in with the "patriots," they give you a moral license to commit "treason"/revolution.
posted by univac at 9:33 PM on July 13, 2014

Ta-Nehisi Coates and the boundaries of legitimate debate
“It was policy that got us redlining,” Coates argued. “It was policy got us housing segregation. There’s policy behind all of it. The slave trade was policy. When that becomes a substitute for something, I don’t know, I have a problem with it.”

“The other thing is,” he continued, “we have tons of academic research on the impact of redlining, on the impact of not being able to get the G.I. Bill, on the impact of lynching, on the impact of terrorism. We have tons of research on what that did and what that does to community. Culture not so much. Not so much. It’s a little harder to quantify. So why do we spend so much time talking about the thing that we have the hardest time quantifying, and so little time talking about the thing that we know?”
The Radical Practicality of Reparations
A similar moment finds us now. Even if one feels that slavery was too far into the deep past (and I do not, because I view this as a continuum) the immediate past is with us. Identifying the victims of racist housing policy in this country is not hard. Again, we have the maps. We have the census. We could set up a claims system for black veterans who were frustrated in their attempt to use the G.I. Bill. We could then decide what remedy we might offer these people and their communities. And there is nothing "impractical" about this.

The problem of reparations has never been practicality.
posted by the man of twists and turns at 10:37 PM on July 13, 2014 [4 favorites]

Ghettos, Anti-ghettos, Hyperghettos
Bring these two shocks together and you have the question that animated a decade of research: are the US ghetto and the European lower-class districts converging and, if not, what is happening to them? And what is driving their transformation? To answer these questions, I gathered statistical data and carried out field observation in a dilapidated section of Chicago’s ‘Black Belt’ and in a de-industrialising suburb of the ‘Red Belt’ of Paris. I also reconstructed their historical trajectory, because you cannot understand what happened to these declining neighbourhoods in the 1990s without considering the full sweep of the twentieth century, marked by the boom and then the demise of Fordist industrialism and the Keynesian welfare state.
posted by the man of twists and turns at 9:42 AM on July 14, 2014 [3 favorites]

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