Monday, March 31, 2008

Fair Housing 40-year first step?

By Eavon Lee Mobley, Managing Editor at the Kirwan Institute

I can remember the first thing my daughter said upon coming home from the first day of school in the third grade. We had just moved back to Ohio from Michigan and were staying with family in Dublin. We had lived for 5 years in Michigan while their father attended the seminary studying to become a minister. Many racial and ethnic groups from the USA and around the world were represented in the community at the seminary and the university. We lived our lives day to day in a racially and ethnically diverse community. Our community was there for the common goal of education, and our life experiences were intertwined. But it was an artificial atmosphere. It was a reality separate from mainstream society in the USA. How do I know that? From what my daughter said to me after her first day of class in Dublin: “All the kids in school are white, Mom.”

That was 20 years ago. And the complexion of Dublin has changed very little.
Dublin’s racial homogeneity is a result of racial bias in mortgage and housing markets from the 1940s through the 1960s that limited entry for non-white populations. The Fair Housing Act of 1968 lifted these barriers by requiring the government to protect the freedom of individuals to choose where they wanted to live. However, this protection did not guarantee that communities would become integrated, as we can see from looking at examples of communities like Dublin. And then the Supreme Court Milliken decision in 1974 that exempted the suburban schools from desegregation orders increased white flight from urban areas to the suburbs like Dublin.

So what were my choices then and even now to live in an integrated community? Limited. I could choose the community that would offer good schools, public services, and jobs but it would be far from integrated and in all probability predominately white. Even my desire to live in an integrated community was not enough for me to decide to give up living in a community of opportunity and move to a community of less opportunity. No one chooses to live in a community of little opportunity unless either they have no other choice or other benefits of staying outweigh the complications of leaving.
I was reading a Columbia Law Review note by Brian Patrick Larkin on the Fair Housing Act ( that I found very insightful. It’s called the Fair Housing Act the 40-year first step. The first step allowed for freedom of choice. What are the next steps to achieve “fair housing”? Fair housing should not be just about moving people to communities of opportunity; it should be about equity, about creating communities of opportunity in places currently suffering from disinvestment. The act, according to Larkin’s note, was intended to be supplemented by policies that addressed segregation and inequality in our communities but these policies were not enacted. These policies are critical in order to achieve these goals of desegregation and equality.

So here we are at the 40 year anniversary of the Fair Housing Act. What is the next step? How do we enact the policies necessary to achieve fair housing and create communities of opportunity so that we don’t wander aimlessly for another 40 years?

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Disowning America

By Michelle Alexander, Associate professor of Law at the Moritz College of Law with a joint appointment at the Kirwan Institute

Last week, in one of the most extraordinary political speeches in modern times, Barack Obama refused to disown his former pastor, Reverend Wright, as media pundits and some political advisers had urged him to do. The uproar over the YouTube videos depicting Reverend Wright fiercely denouncing white America, blaming American foreign policy for the 9/11 terrorist attacks, and mocking Hillary Clinton for never having been called a nigger, threatened to derail his presidential campaign. Yet bravely, and without apology, Obama declared that Reverend Wright “is like family to me.“ He denounced Wright’s controversial remarks “unequivocally,” but forcefully rejected calls to disown the man, saying:
“I can no more disown him than I can disown the black community. I can no more disown him than I can my white grandmother - a woman who helped raise me, a woman who sacrificed again and again for me, a woman who loves me as much as she loves anything in this world, but a woman who once confessed her fear of black men who passed by her on the street, and who on more than one occasion has uttered racial or ethnic stereotypes that made me cringe. These people are a part of me. And they are a part of America, this country that I love."
This clip has been shown repeatedly on all the major news channels, with media pundits invariably focusing on Obama’s reference to his white grandmother, who apparently was not immune to racial stereotypes. I suppose it is possible to interpret his remarks as narrowly as the media has chosen to do. No doubt, Obama was pointing out that even someone as wonderful and loving as his own grandmother is far from perfect on race. But I think a much larger point has been missed here. Obama was not simply refusing to disown his former pastor or point out the prevalence of racial stereotypes; he was refusing to do something even more profound – nearly radical. He was refusing to participate in the politics of disownership.
As a society, we have become accustomed to disowning one another. We condemn and disown those who disagree with us, who look different from us, who have a different religion, who have a different sexual orientation, who lack status, and who behave in ways we do not understand, especially when they commit crimes.
Among politicians, disownership is nearly a rite of passage – some individual, or group of people, must be publicly condemned in order for a candidate to be viewed as “tough enough.” Tough enough to do what? Tough enough to expel “the others” from the body politic, to deny them the basic privileges of American citizenship the rest of us take for granted. In our society, we feel utterly comfortable imagining that some people – many people – are simply unworthy of belonging. There is an undeniable racial element to this belief.
During the past few decades, it has been the welfare queens, the crack mothers, the “super-predators,” the gangbangers, and the “drug pushers” who have been designated the enemy – the ones who exist outside our circle of concern, and who have been the targets of political campaigns to purge them, literally, from our society. Indeed, the dramatic explosion of our prison population during the past three decades, from a mere 350,000 in the mid-1970s, to more than 2 million today, is an excellent example of how serious we, Americans, are about disownership.
But the politics of disownership goes beyond purging people from welfare rolls and locking them up for longer periods of time than any other country in the world. We can see it in our immigration debates, and not just among those who argue for mass deportation of “illegals.” It is evident even among those who argue for guest worker programs, programs which allow – in our great generosity – immigrants to come to America to mow our lawns and clean our toilets, but without any hope of ever enjoying the benefits and privileges of citizenship.
We can see it, too, in how we care for the sick and educate our children. Those who cannot afford health care are not our concern. They are literally left to die. And those children who live on the wrong side of the tracks, so to speak, they are not our concern either. When their schools are crumbling, and their grades failing, we look away. Of course, if those children were in our family, we’d care. But they’re not. They’ve been disowned; quietly perhaps, but cast out all the same.
When Barack Obama refused to disown his former pastor, no matter what he had done, and when he refused to disown the black community (no matter what it has done or it may do), he showed us, by example, what a politics of unity might look like.
We need not disown one in other in order to disagree – even strongly. None of us need be outside our circle of concern. None of us need fear that we are beyond hope, beyond redemption. We can be one American family. There can be room enough for us all, no matter how flawed and imperfect each of us may be.
Admittedly, this is not the path most traveled. But regardless of your political views, political party, or preferred candidate, can we not agree that it is a path that could make all the difference?

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

“A More Perfect Union” Sen. Barack Obama’s Speech on Race

Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Barack Obama spoke about race during an address at Philadelphia's National Constitution Center, Tuesday, March 18, 2008.

Video link:

Full transcript of the speech:

Editorials, commentaries, reviews, analyses are popping up everywhere and we would like to offer our blog to invite your thoughts and reactions to his speech.

Constitutive Global-Domestic Social Exclusion

By S. P. Udayakumar, Research Fellow for the Kirwan Institute

While a narrow definition for “social exclusion” connotes income poverty, not being part of the labor market, or low-wage work, a broad definition denotes income inequality, multidimensional deprivation, and denial of social rights. Social exclusion signifies a set of processes by which individuals, households, communities, or whole social groups are pushed to the margins of society. We can identify a few factors contributing to exclusion.

First, lack of access to critical resources such as social mobility, housing, social security, health, education, and so forth makes a significant contribution to social exclusion. Second, lack of fair recognition that translates into negative image, racial discrimination, cultural inequalities, prejudices, hostility, and segregation contributes as well. Third, there are several spatial, personal, or economic intensifiers, which help manufacture the social or geographical isolation of sections of the population (i.e., basically becoming forgotten sectors of society, the polity). Factors also include negative family circumstances, low-living standards, indebtedness, lack of knowledge and information, and low levels of education and qualification, all potentially contributing to an unsatisfactory quality of life, and resulting in social exclusion.

Social exclusion encompasses material deprivation and denial of opportunities to participate fully in social and civic life. According to Richard Thompson Ford, describing racism as structural recognizes that laws and institutions need not be explicitly racist to disempower communities of color; they need only to perpetuate unequal historic conditions. Theoretically neutral policies and practices can actually function in racist ways. John Rawls notes that even if structures are created in a fair way, they can still emerge as unfair. We are therefore compelled, argues Glenn Loury, to look at the external explanations for these inequalities. We are also compelled, argues Iris Young, to learn how structural racism interacts with agency and culture, striving to move beyond distributive models of justice to constitutive ones as well.

A few years ago, two Goldman Sachs economists, Dominic Wilson and Roopa Purushothaman posited that Brazil, Russia, India, and China (together called the BRICs economies) could become a much larger force in the world economy over the next 50 years. Mapping out the GDP growth, per capita income, and currency movements in the BRICs economies until 2050, Wislon and Purushothaman predicted that these economies could account for over half the size of the G6 (US, Japan, Germany, France, Italy, UK) by 2025 and could be larger than the G6 (in US dollar terms) in less than 40 years. The conclusions of this study are divided under five main topics such as economic size, economic growth, incomes and demographics, global demand patterns, and currency movements. Under the “incomes and demographics” section, however, the study posits that “[d]espite much faster growth, individuals in the BRICs are still likely to be poorer on average than individuals in the G6 economies by 2050.” Although the Chinese economy could overtake the US economy by 2039, per capita income in the United States could reach roughly $80,000 by 2050, and China’s per capita income could only be about $30,000.

In other words, the overall international and national economic disparities and opportunity impediments are likely to prevail (or possibly get worse) in spite of spectacular economic growth at both levels. One may wonder what would be the state of those who are already lagging behind such as women, minorities, the landless peasants, the urban poor, unorganized workers, and other weaker sections. If we intersect this economic discrimination with equally (if not more) debilitating racial/ethnic discrimination and political disempowerment (i.e., making it constitutive of and not merely additive), we encounter a heinous system or structure that builds on and feeds into the building blocks of social exclusion: poverty, marginalization, discrimination, disempowerment, regress, violence, degeneration, and so forth.

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Myrtle Beach and Motorcycles: A Natural Experiment on Colorblind Racism

By Cheryl McLaughlin, Research Assistant

Myrtle Beach, South Carolina provides an opportunity each May for researchers to explore the presence of colorblind racism through a natural experiment. The city hosts two separate week-long motorcycle festivals during the month, attracting over 400,000 bikers for the events that include cruises and other fanfare. What makes these two festivals intriguing is that, despite their many similarities, individuals who attend Harley Week are primarily white, and those who visit for Black Bike Week are predominantly black. The two groups, coming to the same area at nearly the same time, allow researchers to explore the issue of colorblind racism by considering whether the local community, which professes to be colorblind, treats the two groups differently.

In the past, researchers noted obvious distinctions between experiences of the whites and blacks. The community openly embraced the white bikers who were in town for Harley Week with welcome signs and other indicators of appreciation. In contrast, Black Bike Week, while nearly identical in content and character, was not well received; the city tripled the number of police on duty and distributed tickets for trivial violations. Moreover, the hospitality that local businesses had extended to the white bikers was visibly absent during Black Bike Week, including over 20 restaurants that closed their doors during that weekend.

When the NAACP brought forth claims of civil rights violations due to differential treatment by race, the city asserted that reasons other than race caused the distinctions between the two events. For example, the city attempted to attribute the increased police presence during Black Bike Week to the fact that criminal activity was more probable because the black bikers were younger than the white ones, making the likelihood of crime greater. The city also noted how the police had distributed a greater number of tickets during Black Bike Week. Assertions such as these were systematically negated; the mean age for both groups of bikers was higher than what is typically considered the prime years for delinquency, and the greater quantity of tickets could be attributed to the higher volume of police on duty. Similarly, other arguments made by the city to justify the differential treatment ultimately were found to lack substance, leaving racism the only explanation. The NAACP ultimately implemented an “Operation Bike Week Justice” campaign to actively monitor for signs of potential discrimination during the annual event.

Reflecting on this natural experiment provides an opportunity for us to contemplate the use of a colorblind ideology in our society. Many white Americans falsely believe that racial minorities are no longer subject to discrimination and consequently, in their perspective, race should not be a factor when judging people. Colorblindness is a comfortable lens for many whites, allowing them to think that if race is no longer a consideration, then a person’s own choices control his/her destiny. Thus, this perspective reinforces the cherished American ideal individuality; however, it fails to recognize the structural impediments that make the classic notion of a “level playing field” unrealistic.

As the Kirwan Institute works to reframe the ways in which people talk about, think about, and act on race, we must continue to challenge the colorblind ideology that is so prevalent in our society. We need to fight all forms of racism, including those that are subtle. The events in Myrtle Beach provide a disturbing reminder that racial discrimination can persist under the guise of a colorblind outlook.

Monday, March 3, 2008

Gentrification: A Misunderstood Phenomenon?

By Jillian Olinger, Graduate Research Associate at the Kirwan Institute

With any neighborhood redevelopment proposal, a rallying cry spreads out against the evils of gentrification. Fear seems to run rampant among the residents. While historically redevelopment projects through federal programs such as urban renewal have really amounted to “Negro removal” under the guise of ‘good faith’ policies, gentrification is not entirely part of these types of policies.

In the larger society, and even at the planning level, the term gentrification has come to take on an automatic negative connotation, largely due to perceptions (or misperceptions) of displacement and an inequitable process. In reality, and far less explored or understood, gentrification is a more nuanced process, and relies heavily upon the context of individual neighborhoods. As in most aspects of planning and neighborhood redevelopment, there is no “one size fits all.”

Lance Freeman’s There Goes the 'Hood: Views of Gentrification from the Ground Up, present recent studies that support that there can be benefits associated with gentrification for certain areas from residents’ viewpoints. Such benefits include wealth generation in areas of sustained disinvestment, the mixing of socioeconomic classes, and so forth. His studies also point to the lack of substantive research on the extent of actual displacement of residents. In fact, it seems that the issue is more accurately described as one of fear of displacement, as opposed to actual displacement.

The ambiguous evidence to date on the real impact of gentrification for indigenous residents suggests a role for policy. However, with increasing interest in inner city living, not in the least fueled by the unsustainability of suburban living, the issue is especially relevant. While market forces tend to alter every neighborhood’s desirability in cycles, with the most affluent occupying the choicest land, the drive for equitable, and presumably stable, housing and neighborhoods for all would implicate the need, as Freeman suggests, for oversight or policy control over the process of gentrification. The frame within which this policy operates, however, does not necessarily have to take the stance that the gentrification process is itself inherently evil. Rather, with identifiable benefits accrued to residents from this very process, the objective should focus on the opportunities afforded by gentrification, and aim to secure and maintain these opportunities. The model can be both efficient (economically) and equitable.