The Real Test Is Race

Metropolitanism. Everybody's talking about it. It's in.

By Gary Delgado Oct 20, 1999

It rolls trippingly off of the tongues of academics, policy wonks, and politicians, the anointed spokespeople for grassroots social change. You don’t need words to explain it. It comes in maps. Colored maps. It uses cutting-edge technology. And it’s clean. Foundations love it.

But what is metropolitanism? And what difference will it make in the ongoing racial justice battles raging in U.S. cities-battles focused on police and INS violence, the quality of public education, employment discrimination, welfare "reform," anti-homeless laws, and the criminalization of youth of color?

Metropolitanism or metro governance initiatives are experiments in the integration of urban and suburban resources and planned growth on a regional scale. These efforts include tax base sharing among regional municipalities. Advocates of this approach argue that metro governance can benefit a region in general, and cities in particular, by reallocating fiscal resources to public transit instead of highways and equalizing the provision of local public services between cities and suburbs. Proponents also assert that these efforts could minimize the competition for tax revenue-producing businesses among regional governments, facilitate "smart growth" by reversing patterns of sprawl, and encourage reinvestment in central cities and older suburbs.

An intriguing notion. However, before we embrace metro regionalism as the panacea for urban/suburban inequities, we should consider just how we arrived at the current contrasts between urban and suburban communities.

It is generally accepted that urban centers are in decline. Writing about the Minneapolis/St. Paul situation, Myron Orfield’s Metropolitics attributes this deterioration to "concentration of poverty in the city core, the consequent disinvestment, middle-class flight, and a bus system dubbed the `Soweto Express,’ transporting city residents to minimum wage jobs in the Twin Cities suburbs. Strict zoning rules and competition for tax base by developing fringe communities," he continues, "lead to wasteful, low-density overdevelopment."

While Orfield renders an accurate picture of urban/suburban economic dynamics, he fails to rigorously examine the primary divide between cities and suburbs: race. Writing about the urban/suburban divide without thoroughly examining racial dynamics is like describing Michael Jordan’s athletic career and only focusing on the year he played minor league baseball.

Addressing the racial dynamic more directly, former Albuquerque mayor David Rusk argues that forty percent of U.S. central cities are programmed to fail because they are being converted into the equivalent of "giant housing projects-forced to house too many poor Blacks and Hispanics." But how did low-income people of color come to be concentrated in central cities? Not by choice. Builders, financial institutions, realtors, and developers, supported in part by restrictive racial covenants and reinforced by custom, promoted segregated housing.

The federal government helped by promoting segregation through the selective construction of public housing and discriminatory tenant placement policies. On the other (white flight) side of the equation, whites were assured access to wealth appreciation through a combination of government-assisted private investment and rapidly rising suburban property values. This home ownership advantage was systematically denied to people of color.

But the concentration of low-income people of color in the urban core wasn’t all caused by legal restriction and economic incentives. In addition to the institutional bias, there was also personal racism. Social scientist J. Phillip Thompson observes, "In the ’60s, white suburban flight developed almost in direct opposition to the civil rights movement. Civil rights activists, particularly in northern cities, felt that integrated cities were an opportunity for building the beloved community. Whites who wanted no part of the effort moved out of the cities. As people of color moved into first ring suburbs, they moved out even further."

The result? According to Rusk, since 1950 all population growth has been low-density, suburban-style growth. In 1950, almost 70 percent of metropolitan-area people lived in central cities. By the 1990 census, over 60 percent lived in suburbs. The racial breakdown is even more telling: four out of five whites nationwide live outside of the cities, 86 percent in communities in which people of color comprise less than one percent of the population. Conversely, 70 percent of African Americans and Latinos live in cities or inner-ring suburbs. Activist Eric Mann observes that when people of color become a majority of a city’s population, whites respond not only with "white flight," but also with an increasingly racialized view of "the city," even when they live within the city limits.

While racism clearly played a part in the migration of white city dwellers to the suburbs, this central issue is seldom addressed. Newly relocated suburban residents who are surveyed as to why they’ve moved invariably respond with "better schools," "less crime," or "more open space." However, when a major network television journalist was able to show newly moved suburban residents that schools and the crime rate were comparable to their old neighborhood, it was reluctance to be around "those people" that emerged as the primary reason for their move out of the city.

Joe Klein provides a bare-knuckle example of how the economic and social perceptions can combine to form a powerful, self-righteous racist justification for white flight. Writing in the New Republic, Klein cites crime, a declining pool of disciplined workers, higher taxes, and the inherent laziness, anti-social behavior, promiscuity, and stupidity of the truly disadvantaged, "a demographic sliver that is not ready, willing, or able to work," as the real reason for urban flight.

By contrast, a 1996 Applied Research Center study, Deliberate Disadvantage, studied race relations in the San Francisco Bay Area and came to very different conclusions. A number of the study’s findings were very much in line with Orfield’s views in Metropolitics. The study found that the economic core was recentering away from the older cities; poor people were concentrated in specific urban neighborhoods; public transit allocations advantaged white suburban commuters over residents of the urban core; and "chocolate cities and vanilla suburbs" were the norm. However, the report also noted employment discrimination, especially toward "foreign-looking" immigrants; racial tension between police and residents in communities of color; mortgage redlining; and across-the-board non-enforcement of housing discrimination laws in three counties and five municipalities.

Racism, the report found, was not just alive and well. It was a potent force in the lives of Latino hotel workers, African American bus drivers, and Asian women working in high tech computer-related production plants of Silicon Valley.

Given the potency of race in urban/suburban dynamics, it is important to directly ask: Will metropolitics address racial equity? Not as it is currently conceptualized. Regionalism, after all, is simply a strategy of governmental integration and fiscal equity. Yet racial issues are not simply fiscal. How can we be sure that metropolitics focus on issues of race? Here are some suggestions.

Race Up Front
Metro governance proponents argue that tax equity is an appropriate entry point for regional discussion because it "does not require difficult discussions of race, class, and housing." But this approach will only work in efforts to soft-peddle a proposal to suburban communities-and even there the approach is questionable. What may work with white suburbanites will definitely not engage city residents of color. People of color know that race and racism are at the root of the urban crises. Therefore, in order for a reform effort to be taken seriously, issues of racial discrimination must be addressed directly, with clear measures of success and failure.

A good organizing approach would frame a metro governance initiative around issues where people of color are already mobilized: housing and employment discrimination, the quality of public education, and police violence. As the current nationwide protests focused on the New York City police shooting of Amadou Diallo, a 23-year old Guinean street vendor, illustrate, communities of color have consistently organized around police violence, access to education, and employment and housing discrimination. An initiative which builds on these efforts will have a much greater chance of success than one that is framed simply in terms of "fiscal equity."

Multi-jurisdictional Mechanisms
In order to address the relationships among housing, employment, and school segregation, the initiative must establish, empower, and fund multi-jurisdictional agencies with the authority to sanction government and other public and private actors for racial discrimination. The leadership of these agencies must be fearless, unimpeachable, and accountable to specific racial justice goals.

A Transparent Process for Involvement and Representation
The process of involving residents from communities of color-including a mechanism for representation-must be clearly explained and organized. This will require that both the racial impact of specific policy proposals and a plan for racial representation on regional planning bodies be well developed and articulated.

Finally, these initiatives must have a clear commitment to urban leadership. As a June 1998 Rockefeller Foundation report on the potential for a metropolitics approach in Los Angeles cautions, "because of the deep racial divisions and inter-jurisdictional divisions between the city and suburbs, it would be in the city’s best interest to allow the inner Los Angeles suburbs and outlying communities to take the lead." While it might be useful to agree to share leadership between urban and suburban interests, it is clear that these interests are not the same. Given the fact that urban areas are currently subsidizing suburban growth, it does not make sense for urban areas to take a back seat in this process and leave the conceptualization of the initiative to political dealmakers of good will.

We’ve already been there and done that.