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"Metropolitan America and Racism,"

by John O. Calmore July/August 1993 issue of Poverty & Race

In 1987, more than 75% of America's municipalities had less than 5,000 people. In white suburban areas, 86% of whites live in areas where less than 1% of the population is Black. In 1986, 27.5% of Black students and 30% of Latino students-were enrolled in the 25 largest central-city school districts, while only 3.3% of white students were enrolled in these districts. That is, 96.7% of white school children are educated outside of these problematic central city-school districts.

Over twenty years ago, urban policy-makers sought to construct a coherent reorganizational framework that would establish greater parity between needs and resources. Then, as now, there were seemingly insurmountable barriers to metropolitan reform.

Racism-not race, not poverty-is the root and branch of an American society divided against itself. Racism explains more completely than any other variable the structural urban inequality, economic subjugation, spatial containment, and human expendability that afflict so many inner-city dwellers who are primarily Black. Racism's forms and expressions change over time and in response to struggle as this process of subordination continues to plague America.

Racism is a virus that affects the nation's societal organization. By "societal organization" I mean William J.
Wilson's reference to "the working arrangements of society, including those that have emanated from previous arrangements, that specifically involve processes of ordering relations and actions with respect to given social ends, and that represent the material outcomes of those processes." Statuses, roles, values, and norms are necessarily affected by the virus. I fear there is no cure.

America's racism is now state of the art. It reflects a picaresque genius that causes many to see it as having virtually disappeared. Does anyone sincerely believe we live in a color-blind world? This race-neutrality is correctly characterized by Patricia Williams as "racism in drag." The consequences of racism are instead seen as bad luck, personal irresponsibility, acts of nature, or divine will.

Within a few years of the 1968 Kerner Commission Report, concluding that white institutions were fundamentally responsible for urban racial inequality, there developed a totally different dominant understanding, the myth that the Black community itself was responsible for its own problems, and significant governmental action was no longer necessary or proper. As Gary Orfield and Carole Askinaze note in their recent study of metropolitan Atlanta: " [T]he perception of the late 1960s that America faced a fundamental racial crisis was replaced by the belief that everything reasonable had been done and that, in fact, policies had often gone so far as to be unfair to whites."

This mythology continues to contradict and distort. A few weeks ago, Richard Riordan defeated Michael Woo in the race for mayor of Los Angeles. Los Angeles is a city with 3,485,000 people: 13% African American, 37% Anglo, 9% Asian/ Pacific Islander, and 39% Latino. Within this multicultural mix, 85% of those who voted for Riodan were Anglo. The New York Times reported that Riordan voters indicated by a 2-to-1 ratio that "the problems of minorities and the inner city are problems of personal responsibility rather than problems of racism and economic imbalance, while Woo voters said exactly the opposite by the same 2-to-1 ratio."

In Los Angeles, Blacks are far from the mainstream in their electoral politics; Woo captured 86% of the Black vote. Among other groups, Asians voted 69% for Woo, Latinos 57% for Woo, and Jews 51% for Woo. San Fernando Valley represents Los Angeles' suburb within the city. It accounted for 44% of the city's vote. The new mayor will speak primarily as the voice of the white San Fernando Valley. Although Latinos make up 33% of the Valley, the electorate remains white, suburban and conservative; in the primary election for mayor, while 85% of the Anglos voted, only 7% of the Latinos voted. The predominant Valley perspecive on local government since the 1920s has been that its residents pay a disproportionate amount of taxes while receiving less than their fair share of city services.

In light of prospects in Los Angeles, I cannot be enthusiastic about David Rusk's prescription to expand cities through the annexation of the suburbs or through city-county consolidation. In a 1970 article, Robert Lineberry astutely observed, regarding the consequences of metropolitan merger: "Instead of stimulating concern for the poor and the Negro, the addition of a tax- and race- conscious suburbia to the metropolitan electorate probably would dilute not only their voting power, but also the dedication of urban governments to social change."

How in the world would Rusk get the suburbs to buy in to being annexed by central cities? The trend is more likely to be toward suburbs in the city, like Staten Isand or San Fernando Valley, moving toward deannexation or succession. In the 1970s Michael Danielson recognized that the underlying cause of the end of annexation and the political containment of the city was "the universal desire of the periphery for political autonomy from the core." Rooted in class and ethnic conflict, the objective was tied to the desire of middle-class areas to establish local control over their relatively homogeneous communities.

In the 1980s Hadley Arkes recognized that the population movements to the suburbs were not simply a matter of convenience. Instead, they "implied a judgment about the kind of people one wished to live with, and the conditions under which one expected to live." Control over the character of the community is the epitome of home rule for suburban local governments.

In 1990 Richard Briffault observed that an important feature of suburban localism and politics is the "protection of turf through the prevention of internal racial or income differentiation." The suburban consciousness severs its historical association with the cities and considers the cities and their residents with both fear and disdain. Consider a 1985 poll of white, working-class suburban Detroit defectors from the Democratic Party; as President Bill Clinton moves more toward the center, I fear that he will move closer to those who were polled: "These ... defectors express a profound distaste for Blacks, a sentiment that pervades almost everything they think about government and politics. Blacks constitute the explanation for their vulnerability and for almost everything that has gone wrong in their lives; not being Black is what constitutes being middle class; not living with Blacks is what makes a neighborhood a decent place to live ... These sentiments have important implications.... as virtually
all progressive symbols and themes have been redefined in racial and pejorative terms."

Under these circumstances, I have difficulty in seeing the key to inner city progress as the reuniting of city and suburb. What needs to be done is: (1) to obtain reparations from those suburbs whose exclusionary policies contribute to the plight of central cities; and (2) to obligate the federal government to compensate central cities for its historical involvement in endorsing, maintaining, and furthering spatial inequality and opportunity-denying circumstances associated with the exploitation of a Black-white dual housing market.

PRRAC should convene a three-day workshop of advocates and social scientists to figure out a litigation strategy that would hold the suburbs and the federal government accountable for their racist intents and effects. Even if the lawsuits lost, there would be fewer illusions about the future of racial and economic justice and, perhaps more understanding why America's cities will burn. Options are narrowing.

John O. Calmore is Reef C. Ivey II Research Professor of Law at the University of North Carolina School of Law at Chapel Hill. jcalmore@email.unc.edu
 
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