#147 Fall 2006

Privileged Places

Race, Opportunity and Uneven Development in Urban America

When 10-year-old Lafayette Rivers described his hopes in Alex Kotlowitz’ award-winning book, There Are No Children Here, he began, “If I grow up, I’d like to be a bus driver.” Rivers lived in a West Side Chicago public housing complex. Children growing up in more privileged neighborhoods often ponder what they will do when they grow up, but not if they will grow up. The fact that place and race exert such a profound impact on one’s future, or whether there even will be a future, violates accepted notions of equal opportunity and fair play. The legitimacy of virtually all institutions is challenged when privilege is so unevenly distributed, and for reasons beyond the control of so many individuals. The costs are not borne by the Lafayette Rivers of the world alone. They are inflicted upon every community whose security and well being are threatened.

Real estate mantra tells us that three factors determine the market value of a home: location, location and location. The same could be said about the factors that determine the good life and people’s access to it in metropolitan America. Place matters. Neighborhood counts. Access to decent housing, safe neighborhoods, good schools, useful contacts and other benefits is largely influenced by the community in which one is born, raised and resides. Individual initiative, intelligence, experience and all the elements of human capital are obviously important. But understanding the opportunity structure in the United States today requires complementing what we know about individual characteristics with what we are learning about place.

Privilege cannot be understood outside the context of place. A central feature of place that has confounded efforts to understand and, where appropriate, alter the opportunity structure of the nation’s urban communities is the role of race. Racial composition of neighborhoods has long been at the center of public policy and private practice in the creation and destruction of communities and in determining access to the elements of the good life, however defined.

Place and race continue to be defining characteristics of the opportunity structure of metropolitan areas. Disentangling the impact of these two forces is difficult, if not impossible. But where one lives and one’s racial background are both social constructs that significantly shape the privileges (or lack thereof) that people enjoy.

The linkages among place, race and privilege are shaped by dominant social forces that play out in response to public policy decisions and practices of powerful private institutional actors. This perspective emerges from what has been referred to as “the new urban sociology,” or “urban political economy,” which places class, race and relations of domination and subordination at the center of analysis. In general, this requires understanding how indiv characteristics and choices (such as human capital and household neighborhood preferences) and voluntary exchanges that occur via competitive markets are both framed and complemented by structural constraints (such as exclusionary zoning and deindustrialization) in determining the distribution of valued goods and services. Specifically, this involves examining how land use practices, urban policy, the dynamics of race and class and other social forces determine who gets what and why.

Race and Uneven Development

Dominant features of metropolitan development in the post-World War II years are sprawl, concentrated poverty and segregation (if not hypersegregation). Clearly, these are not separate, mutually exclusive patterns and processes. Rather, they are three critical underpinnings of the uneven development of place and privilege.

Sprawl has crept into the vocabulary of metropolitan development in recent years. While there is no universal agreement on a definition of sprawl, there is at least a rough consensus that it is a pattern of development associated with outward expansion, low-density housing and commercial development, fragmentation of planning among multiple municipalities with large fiscal disparities among them, auto-dependent transport and segregated land use patterns.

Racial disparities between cities and suburbs, and racial segregation in general, persist as dominant features of metropolitan areas. Cities are disproportionately non-white, with over 52 percent of blacks and 21 percent of whites residing in central-city neighborhoods; while suburbs are disproportionately white, where 57 percent of whites but just 36 percent of blacks reside. Segregation, particularly between blacks and whites, persists at high levels, and Hispanic/white segregation has increased in recent years. The typical white resident of metropolitan areas resides in a neighborhood that is 80 percent white, 7 percent black, 8 percent Hispanic and 4 percent Asian. A typical black person lives in a neighborhood that is 33 percent white, 51 percent black, 11 percent Hispanic and 3 percent Asian. And a typical Hispanic resident lives in a community that is 36 percent white, 11 percent black, 45 percent Hispanic and 6 percent Asian.

Racial segregation, in conjunction with the concentration of poverty and growing economic inequality, results in growing isolation of poor minority households. If segregation is declining, albeit slightly, for blacks, it does not appear that this has translated into their being able to move into better neighborhoods. For example, in 1990, the typical black household with an income above $60,000 lived in a neighborhood where the median income was $31,585, compared with $46,760 for the typical white household in this income bracket. By 2000, these figures changed to $35,306 for blacks and $51,459 for whites. The same pattern holds for Hispanics. Further confounding the intersection of place and race is the fact that in 2000 poor blacks and Hispanics were far more likely than poor whites to live in poor neighborhoods. Whereas over 18 percent of poor blacks and almost 14 percent of poor Hispanics lived in such areas, less than 6 percent of poor whites did.

Wealth disparities are far greater. While blacks earn about 60 percent of what whites earn, their net wealth is approximately one-tenth that of whites. Substantial wealth disparities persist even between whites and non-whites who have equivalent educational backgrounds, comparable jobs and similar incomes.

These wealth disparities also reflect, at least in part, the fact that black middle-class neighborhoods are far more likely than white middle-class communities to be located in close proximity to poor neighborhoods, which residents frequently pass through while commuting to work, going to the grocery store and engaging in most normal daily activities. Proximity to problematic neighborhoods also affects the value of homes and, therefore, further contributes to these economic disparities.

Seventy percent of white families own their homes; approximately half of black families do so. For blacks, home equity accounts for two-thirds of their assets compared with two-fifths for whites. A study of the 100 largest metropolitan areas found that black homeowners received 18 percent less value for their investments in their homes than white homeowners. Biases, racial discrimination and segregation in the nation’s housing and financial services markets have cost the current generation of blacks about $82 billion, with the disparity in home equity averaging $20,000 for those holding mortgages.

Spatial and Racial Inequality

Spatial and racial inequalities are directly associated with access to virtually all products and services associated with the good life – e.g., health, education, employment. Sprawl, concentrated poverty and racial segregation tend to concentrate a host of problems and privileges in different neighborhoods and among different racial groups. These “concentration effects” shape opportunities and lifestyles throughout the life cycle and across generations. Perhaps most problematic is the impact of uneven development on children like Lafayette Rivers, and how the proverbial vicious cycle recreates itself over time. Research has demonstrated links between neighborhood characteristics (like poverty and inequality) and teenage pregnancy, high school dropout rates and delinquent behavior. Patterns of privilege also emerge early in life, persist throughout the life cycle and recreate themselves in subsequent generations. Infant mortality rates, quality of schools, employment opportunities, life expectancy and more are affected by where one is born, lives, works and plays.

Access to clean air and water, exposure to lead paint, high rates of stress and obesity, poor diet, social isolation and proximity to hospitals and other medical facilities all vary by neighborhood and contribute to long-established disparities in health and wellness. The affluent and predominantly white D.C. suburb of Bethesda, Maryland, has one pediatrician for every 400 children, while the poor and predominantly black neighborhoods in the District’s southeast side have one pediatrician for every 3,700 children. And while the hospital admission rate for asthma in the state of New York is 1.8 per 1000, it is three times higher in the Mott Haven area of the South Bronx.

If education is to be “the great equalizer of the conditions of men – the balance wheel of the social machinery” as the Massachusetts educator Horace Mann anticipated over 150 years ago, that day has yet to arrive. After two decades of progress in desegregating the nation’s schools, it appears that progress may have come to a halt or perhaps may have even been reversed. In 2000, 40 percent of black students attended schools that were 90 to 100 percent black compared with 32 percent of black students who attended such schools in 1988. The share of Hispanic students attending schools that were 90 to 100 percent minority grew from 23 percent during the late 1960s to 37 percent in 2000. Continuing disparities result in fewer educational resources, less qualified teachers and higher teacher turnover and, ultimately, lower educational achievement in low-income and minority communities.

If there is one single factor that is most critical for determining access to the good life, it might be employment. This is particularly true in the United States where individuals and households are far more dependent on their jobs to secure basic goods and services than is the case with virtually all other industrialized nations. The importance of place and race have long been recognized by spatial mismatch theorists who posit that lower-income residents of poorer communities generally reside in or near central cities while job growth has been greater in outlying suburban communities. Those most in need of employment, therefore, find it not only more difficult to learn about available jobs but also more expensive to get to those jobs when they find one. As of 2000, no racial group was more physically isolated from jobs than blacks. The metropolitan areas with higher levels of black-white housing segregation were those that exhibited higher levels of spatial mismatch between the residential location of blacks and the location of jobs. Compounding these troubles are the “mental maps” many employers draw, in which they attribute various job-related characteristics (such as skills, experience, attitudes) to residents of certain neighborhoods. A job applicant’s address often has an independent effect that makes it more difficult, particularly for racial minorities from urban areas, to secure employment. Moreover, recent research by Devah Pager, assistant professor of sociology at Princeton, has found that it is easier for a white person with a felony conviction to get a job than a black person with no felony convictions, even among applicants with otherwise comparable credentials or where blacks had slightly better employment histories. Such divergent employment experiences, of course, contribute directly to the income and wealth disparities.

In many cities, racial differences in poverty levels, employment opportunities, wages, education, housing and health care, among other things, are so strong that the worst urban conditions in which whites reside are considerably better than the average conditions of black communities. In “Toward a Theory of Race, Crime and Urban Inequality,” from Crime and Inequality, Robert Sampson and William Julius Wilson assert that in not one U.S. city with a population over 100,000 do blacks live in ecological equality with whites when it comes to the basic features of economic and family organization. A depressing feature of these developments is that many of these differences reflect policy decisions which, if not designed expressly to create disparate outcomes, have contributed to them nevertheless.

Policy Matters

It has been argued that individuals or households make voluntary choices, based on their financial capacity, in selecting their communities when moving to those areas offering the bundle of services for which they are willing or able to pay. That is, they “vote with their feet.” But many urban scholars have noted the role of public policies and institutionalized private practices (such as tax policy, transport patterns, land use planning) that serve as barriers to individual choice in housing markets and as contributors to spatial inequality in metropolitan areas.

Most households select their neighborhoods on the basis of the services, jobs, cultural facilities and other amenities that are available within the constraints of their budgets. Critical for many households is a dense network of families, friends and various social ties that bind them to particular locations. Even the most distressed neighborhoods, including some notorious public housing complexes, often have a culture, social organization and other attributes that residents want to retain. Community, defined in many different ways, attracts and retains residents of all types of neighborhoods.

But, again, these choices are made in a context shaped by a range of public policy decisions and private institutional practices over which most individuals have little control. Those decisions often have, by design, exclusionary implications that limit opportunities, particularly for low-income households and people of color. The conflict and hassles that racial minorities face outside their communities lead some to choose a segregated neighborhood for their home, even when they could afford to live elsewhere. Such decision making is framed and limited by a range of structural constraints. Individuals exercise choice, but those choices do not reflect what is normally understood as voluntary.

If suburbanization and sprawl reflect the housing choices of residents, they are constrained choices. Many factors contributed to the development of sprawling suburban communities: the long-term 30-year mortgage featuring low down payment requirements; availability of federal insurance to protect mortgage lenders; federal financing to support a secondary market in mortgage loans (Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac), which dramatically increases availability of mortgage money; tax deductibility of interest and property tax payments; and proliferation of federally funded highways.

The federal government’s underwriting rules for Federal Housing Administration and other federal mortgage insurance products, and enforcement of racially restrictive covenants by the courts, along with overt redlining practices by mortgage lenders and racial steering by real estate agents, virtually guaranteed the patterns of racial segregation that were commonplace by the 1950s. Concentration of public housing in central-city high-rise complexes reinforced the patterns of economic and racial segregation that persist today. Exclusionary zoning ordinances of most suburban municipalities that created minimum lot size and maximum density requirements for housing developments (often prohibiting construction of multifamily housing) complemented federal policy.

Government policy has also encouraged the flight of businesses and jobs from cities to surrounding suburban communities and beyond. Financial incentives including infrastructure investments, tax abatements and depreciation allowances favoring new equipment over reinvestment in existing facilities all have contributed to the deindustrialization and disinvestment of urban communities. Often such investments subsidize development that would have occurred without that assistance. As one observer noted, “Subsidizing economic development in the suburbs is like paying teenagers to think about sex.” The end result is often an unintended subsidy of private economic activity by jurisdictions that compete in a “race to the bottom” in efforts to attract footloose firms and mobile capital, starving traditional public services – like education – for resources in the process. A downward spiral is established that further undercuts the quality of life.

Place, Privilege and Policy

One of the more unfortunate debates in recent years has been over the question of whether race-specific or universal remedies are more appropriate for addressing the issues of race and urban poverty. (An even more unfortunate debate, of course, is with those who simply think we have done enough, or perhaps too much, and that neither race nor class remedies are needed.)

The primary attraction of the universal, or class-based, approaches, according to its proponents, is pragmatism. Recognizing the many common interests of poor and working households of any color, it is argued that the most significant barriers confronting these groups can be addressed with policy initiatives and other actions that do not ignite the hostility often associated with race-based discussions and proposals. Race-neutral policies that assist all of those who are working hard but not quite making it reinforce traditional values of individual initiative and the work ethic, thereby providing benefits to people who have earned them rather than to the so-called undeserving poor. Given the socioeconomic characteristics of racial minorities in general, it is further argued that such approaches will disproportionately benefit these communities, nurturing integration and greater opportunity in a far less rancorous environment than is created with debates over race-specific approaches. Given the “race fatigue” among many whites (and underlying prejudices that persist), class-based approaches are viewed as a much more feasible way to address the problems of urban poverty that affect many groups, but particularly racial minorities.

In response, it is argued that while the quality of life for racial minorities has improved over the years, such approaches simply do not recognize the extent to which race and racism continue to shape the opportunity structure in the United States. Colorblindness is often a euphemism for what amounts to a retreat on race and the preservation of white privilege in its many forms. In a world of scarce resources, class-based remedies dilute available support for combating racial discrimination and segregation. From this perspective, it is precisely the controversy over race that the class-based proponents fear, which demonstrates the persistence of racism and the need for explicitly anti-racist remedies, including far more aggressive enforcement of fair housing, equal employment and other civil rights laws. On the other hand, race-based remedies alone may not resolve all the problems associated with race and urban poverty given the many non-racial factors that contribute to racial disparity as indicated above.

In reality, both approaches are required. Class-based policies (such as increasing the minimum wage and earned income tax credit, implementing living wage requirements) and race-based initiatives (more comprehensive affirmative action and related diversity requirements), are essential if the underlying patterns of privilege are to be altered.

Uncommon Allies

Many constituencies that traditionally find themselves at odds with each other can find common ground on a range of policies designed to combat sprawl, concentrated poverty and segregation. Identifying and nurturing such political coalitions is perhaps the key political challenge. Coalitions that cut across interest groups and racial groups are essential. Many land use planning, housing and housing finance policy proposals, for example, are generally articulated in colorblind terms. Fair-share housing requirements, tax-based revenue sharing and inclusionary zoning are universal in character, although they often have clear racial implications.

Many suburban employers are unable to find the workers they need, in part because of the high cost of housing in their local communities. Often there are local developers who would like to build affordable housing and lenders who are willing to finance it, but local zoning prohibits such construction. These interests could join with anti-poverty groups and affordable housing advocates to challenge the traditional exclusionary suburban zoning ordinances. Developers, planners and affordable housing advocates came together in Wisconsin and secured passage of a state land use planning law that provided financial incentives to local municipalities who developed plans for increasing the supply of affordable housing units in their jurisdictions.

Similarly, school choice and fair housing groups – two groups that rarely ally – might recognize that severing the link between the neighborhood in which a family lives and the school that children must attend may well reduce homebuyers’ concerns with neighborhood racial composition. This would reduce one barrier to both housing and school segregation while giving students more schooling options.

In many cities, developers, lenders, community development corporations, environmental groups, local governments and others are coming together to sponsor transit-oriented development. Such developments create new jobs for working families in locations that are accessible by public transportation, reducing traffic congestion, infrastructure costs and other disamenities. Growing such development would yield greater efficiencies in public investment, fewer environmental costs and more job opportunities.

This list is hardly meant to be exhaustive. The point is simply to show that there are some creative political alliances that can exercise a positive impact on some longstanding, and seemingly intractable, problems. Sprawl, concentrated poverty and segregation have many identifiable causes. The confluence of place, race and privilege becomes less mysterious over time. At least some approaches to reduce uneven development and its many costs are already available: land use planning tools like tax-based revenue sharing and the delineation of urban growth boundaries can be used more extensively to reduce sprawl and some of the associated costs; community reinvestment initiatives, housing mobility programs and inclusionary zoning ordinances can be expanded to diminish further the concentration of poverty; and fair housing law enforcement can be strengthened to reduce racial segregation. If policy is largely responsible for getting us where we are today, then policy can help us pursue a different path toward severing the links among race, place and privilege tomorrow.


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