Politics & Policy

Shocked by Segregation

On the streets of San Francisco (Gegapix/Dreamstime)
But it is not in the South.

The headline was familiar, and predictable: “U.S.’s most economically segregated schools aren’t where you might expect.” Maybe not where you expect if you’re a Cambridge-dwelling headline writer for the Christian Science Monitor, but more or less exactly where you’d expect if you spent much time in the actual United States of America.

Underline: “Only one Southern state made the top 10 list,” gasp and exclamation point implicit.

Economic segregation, like racial segregation, is a condition that certainly exists in the South but that is much more pronounced in our large, Democrat-dominated northeastern metros and in West Coast cities such as San Francisco, where the spotlessly progressive municipal authorities have for a generation used restrictive zoning laws to drive out the sort of people who aren’t on a first-name basis with any venture capitalists. From the pitiless Romans we received the term “to decimate,” meaning to eliminate every tenth man in a military unit, usually as a punishment for mutiny or desertion. Since 1990, San Francisco has outdone Crassus and eliminated every third African-American resident, though to be fair San Francisco’s policies are not intentionally designed to drive out black people but to drive out poor people. Black billionaires are welcome in San Francisco, as they are in most places.

Racial segregation and economic segregation are different phenomena, but they are related, which probably is inevitable given the very different economic situations of different American demographic groups: Indian Americans have household incomes on average in excess of $100,000 a year, whereas African Americans have a median household income of around $35,000 a year. “African American” was never a particularly useful term — Africa is a big, diverse place — and it is becoming less useful by the year, inasmuch as some African-American subgroups, notably Americans of Nigerian background, have incomes that exceed the national average by a large margin, a fact that is no doubt related to the fact that Nigerian Americans pursue advanced degrees at four to six times the average U.S. rate. Jay Nordlinger relates a story about a high-achieving Lumbee Indian whose pursuit of academic and professional advancement had his sister accusing him of “acting white,” to which he replied that “acting white” wasn’t enough, that he intended to act Jewish or Chinese. He could have added “act Nigerian.”

Cities such as San Francisco are in part victims of their own success — a great many people want to live there, so there’s a great deal of demand for real estate. That’s one side of the equation. Policy comes in on the supply side, with political barriers to building keeping the stock of housing artificially limited, which is great for homeowners (who have lots of political clout) but stinks for younger, lower-income people looking to buy or rent (who don’t have very much political clout).

Part of that is a general American phenomenon: We simply will not endure ordinary urban population density — never mind comparing it with Lagos or Taipei, New York City’s density is well under half that of such ordinary cities as Barcelona, Buenos Aires, or Warsaw. New York is remarkable among U.S. cities for its tall buildings – and remarkable among world cities for its lack of them. Only a tiny number of New York City residences — less than 2 percent — are located in tall buildings, meaning those 20 stories or taller, far less than in comparable cities around the world. The number is even lower for cities such as Los Angeles (which actually has a higher population density than New York) and San Francisco. Building taller buildings makes urban residential real estate less expensive per square foot — you can have higher buildings or higher prices. New York, where the nice progressives want to put caps on tall buildings, has chosen higher prices — and, therefore, economic segregation, pushing the poor farther into the Bronx or New Jersey. (One Manhattan doorman of my acquaintance commuted from Pennsylvania.)

And in terms of building restrictions, New York is the Wild West compared with San Francisco.

Local reform is needed in places such as New York and San Francisco, but we can be reasonably confident that Wall Street and Silicon Valley will, in the end, take care of themselves.

We have examples to guide us. In Harris County (the greater Houston area) the median monthly household income is three times the median monthly homeownership cost for a family with a mortgage. In San Francisco County, where incomes are higher but housing prices are also much higher, the median monthly income is only twice the median monthly cost of housing. That’s before taxes. For the median-income family in San Francisco County, earning just shy of $80,000 a year, that $3,200 a month in housing expenses does not leave a lot of wiggle room in the rest of the household budget, especially considering the higher taxes and other expenses they’ll pay. The median Houston family earns only 70 percent of its San Francisco counterpart, but its housing expenses are less than half as much. The math here is pretty ugly: Using the old 2.5-times-your-income guideline, the median San Francisco family cannot begin to afford the median home there, which costs more than $765,000, or nine times the median family income.

That’s the median family. How much less room for error do the families in the below-the-median half enjoy? Mr. and Mrs. Average have a pretty tough time — but things are a lot worse for Mr. and Mrs. Below Average.

The racial aspect is easier to track, thanks to the Census: In 1970, there were nearly 100,000 African Americans in San Francisco. In 1990, there were about 78,000 black residents. Today, there are about 51,000 black residents. African Americans once were the majority population in San Francisco’s Bayview; today, at less than 6 percent of San Francisco’s population, they make up a majority of the population only in its jails.

In 1970, there were nearly 100,000 African Americans in San Francisco. Today, there are about 51,000.

There is a great deal more to what ails the poor, and long-suffering African-American communities, than housing policy. And most of those economically segregated and shockingly non-Southern cities that worry the gentle people at the Christian Science Monitor are not victims of their own success. They are Detroit, St. Louis, Cleveland, etc., which also are among our most racially segregated cities (those being New York, Chicago, Detroit, and Cleveland). Housing is pretty cheap there. The problem is in the demand side of the market: Nobody wants to move to Detroit, and few people are leaving Texas or California for a great new job in Cleveland. We know how to fix bad housing policy; in truth, we know how to fix a great many bad policies (education, public safety) afflicting Detroit and Cleveland, too. But the problems in those cities are not entirely unlike the housing problems that beset San Francisco and New York. The bad public policies that keep those cities down benefit somebody – somebody keeps those cities’ failed institutions in place, somebody resists reform, somebody evades accountability and helps others do the same.

Who? Would it be too much to suggest we take a real hard look at who’s running those cities?

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