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"Polikoff Responds"

March/April 2005 issue of Poverty & Race

The Nov./Dec. 2004 P&R featured “Racial Inequality and the Black Ghetto,” Alexander Polikoff’s proposal for a national program to “end the ghetto as we know it” – a proposal based on his many years litigating Chicago’s Gautreaux lawsuit. Our Jan./Feb. 2005 issue then featured a symposium on the Polikoff plan, with 7 knowledgeable activists/thinkers offering their comments. Here is Polikoff’s comment on the comments; he is reachable at

None of the commentators opposes the basic idea — to dismantle or radically change black ghettos through a voluntary mobility program that would enable large numbers of ghetto residents to leave, thereby not only to improve life chances for the movers but — this is my focus — to end the poisoning effect black ghettos have on American attitudes, conduct and values.

The commentators do, however, raise questions about the suggested means. David Rusk says we won’t get the needed federal dollars, and therefore proposes the alternate vehicle of inclusionary zoning. I am a strong supporter of inclusionary zoning (this, however, is not the place to discuss its benefits and the challenges to achieving it nationally). But Rusk apparently forgot my point that, by using “turnover” vouchers, the proposed mobility program wouldn’t require any new vouchers at all. With this approach, the incremental program cost would be a negligible fraction (.0005) of just the military portion of our federal budget. An infinitesimal budgetary cost would not be the real reason for deep-sixing a program that could end the ghetto as we know it. The bottom line is that this isn’t an either/or situation; we need a national Gautreaux program and inclusionary zoning. It’s a mistake to set one against the other.

Rather than offering a different vehicle, other commentators propose adjustments to mine. Libby Perl would like a law prohibiting landlords from discriminating against voucher families. Without that, she fears, there won’t be enough homes and apartments to satisfy demand. Such a law would be nice, but to link it to my proposal would add heavy political baggage. Nor is the evidence clear that such a law, if adopted, would make a major difference. Low fair market rents are probably a bigger obstacle to getting enough units. My proposal would leap this higher hurdle by having Congress tell HUD, in the basic enactment creating the mobility program, to approve whatever rents were demonstrated to be reasonable — based on community comparables — for program participants.

George Galster says the program must be neighborhood friendly. Going beyond my proposed requirements that program families move to very low-poverty, non-racially impacted communities distant from ghettos, and a low annual ceiling on the number of families entering any city, town or village, Galster says to look at “almost ghetto” neighborhoods and make sure too many voucher families don’t cluster in them. Although under my proposal it’s unlikely that that would happen, Galster’s right, and it’s doable. There’s a precedent in the Gautreaux Program for exactly this kind of neighborhood-sensitive program administration.

Sheryll Cashin writes that the politics of offering mobility vouchers solely to blacks won’t work. Better, she says, to offer them to all ghetto residents. She too may be right. As I acknowledged in my article, “[O]ne can imagine that for reasons of policy or politics, Congress would choose to offer the mobility program to all residents of metropolitan ghettos.”

There are disadvantages to this approach, however, one of which is blunting the programmatic thrust and rationale of ending the black ghetto. Another is considerably expanding scope and administrative complexity, creating the danger of watering down the program so it can’t realize its ghetto dismantling potential. Indeed, Cashin writes as if the purpose of a black-only program would be to “give poor blacks more mobility,” rather than to eliminate the concentrated poverty of our worst ghettos. In fact, mobility is but the means to the end of dismantling, after which — as Cashin says — life will be better for everyone; the program should be sold on this ground, whether or not the vouchers are offered only to blacks. But if Cashin turned out to be right about the politics, offering mobility vouchers to all ghetto residents — provided the program weren’t cut below the needed scale — isn’t a bad prospect. Maybe starting on the high ground of ending black ghettos, as partial redress for slavery and Jim Crow, would lead to a later “compromise” that would include all ghetto residents.

Sudhir Venkatesh doesn’t oppose my proposal, but he does say we need to learn more about and “acknowledge” how poor people in ghettos really live. Certainly. But if, as Venkatesh says, ghetto residents don’t live in families as much as others do, that may be a consequence of the very intergenerational ghetto confinement we’re hoping to end. And the notion that informal exchanges of goods and services, as opposed to market transactions, are more likely to be found inside than outside the ghetto seems suspect. Job networking, “old boy” contacts and the like are some of the very advantages sociologists cite when describing the disadvantages of ghetto isolation.

Venkatesh endorses “much” of my proposal, but he also seems to be asserting that liberal do-gooders just don’t get it about the ghetto; discrimination and poverty may have created ghetto conditions, but people now live there for reasons of “comfort.” Is he saying, leave the ghetto alone because people like it the way it is? I don’t think so, yet the implication is that there are strengths and values in ghetto life that we don’t perceive through our “bourgeois sensibility” and we had best tread carefully there.

Granted. But unless Venkatesh is more explicit, I will not put him in the camp of those who decline to acknowledge that many in the ghetto abhor it and would leave if they could, and who accuse those who seek to enable voluntary departure of the sin of blaming the victim. Too often ghetto romanticizers forget that white society created and today still maintains the black ghetto as a means of confinement and subjugation. Although there are testimonies to unbreakable human spirit to be found there, countless thousands of black men, women and children continue to pay a stupendous price, many with their lives, for what white society has wrought.

At bottom, Venkatesh’s comments can be read as making the sound point that, as in all people-oriented government programs, administration had best be informed and sensitive. For a voluntary mobility program directed at ghetto residents, that includes post-move counseling informed by an understanding of the needs of human beings who will not only have suffered the trauma of moving, but who in many cases will have crossed a cultural divide as well.

The inevitable trauma of moving, especially across a cultural divide, calls for noting a point frequently made in mobility discussions: If mobility precedes community redevelopment, true housing choice will be denied — that is, many ghetto residents will only opt for mobility because the alternative of remaining in the ghetto is so bad. Redevelop first, the argument runs, and then the choice to leave or stay will be a fair one. However, as I believe my underlying article makes clear, in practice this approach will give us neither redevelopment nor mobility. With poverty deconcentration through mobility coming first, we can have both, and a responsible — albeit longer-term — means of addressing the needs of those who remain behind because they cannot, or decline to, participate in mobility.

Which leaves Paul Wachtel and john powell. A heroic warrior in race struggles, powell knows whereof he speaks when he emphasizes that we need more focus on “whiteness,” that mobility alone won’t fix whites’ need for dominance, and that the race problem in the United States is largely the problem of (dysfunctional) whites and their racial practices and arrangements, which are today less overt, but with respect to poor blacks not much less effective, than they used to be. Understandably, powell points to the irony of a proposal that suggests addressing the problem by limiting black move-ins to an unthreatening number.

In defense, I turn to Wachtel. What we are really about, Wachtel says, is trying to defuse generations of misery (and, I would add, deeply entrenched patterns in whites’ attitudes, conduct and values). This is not something conversation is likely to remedy.

When President Eisenhower was reluctant to enforce Brown because he thought it necessary first to change peoples’ minds and hearts, and that laws and court decisions couldn’t do that, he was dead wrong. As Wachtel says, “a slight shift in the forces which have been invisibly contending can yield a dramatic change in the overall result.”

My thesis is that ghetto poison, relentlessly flowing into our body politic, is one of those invisibly contending forces shaping black-white relations. Over time, ending the ghetto would significantly alter those shaping forces, just as the “substantial improvement in white racial attitudes” powell notes is due partly to the enactment of the Fair Housing Act. Then, as Wachtel says, other things may begin to alter as well, often in unpredictable ways — maybe even some of the other things powell, and I, want to alter.

I share powell’s anguish, but I have been in too many talk sessions to believe that the radical change he seeks will emerge from dialogue. “[T]o defuse the generators of explosive misery and rage,” as Wachtel says, is a way to begin to do, not to talk. The Brown decision was something done, and it had profound beneficial effects on black-white relations even though it was a step, not a solution. Ending black ghettos would be another important step — albeit only a step — on the road to the kind of society powell, and the rest of us, hope America will one day become.

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