Thinking About ‘White Cities’

Ta-Nehisi Coates does not like Aaron Renn’s New Geography essay on “The White City.”

There’s a thorough discussion of this piece claiming to expose the lack of “diversity” (read: Negroes) in progressive cities in the Open Thread. I find the piece to be pretty ill-considered, and insulting to Latinos and Asians, in particular. But more than that it repeats an unfortunate trope among writers tackling race–it treats African-Americans as agency-less automatons, awaiting the right programming from white policy-makers.

After quoting from Renn’s piece, Coates continues:

There is so much wrong here. But leaving aside the fact that the author starts out by disqualifying New York, L.A., and Chicago, leaving aside the blinding whiteness of dubbing Atlanta “un-progressive,” leaving aside that most of these “progressive” cities have more black people than their surrounding states, I think the implicit argument that these cities should be “doing more” to assure that their black population meets the national average is odious.

This strikes me as a valuable argument. But of course it represents a powerful case against virtually all race-conscious public policy.

Some argue that the fact that African American are less inclined to accumulate housing wealth than other Americans reflects a legitimate preference and should not be cause for alarm. Europeans tend to accumulate less housing wealth than Americans, and we tend not to consider this a disparity that reflects poorly on the European way of life. Indeed, there is a reasonable case to be made that Americans have overinvested in housing relative to other goods. To what extent are different consumption patterns an issue of public concern? Part of the issue with the African American housing wealth disparity, which contributes to a broader wealth disparity, is that it is arguably a reflection of discriminatory patterns that emerged in the distant past.

In When Affirmative Action Was White, political scientist Ira Katznelson argues that a number of New Deal-Fair Deal policies designed to encourage homeownership were implemented in a manner that exacerbated the relative economic disadvantage of African Americans, and this effect has, for obvious reasons of integenerational wealth transmission, compounded over time.

So yes, we could say that legitimate preferences are at work; we could also say that we are dealing with a legacy of injustice.

What does this have to do with patterns of internal migration? Attorney General Eric Holder gave a speech to Justice Department employees in which he argued that Americans are “a nation of cowards” when it comes to race, and he referenced enduring patterns of self-segregation. There has been a marked tendency of native-born non-Hispanic whites to “flee diversity,” i.e., to leave so-called immigrant magnet states in favor of states with higher proportions of native-born non-Hispanic whites. There has been a parallel tendency of college-educated African Americans to cluster with other college-educated African Americans, and also to migrate from northern cities to Sunbelt cities with large African American populations. One can imagine many reasons for “fleeing diversity.” Parents of young children might want to settle in neighborhoods defined by a high level of cultural consensus. Lower levels of diversity, whether racial or class diversity, might serve as proxies for low levels of crime or high-quality schools. Or the individuals in question might simply dislike living near people who are different from themselves. It’s by no means obvious that this is a pressing problem, and it is clearly based on private, voluntary choices. So why highlight the issue at all?

Well, one anxiety is that we’re seeing a split between “the beige and the black,” to use Michael Lind’s phrase — while non-Hispanic whites, Latinos, and East Asians are intermarrying at high and rising rates, the number of marriages between blacks and nonblacks is also increasing but remains very low in absolute number. The cities Renn cites are heavily nonblack and some, like Austin, Texas, are becoming increasingly nonblack. Could this reflect choices that are perfectly symmetrical?

Coates doesn’t like the idea that African Americans are “agency-less automatons,” which is very fair. But I think we can agree that the relatively poor and the relatively rich face a different context. Both have agency, yet those with more wealth have a far wider set of choices. So when one hears that “smart growth” policies are making housing so expensive that members of aspirational working and middle class are being driven out of some metropolitan areas, I think that ought to be a source of concern — at least as great a source of concern as the environmental impact of low-density living.

Coates writes:

Man listen–Negroes like Atlanta. Negroes like Chicago. Negroes like Houston. Negroes like Raleigh-Durham (another area that doesn’t make the cut, for some reason.) Negroes like Oakland. Negroes have the right to like where they live, independent of Massa, for their own particular, native, independent reasons (family? great barbecue? housing stock?) Just like Jewish-Americans have the right to like New York–or not. Just like Japanese-Americans have the right to like Cali–or not.

And while this is no doubt true, some Bangladeshi Americans don’t like living in regions defined by high concentrations of crime and poverty. Yet for those who are not affluent, moving to “smart growth” regions is less of an option than moving to “sprawling” regions. For Bangladeshi Americans who arrived in the United States without college educations or considerable savings, options are more constrained than for Bangladeshi Americans who have both. Because there is no sense in which the fate of Bangladeshi Americans, an immigrant community that has mushroomed in size only since the mid-1980s, it is absurd to consider this a matter of historical injustice.

But if it is also absurd — and indeed insulting — to consider the same set of concerns applied to African Americans to be a matter of historical injustice, and that could be right, then I think our entire conversation on race will be very different. Daniel Patrick Moynihan memorably and controversially recommended a policy of “benign neglect” of race, sensing that contentious discussion of the issue in a time of economic and social turmoil was not the most constructive way of promoting the interests of the poorest and most vulnerable citizens, a disproportionately large number of whom were African Americans. If one believes that different patterns of earnings, wealth accumulation, settlement, assortative mating, and incarceration all reflect legitimate differences in preferences, or that even if they don’t reflect legitimate differences we won’t do much good by talking about them, then perhaps “benign neglect” is the right way to go. I’d argue that some of these patterns are more problematic than others, and that the racial lens is a very useful way of seeing some issues.

I get the impression, however, that some people think it is only appropriate to use the racial lens when this advances left-of-center policy goals, like redistribution, rather than right-of-center policy goals, like deregulation. (I don’t think that this is true of Coates, incidentally.)

To be honest, I found Renn’s essay most interesting not because it focuses on race but rather because it draws attention to the uneven class impact of “smart growth” policies and “high-road” strategies for economic development. Regions that embrace tough land-use regulations and high taxes are praised for their “progressivism,” and they are cited as models for other cities, like Atlanta and Houston. But by noting these racial disparities, Renn is suggesting that there are serious downsides to this model, namely that they stifle economic opportunities for the less well-off. Renn’s use of the racial lens is a way of complicating the moralistic language that tends to define this debate.

Reihan Salam — Reihan Salam is executive editor of National Review and a National Review Institute policy fellow.

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