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"Achieving Racial Justice: What's Sprawl Got to Do With It?,"

by john a. powell September/October 1999 issue of Poverty & Race

Race plays a significant role in creating and maintaining fragmented metropolitan regions through urban sprawl and racialized concentrated poverty. While this idea is gaining attention from urban activists of color, the epicenter of the anti-sprawl debate remains the suburb, where race and social justice issues are seldom, if ever, mentioned.

I have argued that one of the central forces behind the sprawl explosion is white aversion to blacks, which is supported and reinforced by large institutions such as the federal government, the real estate industry, the banking industry, and state and local zoning boards. One cannot adequately account for the increase in racial segregation and the proliferation of small fragmented jurisdictions, by simply examining personal choice, personal racial dynamics or market forces. The federal government alone has spent over a trillion dollars through sprawl subsidies to create and support the jurisdictional segregation that is now the norm in our metropolitan landscape. While the government paid for and subsidized white flight from central cities through FHA and VA mortgage insurance, tax policies and highway and other infrastructure investments, it also divested the inner cities of their resources and the people of color in those cities of their opportunities.

Others have written about the far-reaching negative effects this segregated jurisdictional structure has had on blacks, including racialized concentrated poverty at the urban core, the development of what Douglas Massey and Nancy Denton have called “American apartheid,” and isolation from opportunities as job growth and regional resources are pulled out of the city and into the suburbs. In fact, some have argued that not only have we racialized our space, but it is through space that we do our “racing” in the late 20th century. Despite this growing body of work, few have made the connection between these negative consequences and the severe limitations that sprawl and fragmentation have placed on the civil rights movement. This oversight is dramatic because there is strong evidence to support the position that this spatial arrangement has been the single most effective tool for maintaining black subordination since the repeal of Jim Crow laws.

Some Race History

In order to fully understand this connection between sprawl and civil rights, it is necessary to look at the historical forces behind the racial dynamics in America. At the turn of the century black Americans comprised 12% (almost nine million) of the American population, and 90% (almost eight million) of black Americans still lived in the old Confederate South. While the same level of residential segregation that exists today did not exist at the turn of the century, blacks in the North and South were socially and economically segregated and subjugated by a number of practices, including Jim Crow laws and racial terrorism. Blacks were denied the right to vote, serve on juries, hold many jobs and attend integrated schools. In short, blacks were not politically, economically or socially equal to whites; they remained less than full citizens.

During the Industrial Revolution the preferred labor pool of white European immigrants began to dry up, initially during World War I, then more severely during and after World War II. So the North began to hire blacks from the South. It was during this time that blacks started moving to Northern cities in record numbers. During the height of the Great Migration, the trickle of blacks from the rural South to the urban North became a torrent, as five million blacks moved to the North after 1940.

At the same time that millions of blacks were coming to the urban North in search of opportunity and inclusion that had been denied them in the South, the civil rights movement took root. While many of the foundations and strategies associated with the civil rights movement crystalized during the 30’s and 40’s, it was World War II itself that radically changed the demands and the response for racial inclusion and justice in our society. The fact that the United States was engaged in an anti-racist war was not lost on blacks in the U.S. Although the focus of the legal strategy was on education, the ultimate goal of the civil rights movement was to end all forms of racial subordination, and to gain access to real opportunity and full citizenship.

The Supreme Court responded to the growing demands for racial justice, as it appeared to abandon its earlier role of frustrating racial justice efforts during the First Reconstruction era. Instead, the Court became one of the first institutions to begin to dismantle the Jim Crow system of racial subordination. The Court demonstrated its commitment to racial justice by refusing to enforce racially restrictive covenants in Shelley v. Kraemer (1948), and in the area of education, the Court chipped away at the separate but equal doctrine it had announced in Plessy v. Ferguson (1896). But at the same time that the Court was beginning to break down a racial caste system inscribed in law, it, along with other powerful government and non-governmental institutions, was establishing “American apartheid”: racial segregation re-inscribed in jurisdictional boundaries.

In 1950, 60% of Americans living in metropolitan areas still lived in the central cities. The city was still the regional hub for jobs, a strong tax base, decent housing, good schools, retail and other opportunities.

This picture changed rapidly as the suburban population doubled between 1950 and 1970, and by 1990 the suburbs contained two-thirds of the metropolitan population, while only one-third remained in the central cities. With this population shift, a jurisdictional change occurred as well.

In 1950, 60% of America’s metropolitan residents lived in just 193 jurisdictions. By 1990, almost 70% of the metropolitan population lived in 9,600 suburban jurisdictions, indicating the shift to a more fragmented regional structure. This process of land use planning has aptly been called “land use war.”

Jobs also relocated to the suburbs, and the central city’s strong tax base soon followed. It was no coincidence that these shifts occurred shortly after large numbers of blacks moved into these urban areas. The fracturing of metropolitan areas is almost always a racially motivated method of excluding blacks. In order for this racial sorting to work, however, suburbs had to both attract whites and exclude blacks. Federal and state governments normalized these practices in our society by creating incentives for whites to move to the suburbs, while erecting barriers preventing blacks from doing the same. Barriers to the suburbs were not economic but racial, as many low-income whites were able to gain access to the suburbs while access was denied to blacks through redlining, racial steering and discriminatory zoning practices. These numerous small white communities used their expanding autonomy to further capture resources and opportunities while excluding blacks and other minorities.

The Role of the Courts

While the Supreme Court supported desegregation within cities by ending de jure segregation, it simultaneously supported segregation of the region along jurisdictional lines through the constitutionalization of “local control.” Federal courts constitutionalized the concept of “local control” despite pre-existing federal law that said cities were not entities unto themselves, thereby setting the stage for the re-establishment of a racial hierarchy that reconfigured, but maintained, white supremacy and black subordination. “Local control” has been used to justify the segregated and fragmented jurisdictional structure of sprawl; it is the primary enforcement mechanism for racially exclusionary practices; and it appears to be a perfectly legal method of ensuring racial subordination under current federal law. Two areas of particular significance in the “local control” movement are land use practices or exclusionary zoning and protection of local control over education.

School desegregation litigation provides an example of how white suburbanization under the concept of “local control” has undermined the civil rights movement. Despite almost 50 years of litigation since Brown, most black, and an increasing number of Latino, children attend racially and economically segregated schools in areas that have supposedly been desegregated under federal law. The Supreme Court fostered this arrangement by striking down explicit segregation at the intra-jurisdictional level while upholding it at the inter-jurisdictional level.

One of the most important cases that supported this arrangement was the Milliken case. The Supreme Court, basing its decision on the importance of local control, would not allow the lower court to order a desegregation remedy for Detroit’s discriminatory school district that included Detroit’s suburbs. The Court held that the suburban districts could not be incorporated into the desegregation remedy because they had not been found to intentionally segregate their districts. This was their conclusion, despite the fact that Detroit’s school district was overwhelmingly comprised of students of color and the suburban districts were overwhelmingly white. The Court ignored the claim that a segregated housing market on a jurisdictional level was causing inter-district school segregation. Instead, the Court suggested that these segregative housing patterns were unexplainable and beyond the purview of the court.

Milliken sent a message to whites that neighborhood-level segregation within the city would not be acceptable, but the suburbs would be a safe haven from desegregation. And the message to blacks was that there were limits to how far the Court would go to achieve racial justice, and those limits very closely matched the city limits.

This white suburban wall began to crack for middle-income blacks after passage of the Fair Housing Act of 1968. As a result, middle-income blacks have begun to move to the suburbs in record numbers. However, they are often resegregated in the suburbs and remain isolated from the more powerful white suburbs that still capture most of the opportunities and resources. During this same period, low-income people of color have been consigned to resource-depleted cities; isolated from the opportunities that brought blacks to the North 50 years ago. This isolation has caused an explosion of racialized concentrated poverty at the urban core. Growth in black and brown concentrated poverty at the urban core is almost always associated with white, upper middle-class, fragmented sprawl at the edge of the region. Racial subordination has taken on a different form: through the mechanisms of metropolitan fragmentation and sprawl, blacks have again been subordinated socially, politically and economically. By racializing space through the spatial isolation of blacks and other minorities, we have achieved many of the negative racial conditions formally held in place with Jim Crow laws, thus frustrating the civil rights goals of the 50s and 60s.

Weighing In On the Issue

Fragmentation and sprawl may be the most important impediments to racial justice as we approach the millennium. The fact that it has become a national concern for environmentalists as well as land use planners provides a wonderful opportunity to weigh in on this national discussion. New lines are being drawn on this issue by federal and state government, both figuratively and literally, and suburban voters demonstrated a growing hostility toward sprawl in the last election.

So, why have civil rights and social justice advocates remained largely absent from this growing anti-sprawl movement? In this limited space I can suggest only a couple of reasons: the fear of diluting minority political power and of losing cultural identity. While both of these are legitimate concerns, they do not justify inaction in addressing fragmentation. There are alternatives to an all-or-nothing approach. One alternative I have suggested is federated regionalism: a balance that is struck between localism and regional policy to preserve both political and cultural voice while providing access to opportunity and a chance to fulfill the ultimate goals of the civil rights movement.

The social justice community must take this current opportunity to frame these issues from a civil rights perspective, ensuring that racial and ethnic minorities have real access to both shape and partake of the opportunity structure in our society. It is hard to imagine an effective civil rights and social justice movement that promotes racial justice and addresses the negative consequences of concentrated poverty without addressing the fragmentation associated with sprawl.

As history has demonstrated, racial subordination mutates. So I am not suggesting that by simply addressing fragmentation and sprawl we will achieve racial justice. However, without addressing these issues, it is highly unlikely that we will make much progress toward that goal.

john a. powell is Secretary of PRRAC's Board, is on the faculty of the University of Minnesota Law School, where he directs the Institute on Race & Poverty (415 Law Ctr., 229 19th Ave. S., Minneapolis, MN 55455. 612/625-5529, E-mail:

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