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September 23, 2014

You want to talk about race and urban development? Okay, let’s.
Posted by Patrick at 05:50 PM * 135 comments

Evidently some of us want to talk about the history of American urban development policy and its complicated and shameful history as a means of controlling and limiting (and draining money from) black people. We want to talk about it even in a thread that was intended to be about something else.

As it happens, the magisterial essay of the decade on precisely this subject was published earlier this year: The Case for Reparations, by Ta-Nehisi Coates. So let’s talk about it. Conscious, as you will be once you’ve read the essay, that this isn’t a subject on which there are any simple answers, or on which the simple answers are anything like enough. And of course you will read the essay, because hard truths are hard but they’re also true, and you do in fact care about what’s true.

Comments on You want to talk about race and urban development? Okay, let's.:
#1 ::: heresiarch ::: (view all by) ::: September 23, 2014, 07:44 PM:

"We want to talk about it even in a thread that was intended to be about something else."

Thread drift!? On Making Light!? Quick, someone fetch me my clutching pearls!

In all seriousness: isn't that a feature, not a bug?

#2 ::: David Harmon ::: (view all by) ::: September 23, 2014, 08:51 PM:

It seems to me that the possibility of reparations is actually further away than ever just now.

Besides the original racism and "I've got mine, Jack", there's the "capitalist crisis" -- the people who would need to be held responsible are the ones who have not just "gathered up all the money", but consolidated political power as well.

And then they're stoking the resulting insecurity among the 98%, making those even less likely to stick their necks out for justice or any other cause. Especially when those who do are being shut out of the mass media and visibly targeted for retaliation.

The flip side of this is that those same masses are losing their stake in "the system", and becoming increasingly desperate. That is where revolutions start....

#3 ::: BSD ::: (view all by) ::: September 23, 2014, 08:54 PM:

Nt t b hrrbl, but thnk y'r ssmng grtr dvtn t th trth mng th "rcsm hs nthng t d wth my sbrb" crwd thn ctlly xsts.

#4 ::: David Harmon ::: (view all by) ::: September 23, 2014, 08:57 PM:

Unfortunately, the racism also acts to divide the masses against themselves, especially deterring whites of the "new lower class" from standing with people they see as "they want my stuff". That's not particularly new, but it seriously complicates any attempt to address the problems.

#5 ::: Patrick Nielsen Hayden ::: (view all by) ::: September 23, 2014, 09:00 PM:

Heresiarch: It's a feature much more often than it's a bug.

#6 ::: heresiarch ::: (view all by) ::: September 23, 2014, 09:19 PM:

Another piece for the race and urban development reading list: Drop Dead, Detroit!

For the past twenty-one years, L. Brooks Patterson has governed Oakland County, a large, affluent suburb of Detroit. Oakland County embodies fiscal success as much as Detroit does financial ruin, and Patterson, the county executive, tends to behave as though his chief job in life were to never let anyone forget it. One week in September, he gave me an extended tour of his empire, in a chauffeured minivan. Near the end of the first day, we headed toward Lake St. Clair, at the mouth of the Detroit River, for a party on a yacht. Patterson sat in the front passenger seat. Over his shoulder, he said, “Anytime I talk about Detroit, it will not be positive. Therefore, I’m called a Detroit basher. The truth hurts, you know? Tough shit.”
#7 ::: Torie ::: (view all by) ::: September 23, 2014, 09:24 PM:

I highly recommend both Arc of Justice by Kevin Boyle and Family Properties by Beryl Satter for those who wish to be better informed on this topic.

Family Properties: A great combination of well-written, moving family narrative (it begins with her father, a white Jewish lawyer in Lawndale, Chicago) and devastating economic history. It's easily the most accessible account of the credit scams and financial/legal exploitation that plagued mid-century African-Americans, from contract buyers to wage garnishments to redlining. I especially appreciated the nuanced and realistic portrait of urban slums/ghettoization, their creation, and the ambiguous benefit of their demise. It has a lot to say about current economic and legal policy.

Arc of Justice: A combination of debt/credit squeeze history (how contract selling worked) and gripping courtroom drama. It's about the murder trial of Ossian Sweet, a black doctor who bought a house in a white Detroit neighborhood and killed two people in a mob that surrounded his house. It was Clarence Darrow's last defense case. The book has a kind of meta-structure, too. The argument Darrow eventually used to win the trial incorporated the entire history of slavery and Jim Crow as it related to Ossian Sweet, and that's exactly the structure adopted for the telling of his story in this book. You see how all of history, especially all of Ossian's history, led to this one moment. And another cool narrative thing: You get the "truth" first--of a black man's purchase of the a house in a white neighborhood, of his stockpiling of guns and preparation to defend it with his life, of the racial tension, lynch mobs, and race riots that summer. And then you get Sweet's version of events. And then you get the prosecutor's. And then you realize that all of them are, in a way, true.

#8 ::: Avram ::: (view all by) ::: September 24, 2014, 03:47 AM:

BSD @3, you’re either being careless, or leveling a rather nasty accusation at Abi. Which is it, so I know how mad to be?

#9 ::: abi ::: (view all by) ::: September 24, 2014, 05:02 AM:

So here's the thing, from where I'm sitting at least.

The intense desire to make absolutely certain we were talking enough about the racial history of American suburbia was making it impossible to discuss (a) the ways that suburban living is part of the pattern of human habitation all over the world, (b) why, (c) how to assess suburban living as we move into the future, and (d) how to make suburban living fit our overall goals of survival as a species. It was, in other words, derailing the thread.

It was also pissing me, personally, the hell off. Because I have lived in suburban settings since 1998, and I can tell you for certain sure that neither of my suburbs were affected by American racial history. Unless someone wants to explain how Gilmerton in Edinburgh, or my small village just north of Amsterdam are likely to be part of that dynamic? Both places are problematic in their own ways, for their own historical reasons, but focusing on American issues when considering them is...provincial.

Patrick's point in starting this thread is that everyone in America, whether urban, suburban, or rural, is living in a physical and economic landscape shaped by the racial politics of the country. It's a fascinating, difficult, and complicated story that leaves very few hands clean. It's tremendously important that we understand that and own it. Which is why only focusing on racial issues when discussing the burbs is not accurate, and indeed, is basically giving other living structures an implicit free pass.

I do very much hope that this community does include a devotion to the truth in all of its complexity. Truth is, as Teresa often says, bigger and stronger than we are. I also hope it includes a modicum of respect for and trust in other people as ethical, intelligent entities.

#10 ::: lorax ::: (view all by) ::: September 24, 2014, 07:56 AM:

BSD @3: So here is the thing from where I sit. (Literally, since I'm in my house as I type this.)

I am not denying that racism has a lot to do with the history of the American suburbs. I am denying that racism is the only reason, or even a reason, why anyone moves to the suburbs - the statement given in the previous thread was that suburbia was all about getting away from the Scary Brown People. And that's not true in all cases - I'm not denying that it's true in some suburbs and of some people, I'm denying the absolute.

There are a number of black families and mixed-race families in my neighborhood. (Mine is one of the latter, as it happens.) I suspect (because of an old newspaper clipping we found under the floorboards when doing renovations) that the original owner of our house (built in 1940) may have been African-American. So I'm not saying that racism "has nothing to do with my suburb", but I am saying that in 2014 "getting away from the scary brown people" is not a reason, and certainly not the only reason, why people move here.

#11 ::: abi ::: (view all by) ::: September 24, 2014, 08:27 AM:

I do not, in point of fact, think that every person who discusses suburbs needs to prove their bona fides as a point of entry, any more than I expect anyone discussing other topics to do so. It's useful to have perspectives, from people who have experience and knowledge of all modes of living, but there is no population that is inherently suspect and must toe any particular line.

Also, in case it's not clear, I would be very interested to hear BSD's answer to Avram's question.

#12 ::: Serge Broom ::: (view all by) ::: September 24, 2014, 08:55 AM:

BSD @ 3... So what is your answer to Avram's question?

#13 ::: abi ::: (view all by) ::: September 24, 2014, 09:24 AM:

Gently, Serge. I appreciate the backup, but let's not dogpile.

#14 ::: Fragano Ledgister ::: (view all by) ::: September 24, 2014, 09:37 AM:

Hmm. I live in an Atlanta suburb that is predominantly, but by no means wholly, black. I don't say African-American because quite a few of the people who live here are not American. The dean of humanities at Morehouse College lives a few doors down from me. But several white people live in my subdivision (one, after all, sleeps in the same bed I do). I want to hear more about suburbs being about fleeing the scary brown people.

#15 ::: Serge Broom ::: (view all by) ::: September 24, 2014, 09:49 AM:

I grew up around Quebec City, which was - and might still be - culturally and linguistically quite homogenous. And yet it too developed suburbs.

#16 ::: janetl ::: (view all by) ::: September 24, 2014, 09:55 AM:

Cars, housing prices, and schools are big factors in the city/suburb decision. I've lived in Portland and now live in Pittsburgh. I don't have kids, so schools aren't a factor for me. In both places, a house or apartment in a walkable neighborhood in the city are significantly more expensive than living in the suburbs, so "walkable city living" is a luxury good.

In Pittsburgh, if I want a walkable neighborhood, a house that isn't tall and narrow, a nice flat driveway and a roomy garage, it would be very expensive. I've no idea how much — I compromised on the house details and just got the walkable neighborhood I wanted. If I passed on being in the city and was willing to be car-dependent, I could have gotten everything I wanted in a house and garage for far less money. I would pay less in property taxes, too.

A friend of mine moved out of the city of Portland to a suburb and was delighted with how much less rent he's now paying, and how much better the local public school is. He's OK with having to drive everywhere, and a longer commute to work.

Different people, different needs.

#17 ::: Carrie S. ::: (view all by) ::: September 24, 2014, 10:23 AM:

In Pittsburgh, if I want a walkable neighborhood, a house that isn't tall and narrow, a nice flat driveway and a roomy garage, it would be very expensive.

When we moved in together, he wanted off-street parking and I wanted enough lawn to grow some stuff in. We ended up in a townhouse on a tiny alley with a 10x8 councrete courtyard in back.

I can afford my mortgage, though, and technically there are even two walkable grocery stores.

#18 ::: Lady Kay ::: (view all by) ::: September 24, 2014, 10:25 AM:

@10 Lorax.

DC and the Maryland suburbs have several driving factors. The massive growth in the US federal government in World War II--pushing agencies to move out of the district. The draw of more space, greenery, new schools and, yes, racially segregated areas. The mis-government of DC in the 70s-80s, including the title of "murder capital". The real estate agents certainly would show houses in Prince George's County to black families and houses in Montgomery County to white families in those days, but both types of families wanted to leave DC.

The war in El Salvador pushed many immigrants into the suburbs of DC in the 1980s. Some churches sponsored refugees and those families stayed near those churches. A fair number of the sponsoring families in the church felt that moving away would be the wrong political thing to do and so some suburbs were very deliberately integrated at that time (Takoma Park and to a certain extent Langley Park).

In the 1990s, the area went exurban with huge sprawl into Howard, Anne Arundle and Frederick counties. Also, there was more immigration and immigrants tend to go where there are already ethnic enclaves of that type of immigrant. So the close-in suburbs like Silver Spring, and again Takoma Park became very integrated.

Meanwhile, Prince George's County was not running itself very well and had a fair amount of racial tension. People moved from there into eastern Montgomery County, Silver Spring and again Takoma Park.

Takoma Park is not typical of the suburbs. It is deliberately integrated, deliberately ecology-minded, and deliberately politically liberal. Silver Spring is much more accidental, and you will certainly find other suburbs with little racial mixing.

#19 ::: Daniel Martin ::: (view all by) ::: September 24, 2014, 12:49 PM:

abi @ #9:

You were looking for a conversation about sustainability and how suburban living fits into sustainability, right? I think it's fair to assume that excessive personal gas-powered automobile use is inimical to this goal.

I know that in my little suburb the thing that enabled me to commute to NYC without a car when I had a job requiring me to be in NYC is the light rail. And I remember the objections and fear-mongering that went on before it went in, and this being America, those objections were racial. (well, and class-based, but in America class and race are one nice little complicated mess)

I'm glad that you've managed to live in suburbs with a non-American history. However, that a conversation about making sustainable infrastructure would among an audience with lots of Americans in it end up include race isn't surprising, and to the extent that racial considerations change what measures could be adopted I'd argue it isn't derailing either.

#20 ::: Steven desJardins ::: (view all by) ::: September 24, 2014, 01:13 PM:

@18 Lady Kay

A quibble: "The mis-government of DC" goes back a lot further than the home rule era that began in 1973. Congress did a pretty piss-poor job of managing the city, and the riots which devastated much of DC, and accelerated the decline in DC's population, occurred in 1968, after Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated.

#21 ::: janetl ::: (view all by) ::: September 24, 2014, 01:15 PM:

Daniel Martin @ 19: Ah, yes. Mass transit & suburbs & race. Mass transit is the only thing that makes commuting to work downtown from the suburbs sustainable. In Portland, Oregon, suburb dwellers drive to a light rail stop, leave their car in the parking ramp that the transit agency provides, and ride into town. You can't do that in the outskirts of Atlanta where a friend of mine lives, because the county residents fiercely objected to having MARTA extend into their world, because it would "bring crime."

#22 ::: John Coyne ::: (view all by) ::: September 24, 2014, 01:17 PM:

One of the many thoughts that I had upon reading Ta-Nehisi Coates's essay was a remark that I remember David Cornwell aka John le Carré making in a Charlie Rose interview in the late 90’s. He was talking about Russia, specifically how the white tsars had become the red tsars had become the oligarchs, etc., and that while the owner of the house might change the plumbing remained the same. Or something like that.

In any event, ever since I’ve been thinking about nations in terms of houses. They are complex integrated systems, and changes in one realm will reverberate in all the others. And for this reason these systems change only very, very slowly. From this perspective, it's perfectly intuitive that the racism codified in the institution of slavery would subsequently find itself codified in all other major realms of US society, land use included.

For me the brilliance of Coats’s piece is how starkly it shows the institution of slavery living on, dybbuk-like, in the very way we apportion land into the present day. And even though redlining in its most blatant and egregious forms is illegal, because land use patterns change only very slowly, its effects are visible right in front of you if you know what to look for. It’s a chilling thing to walk down a city street and know that so much of the social order I see around me is an enduring manifestation of an institution most of us think vanished a century and a half ago.

#23 ::: Lady Kay ::: (view all by) ::: September 24, 2014, 01:31 PM:

@20 Thank you. I had remembered that home rule was a response to mis-management by Congress, but not when home rule started.

#24 ::: abi ::: (view all by) ::: September 24, 2014, 01:52 PM:

Daniel Martin @19:

Ah, had that only been the nature and tone of the conversation, I wouldn't have been nearly so exasperated. Unfortunately, it started with me (as a suburbanite) being called a racist, and I'm still not sure that it hasn't moved onto me being called intellectually dishonest.

Neither of which really gets us better-informed on the constraints around public transit provision, even in American suburbs.

#25 ::: Lee ::: (view all by) ::: September 24, 2014, 02:20 PM:

Fragano, #14: Since it was my flip comment that started this entire brouhaha, I want to address this point. I did not say, nor AFAICT has anyone else in the conversation said, that moving to the suburbs was "all about fleeing scary brown people". I said that this was ALSO a reason, along with "status symbol"; and I and others have said that historically, in America, it has been ONE strong reason. IMO it continues to be ONE strong reason; I have lived in suburbs most of my life, and heard what my parents and my friends' parents and their friends and the other people up and down the street said about the areas closer to downtown. But it is not, has never been, and I am not arguing that it is the ONLY reason.

And at this point, I need to take a break to regain my own mental equilibrium.

#26 ::: heresiarch ::: (view all by) ::: September 24, 2014, 02:28 PM:

lorax @ 10: "the statement given in the previous thread was that suburbia was all about getting away from the Scary Brown People."

As a point of fact, it wasn't: getting away from Scary Brown People was offered, by Lee @ 13 as one of two addenda (along with being a status symbol) to Em @ 12's claim that suburbs are "mostly inefficient people-storage taking up valuable crop-growing space." This makes getting away from Scary Brown People (hereafter GAFSBP) at most one of the top three things which suburbia is all about. It is a pretty skewed account of suburbia--racist, prideful, or shortsighted, take your pick!--but it is not a monomaniacal obsession with race. It's in the responses to Lee that GAFSBP became the central point of contention.

The etymology of "suburb" is actually quite enlightening here: "Just beyond the reach of municipal jurisdiction, suburbs had a bad reputation in 17c. England, especially those of London, and suburban had a sense of "inferior, debased, licentious" (as in suburban sinner[*], slang for "loose woman, prostitute"). By 1817, the tinge had shifted to "of inferior manners and narrow views."" The development of suburbs has always been part of spatially segregating the socially undesirables, however defined, but it hasn't always worked out the way it did in the US. In France, as noted on the other thread, suburb-equivalent banlieues are where the Scary Brown People reside and Dredd-style dystopic futures are set.

To expand what I said on the other thread: the categories of rural, urban, and suburban don't reliably map onto any version of "good," whether it be social justice or carbon footprint, and are always dependent on each other's existence. Higher resolution is necessary.

* Which would be a great name for a band. (Also, anyone wanting to rebrand suburbs has a winner in underburg, IMHO.)

#27 ::: Daniel Martin ::: (view all by) ::: September 24, 2014, 03:09 PM:

abi @ #24:

I'm going to go back and look at it again then, because I didn't see suburbanites or you specifically being called racist. On the other hand, if I as a life-long suburbanite (grad school doesn't count) am told that GAFSBP is a reason suburbs exist, I look around and sigh, and say "yeah, probably" because it's obviously true here. I mean, two different huge Levitt developments are within 10 miles of here. (Levittown, PA and Willingboro, NJ)

(And this doesn't compare to the suburb I grew up in, where having one black family on the entire street meant you lived in a "mixed" neighborhood)

While I can see how someone living in suburbs without this legacy might see the statement as insulting, I'll admit I still do not understand the reaction caused.

#28 ::: Daniel Martin ::: (view all by) ::: September 24, 2014, 03:18 PM:

Okay, on re-reading I see that the reaction I didn't understand before came not after the initial comment but after some more directed comments, and is much more understandable now.

#29 ::: Magenta Griffith ::: (view all by) ::: September 24, 2014, 11:36 PM:

Lady Kay @18
I grew up in Silver Spring in the 1950's and early 60's. There were almost no black people in any school I went to or in the neighborhood I lived in. If you crossed into the District, blacks began appearing; if you went as far as Southeast DC, you were the only white face on the bus. Glad to hear it has changed.

I also remember "white" and "colored" drinking fountains when you got south of DC. I am certifiably old.

#30 ::: C. Wingate ::: (view all by) ::: September 25, 2014, 07:52 AM:

re 29: It has changed dramatically. I have lived in the area ever since I was born in 1960, and I have seen it transformed several times over.

Last night I came across a good presentation of diversity changes over the past twenty-five years. Take a look at, where they have maps at both the state and metro area level from 1990, 2000, and 2010 of dominant race and diversity. It's not an ideal tool because the granularity is a touch too coarse (my parents' white neighborhood is lumped in with another, black, neighborhood which is separated from it by a gulf of farm and highway) and because at least on my machine in Firefox if you zoom in too far the overlay disappears, but there's no zoom out control. But in suburban Montgomery County north of DC, you can readily see how what is fairly white in 1990 fades in 2000 and then breaks up into a patchwork of areas with no majority race by 2010.

#31 ::: lorax ::: (view all by) ::: September 25, 2014, 08:29 AM:

Magenta Griffith @29, thank you for the history. (And I'm glad things have improved, too - I'm not so naive as to think that the current situation is how it always has been.)

#32 ::: Fragano Ledgister ::: (view all by) ::: September 25, 2014, 09:59 AM:

Lee #25: When we have a community meeting, one of the biggest concerns is the maintenance of property values. People are very concerned about things like lawn maintenance, the proportion of renters v. owners in the subdivision, and making sure that it does not degenerate into a ghetto. What I see is a very middle-class concern with economic value. I suspect that many white Americans would be shocked. Just as they would be surprised to find that most of my neighbours are professionals.

#33 ::: David Harmon ::: (view all by) ::: September 25, 2014, 02:36 PM:

Fragano: Why, it's almost like they're regular people! </sarcasm>

#34 ::: BSD ::: (view all by) ::: September 25, 2014, 07:46 PM:

@Avram and Avi: Careless -- I should have qualified that with AMERICAN suburbs. Which were designed to serve racism end to end.

#35 ::: Matt Austern ::: (view all by) ::: September 25, 2014, 11:30 PM:

Which places in America do you think weren't designed to serve racism?

#36 ::: Avram ::: (view all by) ::: September 26, 2014, 01:54 AM:

BSD @34, man, those B and V keys are right next to each other on the keyboard there, aren’t they?

#37 ::: abi ::: (view all by) ::: September 26, 2014, 02:04 AM:

BSD @34:

So your nasty accusation isn't leveled at me, but merely at other members of this community. Charming.

The fact that you think that might make it OK is another kind of insult, but we'll let that pass.

Here are some vowels you're no longer using up at comment 3.
ooeoieuIioueauiaeaeeoiooeuaoeaiaoiooiuuoaauaei. Use them better next time.

#38 ::: abi ::: (view all by) ::: September 26, 2014, 02:16 AM:

Can I point something out about the suburbanites I've seen posting? I'm getting the feeling that any comment of any length on the subject is hitting some weird "tldr, and I know suburbs are racist" filter in some people, but let me try again.

1. I don't recall anyone absolving the institution of the American suburb of being racist in its establishment and history.

2. I see some examples where people have used actual factual information to explain that certain particular suburbs have individual histories that don't fit the white flight pattern.

3. I see a number of people stating that the suburbs they live in currently do not fit the racist/white flight model, or are otherwise contrary to the assumed character of suburbs.

None of these trends is an example of intellectual dishonesty or a lack of devotion to the truth. They're expansions on the very low-resolution picture of the history of the American suburb that has already been stated as the baseline. That's service to the truth, in point of fact.

#39 ::: Josh Berkus ::: (view all by) ::: September 26, 2014, 02:26 AM:


It's as if someone studying the history of suburban development in the "Western world" might, bizarrely, find that such a pervasive socio-economic phenominon had many and complex causes, not all of which are known! Of course, that's a silly idea. If it can't be captured in a Tweet, it's clearly intellectual dishonesty.

#40 ::: abi ::: (view all by) ::: September 26, 2014, 02:57 AM:

Josh @39:

Call me misguided, but the fact that suburbs are intended to be pleasant places to live and raise kids might be a relevant factor.

Privileged people have always, all over the world and throughout history, tried segregate themselves and keep the good stuff away from hoi polloi. That includes pleasant and functional living spaces*.

Then there's a whole wretched history of developers, which is to say, money, building suburbs that don't have the facilities to be pleasant places to live and raise kids. Regulatory capture and the free market helped.

In the US, both of these phenomena, the behavior of the privileged and the ways that money distorts and unbalances complex social ecosystems, cross-bred with the local racist culture. Like everywhere in America, the suburbs have a legacy to overcome. Also like everywhere in America, they're working on overcoming it in different ways and at different paces.

What they are not is uniquely racist.

* An example independent of American racism: until the late 1700's, most people in Edinburgh lived in mixed tentements in the Old Town. The wealthier people lived on the top floors, and the poorer down below. Then a farmer on the other side of the Nor' Loch partitioned his fields and built grand houses there, at which point the wealthy abandoned the Old Town wholesale and moved to the New. Rather like white flight, except that the people they fled were also white.

#41 ::: dcb ::: (view all by) ::: September 26, 2014, 04:23 AM:

Patrick: Many thanks for that link to Ta-Nehisi Coates's essay. As a Brit, I found it gave me much more information about the legacy of not just the slave trade but the treatment of black people in the years since the abolition of slavery. Some of it I'd known, other aspects I had been ignorant about.

abi @38 & 40: As a suburbanite myself - in England - I know suburbs as places where houses have gardens and blcoks of flats have communal gardens, there are local shops, parks and schools within walking and cycling distance, and public transport links (buses, trains, trams) to larger centres (the original villages and towns which are now suburbs of the city, as well as the city centre - what Americans would, I think, call downtown, but please correct me if I'm incorrect). When I found out that suburbs in the US might lack local shops, lack local public transport systems and even lack sidewalks on roads between housing and shopping malls, it was a big shock.

TL;DR: assumption that what you understand by "suburb" is the same as what everyone else understands by the same word is a problem.

#42 ::: Serge Broom ::: (view all by) ::: September 26, 2014, 04:27 AM:

One reason why suburbs came to be... People wanted to stop having a landlord and instead wanted a place to call their own. Remember that subplot from "It's A Wonderful Life"?

#43 ::: James Harvey ::: (view all by) ::: September 26, 2014, 08:15 AM:

Patrick: many thanks for the essay referenced in the original post. "Magisterial" is indeed the right word, and it's a forensic dissection of US race policy that was certainly an education for me.

The racist challenges facing Britain are very different and yet sometimes very similar: not least because the exploitative experience of slavery was an interior one for the US, whereas the exploitation of Empire was externalised for Britain. The End of Empire allowed a Pilate-like washing of hands by us, and the abandonment of much of the world previously exploited by us to poverty, war and despair. It also means that citizens of the Empire who found their way to Britain face an additional stigma of "immigrant" that US black people don't face (even though sometimes their US citizenship has been little comfort).

On the other hand, though there are certainly areas in London (say) that are more "black", "asian" or " white" than others, I'd argue that these are often fundamentally economically (and occasionally religiously) driven (obviously with a racial element to that economic split), than the sort of direct ghettoisation that the article evidences in the US. Having lived in one of the poorest areas of the UK (Newham)for 9 years from 2002 to 2011, it was evident that the borough was remarkably ethnically diverse and where I lived, remarkably integrated: I never had two neighboring families of the same ethnicity in my time living there. Many of the families were multiracial. The unifying factor was that people were not well off (except me, gentrifying bastard). I'm not saying that there aren't racial problems of segregation in the UK (Go to Sevenoaks and play spot the minority), but I'd argue the problems are primarily economic (i.e. the lefty analysis in the article works here, but maybe not in the US). In particular, for example, our worst performing group academically amongst poor people is now white boys in the UK. I think we are failing our poor overall, in which ethnic minorities are disproportionately represented for historical reasons. I don't know: this is complicated and the two of course interrelated, but I'm not sure there has been the conscious governmental and private sector focus on segregation in the UK that has obviously existed in the US.

Other opinions and arguments are of course available.

#44 ::: lorax ::: (view all by) ::: September 26, 2014, 09:28 AM:

Incidentally, another work of interest on the general subject of "race and urban development in America" is the monumental The Warmth of Other Suns by Isabel Wilkerson, which Coates mentions in his essay. It addresses the American Great Migration of African-Americans from the rural south to Northern and Western cities; if you want to understand which cities acquired large populations of African-Americans and why, and what factors motivated their movements, it is absolutely essential. For that matter, much of Coates' essay discusses urban environments.

And to complete the picture, in case there was any doubt that all of modern America is shaped by racism, there is the case of Pigford vs. Glickman finding racial discrimination in farm loans well into the 1990s. (There have been numerous claims of fraud reported associated with the settlement; that doesn't change the facts of the discrimination findings.)

So yes, American suburbs have historically been shaped by racism. So have American cities and American farms, because America has been shaped by racism. (This isn't even considering the original occupants of the land that all our cities, suburbs, and farms are built on.) Singling out modern suburbs and modern suburbanites for criticism misses much of the point, and much of the problem.

#45 ::: Daniel Martin ::: (view all by) ::: September 26, 2014, 09:37 AM:

Is there a meaningful distinction to be drawn between the statement "suburbs are for this discussion mostly inefficient people-storage taking up valuable crop-growing space and also status symbols and a way to get away from scary brown people" and the statement "choosing to live in the suburbs is racist"?

Because the first statement is what I can find said, and the second statement seems to have been what was heard.

Now, I disagree with both statements to varying degrees, but I don't find the first statement insulting. (just wrong and overly reductive, but mostly wrong in the parts not talking about GAFSBP) However, if I saw the first statement as directly and immediately implying the second, that'd be different.

After all, it may well be, flippantly or not, that the second statement was part of what was intended by the first; as a white male working for a company less diverse than a CPAC meeting living in suburbia whose daughter goes to private school I am quite accustomed to people telling me that various of my life choices are racist. (Without any nice details or caveats about annoying complications like facts and individual circumstances)

So while it isn't a conclusion I drew, the conclusion that the second statement was implied isn't unreasonable.

#46 ::: C. Wingate ::: (view all by) ::: September 26, 2014, 09:45 AM:

re 42: THIS. Exactly this.

#47 ::: BSD ::: (view all by) ::: September 26, 2014, 09:46 AM:

Abram @36 Yes they are but that's not the reason for my error. Apologies to abi, I don't think I've ever directly referenced her by name before, and reflex to use the common but one-letter-off name kicked in.

Abi @37: I could further qualify my statement, and as comments below my last reading point out, suburbs today have become very different and certain, particular, individual suburbs (NOT ALL SUBURBS! #GatedCommunityGate) were not created for racist purposes, marketed with racist advertising, built with racist subsidies, financed with racist mortgages, and/or maintained with racist policies regarding who was allowed to buy, rent, visit, and/or pass through. I am also not saying that, today, to live in a suburb is not a fundamentally racist act.

But that's not my point. Other than the non-Americans, the ones screaming the loudest in the last thread were the ones trying to deny it was EVER racist, and if they were, that it MATTERS today that they ever were. They talk about the "crime-ridden hellholes" of the cities, which we all know is code for "there are black people in cities," even if that particular person doesn't mean it that way -- and using it that way when you don't mean it that way is exactly what I mean by "no devotion to the truth."

At times, including presently, I've had the minor misfortune of working in the suburbs while I live in the city. I've lived in suburbs. I've lived in secondary suburbs that were created because the primary suburb was restricted. I've lived one subdevelopment over from the redline (which happened to be the county line and was therefore legal). I am complicit and I have benefited from the racism of the suburbs (frankly, the secondary suburb was much nicer than the primary). But I'm not going to stamp my feet and pretend that a realtor would show the house I spent my teenage years in to a black family, nor will I pretend that our neighbors didn't get the stinkeye (including from my parents) because they were the wrong regional subtype of our ethno-religious group.

#48 ::: Duncan J Macdonald ::: (view all by) ::: September 26, 2014, 10:32 AM:

BSD @47

I am also not saying that, today, to live in a suburb is not a fundamentally racist act.

Whoo boy! Now you are accusing me of being racist merely because of where I live. Doubleplusungood.

But that's not my point. Other than the non-Americans, the ones screaming the loudest in the last thread were the ones trying to deny it was EVER racist, and if they were, that it MATTERS today that they ever were. They talk about the "crime-ridden hellholes" of the cities, which we all know is code for "there are black people in cities," even if that particular person doesn't mean it that way -- and using it that way when you don't mean it that way is exactly what I mean by "no devotion to the truth."

I didn't know that was code until you mentioned it. Which kind'a invalidates your point. But then you go on to say that even when someone doesn't mean it*, they mean it, and using it in its literal sense equals "no devotion to the truth."

I'm sorry, but A does not equal Not-A. When I use that phrase, I mean it because, you know, there is a lot of crime there, regardless of why, and you don't get to call me a liar sans proof.

-- Duncan

*Replace "it" with "crime-ridden hellholes" in this sentence.

#49 ::: abi ::: (view all by) ::: September 26, 2014, 12:15 PM:

BSD @47:

But that's not my point. Other than the non-Americans, the ones screaming the loudest in the last thread were the ones trying to deny it was EVER racist, and if they were, that it MATTERS today that they ever were. They talk about the "crime-ridden hellholes" of the cities, which we all know is code for "there are black people in cities," even if that particular person doesn't mean it that way -- and using it that way when you don't mean it that way is exactly what I mean by "no devotion to the truth."

So I reread the thread, and dude, there is a serious need for some citations.

I see one person talking about "crime" in the cities, as part of the phrase "huge dirty crime-ridden traffic-choked concrete city". Given the number of pejoratives in that sentence that cannot be attributed to race, if it's a dogwhistle, it's pretty ineffective. All other uses of "crime" in the thread are responses to that person, in defense of cities, including refutations of the assumption about crime rates. And although that person spoke well of suburbs, no one else discussing them positively referred to his comment.

I don't see anyone denying that American suburbs were EVER racist, or that the history of the American suburb doesn't MATTER. Perhaps you could list some comment numbers and quote them?

Also, this is a heck of a notion about how to judge others' devotion to the truth:

...even if that particular person doesn't mean it that way -- and using it that way when you don't mean it that way is exactly what I mean by "no devotion to the truth."

Surely "no devotion to the truth" would be using it precisely that way and then denying it? Because otherwise, let's talk about your word "screaming" and the history of using overly-emotive speech verbs about women's discourse as a means of shutting it down...even if you didn't mean it that way.

From what I can see, you've dug yourself into a hole by reading, not what was actually said in the thread, but what you think people would have said if they fit your assumptions. And now you're digging deeper by pretending they said what they didn't, and explaining how even if they didn't mean things, they still meant them. Or something.

I'd suggest walking away now, if an apology for so thoroughly mischaracterizing people commenting in good faith is beyond you.

#50 ::: Serge Broom ::: (view all by) ::: September 26, 2014, 01:17 PM:

"devotion to the truth" is the name of my next rock band.

#51 ::: Serge Broom ::: (view all by) ::: September 26, 2014, 01:18 PM:

(Sorry about that. Feeling silly suddenly)

#52 ::: abi ::: (view all by) ::: September 26, 2014, 01:47 PM:

Speaking of this comment by me @49:
...if an apology for so thoroughly mischaracterizing people commenting in good faith is beyond you.

Lee, I apologize for characterizing your comment as calling me a racist. I still have problems with it, and how you dealt with its aftermath, but I do know you didn't mean it that way.

#53 ::: Heather Rose Jones ::: (view all by) ::: September 26, 2014, 02:07 PM:

An anecdotal addition to the variety of suburban dynamics:

I live in a suburb of the SF Bay Area and, like many of the suburbs here, it was not a new creation to accommodate ex-urbanites, but a pre-existing, formerly rural community that expanded and remade itself gradually. Like many rural towns in this part of California, it has its roots in Hispanic California. The gorgeous old Victorian mansions that are now carefully-preserved landmarks mostly have Hispanic surnames attached to them. This, of course, does not prevent certain segments of the current population from blithely ignoring history and viewing all current Hispanic residents as an undifferentiated mass of "immigrants". (My local version of "don't read the comments" is the local unofficial community news blog. While bigots are far from the majority, they sure feel comfortable being vocal there. Although not all the bigots are White and the targets are diverse.)

Several years ago, I moved from the urbs to the suburbs and the specific, overriding reason for doing so was that I'd experienced 3 burglaries and 1 car theft in a period of 5 years and was coming close to a nervous breakdown over it. I have no idea what the ethnicities of the thieves were and I worked very hard not to default to any specific image in my imagination. My micro-neighborhood was mixed and majority White-gentrification (in which category I include myself).

So doing research on crime rates in various potential locations was high on my list. I became very uncomfortable about using that as my sole determining factor when the community demographics websites made it clear that there was a strong inverse relationship between overall crime rate and % of White residents. There was, unsurprisingly, and even stronger inverse relationship between real estate prices and crime rate, and there's no reason not to conclude that the racial distribution falls out from historic economic differentials.

At any rate, I settled for a certain comfort-level cut-off for crime rate and then focused more solidly on commuting issues and on the distribution of existing friends that I wanted to live near.

No real point to this narrative, other than an example of a different sort of racial history for suburbs.

#54 ::: Lucy Kemnitzer ::: (view all by) ::: September 26, 2014, 03:48 PM:

I largely grew up in a Bay Area suburb which also provides an exception to the general picture. It was a leftover bit of land between Spanish land grants (big hint as to the location). It became a commuter suburb in response to the expansion of industry during and after WWII. Rather than fleeing the cities, the majority of the people who came to live in these suburbs came to the cities and found them full. At the time this particular suburb was being built, a conscious effort was made on the part of the Comunist Party to help it develop as an integrated and diverse place. And that's how my parents decided to move there. I gather it's a very different place now, but I haven't been there to speak of in fifty years.

#55 ::: clew ::: (view all by) ::: September 26, 2014, 05:03 PM:

Privileged people have always, all over the world and throughout history, tried segregate themselves and keep the good stuff away from hoi polloi. That includes pleasant and functional living spaces.

I'll agree that privileged people by definition live in the good stuff and ignore the unfortunate*; but there's variation in how determined they are to actively keep the good stuff away from the Marked. This is one of the things that makes USians bitter when we learn it: active effort to destroy black neighborhoods when they improve themselves, even without obvious benefit to the surrounding white neighborhoods.

This shades into mere neglect, e.g., law enforcement not operating in poorer neighborhoods (neglect) vs. increasing patrols in connected neighborhoods in order to shift illegal activity into the poor neighborhoods. It's cheaper than overall prevention, apparently.

* O(1), #NotAllPrivilegedPeople, #WhatAboutBuddha, etc etc.

#56 ::: Kennedy Trengove ::: (view all by) ::: September 26, 2014, 10:28 PM:


"This shades into mere neglect, e.g., law enforcement not operating in poorer neighborhoods (neglect) vs. increasing patrols in connected neighborhoods in order to shift illegal activity into the poor neighborhoods. It's cheaper than overall prevention, apparently."

Can you expand on this a little bit? For someone unfamiliar with the United States and it the racial divides therein, notwithstanding what one sees on The Wire, it's a little bit unclear how this situation plays out in the real life. Is one operating theory that police push criminal activity to areas that are occupied by poorer people, because that is where people will tolerate it? What types of crimes are able to be moved in this manner? Or this more of a general proposition, that police work effectively shunts crime into high-poverty areas? Thanks in advance for any elucidation you can effect.

#57 ::: Nancy Lebovitz ::: (view all by) ::: September 26, 2014, 10:42 PM:

I've noticed that most of the legal abuse of black people in the US is the result of laws and programs which don't meet libertarian standards-- not just when slavery was legal, but government promotion of home ownership, loans to farmers, and the war on drugs.

Is it plausible that there are some kinds of help which (some?) governments shouldn't be trusted to attempt? I think it's fair to count the war on drugs as an effort to protect the public from the risks of addicts and addiction.

#58 ::: Josh Berkus ::: (view all by) ::: September 27, 2014, 02:41 AM:

Abi @40:

Yes. Also (just talking about American suburbs here, bring the rest of the world in and it's even more complicated):

* Poor-to-nonexistant urban planning leading to unlivable cities.
* Surges in poor, unemployed, and criminal populations with the return of veterans (either due to displacement or failure to cope).
* Monumentally successful marketing of the car as the centerpiece of American lifestyle.
* Postwar manufacturing plenty leading to having lots of stuff and needing space for lots of stuff.
* Religious and social conservatives working with misogynists to undo the feminist and gay liberation of the wartime years by getting people out of the city and into the kitchen.

... etc., etc., ad nauseum, ad infinitum.

Also, this:

#59 ::: David Harmon ::: (view all by) ::: September 27, 2014, 05:22 PM:

Kennedy Trengrove #56: There are various levels and layers. The most basic case is when, say, the "nice" neighborhoods get, say, foot patrols who keep an eye on individual comings and goings, while the "bad" neighborhoods get patrol cars driving though, and the cops don't get out unless they see an actual crime in progress, if then. This sort of difference can be less or more drastic, but in any case muggers, prostitutes, drug dealers, burglars, and so on know exactly where the cops go, and where they can work in safety. And both the locals, and folks from surrounding areas, know just where to go to find drug dealers, prostitutes, stolen goods, etc.

As that worsens, you get "911 don't go to Motown" -- that is, emergency calls from those areas get, maybe, a cop car coming by an hour or so later (after any potential danger to them has dispersed) to arrest anyone who's still hanging around (especially if they fail to cringe), and/or take away the bodies. The residents rapidly learn not to call the police. On the other hand, local thugs or gangs are all too happy to enforce their own version of the social order....

And the level after that is situations like Ferguson, where the cops consider black (or other current outgroup) folks (in any neighborhood where the cops encounter them) to be presumptive criminals if not menaces to society, and treat them accordingly.

#60 ::: clew ::: (view all by) ::: September 27, 2014, 09:31 PM:

Kennedy Trengove @ #56: What David Harmon said. As some background, this is often played out within one police-force region -- that is, all the neighborhoods pay taxes for a city police force, but the force mostly patrols the rich neighborhoods, not the places where crime is. Often there are extra patrols in the rich neighborhoods on borders with poor ones, making the sort of `kettling' effect more explicit.

The next bad is that some, maybe lots of our police forces* aren't trusted by their poor citizens and shouldn't be, so increased patrols in the poor neighborhoods risk causing injustice and fury instead of reducing crime.

*Not just the cities -- the day-labor neighborhoods of farm regions run the same risks.

Where are you that works differently? And how did your society get there? Because we need to fix this.

#61 ::: C. Wingate ::: (view all by) ::: September 27, 2014, 11:33 PM:

It should be kept in mind that nice outer suburbs aren't patrolled by the police at all. We only see the police in our neighborhood at great long intervals, perhaps for a burglary or an excessively loud party or when someone tries to knock over the 7-11 (which hasn't happened in years and years, that I recall).

#62 ::: BSD ::: (view all by) ::: September 29, 2014, 12:40 PM:

Duncan @48 (and everyone really) that's an unintended double-not. Sorry. The second one should be a "now".

My comment was in exasperation at the people -- well-intentioned and generally in good faith -- jumping all over Lee for daring to suggest that maybe there's a racial component to why their neighborhood looks the way it does. Lee says "suburbs were founded on racism," people who I know mean well (lorax, Ginger) insist (truly! I'm not impugning the truth or good faith of their statements) that their suburbs right now are racially mixed. Which was NEVER LEE'S POINT, and when Lee came around again making that point, the reaction was the same.

"Devotion to truth" was probably wrong. I'd say "eagerness to engage in the past" but the past isn't past. YOUR suburb is nice, but the STRUCTURE of suburbs in the US continues to be one of the primary pillars of structural racism.

#63 ::: paul ::: (view all by) ::: September 30, 2014, 10:17 AM:

Route 34. I grew up in New Haven, and it was really, really obvious. This was a Model City (which for some years snagged some huge proportion of urban development grants nationwide), and it was pretty clear how the money was used to divide up the town along race and class lines. (Our plumber had a nice little house on the first intact street just the other side of the highway.)

And even where it wasn't overtly overtly about race, things just happened that way. The college professors and other professionals on our block had wives with the time to organize and get the site for the new high school moved down across the street that divided the "good" part of the neighborhood from the working-class part. The highway extension that would have cut through that neighborhood never got built, but the ones that cut through the poorer and blacker areas did. Funny, that.

#64 ::: albatross ::: (view all by) ::: September 30, 2014, 11:00 AM:


Can you point to a succinct definition of structural racism? I've seen the term tossed around and think I have a sense of its meaning from context, but I'd like to be sure I'm understanding it.

#65 ::: albatross ::: (view all by) ::: September 30, 2014, 11:09 AM:

I guess the question that comes to mind when thinking about this history is how much it really informs our decisions now. There really aren't a lot of parts of US society that weren't shaped by racism, sexism, and any number of other nasty belief systems. (I expect the same is true elsewhere, but the US is the society I know.)

But how much does that tell us about the value of living in suburbs now? Like Ginger, I live in a racially-mixed suburb, which is completely normal around here. There are many good and bad things about living where I live, but I am not sure the history and motivation of suburbs, or even the question of whether blacks were steered away from my suburb at some point in its history, really informs me about any of those good and bad things.

#66 ::: BSD ::: (view all by) ::: September 30, 2014, 11:49 AM:


Structural racism is the racism built into our institutions and rules. What's especially pernicious about it is it no longer requires active racism or discrimination by anyone in particular, but racist results emerge from the processes anyway.

It informs the mortgages on each of those houses and which houses are rentals. It informs who gets shown which houses, even now. It informs what retail you get and whether you get a bank at all. But the most obvious is probably in whatever restrictive covenants are still in place in your subdivision.

And, not to unduly challenge your lived experience, but I suspect if you sat down with a map of your suburbs and some markers, you'd find it's probably not as mixed as you think.

(I am, of course, complicit in and a beneficiary of the same structures -- my building is in a rezoned industrial neighborhood, but the choice to build new skyscrapers on reclaimed brownfield rather than restoring the Queensbridge houses or building nice new towers by the water in Ravenswood was a choice with roots in systemic, structural racism.)

#67 ::: paul ::: (view all by) ::: September 30, 2014, 12:40 PM:


Structural racism is also the racism built into our history, so that ostensibly race-neutral or race-blind policies can have hugely racist effects. Sure, redlining and explicitly racist restrictive covenants are unlawful now, but housing stock tends to turn over fairly slowly, and disparities in the availability of capital have a huge racist component. So of course it's "rational" for a mortgage broker to steer black people to more expensive loans, because they typically have fewer alternatives. Of course those (historically poorer, segregated, less-well-policed, educationally and financially starved) minority neighborhoods have higher crime rates and thus should be valued lower. Of course, all the churches and social organizations in historically white neighborhoods aren't the ones black people have generally patronized, and all the good locations are taken...

None of that requires active racist animus, just a willingness to profit from the status quo. (Which is another reason why people who blather about the unfairness of affirmative action annoy me so much).

#68 ::: abi ::: (view all by) ::: September 30, 2014, 12:45 PM:

BSD @62:

Not to pick too many nits, but the comment of Lee's that most people were reacting to was not the one about the history of the foundation of the suburbs. The responses about racially mixed present-day suburbs were right on-point for the comment that caught their attention.

#69 ::: abi ::: (view all by) ::: September 30, 2014, 01:09 PM:

I have two more articles to add to the mix. One problem with suburbs that require one to drive to get anywhere is that one's car becomes another financial vulnerablility.

First of all, here's what happens when your car gets towed in San Francisco. If you don't have the resources to pay the towing fee straight away, you're suddenly without a vehicle, no matter what you need it for. (I couldn't even read the article without crying.)

Also, there's a recent trend toward fitting cars purchased with "sub-prime" car loans with immobilizers. Here's a good article about how that can go wrong. The short form is that some lenders are using them as a form of extortion, in violation of the restrictions that regulators have placed on when how, and why vehicles should be immobilized.

Neither article mentions the races of the people whose lives are being shredded in these situations; it's all about poverty. But in both cases, the statistical probability is that they are not white, just because of the distribution of resources in the US. And that's the kicker, isn't it? Even if neither the laws nor their enforcement had racial components—even if they were truly, genuinely, honestly color-blind—the very fact that the economic system is currently reducing social and financial mobility has a disproportionate impact on people of color. Because previous laws put them so far behind that simple equity doesn't let them catch up.

This is, of course, the heart of the argument for reparations.

#70 ::: albatross ::: (view all by) ::: September 30, 2014, 01:12 PM:


Restrictive covenants have been illegal in the US for quite some time, so I'm pretty sure none are in effect in my suburb.

Re structural racism:

When you observe some difference in outcomes between blacks and whites on average (lower incomes, worse school performance, lower credit scores, higher crime rate, higher infant mortality rate), how do you decide whether that difference is attributable to structural racism?

#71 ::: albatross ::: (view all by) ::: September 30, 2014, 01:19 PM:


I agree that the US has spent a lot of the last 20-30 years getting really good at taking the people at the bottom and grinding them up in the gears of the system, both from inattention (not like real people are being hurt, after all) and from the desire to extract pennies from people with damned few of them to spare. The prison-industrial complex and the awful phenomenon of funding a lot of your government on fines you charge to people at the bottom are two examples (among many) of that. I'm not sure why that makes an argument for race-based reparations, though. It seems like it makes a case for trying to treat people at the bottom better, regardless of race--ending the war on drugs, no longer charging people fees for being involved in the criminal justice system, better and more generous anti-poverty programs, etc.

#72 ::: albatross ::: (view all by) ::: September 30, 2014, 01:39 PM:


I think you're running into the edges of a genuinely hard social problem.

If statistics are a lot worse for blacks than whites in some area (school performance, test scores, crime rate, poverty rate), then you're going to see patterns like this. The really bad schools will often be almost all black, and you as a responsible parent won't want to send your kids to that kind of school. The really rough neighborhoods where your bike and your car are liable to get stolen and it's not really safe to walk around after dark will often be nearly all-black, and most people don't want to live somewhere with a lot of crime.

Is that white flight? Perhaps, but I still don't want to live somewhere with a lot of crime and I still don't want to send my kids to a failing school. And I won't do either of those things, given any choices. Thousands of other people feel the same way, and that's how you get white flight (which definitely includes nonwhites responding to the same incentives in the same way). Indeed, let your nice neighborhood start having a lot of crime go on, and have the local public schools start going downhill, and like magic, you will see "For Sale" signs sprouting up everywhere, as lots and lots of families try to find someplace nicer to live.

#73 ::: albatross ::: (view all by) ::: September 30, 2014, 01:44 PM:

Lost link:

crime rate

#74 ::: Yarrow ::: (view all by) ::: September 30, 2014, 01:53 PM:

albatross, I think your 72 gives rise to the "argument for race-based reparations" that you ask for in your 71.

#75 ::: lorax ::: (view all by) ::: September 30, 2014, 01:54 PM:

Some beautiful data (click on the map to enlarge):

Color-coded map of Washington, DC area showing racial makeup

One of the interesting (to me, at least) points is that the suburbs are not noticeably more segregated than the city itself - if anything, at least for eastern Montgomery and northern/western Prince George's Counties in Maryland, the area I live in, the reverse is true. To contexualize locations mentioned previously in this thread, Silver Spring is the area north of the point of the diamond and Langley Park is the predominantly orange (Hispanic) area to its east. The diamond sides of DC are ten miles on a side, for scale. (Another interesting point is how, regardless of population density, the makeup of the Virginia suburbs versus the Maryland ones looks very, very different.)

Similar maps of other cities, without the addition of major roads and jurisdictional boundaries for orientation, are at . They're all fascinating.

#76 ::: abi ::: (view all by) ::: September 30, 2014, 01:55 PM:

albatross @71:

Well, first off, please do note the subjunctive in my post; I don't think the laws are color-blind; I think the laws that get passed have intentionally disparate racial impacts, and there's very good evidece of highly disparate enforcement adding to the effects.

And I think we're a lot less likely to change the systems that keep grinding the poor up while the poor are substantially black. Indeed, I think we'd find it faster and easier to figure out reparations than to do that as things stand. It's that deeply-entrenched.

Also, I think that putting power and resources in the hands of people of color, so that they have the votes and the dollars to matter, would be a better-targeted way of tackling other issues of racism. I, being white, don't always know where the problems are, any more than you, as a bloke, have the full picture of how sexism impinges on my life.

#77 ::: OtterB ::: (view all by) ::: September 30, 2014, 02:15 PM:

lorax @75 It would be interesting to see how that map overlaid with this one about neighborhood segregation by type of employment, classifying people (arguably) into service employment, working class/blue collar, or the "creative class" aka knowledge workers.

#78 ::: David Harmon ::: (view all by) ::: September 30, 2014, 05:59 PM:

As a tangent off BSD #66's "if you get a bank at all"... If you don't, you get "check cashing" and "payday loan" places.

In some states, the fees for check cashing are regulated, say 2% in New York. In others, not so much: at a glance, it looks like Virginia requires them to be "prominently disclosed", but doesn't limit the fees. The first place I clicked through had fees ranging up to 10% for personal checks (that is, if an actual person is trying to give you money). Payday loans, similarly, are basically legalized loansharking, with usurious interest rates justified by high risk.

Both are part of a general pattern of "poor taxes", where those who have the least money get hit with repeated fees or penalties. Even if there is a bank around, they often charge fees for accounts... which can be evaded, natch, by maintaining a minimum balance of 4 or 5 figures. Whether or not there's a monthly fee, there will certainly be viciously punitive penalties for bouncing a check, and then again for the overdraft/negative balance.

And if you have any sort of automatic billing active (sometimes required by utility companies, mortgage holders, or the like), that means that even after your next deposit, you'll have much less money in your account than you had planned... So the automatic bill is likely to trigger another overdraft, rinse and repeat. Then the creditors start charging late fees, and perhaps call in collection agencies....

#79 ::: Steve C. ::: (view all by) ::: September 30, 2014, 06:29 PM:

There's more and more talk about the Post Office offering financial services, including checking and savings accounts. This would be a good thing for the people who currently have no banking connection.

#80 ::: clew ::: (view all by) ::: September 30, 2014, 06:49 PM:
I still don't want to live somewhere with a lot of crime and I still don't want to send my kids to a failing school

There's lots of experimental evidence that USians, on average, will perceive a neighborhood as dangerous and a school as bad if it has black people in it, independent of all other cues. This doesn't have to be a very strong effect for racially mixed neighborhoods to be unstable (a few of the richer people leave, most of them were white, the neighborhood is a little darker now; d.c.a.f.).

The next bar in the bitter blues is upper-class people with more tolerance for risk than money `arbitraging' real estate by living in perceived-risky neighborhoods*. (This isn't my term, someone on the internets just used it talking about rapid demographic change in D.C.) With enough arbitragers, the instability goes the other way; eventually investment money decides to buy in (hysteresis!). When the poor people were homeowners to start with, they may end up scattered but with decent payouts; but the history of redlining, first-fired, etc. means that in most places most poor people don't have a lot of equity.

*Sometimes the neighborhoods really are risky, I guess, but I've lived several places that were great by police-blotter numbers but frightened some of my relatives. The funny bit was someone explaining that line laundry frightened her. I'm pretty sure we mutually come from a long heritage of people who dried laundry outdoors.

#81 ::: mjfgates ::: (view all by) ::: September 30, 2014, 08:09 PM:

albatross@71: The argument for race-based reparations is built on property law. If I steal your money, it still belongs to you. If I take it to the dog track and win, those are your winnings. If I invest it, you own the returns.

Nearly everything blacks created between 1860 and about 1970 was stolen from them. Trace the movements of the money and throw in compound interest, and black people should own pretty much everything.

Reparations are partial compensation for this.

#82 ::: Avram ::: (view all by) ::: October 01, 2014, 12:44 AM:

albatross @70, when you see Person A punch Person B in the nose, and observe that B’s nose is broken, how do you decide whether that injury is due to A’s punch?

#83 ::: David Harmon ::: (view all by) ::: October 01, 2014, 02:13 AM:

Steve C. #79: Having an actual government-owned bank (like a lot of other countries do) would address a lot of the crap that bankers have gotten up to in the USA.

clew #80: yeah, a while ago I mentioned my Mom's comments about why she wanted to move out of Baldwin, where she'd spent her teaching career. Guess what "the neighborhood was going downhill" turned out to mean?

mjfgates #81: And of course, that neatly avoids the issue of any penalty for, you know, enslaving their ancestors....

#84 ::: BSD ::: (view all by) ::: October 01, 2014, 07:49 AM:

albatross @ 70

Explicitly racially restrictive covenants have been illegal for a while now. Restrictive covenants that have an unintended, or actually-sort-of-intended racial effect remain quite legal. It's very common for HOA rules or deed covenants to have down-payment or lease-term restrictions. (My "favorite" non-financial covenant of this type is also found in condo/apartment rules -- Dog-breed restrictions.)

#85 ::: albatross ::: (view all by) ::: October 01, 2014, 08:55 AM:


It's pretty easy to see how me punching you in the nose leads to your broken nose. It's not so easy to see how my great great grandparents enslaving your great great grandparents leads to you doing poorly on the SAT. Nor even how my grandparents going to great lengths to keep your grandparents from living in their neighborhood does so. Perhaps there is a connection there, but if so, it's pretty subtle.

#86 ::: Leah Miller ::: (view all by) ::: October 01, 2014, 11:42 AM:

albatross, did you read the original article posted by Patrick? It sets things out in a clear and detailed way. If you find that connection subtle after reading that article, I'm not sure how to proceed.

I mean, I can bring up the fact that black boys are perceived as older and more inherently guilty than white boys.

As much as people try to say it's just an issue of poverty, it isn't. Racism is stacking the deck, and a huge source of it is the anti-black propaganda campaigns that were epidemic in the US until the seventies. That was the base that allowed conservatives to dog-whistle racism throughout the 80s and 90s. Society has been conditioned so that when someone puts a photo of a murdered black child up on the screen, many people perceive them as a suspect, dangerous adult.

If you don't understand how Jim Crow and neighborhood segregation could possibly have contributed to deep-seated racism that causes unarmed black men and boys to be murdered by the police at a horrifying rate, then I don't know what to tell you. I don't even know how to begin.

#87 ::: Rob Wynne ::: (view all by) ::: October 01, 2014, 12:59 PM:

albatross @ 64 This Jay Smooth video has a very good primer on structure racism

#88 ::: Jeremy Leader ::: (view all by) ::: October 01, 2014, 02:26 PM:

clew @80: d.c.a.f?

albatross, I think you're taking rules of thumb that are very valuable in individual interactions and applying them to systemic issues. I think you're assuming goodwill in the absence of specific particular evidence to the contrary ("innocent until proven guilty"), which is a very good way of approaching other individuals for the first time. However, I think when you're looking at aspects of society, you're doing what statisticians call "assuming independence". That is, you're evaluating each possibly racist piece of our social system on its own, and giving it the benefit of the doubt. What Coates is arguing is that there's a huge "hidden variable" causing all these pieces of our social system to be correlated. That hidden variable is our society's history of racism.

Incidentally, enforcing racial covenants is illegal, but they're still on the books. Over the years I've owned 3 houses in fairly diverse neighborhoods in Los Angeles. All were built in the early 1950s (a boom time for suburban LA). 2 of the 3 have explicit racial covenants on their deeds (as well as one forbidding pig farming and hanging laundry in the front yard). When I asked a real estate broker about it, I was told that they haven't been enforceable for decades, but it's practically impossible to get them removed. I haven't investigated further, but it's starting to bother me more. If I were dark-skinned, it would make me uncomfortable that these restrictions were still on the books. If it's unenforceable, why can't it be stricken from the deed? A little googling suggests that it requires going to court and getting a judge to order it stricken, which I suspect would involve non-trivial fees.

#89 ::: C. Wingate ::: (view all by) ::: October 01, 2014, 04:32 PM:

re 86: The paper actually says that a group of "mostly white male" police officers "in large urban areas" and "mostly white, female undergraduate students from large public U.S. universities" exhibited these biases in the context of the experiment. Without going into the issue of whether the experimental setup passes muster, the limitations of the two samples should be evident. Does it matter where the police are, or the universities? Does it matter exactly who the pictures are of? One of the threads running through the discussion is on the one hand the presumption that these biases are universal, and on the other hand that at present at least there is a considerable differentiation among neighborhoods.

There are also considerably different patterns of poverty. If you look at the country as a whole, on the county level, the only consistent patterns are that the best-off areas are suburban or in the upper great plains. There are huge areas of white, rural poverty (e.g. southern Oregon or eastern Kentucky). In terms of proportions, native Americans are far more likely to be poor, and then Latinos and blacks, but overall, half of those counted as impoverished in the most recent census were white.

#90 ::: David Harmon ::: (view all by) ::: October 01, 2014, 05:07 PM:

Rob Wynne #87: Thank you for posting that link. For others who haven't seen it, the video is followed by links to an excellent two-part paper by Race Forward (The Center for Racial Justice Innovation). Besides an assortment of evidence, examples, and responses to the problem, the paper provides terminology and concepts which I feel really should become basic parts of the discourse.

#91 ::: David Harmon ::: (view all by) ::: October 01, 2014, 05:16 PM:

C. Wingate #89: They took samples from known problem areas. And, half of those counted as impoverished in the most recent census were white? Only half? Glancing at Wikipedia, 62-74% of the US population is white, depending how you count the Hispanics who self-reported as "white". Blacks are 12%, and Native Americans are under 1%.

#92 ::: Avram ::: (view all by) ::: October 01, 2014, 06:08 PM:

albatross @85, if you think this is about “great great grandparents” you haven’t been paying attention.

Keep in mind that college costs money, and so does private school. Someone who owns a house can borrow against that to send their kids to college, an option not available to renters. Likewise, someone who has to support their parents in old age has more money to spend on their kid’s education than someone whose parents didn’t qualify for old age benefits. Right? So keeping that in mind, consider:

Jim Crow. Second Slavery. Lynching. Redlining. The 1935 structuring of Social Security in such a way that the majority of black American workers were excluded. Segregated schooling. The preferential treatment given to “legacy” admissions in higher education. The ongoing brutalization of black communities by police.

Johnson’s Civil Rights Act passed 50 years ago — my parents’ time, not my great-great-grandparents’. The federal legislation to fight redlining passed less then 40 years ago.

The foreclosure crisis disproportionately affected black Americans (who are more often targeted by predatory lending practices), and that happened just a few years ago. The fact that some states are refusing the Medicaid expansion that comes with Obamacare is disproportionately hurting black Americans, and that’s happening right now. The weeks-long police riot in Ferguson, MO no doubt robbed lots of kids of sleep and screwed up their academic performance, and most of those kids are black.

#93 ::: guthrie ::: (view all by) ::: October 01, 2014, 06:59 PM:

I bought earlier this year a book called "The second american revolution", a colelction of accounts of the Civil rights struggle in the late '50's and early '60's, as published in the New York Times. It really does make clear how deliberate and engrained were the racist systems in the south, especially obviously in education but other parts of society too. As Avram says, this is only 50 years ago.

#94 ::: Lee ::: (view all by) ::: October 01, 2014, 07:44 PM:

Jeremy Leader, #88: I think when you're looking at aspects of society, you're doing what statisticians call "assuming independence". That is, you're evaluating each possibly racist piece of our social system on its own, and giving it the benefit of the doubt.

This made me think about the current mass-media narrative of treating each individual gnu atrocity as a separate incident, unconnected to anything else, and more-or-less happening in a vacuum. I submit that the two processes are variations on a theme.

#95 ::: heresiarch ::: (view all by) ::: October 01, 2014, 08:12 PM:

albatross @ 85: "Perhaps there is a connection there, but if so, it's pretty subtle."

If only someone was studying that!

#96 ::: janetl ::: (view all by) ::: October 01, 2014, 08:18 PM:

I was at a technical Meetup in a predominantly African American neighborhood in Pittsburgh this summer. A local community leader spoke to us about a new phone app that was helping residents map abandoned houses so the city could mitigate them. A man in the (almost all white) audience said real estate is the safest way to build wealth. The speaker said something like "My parents bought a house in this neighborhood in the 1940s for $14,000. It's worth about $15,000 today."

My (white) parents bought a house in the late 1940s for $5,000. They sold it in 1967 for $50,000.

I haven't read historian Beryl Satter's book, Family Properties: Race, Real Estate, and the Exploitation of Black Urban America, but Ta-Nehisi Coates praises it in his excellent article. I thought it would be too depressing.

#97 ::: David Harmon ::: (view all by) ::: October 01, 2014, 08:34 PM:

albatross #85: Avram's comments, and much of the other discussion here, can be summed up in one quote: "The past isn't dead. It's not even past."

This crap is still happening, now. Blacks are still getting systematically discriminated against. They're getting arrested and sometimes killed for Driving (Walking, Standing etc.) While Black, and Failure To Cringe. Their kids are being denied educations¹, and tainted with criminal records. They're being denied rights that "most folks" -- that is, whites -- take for granted, like voting, medical care, living undisturbed in their homes, keeping their property, recourse to the courts, even raising their own kids.

No, none of this is being inflicted on Every Single Black Person -- but it's happening to them regularly and systematically, in ways that even poor whites simply don't have to deal with. "Systemic Racism" is just describing how this gets done, and why it's not just a bunch of individual incidents.

And this is happening at every level. When I walked onto the Harvard campus in 1984, there were nine black students in the incoming class of 800 or so. By the end of the day there were eight, because the parents of one of those students had been "escorted off campus" by the college police force. You might think things would have improved in, say, the next 25 years -- but in 2009, the Cambridge police arrested one of the college's professors for trying to gain entrance to his own home.

#98 ::: janetl ::: (view all by) ::: October 01, 2014, 09:10 PM:

I'm reading Lies My Teacher Told Me: Everything Your American History Textbook Got Wrong by James W. Loewen. I'm horrified to see how children are taught a line that minimizes (or erases) the contributions of non-white people, and skates over the often horrible treatment of them. The obvious injuries dealt to minorities aren't that hard to see. The ways that the spirit can be sapped, sitting in the same classroom with white students, are more subtle.

Today I am happy to see Michael Dunn found guilty of murder for killing an African American teenager, despite it being in Florida, and him claiming Stand Your Ground. It's appalling that it took two trials to achieve that simple justice, but it was achieved.

#99 ::: C. Wingate ::: (view all by) ::: October 01, 2014, 11:45 PM:

re 91: Maybe I'm being dense, but I don't see where in the abstract it says that. And I don't know how I'm supposed to take "only half". There is much talk here which make it sound as though "only half" was actually "hardly any".

re 88: As is often the case, the phrase "our society" contains within it the unproven assertion that there is a single and organic society. I don't believe that. The situation of Ferguson or any number of other places is manifest and egregious, and many places are like unto them. But it's a big country, and I cannot see we would have ever had a civil war if there were no significant differences between regions. It is particularly so considering how much of what we are talking about is based in local law. I haven't gone to the bank and dug out our deed to see whether it has racial covenants in it, but if were to do so and find that there were none, and report that fact back here, I have to suspect that I would be told that integration of the neighborhood was prevented by some other means which I could not test. I really must insist on better proof than that, and at any rate, by the mid 1970s my parents' formerly all non-black neighborhood (there had been Jews and orientals from the very beginning) had acquired a black family and as best I know has retained them and acquired a few others since.

#100 ::: Lee ::: (view all by) ::: October 02, 2014, 12:07 AM:

C. Wingate, #99: Re "only half" -- if whites make up 2/3 to 3/4 of the American population, but only half of those listed as poor, then it's a pretty obvious conclusion that non-whites are disproportionately represented in the poorer classes.

The really shameful thing is that this and other similar statistics, which are the direct result of systematic, structural, institutionalized racism, are then cited as justification for the continuation of racism. It's a no-win scenario.

#101 ::: Anat Dev ::: (view all by) ::: October 02, 2014, 01:41 AM:

C. Wingate #99

Your "Not ALL suburbs!" rhetoric kinda resembles the old favorite "Not ALL men!" in that it rather condescendingly misses the point, which is that a certain pattern is much, much more prevalent than the vast majority of people believe. (full disclosure: I have gotten into the habit of obscuring my identity when I use that phrase, because several friends of mine have been badly harassed for using it, and I don't want to send more garbage their way)

Read the Coates essay linked in the OP (and for extra credit, the follow-up sources others have shared); it's not just about reparations, it's also about some structural and disturbing non-covenant-related housing racism. I will admit that I myself was guilty of the pearl-clutching "surely not in the civilized north" delusion until very recently. While yes, there are probably a few towns with different histories that have managed to integrate to various extents, suburbs exacerbating racism is a pattern in pretty much all regions of the country, even the most liberal bastions imaginable.

A friend of mine who spoke out during the "not all men" kerfuffle summed it up like this (roughly paraphrased):

"If I say 'humans are causing the extinction of endangered species' you wouldn't respond with 'not ALL humans! I've never killed an endangered animal in my life!' instead you'd probably realize that I'm speaking about humanity's impact as a species. Even if you've never harmed an animal, if you're reading this on the internet, chances are you've directly benefitted from some product or service that caused an endangered animal to die."

Even if there are glorious exceptional suburbs that did not suffer from any of the policies outlined in the Coates article (and part of the reason this thread exists is that there probably ARE, and some of them might even exist in America), that's not the point: the point is that suburbs, in general, are far more tainted than most of us assume. And if you're a consumer in america, you've probably benefitted from products and services made possible by that screwed up system.

The explanation for your parents' suburb is probably "racism was subtler and became less severe earlier there" rather than "it wasn't racist!"

A lot of the excuses in this thread resemble another common argument: the "I have a black friend, I can't be racist! Oh, that's something racists say? Well, I have SEVERAL black friends! Bam! Certified nonracist."

Racism is always gonna be a matter of degree. It's also a master of disguise: It takes many forms, because it knows that most people have been trained not to see it unless it takes the form of an explicit, covenant-style law.

#102 ::: Avram ::: (view all by) ::: October 02, 2014, 02:39 AM:

C Wingate, you’re clearly interested in disproving, or at least casting doubt upon, some point or other, but I cannot for the life of me figure out what.

Also, dude, “oriental” is not the preferred nomenclature. “Asian” or “Asian-American”, please.

#103 ::: abi ::: (view all by) ::: October 02, 2014, 04:40 AM:

Anat Dev @101:

Even if there are glorious exceptional suburbs that did not suffer from any of the policies outlined in the Coates article (and part of the reason this thread exists is that there probably ARE, and some of them might even exist in America), that's not the point: the point is that suburbs, in general, are far more tainted than most of us assume. And if you're a consumer in america, you've probably benefitted from products and services made possible by that screwed up system.

Actually, the thread exists because it's not just suburbs. TNC's history includes urban and rural blacks as well, because everywhere in America, the whole social infrastructure around housing, is affected by and has been built by a system that has extracted wealth from people of color.

As Patrick said in the comment before starting this thread:'s impossible to take in the immense and complex tale that Coates tells--tells grippingly--and still believe that the whole business of using real estate covenants to systematically drain the wealth of the hardest-working black Americans, the ones trying the hardest to become part of the American middle class--is something particularly associated with "the suburbs." As opposed to, you know, THE ENTIRE FABRIC OF URBAN AND SUBURBAN DEVELOPMENT POLICY IN THIS COUNTRY FOR NEARLY A CENTURY.

We talk a lot about racism in the formation of the suburbs, but the whole system's rotten. Focusing only on the suburbs is basically giving everywhere else a free pass.

#104 ::: Anat Dev ::: (view all by) ::: October 02, 2014, 05:00 AM:

abi #103

You're right, of course. I remember at one point thinking urban renewal projects would be a boon for minority communities... when in fact, they're often sources of racist policy. The article points out more stuff, and there are a billion other examples. Just look at nationwide gerrymandering and all that.

I wasn't meaning to make the same mistake and single out suburbs. Instead, I meant to point out that the north wasn't free of bad racist history, just better at hiding it sometimes. That history surprised me when I learned about it a few years ago.

#105 ::: BSD ::: (view all by) ::: October 02, 2014, 09:44 AM:

paul @ 67 says it better than me and I was remiss in not saying so earlier.

Yes, abi@103, the whole system is rotten, but I would argue that a substantial component of the rot in the cities is the suburbs. Detroit was a very wealthy city, with a doing-better-than-average African American population. The suburbs hurt it more than it hurt itself, in that they both directly pulled out tax base (and then continued to use city resources without paying for them directly) and made racist policies easier to implement, because they could be targeted at the city, and effectively harm mostly people of color without being explicitly directed at people of color.

#106 ::: Lila ::: (view all by) ::: October 02, 2014, 11:35 AM:

1. all four of my grandparents graduated from college, and both my parents and I grew up surrounded by books, with the unquestioned belief that higher education was the norm, achievable, and necessary. In every class I've ever taken, I was surrounded by people like me. I think those factors add up to an enormous advantage.

2. when I got my first job, it was illegal to discriminate in hiring on the basis of race. That didn't keep my employers from requiring managers to circle the "B" in the name of the business printed on the application if the applicant was black.

3. the U.S. government has admitted there was systematic discrimination in the granting of USDA loans, GI Bill benefits, and other government programs for many decades. This sort of damage is cumulative and long-lasting.

#107 ::: Lady Kay ::: (view all by) ::: October 02, 2014, 01:06 PM:

@lorax @75, that is a lovely map, and the second one on that page is really useful also. I wish that Dan Reed had marked out Takoma Park separately. I, myself, am very confused about what is in and what is not in Takoma Park.

So, once we, as a group, conclude that there are structural effects of racism that keep it going long after the laws have been changed, what happens next? Are there ways for reparations to be paid? I think the answer to that is no, politically that can't happen. I think that the divisions in the US are too evenly matched.

Is affirmative action going to continue for another 40 years?

How does acknowledging the existence and history of this situation help us make it better? What would a small improvement look like? What would a large improvement look like?

#108 ::: Steve C. ::: (view all by) ::: October 02, 2014, 02:40 PM:

Not strictly reparations, but a guaranteed minimum income for everyone would help. Eliminate the alphabet soup of programs and replace with money. But the chances of that happening are slim to none.

#109 ::: clew ::: (view all by) ::: October 02, 2014, 05:01 PM:

Lila, 106p2: Whoa. I mean, not only the bad actors, but surely that would have gone against them had anyone wanted to collect the evidence.

#110 ::: Lila ::: (view all by) ::: October 02, 2014, 05:23 PM:

clew: well, in order to blow the whistle you'd have to be a minimum-wage employee who didn't need the job (or any other job in the immediate area), had plenty of time to talk to the authorities/testify, and would be taken seriously by the authorities. Also, I have no idea how long they hung on to those applications, or whether they proceeded to doodle circles on all the rest of them after the hiring had been done.

#111 ::: Avram ::: (view all by) ::: October 02, 2014, 05:52 PM:

Lady Kay @107: Is affirmative action going to continue for another 40 years?

It’s not even continuing for this one: Schuette v Coalition to Defend Affirmative Action (full text plus dissents)

#112 ::: CHip ::: (view all by) ::: October 07, 2014, 01:01 PM:

(coming late as the TNC article took a while to read & digest)

Paul @ 63 notes "wives with the time to organize"; the gender spreads with the times, but the factor itself is still huge. The links a few threads back spoke of the huge amount of time mere survival takes for the disadvantaged in the U.S., but didn't mention the knock-on effect that this has on political leverage (not just voting, but the pressure to make sure the voted-in serve all of their constituents). cf the ]civic assn[ concerns (meetings?) Fragano speaks of; under time stress, this doesn't happen.

Steve C @ 79: which may be why I'm hearing about certain parties being very unhappy about the USPS so expanding. I get the impression (which may be incorrect) that however grubby the check-cashers look, they are feeding a small number of people who live very well (as I understand some slumlords do -- witness a recent ado in Boston).

albatross @ 70: see above re time. Both my parents worked full-time or more, but they made time to work with me on early schooling -- as they could not have if they'd lost several hours to commuting. It's my impression that today's schools depend on parents filling up the cracks, not just in decor and enrichment but in making sure their children actually understand what's been poured into them. Certainly there are individual bad schools -- Boston just had a problem where the voke-ed school didn't have student schedules until several days into the school year (when this came out, the principal resigned) -- but the web of economics/race/achievement/... is more complex than either you or avram@82 seem to acknowledge.

A general comment about housing: from what I read, covenants are a trivial part of the current problem. I recall a recent study in which blacks were found to have been given statistically worse terms on housing loans after other factors (e.g., location^3) were allowed for. The difference between 2.75 points over prime and 2.875 may not seem like much, but it's going to scrape off more of one end of the curve -- while other people say "Look at all these people in the middle of the curve!" and ignore the opportunities the relatively more fortunate also lose.

#113 ::: P J Evans ::: (view all by) ::: October 07, 2014, 01:40 PM:

Wells Fargo was penalized for steering minority borrowers (black or Hispanic) into subprime loans, when they qualified for prime.

#114 ::: albatross ::: (view all by) ::: October 07, 2014, 05:33 PM:


I suspect one of the biggest factors in getting screwed over in the mortgage market is not having either:

a. Family and friends who have experience in the mortgage and housing markets.


b. Family and friends who are in that business somehow--as realtors or working in finance or something--who can give you advice.

When my wife and I bought our house, we had a fairly large set of ways things could go wrong in our heads, from the (often unpleasant) experiences of our parents and other relatives and friends, and we had a list of things to make sure of from a close friend and a family member who are realtors.

In any transaction where there's negotiation involved, the less knowledgeable you are about the business at hand, the more you will pay, and the more likely you are to get completely screwed over.

My guess is that poorer people, and especially blacks and hispanics, have a lot less of this background knowledge on average, since (among other things) they're less likely to have family members who've bought houses a few times.

#115 ::: Jacque ::: (view all by) ::: October 08, 2014, 12:24 PM:

Even little things like ARMs, which might, at first blush, seem like a good deal. The very idea gives me hives. "What? not know what's going to happen to your interest rate in five years? Sweet Ghu and Creation, no!!!"

#116 ::: clew ::: (view all by) ::: October 11, 2014, 03:06 AM:

I'm pretty sure ARMs, etc., get sold partly with this: "You know people a couple steps up the social scale seem to have it easier. What's the secret to their compounding wealth? Just get a mortgage like this and you're on the property ladder!"

#117 ::: Lori Coulson ::: (view all by) ::: October 11, 2014, 01:21 PM:

When we refinanced the house, the guy at the bank offered us an ARM. I looked at him and said, "Just how foolish do you think we are?"

It's obvious from the collapse of 2008 that a lot of people just plain did not understand what they were signing up for -- I've reached the point where I think mortgage loans should earn only 2% interest. Not that I think THAT will ever happen.

#118 ::: Lila ::: (view all by) ::: October 11, 2014, 01:31 PM:

My father, a child of the Depression, believed ARMs were, basically, a tool of the Devil. He didn't live long enough to see the most recent wave of proof that he was right, but he certainly convinced me never to get one.

#119 ::: P J Evans ::: (view all by) ::: October 11, 2014, 03:47 PM:

I suspect a lot of people with sold ARMs with the strong implication that the rates would drop. Then they didn't.

#120 ::: OtterB ::: (view all by) ::: October 11, 2014, 04:48 PM:

I admit that we financed one of the five houses we have owned with an ARM when we bought it, and I count it one of our better financial decisions. BUT - we bought it in 1981, when mortgages were at something like 15%. My expectation was that rates really couldn't stand to go much higher than that, and in case I was wrong, the increase was capped at something we could live with. We owned the house for 3 years, and the rate dropped each year.

That does not make them a good tool in general.

#121 ::: Cassy B. ::: (view all by) ::: October 11, 2014, 06:39 PM:

Just before the housing bubble burst, every time I turned on the radio I heard ads for "no-principle mortgages" -- that is, mortgages where you only paid the interest on the loan, and NEVER PAID DOWN THE LOAN. I was appalled. That seems to me to be a recipe for financial serfdom.

I honestly feel that the banks offering those loans had, if you'll pardon the expression, no principles.

#122 ::: Lee ::: (view all by) ::: October 11, 2014, 06:54 PM:

When my now-ex and I were looking for a mortgage on the condo we wanted to buy (1987), we had to take an ARM because there was nothing else available to us. I investigated every option I could find, and nobody would offer us a fixed-rate mortgage at all. The best I could get was one with a 1% adjustment cap -- and they really, really tried to push us to take a 2% one instead, but I wasn't buying that for any money.

This is why I have no patience with people who talk smugly about how "stupid" all those people are who went with ARMs. It's not stupidity WHEN YOU DON'T HAVE ANY OTHER CHOICE.

#123 ::: Lee ::: (view all by) ::: October 11, 2014, 06:59 PM:

Secondary thought: it occurs to me now that had I been a man, it's possible that saying firmly, "No, I want a fixed-rate mortgage" would have produced one, rather than garnering me apologetic explanations of why this wasn't possible. And that much the same thing could have been happening especially with non-white families who got caught in the 2008 mess. Fixed-rate loans might have been available, but not to them.

#124 ::: Jenny Islander ::: (view all by) ::: October 11, 2014, 07:34 PM:

Yet again I am flabbergasted by the number of vendors who had no qualm pushing ARMs on people. I got the impression from my tenure as a mortgage broker's assistant that ARMs were solely for people who had investments of the type that mature on a schedule, or would be of age to dip deeply into their trust funds in X number of years, or something. People who asked my old boss for ARMs got a cross-examination and walked out with 15- or 30-year fixed-rate mortgages. If their finances were shaky she would not help them get a mortgage at all. Even if they cried in front of her.

Personally she was a jerk, but professionally she appears to have been a unicorn.

#125 ::: John M. Burt ::: (view all by) ::: October 11, 2014, 10:48 PM:

Jenny @124: I'm sorry, but thanks to Dan Savage, if someone refers to a woman as a "unicorn", I immediately picture her wanting a threesome with a married couple.
That thought is only strengthened since you were talking about how she went about selling people mortgages. I can hear the "bowmp chicka-bowmp bowmmm" in the background now.
Apologies to Jenny and her former boss, who insh'allah will never see this comment.

#126 ::: Steve C. ::: (view all by) ::: October 11, 2014, 10:55 PM:

One of the few good things that came out of the 2008 financial meltdown is that has put paid (at least temporarily) to the idea that one should look at purchasing a home as an investment. Not so. That homes at times appreciate in value should be looked at as lagniappe and not as a given -- no matter how many people are eager to tell you so.

#127 ::: eric ::: (view all by) ::: October 12, 2014, 01:06 AM:

I disagree about ARMs*. They are but one option among many -- they may be appropriate, and may not be. When you take out a 30yr fixed, you're paying for the risk that rates will rise. Which in the current low interest rate world, is pretty much a given. If you take out an ARM, that premium is lower (depending on the lock period and adjustment rate). If your time horizon is possibly closer to 10 years than 30, an ARM is worth a look.

In my case, we refinanced out of a 30 yr fixed into an ARM at what has turned out to be just about the lowest interest rate environment ever. By doing so, we managed to both improve the cash flow as well as dramatically increase the principal paid. It's amazing what happens to the amortization tables when you're at really low rates. It's probably not quite as good of a deal now.

(for real numbers, I'm seeing roughly 4.25 for a 30yr and about 3.0 for a 5/1 ARM this week. That 1.25% (on a 100k mortgage, over the first 5 years) amounts to about 2k more principal retired and $4.8k less paid. (total payments at 25k (ARM) or 30k (30yr), so that's about 25% better over that time))

Yes, that will change some after 5 years. On the whole though, we should still be ahead of the 30yr even after 7 years at the worst possible interest adjustment.

* I'm speaking about conforming, prime ARMs. Option ARMs and sub-prime are a whole different world.

#128 ::: Jacque ::: (view all by) ::: October 13, 2014, 03:14 PM:

A friend of mine actually made an ARM work for him (by starting with an ARM and then refinancing before it went up), but he is of the priveleged class, with the background to have a very clear understanding of what his options were, and enough savings to have ballast to deal with anything unexpected.

My parents were pretty smart, conservative money managers, but I never heard them talk about the mortgage. As a consequence, although my personal finance education was better than what a lot of people get, I didn't have the "pay it off ASAP" conditioning. I came at it from a renter's point of view, which is: you're paying in perpetuity anyway. What you're buying is some equity (assuming house values go up), and freedom from the vagaries of a landlord. Between that, and digging myself a bit of a hole back in the early Noughties, my mortgage balance stands about about what it's always been.

I really wish, now, that back during that period when I actually had enough money for a while, I'd sunk some into paying down the principle.

#129 ::: Lila ::: (view all by) ::: October 13, 2014, 03:21 PM:

Excessive optimism about future mortgage rates is often accompanied by excessive optimism that your income will never drop, and that you will never have catastrophic expenses not completely covered by insurance. Those are both really bad bets, from my perspective.

#130 ::: albatross ::: (view all by) ::: October 14, 2014, 09:16 AM:

The more complicated the financial arrangement, the easier it is to get screwed over by some unforseen wrinkle. More sophisticated investors can handle more complicates financial arrangements safely, but it's wise to assume you're not as sophisticated as you think you are. (Just spending some time with a spreadsheet and what your payments would be if various rhings happened to the interest rate makes you a lot more sophisticated than most buyers.)

#131 ::: albatross ::: (view all by) ::: October 14, 2014, 09:21 AM:


Wow. I can imagine one company refusing to offer anything but ARMs, but it seems really weird that nobody would offer you anything else. How did they know the next person you talked to wouldn't offer a 30 yr fixed rate and get your business? Did you try looking online?

I know there were places duing the bubble where the people doing mortgage sales were basically minimally trained people who only knew how to use a web interface, and may not have known how to do anything but the standard option. But you'd think they'd know how to ask someone else for help....

#132 ::: CHip ::: (view all by) ::: October 14, 2014, 11:15 AM:

Steve C @ 126: purchasing a home is still an investment; it's just not the kind of investment that it's sold as. In almost all markets, in the long term rents will go up faster than interest rates; investing in a mortgage now means more money in your pocket (or less financial pressure) later. Unfortunately, this isn't as sexy as the meme that housing prices always go up, giving everybody profits in a few years. (Local counter-example: a block of 1BR edge-of-Boston condos going for over $60K when the Reagan bubble was about to burst bottomed under $30K. The fact that they were well over $100K by the millennium was not a reachable horizon for many investors. This is an extreme example, as condos can be much more of an investors' toy than houses -- these certainly were.)

The thing about ARMs is that they cut both ways. A long-term fixed mortgage builds in insurance for the lender against rates going up; this is buttressed by the expense of refinancing, such that rates have to go way down before it's worth the holder's while to get out. ARMs give a discount by sharing this risk, and give the holder immediate cost-free benefits if rates go down.

I ran into an issue reflecting both of these when I looked at solar power last year; the choice was to buy a system, or to let someone install a system I'd own after 20 years of steadily-increasing fees (for the electricity generated). My read was that the fees included strong insurance that investors would make more money off paying for someone else's panels than they (let alone I) would make from putting the money into generally-available reasonably-stable investments. (I didn't know until after the decision how the fee system drags down house sale prices, where owned installation raises them.)

#133 ::: Lee ::: (view all by) ::: October 14, 2014, 01:43 PM:

albatross, #131: "Looking online" wasn't much of an option in 1987. If I were going thru the same kind of search today, that would be my first step in the research process.

How did they know the next place I tried wouldn't offer me what I wanted? Presumably because upper management people in banks talk to each other, and there was a general sense of "what's available in this area". Or possibly, as noted above, because it was a woman inquiring and only men got the special deals pulled out if they asked about them.

A fixed-rate mortgage might have been available thru a credit union, but credit unions were generally assumed to be tied to working for a particular company or in a specific field (e.g. education). That's no longer so much the case -- the credit union where I keep my money now will accept anyone who lives, works, or goes to school within 10 miles of one of its branches.

Note that this kind of "wow, I can't imagine that happening" reaction is a common contributor to a lot of people talking past each other about issues faced by the non-privileged. Thank you for accepting that it DID happen, instead of assuming that I couldn't possibly be telling the truth.

#134 ::: Nancy Lebovitz ::: (view all by) ::: October 14, 2014, 01:56 PM:

#131 ::: albatross

The other thing about that kind of situation is that companies generally don't knock themselves out to optimize what they're doing. Good enough is good enough.

Something that stuff with me from the first issue of NYRSF was an article that mentioned the conservation of thought. People (both in and outside of big corporations) conserve a lot of thought.

#135 ::: Cally Soukup ::: (view all by) ::: October 14, 2014, 09:43 PM:

Lee: I believe you, if for no other reason that 1987 was only about ten years after my mother told me about a friend of hers who had gotten divorced and had a terrible time, as a single woman, getting a simple checking account in her own name, much less a credit card. My mother made sure all her kids had bank accounts as kids in part to avoid that whole "what does a woman want with her own bank account" business. Once you HAVE an account, it's vastly easier to open another.

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