By Henry Louis Taylor, Jr. (click here for the PDF)
The life chances of many African Americans are tied to their experiences in underdeveloped central city neighborhoods. The implication of living in these Black spaces was suggested in a provocative question posed by the historian Carol Anderson in her book, Eyes on the Prize, which I paraphrase, “How could the Civil Rights Movement leave in its wake a nation where schools are more segregated than ever, where Black workers are stuck in low-income jobs, where racial residential integration is a dream deferred, where most Black children live in poverty, where significant health disparities exist between the races, and where Blacks comprise 32% of American prisoners but only 13% of the population?”
I theorize that African Americans have made minimal socioeconomic advancements since the Civil Rights Era because of racial residential segregation. Residential segregation is more than the separation of Blacks and Whites in geographical space. It is a market-driven system of denying African Americans equal and equitable access to education, jobs, incomes, wealth, and other critical services and experiences that bolster their life’s opportunities and outcomes. For this reason, researchers that study neighborhood effects have convincingly argued that neighborhood-based social determinants produce undesirable health and socioeconomic outcomes among Blacks. Consequently, African Americans cannot make significant socioeconomic progress until this racist system of segregation is dismantled and their neighborhoods turned into great places to live, work, play, and raise a family. The ending of racial segregation will require dismantling the land value system that undergirds it.
II. The Systemic Structural
Persistent racial residential segregation is an American paradox. The nation has celebrated the ideal of inclusivity, residential integration, and social mobility since the dismantling of Jim Crow racism in the 1960s. Yet, despite the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Fair Housing Act of 1968, and the outlawing of redlining, restrictive covenants and discrimination in the rental and sale of housing, residential segregation endures and continues to define Whiteness and frame storylines about Blackness. Why does residential segregation endure despite efforts to end it?
Discussion of residential segregation typically defaults into narratives about government housing policies, individual preferences, and discriminatory practices. I want to take a different approach by situating residential segregation within market dynamics and systemic structural racism and social class inequality. The intent is to shift the conversation away from “state blaming” and the actions of individual Whites and to refocus it on the markets and systems that produced these segregated outcomes. The systemic structural framework is critical to understanding how market dynamics interact with state systems to produce residential segregation. Structural racism refers to institutions merged into systems that operate to bring about undesirable socioeconomic and health outcomes for Blacks. Although institutions and systems’ operations are unique, they nevertheless work interactively to generate policies, programs, and activities that produce unwanted social, economic, cultural, and political outcomes for Blacks and people of color.
Operating within this market-driven structural racism framework, the education, labor, housing, and land valorization systems interactively function to push Blacks into low-value, marginalized, and underdeveloped neighborhoods. For example, the failure of resource-depleted schools that often service the Black community reduce Black success in the labor market, while Whites have the competitive edge because of their access to resource-rich schools with an abundance of extra-curricular activities. Blacks are the perpetual losers in this rigged labor market competition and the resulting low incomes force them to search for housing in the most undesirable residential settlements in a metropolis.
Many Blacks are trapped in these low-value, marginalized, and underdeveloped neighborhoods. The sociologist Patrick Sharkey argues that they are stuck in place. Based on a longitudinal study of African Americans in Chicago over four decades, beginning in 1968, Sharkey concludes that residential mobility does not exist for most Blacks. Roughly three-quarters of all Black children who grew up in the 1970s and 1980s in underdeveloped Chicago neighborhoods were still poor and living in the same type of localities in 2008. These Blacks did move, but their new neighborhoods were no different from the ones they left behind. As Sharkey puts it, they were stuck in place.
The racist land valorization system is the producer of these racially segregated neighborhoods. The real estate appraiser Frederick M. Babcock invented this land value system based on the intertwining of race, place, economics, and culture. A belief that the mere presence of Blacks in a community reduces residential property values anchors the system. However, land value is not an autonomous ontological feature of the city-building process, but a system that is reflective of, and constituted by, prevailing social values and biases. Babcock played to the racist sentiments of Whites in developing a land value system that supported racism and the commodification of the owner-occupied house and its transformation into a wealth-producing vehicle. Therefore, he structured a mortgage-risk system in which the presence or absence of Blacks determined the value of housing and neighborhoods.
Babcock argued that neighborhoods had life-cycles and that the presence of Blacks in a community signaled the onset of a period of rapid decline in that area. In this system, as the percent of Whites and social class exclusivity– measured in terms of median household income and percent of the population with a college degree— increases in a locality, so does the house-value and the wealth-producing capacity of that residential district. On the flip side, as the percent of Blacks and social class inclusivity increases, the house-value and wealth-producing power of that residential district decreases. These residential districts are scattered across a land value continuum, and where a community falls along this continuum will determine its housing values, amenities, hedonic features, and access to quality goods and services.
This land value system structured an urban residential environment characterized by neighborhood inequality and settlements in which Blacks and Whites lived in separate and unequal neighborhoods. A public-private partnership created the strategic framework for de facto residentially segregated communities during the Depression era. These racially segregated neighborhoods structured relations among government, the White masses, and Black people. Thus, on the eve of the Second Great Migration of African Americans to urban centers, the government and their private-sector allies had already created a new method of residentially segregating Blacks. In this system, White racism and economic advantage are inextricably bound together. This interconnectivity drives the residential segregation process and produces a culture infused with racial stereotypes and biases to support it.
III. Black Neighborhood and Predatory Development
Our story does not end here. Blacks pay a heavy price for being segregated in residential spaces. Scholars typically conceptualize Black communities as disadvantaged, poor, or sites of disinvestment and concentrated poverty. I conceptualize these Black neighborhoods as underdeveloped places characterized by “segrenomics” and predatory entrepreneurship. A high wall of land values trapped Blacks in these underdeveloped sites, where they do not own the land on which they are building their community.
These sociospatial units become the site of oppression, exploitation, and contestation because Blacks have limited housing and shopping options; segrenomics dominate. Segrenomics refers to the predatory profit-making activities that occur in communities where residential segregation limits residents’ consumption options. Thus, in these residential districts, predatory landlords generate hyper-profits in Black neighborhoods by delaying or postponing maintenance and charging high rents. Neighborhood merchants overcharge them for goods and services. Local governments fail to maintain streets and sidewalks, poorly maintain publicly owned vacant lots, and refuse to aggressively enforce existing housing and building codes. Concurrently, these residents are often the target of excessive fines and ticketing for municipal revenue generating purposes. Meanwhile, greedy bankers and realtors turn the Black community into a golden goose of profitability through the use of subprime loans, mass foreclosures, and other unscrupulous home finance methods that bilk homebuyers of millions.
When Blacks do become homeowners, they discover that their homes are situated in places where house values appreciate at a much lower rate than in White communities. In all too many instances, the Black owner-occupied house is more of a cultural artifact than a vehicle of wealth production. These underdeveloped and marginalized Black residential districts are stigmatized, their oppressive and exploitative conditions normalized, and mass arrests and lethal police force are used to control the masses. According to the Washington Post, Blacks are killed by the police at more than twice the rate of Whites.
The underlying assumption undergirding the residential segregation paradigm is the seeming impossibility of radically transforming these underdeveloped Black sociospatial units. This theory, based on the work of Robert E. Park, Ernest K. Burgess, and the Chicago School of Sociology, caused “integration” and residential mobility to become the default goal of urban planners and policymakers. Blacks have always favored “integration,” not because of an affinity for Whites, but because of the high levels of residential development found in White spaces. Yet, Whites will resist racial residential integration because the apartheid system rewards them economically and provides them with accumulated privileges/advantages and benefits and a competitive edge in the educational and labor markets. That’s why more than sixty years after the 1954 Supreme Court decision outlawing school segregation and more than fifty years after the Fair Housing Act outlawed housing discrimination, America is still a highly segregated society. According to the St. Louis Federal Reserve Bank’s dataset on White-Non-White dissimilarity index for each of the nation’s counties, most American cities remain highly segregated, especially those with large African American populations. The index of dissimilarity ranges from 0 to 100. It measures the percentage of the non-Whites in a county that would have to change census tracts to equalize the racial distribution between Blacks and Whites across all tracts in the country.
IV. Disrupting Predatory Development and the Land Valorization System
Practitioners, activists, and policymakers must base strategies for solving the Black underdeveloped neighborhood problem on five interacting realities. First, Black neighborhoods’ stigmatization is to normalize the oppressive and exploitative conditions found there, to justify poverty deconcentration programs aimed mostly at public housing units, and to rationalize neglect of these communities by the local government. Second, Blacks are stuck in place because of constrained residential mobility. Third, Blacks are a renter-dominated community that does not own or control the land on which their communities are built. Fourth, Whites resist race and social class integration because they economically and socially benefit from residential segregation. Lastly, racialized spatial inequities result from a racist land valorization system that generates high land values in white neighborhoods by reducing land value in Black neighborhoods. This land value system drives residential segregation, so it has to be dismantled to build just cities based on racial and social class inclusivity.
The underdevelopment of Black neighborhoods is part of the larger problem of neighborhood inequality and it must be attacked on a metropolitan level. The plan should consist of two interactive strategies aimed at disrupting market-driven metropolitan residential development. The first strategy features a people-centered neighborhood regeneration plan designed to allow for community ownership and control over the land on which Blacks are building their community. The design must pursue collective ownership, build community wealth, and emphasize developing political power. These political actions should not only include radical electoral politics, but also building alliances with other community groups across the urban metropolis.
Concurrently, it is necessary to imbue Black space with a culture that supports and reinforces the collective approach to everyday life and culture. The intent is to pursue participatory democracy, communal ownership, and shared equity to inform the transformation of the Black community into a great place to live. The community land trust is the most vital tool in this quest for communal ownership, and it must be pursued with other forms of collective ownership, including cooperatives, limited equity cooperatives, deed-restricted houses, and condominiums, along with a cultural framework that supports a collective way of life. Finally, I want to stress that the regeneration strategy involves a remaking of the institutions and programs servicing the Black community, including schools and policing.
The second strategy uses a radical residential mobility scheme to enable Blacks, desirous of leaving the community, to move to other parts of the metropolis. Existing residential mobility stratagems, built on HUD’s tenant-based subsidy programs, focus on moving people into “opportunity neighborhoods” without necessarily restructuring those communities or altering their racist culture. Radical residential mobility, in contrast, is not about “race mingling” or merely living next door to Whites, but it is about a process of changing these White-dominated neighborhoods so that these communities can accommodate and meet the needs of the Black newcomers, as well as other people of color. Radical racial mobility is an anti-racist residential inclusive strategy that operates at a greater scale than existing mobility programs. It requires the deep cultural and structural transformation of White space to disrupt the land value system and recreate residential space so that it meets the cultural, social, and physical needs and desires of the Black and colored newcomers. Such changes require altering the land value system, erasing the culture of White supremacy, and mitigating market dynamics in these White residential spaces.
The abundant neighborhood effects literature indicates that Blacks will never get free if they live in stigmatized, marginalized, and undeveloped neighborhoods, plagued by the activities of predatory entrepreneurs and complicit anti-Black government officials. The Black community is now the epicenter of systemic structural racism and the site of contestation over neighborhood development. Therefore, to get free, Blacks must transform the communities in which they live and eliminate racial residential segregation by launching a radical residential mobility strategy aimed at dismantling the land value system and disrupting the market forces that drive it. The progressive urban strategy must therefore center neighborhood inequality and inequity in the battle to build just cities based on racial and social class inclusion and socioeconomic justice. ▀
Henry Louis Taylor, Jr. (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a Professor in the Department of Urban and Regional Planning in the University at Buffalo. This article is part of an upcoming policy brief series on housing finance, racial justice, and segregation, produced as a collaboration between staff at PRRAC and the Furman Center at New York University.
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