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"Minority Exclusion in Small Town America,"

by James H. Johnson, Jr., Ann Moss Joyner & Allan Parnell March/April 2005 issue of Poverty & Race

Using GIS-based spatial analysis and mapping techniques, we have begun to document several pernicious forms of contemporary racial discrimination which are sapping the lifeblood from African American and other minority communities in towns across the United States. Documentation of this type of minority exclusion is typically done by superimposing racial and ethnic composition data onto geo-coded public records pertaining to zoning, water and sewer services, infrastructure, and land-use development plans.

This technique shows a contemporary pattern of discrimination which builds upon a common historical pattern of racial residential segregation and involves the intentional manipulation of zoning and land-use regulations — most often by local White elites. Resembling the apartheid-like conditions that have contributed to the growth of an underclass in U.S. cities, African Americans and other minorities in these towns are denied political involvement in economic development decision-making and access to critical infrastructure resources like sewer services, while their neighborhoods typically are targeted simultaneously for locally unwanted land-uses such as highways and sewage treatment facilities. These discriminatory actions expose African Americans to major public health risks, heighten the incidence of poverty in their neighborhoods, and are a heretofore-unrecognized contributor to Black land loss.

We highlight how two specific, and related, mechanisms — annexation and extraterritorial zoning — are being used to create racial apartheid-like conditions in towns throughout the U.S. We conclude with a call for additional research on this topic.


Proponents argue that annexation is an effective tool to facilitate business and employment growth, stabilize tax rates, and improve the overall quality of life, especially in fiscally- and financially-strapped communities. But annexation can produce exclusionary segregation.

In North Carolina, for example, the state’s annexation and planning laws give towns the discretion to annex only properties with high tax values (even non-contiguous properties), which often results in a confusing maze of boundaries that skip over poor and black neighborhoods to include wealthy and newer ones. Municipalities in North Carolina must extend all major municipal services performed within the jurisdiction (police protection, fire protection, solid waste collection, street maintenance, etc.) to the area to be annexed on substantially the same basis and in the same manner as such services are provided within the rest of the municipality prior to annexation. Such services must be completed within two years of the effective date of annexation.

While this requirement for provision of services appears to be equitable, it acts as a disincentive for local officials to annex older areas without city services, as is frequently the case with African American neighborhoods adjacent to town borders. In new neighborhoods, developers usually provide essential services and incorporate the associated costs into the price of the properties. In older neighborhoods, residents either finance such improvements themselves or they rely on the municipality to pay for the services—if they are to be provided prior to annexation.

State law requires documentation of how the proposed annexation will affect the city’s finances and services, including estimates of city revenue changes. Because most minority neighborhoods consist of lower-valued housing and few commercial establishments, the costs associated with annexing them often conflict with the overarching goal of annexation in the first instance, which is to enhance or maximize the local tax or revenue base.

Annexations also can potentially affect voting because they can change the electorate who can participate in elections. In reviewing annexations, the Justice Department stipulates that a jurisdiction must demonstrate that the revision of municipal boundaries to “include certain voters within the city [while] leaving others outside” was not based, even in part, on race. Local jurisdictions must also demonstrate that the annexation policies and standards applied to minority areas are the same as those applied to White areas. If the standards are not the same or have been applied inconsistently, there is a strong likelihood that the decision not to annex the minority area had a discriminatory purpose.

Extraterritorial Zoning

Extraterritorial zoning, or Extraterritorial Jurisdiction (ETJ) as it is popularly known, is another exclusionary tool that local power elites employ in small towns. ETJ is a zoning “overlay” that allows a town to zone areas outside of but contiguous to its limits in order to plan for future growth.

Fifteen states have some form of extraterritorial zoning authority for some or all municipalities. At least eleven states have some form of extraterritorial subdivision control.

In North Carolina, state law grants municipalities broad powers to control planning and growth for up to three miles beyond their borders (up to one mile for smaller towns). The area chosen must be based on “existing or projected urban development and areas of critical concern to the city, as evidenced by officially-adopted plans for its development.” A 1995 North Carolina League of Municipalities survey revealed that 89% of state’s larger towns and 68% of its smaller municipalities (1,000 to 2,500 residents) have adopted extraterritorial zoning.

While small towns often show little inclination to annex minority neighborhoods, they still take such neighborhoods into their ETJ, establishing the right to zone parcels. African American neighborhoods are left in ETJ status longer (in perpetuity in some cases) than White neighborhoods or newly developed areas that most likely will be predominantly White, which tend to be annexed more rapidly. Moreover, the local jurisdiction’s power to zone parcels often results in the rezoning of African American residential neighborhoods within the ETJ as commercial/industrial (often against the wishes of the residents, who have no vote in the town that now governs their zoning), resulting in eventual African American land loss.

Residents of a municipality’s ETJ cannot vote for the town council, but that administrative body has the authority to change land-use policies that can significantly reduce home values in the ETJ. Further, ETJ residents have to request permits from the town council for division of land, building, and other uses of their property. Anecdotal evidence suggests racial disparities in the granting of such permits. For example, there are reports that African American property owners in the ETJ of one North Carolina town are only given building permits for single-wide mobile homes, never for stick-built houses on permanent foundations.

African American property owners in ETJs may be more at risk of eminent domain condemnation than their White counterparts. Governments often target minority-owned land in a town’s ETJ for highway construction and other major infrastructure projects.


Little systematic research attention has been devoted to race relations and patterns or racial residential segregation in small cities and towns over the past 40 years. Many of these towns are still dominated by the local White elite. Their political and business interests are inextricably intertwined, and they control the boundaries of the town, often excluding minority neighborhoods.

Whether the result of unintentional fiscal annexation and ETJ processes or of intentional institutionalized actions of local governments, African Americans are excluded from towns and their associated political and material benefits. With lower levels of service, minority-owned property values are reduced, and, in states with ETJs, the residents are without the basic democratic right of representative government.

We have identified a number of towns in which these exclusionary tactics are being used, especially in North Carolina. They range from wealthy towns like Pinehurst, the site of the 2005 U.S. Open, which continues to deny local African American neighborhoods access to sewer service, to many small farm-market towns across eastern North Carolina.

However, the use of these tactics is not limited to North Carolina or even the South. A complaint filed recently in federal court in California alleges that the city of Modesto has refused to annex Latino neighborhoods and denied the minority residents access to needed public infrastructure, including sewers, street lights and storm water drainage facilities.

Considerable work remains to determine both the geographic scope and the material consequences of these pernicious forms of racial discrimination in small town America. Both the analytical tools (GIS) and the requisite geo-coded data are available to conduct this type of research. We invite other scholars to join us in not only documenting the extent of these discriminatory practices but also in developing strategies to ensure that minorities have equal access to the local resources that constitute the lifeblood of healthy and sustainable communities.

James H. Johnson, Jr. is William Rand Kenan, Jr. Distinguished Professor in the Kenan-Flagler Business School at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
Ann Moss Joyner is president of the Grove Institute for Sustainable Communities in Mebane, North Carolina.
Allan Parnell is vice president of the Grove Institute for Sustainable Communities in Mebane, North Carolina.


Background for this article is a Nov. 2004 conference, “Invisible Fences: Municipal Underbounding & Minority Exclusion,” sponsored by the UNC Ctr. for Civil Rights. Copies of the conference papers and the conference CD are available from Prof. John Charles Boger (PRRAC’s Board Chair), CB3380, Van Hecke-Wettach Hall, Chapel Hill, NC 27599, 919/843-9288,


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