Does Zoning Cause Racism? Does Negative Polarization Cause Woke YIMBY Reform?

TLDR: Definitely; Maybe

It’s now widely known that the distinctive American style of zoning developed to segregate populations by race and class. By the late 19th century, the American upper and middle classes had already developed a pastoral, suburban ideal of detached, single-family homes on large parcels in a garden-like settings outside teeming, dirty, congested central cities.

However, America’s relatively laissez faire system of property and exchange was ill-suited to prevent landowners from subdividing their property into smaller lots with smaller house, building stretches of attached rowhouses or, horror of horrors, throwing up apartments. The “problem” wasn’t just that this sort of development would kill the suburb’s sylvan vibe, but that encroachment of lower-cost forms of housing would attract less wealthy, immigrant and (God forbid!) non-white residents.

Suburban developers and real estate concerns adapted by developing homeowner’s associations and deeds restricted by private covenants, many of which were painfully clear about who they meant to exclude. Here’s a typical clause from a Los Angeles covenant from a century or so ago:

It is hereby covenanted and agreed by and between the parties hereto and it is a part of the consideration of this indenture… that the said property shall not be sold, leased, or rented to any persons other than of the Caucasian race, nor shall any person or persons other than of Caucasian race be permitted to occupy said lot or lots.

In the early 1900s, southern cities like Atlanta, Louisville and Richmond began adopting explicitly racial zoning codes meant to enforce and legally formalize Jim Crow segregation, but in a 1917 decision Buchanan v. Warley, the Supreme Court ruled that it’s unconstitutional for cities to forbid a property owner from selling to willing buyers. Discriminatory covenants came back in a big way, but for various reasons I won’t get into, they were both too stringent and too lax to do the work white homeowners wanted. Zoning re-emerged in a facially neutral form that was heavily promoted by Herbert Hoover, then Secretary of Commerce, through the 1922 promulgation of the Standard State Zoning Enabling Act, model legislation that remains the basis most states government’s statutory delegation of zoning authorities to localities.

According to Richard Rothstein, author of The Color of Law, the impetus behind Hoover’s enabling act boosterism wasn’t simply the protection of residential neighborhoods from the externalities of factories and slaughterhouses. Contemporary advocates of zoning admitted as much. Rothstein writes:

In 1929, Ernst Freund, a Columbia University law professor who was the nation’s leading authority on administrative law, summarized the motives of Hoover’s committee and other national planning experts as follows: prevention of “the coming of colored people into a district,” he wrote, is actually a “more powerful” reason for zoning than creation of districts with similar physical features, the usual public justification for zoning. Because, Freund explained, the Supreme Court (Buchanan) had made it “impossible to find an appropriate legal formula” for segregation, zoning was left as the most reasonable means of accomplishing the same ends.

In 1926, the Supreme Court ruled that zoning was cool in Euclid v. Ambler Realty. However, despite the fact that Euclid’s lawyers insisted that their law had nothing to do with race, the district court judge whose decision the high court reversed didn’t see much difference between the law in Euclid Township, Ohio (a suburb of Cleveland) and the Louisville law declared an unconstitutional encroachment on property rights and freedom of contract in Buchanan. He wrote, The blighting of property values and the congesting of the population, whenever the colored or certain foreign races invade a residential section, are so well known as to be within the judicial cognizance” — which translates roughly as: “Don’t try to bullshit me; I see you, Euclid.”

Rothstein notes the suspicious oddity of the Lochner-era laissez faire court’s tolerance of the infringement of property rights and economic liberty in this one case:

Over the course of nearly 40 years, the Court struck down all kinds of regulation (not only zoning as in Buchanan, but most notably, health and safety and minimum wage regulation) on the grounds that it interfered with freedom of contract. Euclid’s permission for economic zoning was the only significant exception to this rigidly ideological approach. . . It was about race.

In her brilliant book, Segregation by Design: Local Politics and Inequality in American Cities, Jessica Trounstine, a political scientist at the University of California, Merced, suggests that the conventional social-scientific wisdom about the causes of racial segregation have things back to front. It’s a tantalizing argument and I feel ready to be persuaded by it, but I’m not sure I fully understand it, so I’m going to try to restate it in my own terms to see if I can make it gel in my own mind.

So, Trounstine notes that the dominant explanation for observed patterns of persistent racial segregation is individual preference. Here’s her summary of that view:

Thomas Schelling (1971) argued that extreme racial segregation could result from individual decisions about where to live, given even mild preferences for having neighbors of the same race. A small number of racially intolerant white residents can cause a neighborhood to rapidly transition because as each intolerant white resident is replaced with a black neighbor, whites with lower and lower levels of intolerance choose to leave, creating neighborhood-to-neighborhood segregation. Scholars have found support for Schelling’s theory. Research on racial segregation largely concludes that white preferences for same-race neighbors are the driving force (Cutler et al. 1999; Bayer et al. 2007; Charles 2006). Denton and Massey (1991), Krysan et al. (2008), and Emerson, Chai, and Yancey (2001) find that whites avoid black neighbors because they are black. Boustan (2010) shows that in northern metropolitan areas between 1940 and 1970, every black arrival from the South was associated with 2.7 white departures to the suburbs. Yet, these scholars do not interrogate the source of these prejudicial attitudes.

Yeah… why do a lot of white people prefer white neighbors and actively avoid black neighbors?

“Because they’re racist” isn’t a satisfying answer; it’s too circular — a certain type of white racism is what we’re trying to explain. If I’m reading her right, Trounstine suggests that this sort of racist white preference is so prevalent because neighborhoods and cities are racially segregated — at least in part. But if segregation explains racist preferences, racist preferences don’t explain segregation — at least not in the way you’d think it would.

At first, I had a sort of “Wait! What?!” reaction to the idea that same-race individual residential preferences don’t explain segregation because segregation explains same-race residential preferences. But it started to seem more intuitive as soon as I considered the fact that every place I’ve ever lived was already segregated when I got there. The social world in which I developed residential preferences was always already structured by segregation. The cultural context of my intellectual and emotional development was one in which “good schools” has always been freighted with class and racial connotations — has always meant “relatively wealthy and very white.” These readymade associations between race, housing quality, and the quality of public goods surely affects the development of our racial attitudes. That’s partly what Trounstine is getting at.

But she’s also getting at the idea that stable segregation is a collective action problem and individual spatial self-sorting can’t explain it. In the Schelling model, only 1/3 of the individuals involved need to have a weak preference for mostly same-race neighbors to generate surprisingly stark segregation. Suppose you’re one of that ethnocentric third. What’s to keep your same-race neighbors from selling their house to a different-race buyer? Nothing. In the model, if that happens, you’ll move. And that certainly happens in the real world, too. (2.7 whites out for every black in!) But, historically speaking, white people who have same-race neighbors and want to keep it that way get pretty irate if the only way to keep it that way is to move. So they band together politically and capture local government to make sure they can keep it that way while staying put.

Trounstine writes:

Governments can promote collective action by generating enforcement of collective goals — and here it is local governments that play the starring role, because they alone regulate land use. By invoking their powers of control over land and making choices about service provision, local governments can affect the aggregate demographic makeup of communities and the spatial distribution of residents and services, thereby generating and enforcing segregation.

Durable patterns of segregation can’t be produced by individuals making unconstrained individual choices in an institutional vacuum because there is no institutional vacuum and choice is constrained — i.e., individual choice is limited to a restricted set of options determined by prior political decisions about what our options should be. Segregation is produced by local governments wielding land use powers intended from the very beginning to create segregation.

But why do they do this? White homeowners are racist! Well, yes… but why? Consider the fact that homeowners like it when the investments they inhabit appreciate in value. But “tax levels, service quality, and neighborhood demographics are capitalized into property values….” That’s what drives homevoters to seek control over local politics generally, and not just land use. The value of your house is tied to the quality of local public goods and amenities. The quality of that good stuff is a function of the fiscal capacity of the municipality your house is located in. Fiscal capacity, in turn, is a function of the wealth of the community’s residents.

But this is a country that started out stealing the labor of enslaved Africans, then rigged the entire game against black wealth accumulation by refusing to equally recognize and protect their economic rights, and then did nothing at all to close the large and inevitable racial wealth gap. As a consequence, areas with a significant black population generally have a weaker tax base than nearby heavily white areas. And that means shittier public goods, schools, and amenities — all the stuff that’s capitalized into the price of your house.

If politically dominant white homevoters can’t keep black people out of their local public goods jurisdiction altogether (and sometimes they can, as the insane jurisdictional fragmentation of the St. Louis metro shows), they can use zoning and the deep and persistent historical association between wealth and race to ensure that the taxes of wealthier white homeowners are spent in a way that props up their own home values. All they have to do is physically separate the community into a poorer, blacker part that gets shitty public services and amenities, as well as proximity to the lion’s share of LULUs (locally unwanted land uses) — the widget plant, the interstate, the landfill, the water treatment plant, etc. — and a much posher whiter part that gets all the nice stuff. And then they have to keep it that way.

It follows that white homeowners motivated to defend the value of their houses don’t have to be racist to want to keep black people out — or to select into municipalities or neighborhoods with a record of success in keeping black people out. But the distinction between race and class here is very hard to sustain. When a place has been de facto segregated, and public spending has been targeted on the nicer, whiter parts of town, relegating the poorer, blacker parts of town to life with much shittier public goods and amenities, niceness is going to become associated with whiteness and shittiness is going to be associated with blackness.

The reason that the poorer side of the tracks/interstate is so shitty isn’t just that it’s poorer; it’s that poverty has been concentrated on purpose. And because the purpose is to selectively focus public spending in a way that protects the investments of wealthier homeowners, the streets will be dirtier, the water will be rustier, the sewers will overflow more often, property won’t be so vigilantly protected by the police and so on. All of which is to say, it’s so shitty because homevoters made it that way. It’s very literally and directly their fault.

I think we can all admit that this is an intensely greedy and unfair thing to do. But humans don’t like to see themselves as narrowly self-interested agents of injustice, so what we do is find a way to rationalize our behavior. The easiest thing to do in this case is to invert the causality. The poorer blacker part of town has garbage in the streets not because the municipality doesn’t want to pay to keep garbage off their streets but because black people are dirty. There’s more crime not because poverty was intentionally concentrated as a way to gerrymander public goods provision, not because the police take their sweet time to answer calls, and not because public education is chronically underfunded, but because black culture is tolerant of criminality.

So, these associations, which are created by segregation and the under-provision of public goods, become justification for the maintenance of segregation and the selective under-provision of public goods. That is to say, segregation generates its own racist justificatory ideology.

Trounstine’s argument isn’t that segregation wasn’t racist from the beginning or that American culture would not be racist if not for segregation. I take her to be saying that segregation and racism are mutually reinforcing, so it’s misleading to see individual racist attitudes and choices as the cause of ongoing segregation because segregation is itself a cause of individual racist attitudes and our residential choices are heavily constrained by the collective action mechanisms that hold segregation in place.

One of the reasons I’m relatively optimistic about zoning and land-use reform is that the justificatory ideology of segregation is breaking down.

As you can see here, white liberals have negative in-group bias, which is to say, white liberals feel more warmly toward other ethnic groups than they do toward white people. This describes me pretty well. I would give Blacks, Hispanics, and Asians higher “feeling thermometer” scores than whites for sure. But what’s driving this isn’t so much special warmth for these other groups. It’s partisan polarization. Republicans are overwhelmingly white and Democrats really don’t care for them. Polarization is also why white conservatives come out less ethnocentric than every group other than white liberals — despite the fact that the GOP has become more or less explicitly the party of aggrieved white ethnocentrism. Democrats remain mostly white and Republicans hate them, and this tempers their ethnic in-group bias.

Anyway, despising Republicans isn’t the same thing as sympathy for non-white Americans. However, thanks to the cunning of negative polarization, it can become that. The more overtly racist Republicans get, the more white liberals read Ta-Nehisi Coates and Ibram X. Kendi with genuine interest and openness. Thanks to mendacious grifters like Christopher Rufo, a ton of white liberals now understand and accept the basic ideas of critical race theory. This sort of thing has a real, durable effect on the views of white liberals about race and segregation. We become more and more inclined to pick up Richard Rothstein’s The Color of Law or Matthew Desmond’s Evicted and get genuinely upset by what we find. You would expect this to weaken the grip of zoning-driven segregation’s racist, justificatory ideology on urban/suburban white liberals.

I think we just saw it this week when Charlotte, North Carolina’s city government did away with exclusive single-family zoning, despite predictably fierce resistance. Pat McCrory, the Republican former governor of N.C. and former mayor of Charlotte sure wasn’t happy about it.

None of this is to say that the economic and social forces behind homevoter NIMBYism are no longer powerful. You can see it at work in the account of the fight over Charlotte’s 2040 plan. But the fact that it no longer prevails always and everywhere is a sign that things are changing. Frustration with this fact is all over McCrory’s tweet. He expects his “they want to destroy your quality of life” dog whistle to work, but he’s vexed by the fact that it hasn’t. And he’s got the diagnosis largely right. The “narrative of social justice” does have a lot to do with it. But his attack on it doesn’t work — in part because he’s attacking it. His problem is that, thanks to relentless conservative attacks on “social justice,” formerly NIMBY white urban/suburban liberals don’t think it’s fake at all and have started to take it seriously.


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