Tuesday, February 9, 2016

Who Names the Black Left?

     Ta-Nehisi Coates has created a bit of a firestorm amongst multiple commentators over the past couple of weeks with his critiques of Bernie Sanders, in particular his rejection of reparations. In a nutshell,  Coates points towards what he sees as a general unwillingness of the “Left” in America to take white supremacy seriously and argues that this blind spot makes the American Left insufficiently anti-racist. In reply, Cedric Johnson, writing from Jacobin, offers a fairly conventional Marxian reply to Coates that defends the universalist claims of more socialist, or social democratic, theorists and activists, and offers compelling historical evidence as to the efficacy of such policies in helping Black workers. Furthermore, he brings in, though does not go into great detail, the intra-racial class differences within the Black community and how ignoring these class distinctions have hurt working class Blacks over decades, if not close to two centuries.

While reparations is the policy choice on which this “debate” is held its clear that both commentators are arguing something much different and much greater. For what we have here in this first exchange of columns is not only a debate of which policy is more efficient but it is actually a battle of who gets to define what is the Black “Left” in this country.

It is on this ground, delineating the borders of a Black leftist political position, that Coates and Johnson are arguing but that neither necessarily dominates, and the question of reparations is a wholly inadequate policy position, in my opinion, to actually fight this battle because it falls into the easy trap of a homogenous Black body politic. Johnson admirably displays this by offering a neat counter to Coates’ mining of the plunder of the west side of Chicago’s Black community by predatory white real-estate actors by referencing the intense intra-racial conflict between landlords and renters on the city’s Southside.  Unfortunately, he does not go far enough in more accurately tracing intra-racial class antagonism, instead assuming his readers are already well aware of such conflict. Instead of focusing of what class antagonism has meant historically and exploring legitimate Black class based politics he moves onto critiques of reparations as being managed by a Black managerial-technocratic class with no real take on what this means, or doesn’t, for Black working class folks.

In assuming that folks are aware and familiar with the idea of a Black class antagonism, Johnson misses the essential point of differentiation between himself and Coates- Coates is an avowed liberal (in the classical or more formal sense, not contemporary ideological sense, see here for more on this).  Coates, ultimately, sees nothing wrong or dangerous within capitalism and its attendant social relations. In positing white supremacy as a wholly separate force (though one that interacts with other social processes) Coates is able to demand racial redress sans a greater critique of inequality and exploitation cemented in place by capitalism. It is on this point that Black leftists who disagree with Coates should focus and one where additional readings of history, something that Coates has shown a facility for, would offer many opportunities to demonstrate where Coates falls short in his political vision.

In particular, I think it is telling that Coates does not engage at all with the writings or thoughts of actual Black leftists who write about racism or historical groups of Black radicals. The history of Black leftist thought is as varied and differentiated as greater leftist thought but Black leftists have always had to explicitly engage with the “Race question” whether they conveniently dismissed it out of hand as secondary to class or centered it as the primary mechanism of capitalistic plunder, Black leftists, particularly Marxists and Communists, have never shied away from examining racism. So it is all the more curious to see Coates simultaneously paint the “Left” as insufficiently non-racist while naming himself the oracle to show leftists the proper way to liberation while ignoring the most fundamental critiques of leftists-black, brown, yellow, and white- since forever- that capitalism and its attendant social relations create the environment in which other forms of exploitation and inequality can flourish.

Black Radical Traditions

     A clearer critique, or re-examination, of Coates’ liberalism and understanding of leftist politics and theory should draw from the grand history of Black radical thought, particularly Black socialist and communist thought. It is telling that Coates cites no real Black Marxists and Johnson focuses primarily on Black trade union representatives (and brief aside to discuss the Black Panther Party) but he doesn’t actually explore Black working class radicals of the early or mid-20th century. I only recently became aware of this great repository on Black women radicals (props to @tressiemchphd for the link)but it is a treasure trove of histories and primary documents of great early 20th century Black women radical thought.

One of the women profiled on the site is Claudia Jones, a bad ass Trinidadian activist, journalist, scholar, and Communist who was one of the first true theorists that we would now call “intersectional”. In her “End of the Neglect of the Negro Woman” Jones succinctly lays out the hyperexploitation visited upon Black women by virtue of their sex, race, and class position. But even more than simply mapping out intersecting oppressions, Jones relates the history of the militancy of Black women and their central role in resisting not only racism but the injustices of capitalism ranging from leading sharecropper revolts to getting Black representatives elected to congress in the South. These were actions lead by Black women trade unionists, socialists, and communists who knew their true enemies were the managers, landlords, Jim Crow, and often, their own husbands and fathers. It is a radicalism that sought to smash all of the many -isms, but was always firmly planted in a material understanding of suffering and violence.

My goal is not to simply recite her essay but to try and show that the false choice that Coates presents, and that Johnson plays into, is that one must either be for racial-specific policy or one must be for universal policies, and that has never truly been the position of Black radicals of the past or present. Missing that essential point is to run around in circles accusing each other of being either insufficiently socialist or insufficiently anti-racist all the while ignoring the near century long Black radical argument that to be anti-racist one must be anti-capitalist and to actually be an anti-capitalist means that one must be anti-racist. Neither precedes the other, though the historical question of which came first remains fascinating, if not potentially unanswerable. We must pursue both. Anti-racism without a recognition of how capitalism provides the scaffolding for the plunder of Black property and labor is empty. And an anti-capitalism without anti-racism, especially in the West, is to doom whatever emancipatory project comes to be before it can ever be. Not only because Blacks, in particular Black women, have often been at the forefront of the American radical tradition, but because such a project ignores the material social relations that undergird racism in this country.

Tuesday, July 21, 2015

Maybe We Should Talk About Environmental Racism

The Oregon Environmental Council's twitter account (full disclosure: I sit on the emerging leaders board of the council, a major reason I decided to even talk about this) recently retweeted this piece from Grist. I saw the piece making its rounds at varied environmentalist sites and generally ignored it, but when I saw OEC tweet it out, I felt compelled to respond. I won't get into the details of the argument here, if you're curious you can probably find it still on my tl from last Saturday. My general critique was that the overall framing of the article, that black people need to talk about climate change and we need to move beyond "narrow" conceptions of environmental policy, was entirely incorrect. In the near 40 odd years that we've formally recognized environmental racism as a thing black communities have been at the forefront in fighting environmental degradation and demanding radical reformations of society that are not only environmentally sensitive but economically, socially, and politically just. This work has drawn attention not only to the racially discriminatory siting of unwanted land-uses (like coal power plants), but have also drawn attention to the existence of terrible health disparities, and the kinds of policies and institutions that continue to make black communities sick.

My critique was, and remains, that an environmental justice framework, remains a stronger, and more coherent, political and intellectual frame for understanding and fighting climate change than the way many traditional environmental orgs are currently going. Environmental justice advocates have spent years bringing attention to environmental health issues such as asthma (some examples here from EPA, here from the Deep South Center for Environmental Justice, and here on the NAACP's climate justice program). But beyond making a simple correlation between proximity and chronic disease, environmental justice organizations and scholars have worked to identify and subvert the underlying values of unchecked capital accumulation and racism that drive environmental degradation. In fact, what environmental justice advocates have said for years, and that is utterly ignored in the Grist piece, is that environmental degradation is fundamentally tied to the same systems of oppression that render black people disposable. Why worry about making a cleaner coal plant or moving away from coal at all when the only people who ever actually pay for it are poor or of color? We see this kind of attitude operate at multiple scales from the developed world's indifference to disappearing islands in the Pacific to the siting of regional recycling and power plants in poor and minority neighborhoods. As a result, the largest consumers of these resources are largely insulated from the ill effects of collecting and distributing them.

This indifference to these overlapping systems of oppression and focusing primarily on disparate impact follows a particular kind of liberal approach to race that is more obsessed with counting and tracking the various ways race determines an individual or community's fate without actually asking why or how this is the case. Sea level change is another issue that is often stripped of any real political force or analytical rigor by framing its ill effects as simply having disproportionate impacts on communities of color. The piece mentions how the people of the Ninth Ward suffered due to rising seas and more intense storms. That's all entirely true, but as Neil Smith so eloquently demonstrated that there are no such things as natural disasters   . Smith focused on how vulnerability is differentially distributed across space and shows how New Orleans's Jim Crow urban logics placed blacks in the most vulnerable, flood-prone areas of the city. In other words, vulnerability in the Ninth Ward was produced. Mainstream climate change advocacy has very little to say on this  and, in turn, had very little to say to black folks from New Orleans before Katrina and certainly had nothing to say to folks after the hurricane hit. The massive appropriation of people's homes, the take over of the public school system, and other forms of revanchist urban policy are entirely impenetrable if one were to rely solely upon a mainstream climate change approach. But an environmental justice approach that logically links segregation with differentiated vulnerability has no problem extending this analysis to the state of people and institutions after "natural" disasters.

So, no, I categorically reject the notion that blacks somehow need to start talking about climate change. Hell, even Grist recognized as such last year when Brentin Mock published this piece entitled "Yes, black people talk about climate change". What Mock effectively points out is that talking about climate change is hard precisely because it cuts so many ways and he feels a special responsibility to explain to other black people how the issues they're suffering right now are intimately linked to a changing climate. But where Mock falls short is that while he is able to identify the multiple disproportionate impacts suffered by black communities, he does not actually attempt to explain how this racially differentiated vulnerability is created in the first place.

The question of how is what we all should be focusing on because it is entirely possible for a world that miraculously averts a climate disaster that maintains multiple systems in place that expose blacks to premature death and suffering. It is time we stop assuming that a climate safe world means a climate just world. And it is time that we abandon a frame that is so intensely de-politicized (or even post-political) and truly embrace the challenge of creating an environmentally just world.

Wednesday, July 8, 2015

Landscapes of Predation: The Value in Poverty and Racism

A few weeks ago Sarah Kendzior wrote a piece in the Guardian on pay day loan establishments in Missouri. It stood out to me because not only is the issue of predatory lending an incredibly important, and criminally under-reported phenomenon, but that it reminds us that while poverty is indeed expensive (an idea that has been relayed constantly here, here, and here are some examples) it is less common for journalists to call out the uneven geography of predatory servicers or to point out that many, many people make a lot of money off of the poor. So, if poverty is expensive then it stands to reason that someone is pocketing those expenses. But the other half of that equation is rarely discussed. 

Kendzior's piece explores this dynamic by pointing to the many people trying to regulate payday lenders and seek restitution for exploited borrowers, but, for once, I once wished that a news article had more "data". She offers a series of pronouncements about payday lenders in the state that, to me, were screaming for some better data visualization and exploration or, at minimum, some sources. For example, Kendzior writes there are 958 more payday loan establishments than there are McDonalds in the state of Missouri. This number is a variation of some earlier numbers reporting more payday loan establishments nationally than there are McDonalds based on a 2014 St. Louis Federal Reserve report. It is not that I disbelieve payday loans are more numerous, it wouldn't surprise me at all. But nearly 1,000 more establishments in one state seems extreme and some source for the claim would be useful. It should also be noted that figure does not actually conform to what the state's survey of payday lenders says. Further, the author quotes reps from the state's Dept. of Finance on the targeting of poor populations in the state. But what does this actually look like and what are some indicators of the severity of the differences between the poor and non-poor, and in Missouri, the black and non-black?

In an attempt to try and answer these questions I downloaded the Starbuck's global map of 2013 from Socrata and I used  Reference USA to grab every McDonalds in the state of Missouri (standard caveats apply as to the imperfect nature of such listings, but I am confident I have the vast majority of McDonalds in the state). The state of Missouri provides a list of all registered payday lenders in the state. I then geocoded the McDonalds and payday locations. Finally, I grabbed some of the most recent 5-year ACS data at the census tract level for the state of Missouri and joined everything together in order to start to get an idea of the uneven geography of predation.

What follows are some preliminary results. I don't pretend to have all of the answers here, but I hope this little exploration can provide some clarification and to, ideally, make us all consider the differentiated social and economic landscapes we travel through every day.

Finding 1- Yes, there are more licensed payday lenders than there are McDonalds and Starbucks combined

 Yes, there are more payday lenders than there are McDonalds and Starbucks combined, according to my analysis. By my estimates, Missouri had 799 licensed payday lenders (I lost some due to bad addresses in geocoding) and a little less than 500 Starbucks and McDonalds.

Total Establishments
Payday 799
McDonald's 334
Starbucks (2013) 156

By these estimates there are a third more payday lenders than MickeyDs and Starbucks with a combined difference of 309 establishments. Now, this is a still staggering number, but 958 is flat-out wrong if Kendzior is citing Missouri's numbers for payday lenders.

Finding 2- Yes, payday lenders, on average, target poorer neighborhoods (census tracts)

Unsurprisingly, payday lenders tend to congregate in poorer census tracts. I created a dummy variable for the presence or absence of a payday loan location and looked at the poverty rate difference between the two. For those census tracts with a payday location their median poverty rate (I divided the census count of people in poverty by the number households they could determine poverty status for) was approximately 18% while for tracts without payday locations the median poverty rate was 14%.

An alternative way of visualizing this difference is a good old fashioned box plot where we can see a clear difference in the median poverty rate between tracts that do and do not have payday loan locations. 

While the basic numbers and the boxplot show there is some difference between these two types of tracts is the difference statistically significant? One way to answer this is to use the Kruskal-Wallis test. Not to get into too much depth but it's a way to test to see if the medians of some set of groups is different when their underlying data is not normally distributed. So, I ran this test and the poverty percentages between these two types of tracts was highly significant with a chi-square value of 42.12 and p < .001.

Finding 3- PayDay Lenders ARE NOT targeting the most Black census tracts

This finding is the most interesting to me because it forces us to think about a spectrum of Black neighborhoods, something that too often is ignored in a lot of writing. Running the same tests as before I found no difference between the census tracts with and without payday loan locations in terms of the percent of the population that is Black.

How can this be? My own theory is that the blackest census tracts are potentially too poor to be attractive targets for payday lenders.

Let's take another look at the data. The following plot is a scatter plot of census tract's percent white population and poverty share. There is a clear negative and significant relationship between the percent of a census tract that is white and poverty rates. Now, this is not to say that there are no white census tracts that are not poor. The figure places a lie to that assumption, but it is clear that there are a vast number of a census tracts that are almost entirely white with very little poverty.

Conversely, Black census tracts are overwhelmingly poor and get even poorer the Blacker the population. Notice this is nearly a mirror image of the plot above and a testament to the long lasting effects of entrenched racism and segregation within Missouri. But we should notice that there are many, many tracts with up to a quarter of their population identifying as Black that do no have terrible amounts of poverty. I don't want to belabor this point, but these figures are to show that there is a lot of variation with respects to poverty when it comes to Black census tracts even though the direction of the association between the two is terrible.

But what does this have to do with payday loan locations? Payday establishments, like any business, even predatory ones, still require a viable customer base. And payday loan locations seem to show a clear preference for poor, but not too poor, areas. In other words, payday loan establishments seek to situate themselves in working class, or working poor, neighborhoods as opposed to the most destitute. This makes intuitive sense. Even within its own name we get a clue. Payday loans still require some guarantee of repayment and offer their services often times as a form of emergency bridge funding for precarious workers. So an optimal payday location is in an area where a lot of people are working, but they are working in low wage/precarious industries, but still make enough money to be worth the trouble.

As the figures above show, the blackest census tracts are some of the most impoverished census tracts in the state. Two following figures give a way to visualize this.

This figure shows the relationship between payday loan locations and census tract poverty for all census tracts. The fit line shows a fairly smooth curve that shows an increasing relation between poverty and the frequency of payday loan locations and then a decreasing tendency as poverty increases.

In order to get an even clearer picture let's focus only on tracts that have payday loan locations. Here the relationship is even clearer, though we see there is still an increase in the frequency of payday loan locations until leveling off and dropping at around a 40% poverty rate. Now, a 40% poverty rate is still tremendously high, but I would draw your eye to the more extreme values on the y-axis and we can see that where people are most exposed to payday loan locations are in less poor tracts.

Finally, what is the actual strength of these associations? To try and answer this I ran three logistic regressions where I regressed the presence or absence of a payday loan location within a census tract against the share of the tract population that's black, that is in poverty, and an interaction term that is the multiple of the percent black of the population and a dummy variable for the median value of the tract population in poverty. The interaction term, because 1 is for all tract with a poverty rate greater than the median (approx. 14.6%) should give us the relationship between the odds of a payday location being in a particular tract that is both black and low income.

Logistic Regression Results for Pay Day Locations
Dependent variable:
Log Likelihood-844.750-825.247-821.290
Akaike Inf. Crit.1,693.5001,656.4931,652.580
Note:*p<0 .1="" sup="">**

These three models repeat what the figures ahead already told us, but now we have an idea about the direction and strength of some of these variables. First, note that the percent black variable is quite unstable jumping from significance back to non-significance and even changing signs. But take a look at the poverty share variables. In terms of more easily understandable odds ratios, for every unit change in poverty a census tract is nearly 7 times more likely to have a payday loan location.

We know from our graphs that this effect is moderated at the most extreme ends of impoverished neighborhoods but there is a clear strategy here.

Where to go from here?

These tests are by no means definitive, but they do challenge us to think deeply about the different ways that the landscapes we navigate every day are constructed in drastically different ways depending on who lives where. Missouri also shows us just how perverse racial segregation is. We are all now well aware of a smaller kleptocracy like Ferguson that is seemingly built upon subjugating its black residents, but it also shows up in how we have to think about something like payday loan locations.

Blacks are incredibly concentrated in the state, isolated in three major cities/metro areas. Not only are they isolated in those cities but even within those cities racial dividing lines are stark. As such, it becomes easy for people, including social scientists and commentators, to sloppily lump all Black people together as living in one giant, unmitigated ghetto when that is clearly not the case. There are many census tracts with sizable Black populations that are not incredibly poor, but it is an absolute fact that the blackest census tracts are all poor whereas the whitest tracts in the states are the least poor.

This is not to relieve payday lenders of their responsibility in targeting Black neighborhoods but we potentially miss the mark if we see their strategy as solely, or even predominately, as a racial one and not a class/income based one. The problem here is poverty. It is just that in Missouri, and the rest of the US, poverty remains so terribly racialized and Black peoples are still widely seen as uniformly poor and culturally deficient that we cannot imagine landscapes where one's Blackness is not the principal reason why some external institution would seek to exploit you.


If you managed to make it thus far, thank you. I truly appreciate it. But as a minor reward here is a map of the payday loan locations I made. I hope it can prove useful.

Monday, September 22, 2014

Of Cabs and Capital: What are we liberating again?

In a recent piece making the twitter rounds, Reihan Salam of the National Review, argues for the re-scaling of certain regulating bodies from cities to the states for the sake of greater urban economic growth. He uses the example of Uber in Los Angeles, regulated by California's Public Utility Commission, as opposed to the city Taxi Commission, as a sterling example of how de-regulation and the embrace of "disruptive" technologies and practices can improve the experiences of city residents and help grow the local economy.

Salam continues down this track by arguing that zoning, traditionally the domain of local powers in the US, should likewise be re-scaled to the state level. Just as Taxi Commissions have captured local political interests and have artificially restricted the supply of available cabs, local governments, captured by local homeowner and developer interests, artificially cap the supply of available housing in many urban and suburban communities. This, of course, exacerbates the ever-increasing housing costs we see in the country's hottest urban real-estate markets. Shifting zoning responsibilities to the state level, or even the federal level like in Japan as Salam mentions, would free cities of the parochial interests of its residents and open up our cities for greater economic growth.

What Salam is describing is not particularly new, but his approach is novel in explicitly connecting the "disruptive" actions of firms like Uber with that of liberalizing zoning in order to disrupt "dysfunctional" housing markets for the sake of greater economic growth. The under-current of both arguments is that of the emancipatory potential of de-regulation or, more appropriately, re-regulation at different scales, assuming a lack of capture will rationalize local markets. But Salam and many de-regulation proponents are never quite explicit about who exactly is liberated or what this new liberation looks like.

In the case of Uber, Lyft and other contract-worker providers, we are witnessing the rise of an entirely new sector of labor market intermediaries who claim that their services are not only convenient for their customers, but are, in fact, liberating, and even fun for their employees. But what we see is a much more complicated picture that shows Uber, and its ilk, not as agents of an emancipatory urban life or even workplace, but simply the latest in a long line of exploitative employers that are leading in our continued turn towards greater contingent work relations and the return of piecework. But unlike capitalists of the past these new firms want their workers, and more importantly their customers, to love them and to believe they offer true liberation through disruption.

Susie Cagle (@susie_c), writing in Al-Jazeera, covered the growing movement of Uber drivers seeking better pay and representation through organizing themselves in a union-like structure. I say union-like because as independent contractors, Uber drivers in many states are not allowed to collectively bargain, and Cagle highlights how Uber drivers are making something entirely new that isn't necessarily seeking to revisit the trade unions of the past. These driver associations are demanding better treatment from Uber and for the radical privilege of simply being labeled as "employees" that do no have every single expense and risk, such as added vehicle insurance, uncertain shifts, and commission fees, outsourced onto them.

Such responses and organizing tactics are increasingly necessary, and will continue to be so, for as long as we continue to extol the virtues of the "gig/peer2peer/sharing/new economy" from the viewpoints of firms and an incredibly well-off minority of staff engineers and business owners that make their money off of being middle-men between well-off customers and an ever-growing precariat. It should be noted that this is a feature and not a bug of the kind of economy that these "new" economy boosters are constantly pushing. By definition, these firms push for greater flexibility and the disruption of traditional industries, and their attendant social and political relations, and quite often the easiest way to do that is to simply sever the connection between the employer and employed.

Whether these firms "employ" homeless individuals to clean houses or champion the freedom to make your own work by stringing together different tasks, all while they take their cut of course, much of the peer-to-peer economy is based on the time-honored practice of contracting out, shifting expenses on to workers themselves, and disavowing any and all substantive relationship with those that work for you. Ironically, such practices are not limited to those of us unable, or too stubborn, to learn how to code but to theivery workers Silicon Valley needs to function. Recently, Judge Lucy Koh rejected a settlement proposed by Apple, Intel, Google, and Adobe to the tune of $350 million dollars for engaging in a wide-ranging conspiracy to rob tens of thousands of current and former employees of their wages in an infamously competitive labor market. And these are the people that these companies feel important enough to hire on and claim as their own! This does not include the thousands of contracted security workers at Apple and Google and other lesser-skilled employees, now organizing protesting their working conditions, that are necessary to keep these companies, and their recognized employees, happy and safe.

Nothing about such practices are particularly new or egregious in comparison to how poorly corporations have always treated their employees. But it is precisely the fact that these companies that base so much of their identity on breaking the mold of past practices, and assiduously cultivating explicitly progressive-seeming missions or goals, play the same old games and engage in the same disenfranchising tactics as the robber barons of old that should give us pause as to why we decide to to de- or re-regulate different areas of our lives.

This is not a defense of the status quo in our workplaces or our cities. The status quo, after all, exists in the midst of a massive contingent turn in work relations that sees the rise of temporary and contract work as not only smart business but intrinsically virtuous. Our most popular cities, and suburbs, are in many ways captured by parochial interests that are served by high housing costs either for their own personal enrichment, as is the case for local home builder interests, or as a means to protect the "character" of exclusive neighborhoods. These relations, by all accounts, should be disrupted, but they should not be disrupted purely because we wish to unlock economic growth that is built upon the further degradation of workers and that is deaf to the needs of low-income households desperately seeking affordable housing in good neighborhoods. So, yes, let's look at moving zoning to the state level and even breaking up the cartels of local taxi commissions, but let us replace them not with the nastier forms of contemporary capitalism that places justice solely at the foot of economic growth, but with an ethic centered on just-relations built upon human dignity and democracy.

Thursday, July 24, 2014

The Highway Trust Fund and Local Control: Why? Just...Why?

I am not one to automatically reject contrarian views--this blog is, in large part, a collection of contrarian musings and polemics. But recent calls to disinvest or abandon the highway trust fund, and federal funding of transportation, in general (here and here), are a bit too cheeky for their own good, and end up parroting the same confused, pseudo-libertarian policies that many urbanist commentators eagerly embrace. The basic argument is that federal gas taxes, and federal transportation spending generally, is perversely geared towards the irresponsible growth of fiscally unsustainable transport systems (primarily through sprawl encouraging highway expansions). The proposed solution is to get the federal government out of the transportation policy and taxation business, in general, and decentralize such decision making to states and local government because they know best how to prioritize projects and are also more likely to give better support to bicycle and pedestrian advocates.

There are quite a few issues here but I want to highlight two issues that immediately jumped out to me: the invocation of "subsidiarity", by calling upon the ghost of Jane Jacobs even, and how such views always flirt with the "local trap"; second, such arguments show an ignorance of the role the federal government has historically played and currently influences, guides, and legitimizes urban and regional planning.

The Everpresent Local Trap

Fiscal sustainability aside (this is an apt observation and there is desperate need for budgetary reform), the notion that states and local municipalities should be responsible for funding and prioritizing projects because they happen to "know better" what their needs are fetishizes scale. In a now-classic piece, Mark Purcell talks about the dangers of professing essentialist political or moral qualities to scale.

The first issue with such arguments of radical decentralization and "local" control is the hard task of defining what is "local" in a rigorous way. So you decentralize transport funding to the state level, is it now the job of the state to play the role the federal government currently does and add a variety of strings and restrictions to access to that money, thus dictating what priorities "local" governments should have in regards to their own growth? Is the local now the state? The region? The county? The municipality? Not that such definitions matter too much, the federal government dictates at what scales funding and planning is issued to in different ways and state governments would conceivably do the same, but a more radical conception of local control challenges the notion of state control over these priorities. In other words, I am curious, what makes you think the state, as opposed to federal or even local level is an appropriate scale of such policy?

A second issue arises around the sloppy essentialism of calls for local control. By essentialism, I mean the assumption that "local" control is somehow more efficient, just, or effective than federal control of such funding. For example, the idea that bike and ped activists stand to gain from the decentralization of such control is not supported by evidence, but on the idea that somehow state legislatures are somehow more rational than federal executive offices or congress. While it is not hard to be a more functional institution than congress right now, the glee with which some state governments willingly let themselves be captured by interested parties (in particular fracking interests, some stories here and here).

Additionally, such fetishized notions of scale ignore the violent histories that come to actually define the "local" in many areas. From the genocide of indigenous peoples to the rise of sundown towns, de jure and de facto segregation, discriminatory housing policy, and environmental racism, the definition of place and the construction of the local is often built upon systemic violence and exclusion. This is not to say that all calls for decentralized control will inevitably descend into parochialism, but to not recognize the very real violent history of claims of "local" control and "states' rights", especially around issues of urban and regional planning, is too cavalier in dismissing history and all-too-current issues of cries for "local" control as excuses for the exclusion of the poor, persons of color, and queer folks.

The Feds and "mandates" to plan

My second critique of such calls of radical decentralization of transport funding authority is that such calls either ignore or fundamentally misread the importance of the federal government in the history of urban and regional planning. Succinctly, we would not have wide-ranging planning, or conceivably even a field/profession of urban planning, without the federal government. The federal government's role in this rests in two fields: mandating planning in exchange for funding; and providing support for planning to municipalities through technical assistance and regulatory assistance.

Yes, the federal government may have incorporated terrible incentives in their transportation funding schemes, but the federal government also required that in order for states and municipalities to gain access to such funding that they must show explicitly what they plan on doing with such funding by creating plans. Even within the context of the mandate to plan the federal government was, and remains, quite sensitive to local priorities as set forth by plans. Urbanists love to decry the terrible abuses of mid-20th century urban renewal as examples of federal overreach and modernistic overzealousness while conveniently forgetting that actual urban renewal plans and implementation were all determined at the local scale. What the federal government did have a huge influence over in these schemes is that they actually required plans, in the first place, as opposed to simply handing over pots of money to development corporations or not participate in urban development at all.

This is an incredibly common thread in US urban planning history. The federal government has a pot of money that is available for some issue and local and state governments ask for funding and, in turn, the federal government requires that these municipalities have a plan so that the federal government knows what they will do with the money. If not directly linked to available funding, federal regulations have also required states and municipalities to provide a variety of reports and plans in response to the violation of federal regulations. Of course, the EPA and the Clean Water and Air acts are probably the best examples of such regulation spurring further monitoring and planning at the local and state level. In fact, one could argue that the entire field of environmental planning would not currently exist were it not for such legislation.

It also goes without saying that pretty much any attention to racial, gender, national origin, or sexual orientation discrimination in housing and education is almost entirely due to the federal government. As ineffective as it may be in meeting its goals, HUD and the courts have been central to the opening up of housing markets to marginalized groups and leading arguments for expanding the supply of affordable housing and housing, in general. Again, history and current events, lead us to the conclusion that decoupling major infrastructure funding from federal oversight increases the likelihood of local regulatory capture, removes many anti-discrimination protections including social and environmental impact assessments, and continued mandates to plan and strengthen the legitimacy of urban and regional planning as essential public services.

What is the goal here?

Finally, I would ask such proponents of radical decentralization just what exactly are there goals and to ask more explicitly how decentralization actually addresses them? If fiscal sustainability of state DOTs is the goal, then decentralization may be one of many potential policy responses, but if you are concerned about getting people out of their cars, growth control, increased use of active transportation etc. then I am hardpressed to see how decentralization at all helps. It is telling that the greatest encouragement of regional planning in the past 60 years has not been the growing popularity of cities like Portland that brag about their urban growth boundaries, but the Sustainable Communities Initiative lead by HUD, EPA, and DOT to, again, mandate that regions plan collectively for the issues facing them in the future. This grant, which incidentally METRO got rejected for twice due to its inability or unwillingness to seriously tackle the issue of fair housing in the region, has the potential to steer regional development in many areas in positive ways unimaginable a decade ago. If states or local municipalities had such interest in encouraging such policies, then they would have done so long ago. Let's leave the dangerous essentialism of local control behind us and think about better ways to reform and work within a system of federalism that has actually been pretty effective at institutionalizing planning and moving us forward.

Monday, July 14, 2014

Sure it's Pseudoscience if You Don't Read It Right: Jacobs, Knowledge, and Urban Growth

EDIT: James Russel (@burghdiaspora) hit me up on twitter and said he does not conflate labor mobility and migration, but was trying to show how the two are connected and clarify existing urban economic theory.

In two recent pieces, James Russel and Drew Reed spar over the legitimacy of Jane Jacobs' observations of city life and contemporary claims around the development of walkable urban places as centers of innovation. Russel is aiming, albeit widely, at recent justification for the planning of "innovation districts" and rightly questions the reasoning that supposedly undergird the policy choices of cities and institutions rushing headlong to redevelop whole sections of cities in order to, quite literally, bottle up innovation through a particular physical form. But both commentators fundamentally misunderstand the determinants of urban growth and what Jacobs had to say. As a result, they are boxing with the imperfect translations of Jacobs by, frankly, unqualified hustlers and, in turn, push their own fallacies regarding social science and knowledge formation and misreading two centuries of economic geographic thought.

Reed's response, while energetic, is as unconvincing to me as Russel's broadside on Marshallian agglomerative theory and "Jacobsian spillovers". Reed cannot actually muster the evidence to defend the claims others make of Jacobs' work (something neither Russel or Reed actually explore is what Jacobs actually wrote, but that's another issue) and, instead takes offense at Russel's use of the term "pseudoscience" to describe the sloppy application of Jacobs' writings and basically calls Russel a hurtful bully for attacking a woman who helped to, supposedly, resuscitate the idea of cities as positive places to be. Neither response is particularly profound, but the former deserves a bit of exploration before diving into more important questions of urban growth and agglomeration.

Reed takes offense at the application of Jacobs' work as pseudoscience and attempts to sidestep the critique by saying that social science can never be as certain as the natural or life sciences and it is impossible to determine what amount of evidence is actually necessary to test a social scientific claim. This argument, essentially, says that any social scientific claim can basically be taken as legitimate because the causal mechanisms are always messy and testing is nigh impossible. Such a position is profoundly dangerous because it destroys any meaningful reason for the existence of social science if social science is to actually clarify the whys and how of social phenomena. While social phenomena are rarely mechanistic and regular, the best social science seeks to clarify and sketch out particular causal mechanisms and the conditions by which those mechanisms arise or work themselves out (admittedly, I am drawing from the realist school here, in particular, Andrew Sayer).

While this is not the space to dive deeply into questions of the varied ontologies and epistemological approaches of social science, the schools that have trained me are quite clear that social science allows for the testing of claims, the weighing of evidence, the delineation of causal mechanisms etc...that make it possible to definitively reject certain conceptions and theories. The abandonment (though it is still applied in some areas) of early Chicago School human ecological notions of the city are no longer considered valid, though they are making a comeback through the uncritical application of ecological metaphors from some commentators. So Reed's claim that we cannot come up with a way to garner enough evidence to test the claims made by certain innovation proponents holds little weight. This does not that Russel's waving of one paper discussing labor mobility between firms is enough evidence to either convince us to move away from the Jacobs-inspired commentators or accept his notion, but it is certainly one piece of evidence that we should be considering.

On to Russel's claims concerning growth. If Russel were merely critiquing the application of Jacobs' observations about walkable places and innovation, then I do not think there would be any serious issue. Even if you are a die-hard Jacobs acolyte, such crude applications and insistence of the physical determinism of certain physical arrangements of buildings and infrastructure and economic development should offend anyone who thinks deeply on cities and economics. But Russel seeks to extend the critique by attacking the notion of Marshallian industrial districts, Porter's cluster theory, and the general idea of external economies and agglomerative forces, in general. While cute, it is a step too far and exposes some confusion on his part, even within his own arguments.

The problem with Russel's view rests on a few parts, but due to space limitations I will focus mainly on the question of scale, a particularly fruitful area, I think, as Russel is a geographer. The problem is that Russel smashes all scales together, a cardinal sin in geography where scale and space are central to how the field understands disparate social, political, economic, and cultural phenomena.

Russel thinks he has hit upon a gap in the understanding of economic and urban geography, but it is a misreading of the literature and more progressive economic development policy. It becomes clear when Russel conflates migration and labor mobility a la the paper he cites on labor movement among firms and its ties to innovation. Because Russel does not distinguish between scales he combines migration, both inter-regional and international, and labor mobility between firms. Specifically, a region could have extensive mobility among firms without necessarily relying on external migration and still innovate or, more likely, such innovation would then encourage greater growth and migration from those looking to take advantage either through entrepreneurial concerns or working for growing firms. Such a model encompasses both the importance people, from individual entrepreneurs to common labor pools, while recognizing the different scales and times at which these operations can occur. The essential unstated aspect of this firm mobility still rests on the co-location of similar firms, the pooling of a labor supply, and the existence of a set of supporting firms. In other words, the same essential aspects that Marshall first pointed out and that economic geographers have elaborated upon since in different ways.

This one particular illustration is not novel, by any means. It is, actually, a fairly common way that economic geographers, planners, and economists actually conceive of urbanization growth and external benefits of co-location. While Marshallian industrial districts may be too restrictive to understand the rise of the polycentric urban form that characterizes the spatial organization of advanced economies in later capitalism, it is also equally simplistic to dismiss the existence of agglomeration and urbanization economies that rest upon spatial propinquity. This does not give a magical power to place, per se, but the "people aspects" that Russel points to as essential to innovation still must occur somewhere and it is that question of where that remains that Russel does not contend with. Now recognizing co-location and propinquity as important to economic development and innovation does NOT mean that innovation only occurs in specific areas or with specific spatial configurations. But in seeking how to sketch out the causal mechanisms and the conditions necessary for that innovation to occur it is nonsensical to throw out over two centuries of economic and geographical thought that have shown quite clearly that agglomeration and urbanization economies exist, and that urban-regional areas are hotbeds for innovation precisely due to the combination of a constant influx of people, concentration of similar firms, and ancillary firms that provide essential support services from legal and financial services to equipment leasing.

The question, then, is not one of people versus place but of the unique combinations of people and the organization of space that results in different places. The existence of true megapolitan and regional agglomerative economies show the lie of the "innovation district" boosters that insist that certain innovations are so neatly geographically circumscribed or that they can increase innovation through the "accidental bumping" of people in a place. A kind of Brownian motion theory of industrial development that does, in defense of Russel, rest firmly in the realm of pseudo-scientific reasoning.

I would like to end by actually coming to the defense of Jacobs and something that both Russel and Drew did not do in their posts-engage with what Jacobs actually wrote. Commentators using Jacobs to justify "innovation districts" or the economic impacts of walkable places actually fundamentally misread what Jacobs actually wrote on the economy of cities (no, really, she has a book called "The Economy of Cities") and nowhere in her descriptions and theorizing of how cities grow and how cities operate economically does she say anything as facile as "walkable" places beget innovation. In fact, Jacobs builds on scholars like Chinitz(a truly classic paper in the field), and other mid-century economists and geographers, to give an elegant set of descriptions on how entrepreneurship, increasing industrial specialization,  increasingly sophisticated divisions of labor, and local institutional variations seed urban economic growth. Her description of urban economic development as the creation of "new work", an explicit nod to innovation both of the disruptive and non-disruptive kind, is still an elegant way to describe the mechanics of urban economic growth.

The question of how to encourage innovation is one that is at the forefront of policymakers minds and we certainly need a much better understanding of the actual work that's been done on the topic. "Innovation districts", as they stand, will likely be relatively expensive boondoggles that were good excuses for cities to blight and redevelop poor neighborhoods near universities, but will likely not have the kind of massive impact boosters promise. But their willful misreading of Jacobs and ignorance of the last forty years of economic geography is not at all an indictment of the theories of agglomeration and urbanization economies nor of Jacobs' own work. We can debate just how exactly "spillover" benefits operate (is it some magical property of space or labor mobility?) but the fact that innovation, the kind of innovation people write so many books and articles about, happens repeatedly in similar places means that the question is not whether space matters, clearly it does, but how does it matter?

Thursday, June 5, 2014

No Room for Halfway Crooks- The Case for Black Reparations

*this is a slightly more extended meditation on a series of tweets I made earlier which can be found here. Because of the tweet foundation this piece may seem a bit more disjointed. I apologize, in advance.

Conor Friedersdorf has a new piece in the Atlantic responding to the now famous Ta-Nehisi Coates piece "The Case for Reparations". Friedersdorf seeks to advocate for what he calls a set of "race neutral" reparations policies. The kernel of his argument is that seeking race neutral policies to alleviate or compensate for past injuries, in this case housing discrimination, are better than race-based policies because they will compensate more people, thus alleviating more injustice, and prevent racial resentment. 
This  is, singularly, the greatest piece of concern trolling of all time. I have many, many issues with this piece, but I will try and cover some of my main annoyances, starting with factual/historical miscues and work into larger issues. 

Timid, Unimaginative Policies

Friedersdorf offers a variety of different policy recommendations to universally compensate injured parties in a variety of areas, but once you look beyond the fact that the policies are novel, it becomes quite clear that they are incredibly conservative nature and not at all transformative. I am not looking for the dissolution of capitalism, but he can do better.

He first offers a series of modest policies in response to redlining, including federal grants or waiving property taxes, to expanding public transportation and access to school vouchers. Absent the obvious point that many victims of redlining and "slum" clearance no longer own those properties and may no longer own any property and therefore could not be compensated through property tax exemption, these recommended policies are decidedly NOT novel or even that aggressive. School voucher movements and the rise of charter schools are well advanced in many urban areas to where New Orleans school district is now entirely made up of charters. And advocating for decent public transit that serves traditionally disinvested areas? Look, I'm all for it, but to make it seem like this is some grand compensation for past wrongs as opposed to simply how a public transportation should be run is laughable. If this is how you justify providing transport for the transit-dependent, fine, but recognize that comes from a position that believes such public goods should not be geared to serve the most vulnerable AND lets transportation planners, past and current, off of the hook for their racist and anti-poor policies. 

A more radical, or even imaginative, set of policies might have included fundamentally restructuring how public schools are funded by decoupling their funding from local property taxes. Or, as Sandy Darity mentioned the other night on twitter, all public and private pre-Civl War institutions should offer free tuition to the descendants of slaves as their endowments universally benefit from the legacies of chattel slavery. Or, if we want to keep policies universal as Friedersdorf prefers, we should make ALL public higher education free. Ever-increasing student debt and disproportionate Black underemployment, even for Black college graduates, shows that access to education should not be limited to those who can pay.

And one set of policies entirely unmentioned that would do some of the most good and be universal would be the vigorous enforcement of existing Fair Housing statutes and the passage of stronger fair housing laws and the re-adoption of public housing in the US. Housing discrimination is a persistent, universal, ongoing problem for millions of people in America, in particular, for people of color. Demanding that HUD more vigorously pursue Fair Housing complaints (and giving them the funding to do so) and encouraging the construction of new housing for low-income folks through a combination of zoning loosening, greater subsidy, and the immediate halt to public housing demolition are policies that would immediately change the nature of our urban landscapes and open up space for a real discussion of disproportionate impact of current and historical decisions. 

Americans are racist. Americans are ignorant. Americans are racist and ignorant. 

Beyond advocating for "universal" policies, Friedersdorf also attacks Coates's demand for a congressional study on reparations stating that any such study would invariably be politicized and that people are already well aware of the effects of housing discrimsination and slavery. There's a lot in these statements so I'll give you the block quote for better context:

This is the passage in the essay that least persuades me. In part, that's because my faith that Congress would sponsor a rigorous, non-politicized inquiry into reparations approaches zero. Nor do I think that a congressionally sponsored inquiry would confer any more popular legitimacy on the recommendations than a historian's book or a magazine writer's reported feature. There is, too, a hint of presumptuousness here: that if masses of America rigorously studied and fully confronted the history that Coates highlights so powerfully—as if that's going to happen—the result would be a transformation of how they view America. At the top of this article, I linked a number of thoughtful intellectuals who examined history exactly as Coates sees it and made good faith efforts to grapple with his insights and arguments. None of them had their consciousness "revolutionized" by the exercise.

That's not how people or ideas work.

First, the fact that such a study on reparations would be "political" is precisely the point. The topic itself is political and deal with the longstanding racial politics and policies of the US government. The Kerner Commission's report on the "urban crisis" of the late 60s is a useful example here. The commission called out, in print, the racist practices of government at all levels for encouraging and defending segregation and ghettoization and how that lead directly to the riots and recommends immediate redress. It doesn't get more political than that! That's the entire point of such commissions, really. So, the inability of congress to not be political is an absurd level to place such a story. Second, the supposed presumptuousness of Coates's wish for Americans to be fully informed on these issues and thereby transformed assumes Americans are already knowledgeable about these things, and it is obvious they are not. 

I am a PhD student and I have had the fortune to attend good to excellent schools my entire life. And NEVER have I been in a classroom whether it was at my DC prep school, a seminar at UNC, or a lecture here in Portland, where someone has not expressed surprise at the outright nastiness of American racial history, in particular to urban policy. Americans are largely ignorant of the LOOOONG history of urban race riots, residential segregation, the outright exclusion of Blacks from varied arms of the progressive movement, the harms of urban renewal, and the current neoliberal turn in urban policy that is based primarily on mass incarceration, the withdrawal of welfare supports of all kinds, and displacement through gentrification. A commission on reparations or even one on the current state of urban America that focused on race would expose a system that is still virulently anti-black and a set of policies that serve only existing economic and political elites. Coates may indeed be presumptuous as to the effect such a commission could have on the collective American conscience, but we haven't even gotten far enough to test the assertion. Friedersdorf advocates for keeping Americans in a comfortable ignorance that can only be expressed through a confused advanced white-guilt complex from progressives and callous indifference from conservatives.   

No One Actually Thinks the Federal Government is Blameless

This next section goes after Friedersdorf most nakedly (wrong) libertarian argument of the entire piece: that the federal government is largely responsible for housing discrimination and it complicates the way we view the federal government and its role in racial discrimination. 

The logic goes something like this: the federal government enters into vigorous housing policy in the 1930s, culminating in the Federal Housing Acts culminating in the Housing Act of 1949 that set the stage for urban renewal for the next three decades; realtors using the lending guidelines and infamous redlining maps of the Homeowners Loan Corporation redlined many areas of cities, in particular black neighborhoods, and jumpstarted mass housing discrimination and displacement; if the federal government had not entered housing policy black communities would not have been harmed; this connection shows that the federal government is not the benevolent giver of civil rights as loony progressives would have you believe.

Such a chain of logic is absurd on the face of it, but also shows a terrible misreading of history or total ignorance about the history of housing and planning policy in this country at the federal and local levels. Part of this comes from the oft-mentioned, yet mistaken, notion that the Homeowner's Loan Corporation (HOLC) mandated redlining and started the onslaught of disinvestment of poor and black neighborhoods. Amy Hillier has done some great analysis to show that HOLC had actually little to do with the classifying of neighborhoods as redlined for local real estate agents in most cities. The HOLC maps were carefully guarded and were largely made from pre-existing market analyses and racist logics. In other words, black neighborhoods were already de facto redlined by local real estate agents. Thomas Sugrue and other urban scholars make similar points when they point towards the warehousing of blacks in certain parts of cities, in Sugrue's case, Detroit, and starving those areas of funds while preventing blacks from leaving. These were entirely local policies built around keeping blacks segregated. HOLC, in many ways, simply documented the areas that were already largely seen as no-go zones by local real-estate interests.

This is not to absolve the federal government in this. HOLC did not challenge the racist policies of cities and the locking out of blacks from federally subsidized mortgages sped up white flight and ghettoization. The federal government is entirely culpable in these areas. But to say that the lack of federal government intervention in the housing market would somehow have lessened the negative impacts on blacks is preposterous. While the federal government has done many messed up things in regards to housing its entryway into the market from the construction of public housing to fair housing legislation have absolutely benefited blacks, not to mention lifting discriminatory lending practices in relation to federally subsidized loans. In a country where blacks in many places were expressly forbidden from purchasing property, where cities attempted explicit racial zoning policies, and placed multiple barriers to blacks living anywhere except for their designated places by local authorities, the federal government has been absolutely central in opening up space for blacks to live. Such an argument also arbitrarily draws a hard historical line somewhere between 1934 and 1960 as the culmination of federal housing action and ignores ALL of the work the federal government has done since then to try and defend the right of people to live where they can. Not to mention how even drawing such an arbitrary line still ignores policies like public housing that were incredibly helpful for poor populations, both black and non-black alike. 

Its this arbitrary drawing lines that allows Friedersdorf to conveniently ignore the Fair Housing Acts, the de-fanging of George Romney's HUD (examined, in depth, in this great piece from Nikole Hannah-Jones) that has crippled Fair Housing to this day, and multiple other policies that federal government has attempted to enact precisely to mitigate and reverse the devastating effects of residential segregation. But who have been the primary opponents of these changes? The same local jurisdictions with long histories of enforcing segregation in the first place! The federal government, as with many times in our history, has been a primary mover, if not always benevolent or perfect, for the advancement of civil rights of African-Americans. To say otherwise is either myopic or patently dishonest. 

You Can't Recognize Racial Injury and Argue for Racial Neutrality

Beyond these questions of history and policy, important on their own, lies a larger issue with Friedersdorf's argument that must be addressed. There are two parts here.
The first issue is his valiant effort to make the argument that even as he recognizes in his piece that racism and discrimination in the housing market uniquely injured blacks that our policy prescriptions should not be addressed specifically towards black people. He claims that "universal" policies seeking redress for past behavior will simultaneously help blacks, and the greater population, and also not engender racial resentment. 

The first claim, on addressing a greater number of wrong parties, is a strictly utilitarian one. On pure welfare grounds it is hard to ignore, but it contradicts his recognized point that blacks have been uniquely penalized in the housing market compared to other groups. Such an utilitarian approach then subsumes the legitimate, unique injury claims made of blacks by equating them with the injury claims made by other groups. To whit, if you're a white Irish person and your neighborhood was redlined in the late 40s, you would have as equal a claim as a black person whose property may also have been redlined. But what such a point does not recognize is that that white Irish family could draw on private and public funding for new home loans, they had access to residential areas made expressly forbidden to blacks by law, had access to work, at levels of the labor market, traditionally barred from blacks and on and on and on. The claims are entirely incommensurate and to think you could evenly compensate the two is absurd.

The second claim that universal policies will adequately address black injuries is ridiculous. The argument for reparations is fundamentally one based on a rejection of utilitarianism and instead is one based on notions of re-distributive justice and that is precisely why Freidersdorf cannot connect the two. A unique claim of discrimination and injustice means you have to make specific policies to respect those claims. That does not preclude compensating folks who were displaced by urban renewal. By all means do so, but the claims made by blacks are STILL unique because of ongoing anti-black racism that forms the foundation of American existence and policy. Liberalism, especially more libertarian strains, are entirely incapable of accepting a world where justice, accompanied by redistribution, is a legitimate action of the government and not an affront to individual liberty. The liberal ethic, best understood from Rawls as the "primacy of the (political) right over the good" precludes real, radical redistribution of resources. This is Friedersdorf initial policy recommendations are so unimaginative, because he wants to feel as if he's actually doing something without having to give anything up. There is no recognition that non-blacks have gained wealth, influence, and power at the expense of blacks and in virulently non-black institutions since the inception of the nation, and that continuing discrimination ranging from housing discrimination to mass incarceration disproportionately affects blacks and benefits non-blacks, particularly whites. 

The second part feeds directly from this lack of awareness and that is Freidersdorf's, and many other commentators in the wake of Coates's piece, utterly shallow understandings of race and its role, not only in history, but in contemporary settings. It is incredibly disheartening that after building up such a great case and set of examples, that Coates's critics only choose to focus on what they frame as a purely historical racist regime as opposed to connecting such de jure racist policies with ongoing de facto racist policies currently. Beyond that, such blindness also prevents these commentators from recognizing how incredibly central racial identity is to America's understanding of itself, primarily because these commentators are too frequently unable to view themselves, read: white people, as themselves raced individuals. If you are able to frame American's development, economic, political, and cultural as one built upon anti-blackness and the expansion of the porous borders of whiteness, then it is impossible to accurately link historical discrimination with current black want and contemporary institutional and structural racism. Blackness remains a heavy barrier in ALL aspects of American life and even moreso historically. If you cannot see the formation of American identity as one of separating one's group from blackness, then you cannot see how utterly absurd a claim of "race-neutral" reparations really is. Because the assimilation project of other ethnic groups in this country, to this very day, is a project of separating one's identity from those of blacks, blackness, and a black politics.

The story of what Adolph Reed calls "benign ethnic succession" that punctuates so many histories of different ethnic groups in our cities has never applied to black Americans. Blacks garnered large municipal power, and even then only temporarily, primarily due to the abandonment of cities by other non-black groups and the forced enclosure of black people in central cities. The projects of ethnic assimilation like the settlement house movement were explicitly barred to blacks. Political machines and trade unions, traditional paths of urban ethnic power grabbing and social mobility, were also forbidden to blacks. The advancement and whitening of other ethnic groups, is built upon, requires, the exclusion of blacks over and over again throughout our history and continues to this day. Not understanding the role race, and really what I mean is anti-blackness, plays in this means that commentators can only ever point towards seemingly "universal" policy prescriptions that act only as band-aids on the gaping chest wound that is America's relationship with the descendants of its slaves. 

To Conclude...

Finally, and if you've made it this far, I thank you for your patience, I would say that there is no room for those who would wish to try and straddle this logical divide over reparations. You can argue against them, and I can respect your view, but what I cannot abide is for someone to recognize that blacks indeed have been, and continue to be, uniquely injured by American policy and that this requires a set of policy prescriptions, and then have the temerity to say that blacks should not be given special consideration within said policies. It's a contradictory position that cannot hold. One must take the honest position that either we must do more and it should targeted towards blacks, even as we seek more universal solutions, or one must stand firm on the ground of Rawls and other liberals and say that while the history is wrong and blacks may have a unique claim is too heavy a cost to individual liberty to do anything substantive about it. That may be unjust, but at least it is honest.