The New White City

I know this article on race and progressive cities has taken a lot of criticism, but its central observation – that liberal policies and homogeneous cities are closely correlated – seems pretty intuitive. Progressives frequently argue that American hostility to redistribution stems from lingering racial anxiety. Conservatives are less eager to blame our welfare policies on straightforward racism, but many will argue that Scandinavian-style social democracy won’t work in the United States because we lack similar levels of cultural homogeneity. Either way, there seems to be a universal consensus that people from similar backgrounds are more amenable to redistributive policies.

So is it really surprising that small, predominantly white cities like Portland or Denver are more liberal than their larger, ethnically diverse counterparts? Or does this observation confirm something we’ve already suspected? It makes intuitive sense that progressive policies like zoning restrictions or environmental regulations rest on some sort of shared consensus about what constitutes “the good life.” And cities like Portland are not only more homogeneous than New York or DC or Cleveland; their reputation as liberal havens also attracts a greater number of people predisposed to support progressive policies. Voluntary self-segregation is a depressing prospect, but I don’t think that the rise of The Progressive White City should shock anyone.

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35 thoughts on “The New White City

  1. Here is what this article is saying: if you exclude the biggest cities, which happen to be among the most diverse AND the most liberal, well, then!

    Talking about American urbanism, and about race in America, while excluding New York, Chicago, and DC– and pretending that Atlanta is not progressive– is just not beneficial.

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      • Surely we can argue that DC and Portland are progressive for different reasons, though. One leans liberal because of a (frequently uneasy) coalition between upscale liberals and poor minorities; the other has done away with one half of that coalition. But Portland, not DC or Atlanta, seems to be the preferred model for progressive governance.

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        • But calling one city a preferred model of progressive governance is a far cry from equating that city with liberals and liberalism, for the purpose of a backdoor accusation of hypocrisy. The point is rendered nonsense by the fact that the actual most progressive cities like New York and LA are, actually, filled with minorities.

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          • Agreed, and I’m not accusing liberals of hypocrisy. I just think that the post – whatever its analytical faults – gets at a larger truth about progressive governance. Namely, it’s easier to be liberal in a more homogeneous community.

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          • True, but distribution of minorities in LA and New York, cities larger than some states, isn’t equally spread out. Minority enclaves in those cities are (in)famous and to be honest, in the context of the author’s look at where progressives (aka/or college educated whites) congregate, it isn’t Compton, it’s Silverlake or Santa Monica, it isn’t the Bronx, it’s the UES or LES.

            Moreover, the lede to the article says, “question of what cities are the best, the most progressive and best role models for small and mid-sized cities.” I don’t think that’s cherry-picking, in an article written for an audience of people interested in human geography, cultural landscapes, and urbanism, to define the scope of your discussion to exclude significantly larger cities with less analogous challenges and cultures.

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  2. Oh my.

    When my children were small, we lived in Brookline, MA. Their school was the most diverse community I’ve ever witnessed.

    And the most liberal I’ve ever lived in.

    Sorry, I’m just not convinced.

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  3. Will, you’ve missed the biggest problem with the study – namely its identification of cities with low numbers of blacks as cities without diversity. Austin is one of the cities cited in the article as a liberal model, and it is emphatically NOT “predominantly white” or “homogeneous”. It has large numbers of Hispanics (something like 25%) – a point which the article entirely ignores. An “analysis” which assumes that Hispanics are culturally “white” is so far removed from the realities of US racial politics as to vitiate the entire argument.

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    • David44 –

      The author posted a few additional thoughts on his blog. I think this addresses your comment:

      Living in Austin, instead of lapping it up in progressive Texan shangli-la, I get the creeping sense of being “left behind”. Nearly all of my cousins in my young age (20s-30s) have moved to Houston after high school because there is “culture”. When I’ve told my white friends, they look at me with incredulity. They don’t understand. But, “old South” may have ended for white Austin, but, after the 60s, it never did elsewhere for black and hispanics, except with a ’90s high tech bang with massive white incoming and rising home prices (far beyond average minority incomes).

      As a result, Black and hispanic east Austin is dying. The people know it. The city of Austin and its downtown plan expect it. And, cynically, both the young and old minorities suspect, they won’t be missed. After all, their positioning in east Austin was a consequence for “old South” segregation. Well, nothing lasts forever, and what the real estate market gave, the market now takes away..and for some young minorities, time to go to a new “promiseland”.

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    • the author writes, “African Americans, the traditional sine qua non of diversity, and often in immigrants as well.”

      I get the discomfort with using Blacks as a necessary requirement for “diversity.” But I don’t think the author is pushing the idea so much as using it in his discussion because it’s a popular paradigm in America. Let’s face that, it’s not desirable, it’s certainly not fair, but it is there and it is what it is.

      If we looked at a university that was 30% hispanic, 20% east asian, and 50% white, I think people would call that not diverse. Once Senator Burris leaves, be prepared for the stories about how the Senate is white/not-diverse, never mind that Bob Menendez is still there.

      If there’s a complaint to be made it’s about out continued racial insensitivity in America today, not an author’s adoption of such insensitivity to explore a point that the author comes back to address:

      “In Texas, California, and south Florida a somewhat similar, if less stark, pattern has occurred with largely Latino immigration. This can be seen in the evolution of Miami, Los Angeles, and increasingly Houston, San Antonio and Dallas. Just like African-Americans, Latino immigrants also are disproportionately poor and often have different site priorities and sensibilities than upscale whites.”

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    • Liberal? Austin is anything but liberal. It is about anti-liberal as most places in Texas. It falls a paltry 93 in the country – Little Rock, Arkansas is only 8 places behind it. Don’t let the people here in Texas/Austin try and fool you. If you’re looking for a progressive city, go to Dallas. Don’t come near Austin. You’ll only find prejudice, narcissism, and rudeness.

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  4. I didn’t think that the point of the original article was “progressives are hypocrites because they won’t live with black people,” but rather, “progressive policies are easier to accomplish when the neighborhood is pretty homogenous.”

    This makes sense. If you did education at the neighborhood level in, say, Sarajevo, I am guessing it would be easier to pass significant taxes to support that education if everyone was reasonably sure the money was going to their racial and religious groups. Onces you start mixing that up, and once you start trying to “right” distributive wrongs, people get suspicious. And tight-fisted.

    Again, I don’t think this means that progressive=racist. Rather, I think it argues that racism and other forms of prejudice make progressive policies hard to achieve.

    For instance, people in my parich have absolutely no qualms about forking over huge amounts of cash to support the Catholic school. They would scream bloody murder if local school taxes went up a similar amount.

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  5. Your point seems to diverge from what others have been taking from the article in that you see it as saying that racism is what obstructs progressive policies in ethnically diverse cities. The article seems to be saying that black people are the reason why progressive policies don’t work in diverse cities. That’s a very strong difference in tone.

    Personally, I find the article doesn’t square with facts. For example, Vancouver, BC is a fairly progressive city in terms of urban planning, and 40% of its population are ethnic minorities. 30% of the population are immigrants from areas other than Europe or the US.

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    • “The article seems to be saying that black people are the reason why progressive policies don’t work in diverse cities.”

      *headdesk*

      If this were a reading comprehension test, this would not be the correct answer. The article isn’t focused on – or consequently making a strong point about – the role of minorities in ethnically-diverse city.

      What it is saying is that small/medium sized progressive cities tend to be ethincally/culturally homogeneous. Based on that, it questions how the relative lack of diversity relates to progressive notions of race. It highlights how the policies tend to be very similar to largely white, upper middle class suburbs.

      In discussing ethnically diverse cities, the author emphasizes the problems in importing progressive policies developed in a homogeneous culture to a more heterogeneous one, because it’s likely not to take into account the needs of minority populations.

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  6. “Voluntary self-segregation is a depressing prospect, but I don’t think that the rise of The Progressive White City should shock anyone.”

    I don’t know, I think, there would be/are quite a few progressives who would be shocked that a municipal paragon wouldn’t be as attractive to non-whites as it is to them because shockingly such priorities aren’t universally appealing. Of course, that presumes they notice.

    As a bit of supplementary reading, I found this interesting: http://www.nytimes.com/2008/05/29/us/29portland.html?_r=1&ex=1212811200&en=4db56a5ba6ac8528&ei=5070&emc=eta1

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    • Can a city be racially diverse and yet have relatively few blacks? Do Chinese, First Nations, Sikhs, Koreans count? How do they figure in historically black neighborhoods? Should we be as concerned about cultural diversity as we are racial. Should we promote a meritocracy where it doesn’t matter what color one is, or should we make sure we have enough bible thumping rednecks to meet the national or theoretically optimal level?

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      • Oh completely, personally, I think race is only interesting as a marker of diversity as it correlates to experience. I also don’t think diversity has intrinsic value. It’s value lies in the ability of diverse viewpoints to contribute to better results of some kind.

        So yes, a city can be racially diverse despite having a below average number of blacks. In theory a color-blind meritocracy could be fine, depending on the level of the merit and in what areas.

        However, optically, when you say “Diversity!” in America you think black, increasingly Latino. A contributing reason is that racial diversity has an economic component. When it comes to housing, education, and income patterns, East Asians consistently track with or above European-Americans so when we look at diversity (which almost always has a wealth bias – we never ask why numbers of Whites are disproportionally low in Newark or Compton) and associate economic power with the ability to be in desirable places (schools, suburbs, cities) the result is a weighted view of who makes diversity, diversity.

        In terms of substance, of course black isn’t a necessary condition of diversity but that doesn’t mean an exploration of how unusually not black Portland is, is unsound or without value.

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        • Should we ask why Atlanta is so unusually non-Asian? If we’re looking for racial diversity vs. social-cultural, why should we be concerned with maintaining “black neighborhoods”? Doesn’t that itself suggest a lack of diversity?

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          • Two answers.

            If the question is in relation to the original article:
            1.) I think your question has the wrong focus. It’s not about whether cities are disproportionally diverse/not-diverse using an arbitrary metric of diversity (Asian OR Black OR Latino OR Immigrant – all of which mask important subgroups). It’s about examining cities on the basis of popular conceptions of diversity.

            Put another way what is the effect in/on Atlanta of having a population that is (diverse/not-diverse, using a metric chosen from a hat)? Versus what is the …. of having a population that is diverse/not-diverse based on what people think diverse is.

            If the question is untethered to the article originally discussed:
            2.) I think we should ask if diversity matters and if so, why? How has the racial composition of the city affected its political and spacial development? How has the city plan and development affected the city’s racial composition? Finally, how responsive is the city/political environment to the needs of its various communities?

            I don’t think we should particularly care whether Atlanta is particularly non-Asian, except with regard to those questions. If the environment and development of Atlanta is hostile or ignorant of the concerns of its Asian community, I think that matters. If the policies of the city actively discourage Asian migration to Atlanta, it matters. Does the culture of Atlanta (and the policies that rely on that culture) rely on a racial/cultural composition that doesn’t include many, if any, Asians? That matters.

            As far as concerns about maintaining a black neighbourhood go, that’s a very tricky question. There are arguments based on cultural loss and tradition (see post-Katrina New Orleans) and arguments based on economic progress (Atlanta). If a black neighbourhood is destroyed/lost because of policies designed to achieve just that or that actively ignore the needs of the community, that speaks to racism and civic dysfunction, respectively. The gentrification of black neighbourhoods making them progressively whiter is an uncomfortable reminder of the ease and ill regard with which this nation displaced or otherwise taken-advantage of minorities for the benefit of middle and upper class Americans of European descent.

            These aren’t just issues of diversity, they’re issues of history, race, civic society, culture, and tradition.

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            • 1) Perhaps there is a different concept of diversification in the NW. Microsoft is opening a campus in Vancouver because of the difficulty of US immigration laws. Vancouver is crazily diverse.

              Making a claim of “popular” concepts of diversity seem disingenuous. It doesn’t matter how many different colors there are in the rainbow. I want it to be about mine.

              2) I agree that measures shouldn’t discourage any group. However, I find it strange that diversity should include protective measures for non-diverse neighborhoods. Perhaps we should conclude that the NW has historically had a low percentage of blacks or Hispanics and hence the racial profile should be maintained to promote diversity. This seems upside down but where your neighborhood concerns seem to lead.

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              • 1.) The Microsoft example is a solid case of cum hoc ergo propter hoc.

                I don’t think using popular concepts of diversity as a lens is disingenuous at all, I think it has a lot to do with what we (as a country) most strongly associate with diversity and why we associate.

                I said earlier that diversity has a wealth bias and it does.

                In this country, we tend look at diversity in relation to historic barriers to entry, this is why we talk about diversity in higher education, diversity in corporate America, diverse neighbourhoods, diversity in top public schools, diversity in representative enterprises, diversity in talent showcase. Why? These are all areas where blacks were systematically discriminated against, part of the reason why there are so few in Oregon today is because it used to be part of the constitution that they weren’t permitted to reside in the territory/state. We never ask why there aren’t more Chinese steelworkers or why there aren’t more white service employees in Connecticut or why there aren’t more Japanese-American students going on to higher education.

                It’s hard to argue that the historical paradigm in this country hasn’t treated blacks as the sine qua non of diversity and though that is (thankfully) changing, those changes are prospective, which makes the traditional view important.

                Regarding #2, neither of the articles are suggesting that diversity requires protective measures of non-diverse neighbourhoods, what they are suggesting is that some cities sometimes aren’t responsive to the needs of some of their citizens and that there can be a racial component to that. That cities should be responsive to the needs of different communities and not just a politically and economically dominant group, I don’t find particularly strange or controversial.

                As for my personal statements, I’m not saying there should be such protections all I’m saying is its tricky because land use and race are connected to historic discrimination and continued economic inequality.

                So going back to the White City, the thing the author is saying – that makes a whole lot of sense – is that civic policies developed in the NW as a result of a culture with below average representation of traditionally economically disadvantaged groups shouldn’t be mindlessly adopted in cities of a vastly different composition because they may not respond to the concerns of communities in the importing city or be successfully implemented for the same reason.

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                • “I don’t think using popular concepts of diversity as a lens is disingenuous at all, I think it has a lot to do with what we (as a country) most strongly associate with diversity and why we associate.”
                  As a Cascadian separatist that has recently emigrated to BC, I can’t tell you how little this means to me. I’m much more concerned with First Nations, residential schools and treaty rights. Sorry, you have to take into account diversity.

                  I favor diversity that is harmonious and sustainable. I’m not really in favor of any more population growth in my region and am more interested that new inhabitants be secular than what color they are. I’d also rather maintain our suburban farm lands than build cheap housing on flood plains.

                  I’m not advocating any other place adopt what the NW has done. We are own distinct region and are trying to solve our own regional problems. Atlanta may want to look at what we do either as a positive or negative example but that’s not really my concern.

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    • Wow, that’s a pretty amazing picture. What did Bloomberg do to piss off the blacks? The article claims that he took the immigrant vote. He increased his vote in very few places but lost much of the Black vote. What do you make of this?

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      • To be honest, I wish I knew more. I think black attitudes towards Mayor Bloomberg would be illuminating here.

        In the context of The White City and given that Bloomberg wasn’t exactly the progressive candidate, I think it lends some support to the idea that among liberal democrats there is a somewhat-hidden racial division, though not racism. I’m not saying liberal, white Democrats and liberal, non-White Democrats are diametrically opposed; however, I do think in areas dominated by liberal white Democrats, their political priorities won’t be the same as non-whites and quite frankly the concerns of non-whites are more likely to be ill-addressed, if not invisible.

        Culturally, I wonder why that is. The common refrain is Democrats are more sensitive to minority concerns than Republicans, undoubtedly that’s true. In areas without serious Republican foils, however, I’m curious just how sensitive to minority concerns are liberal, white Democrats?

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        • This is something of a difficult question to answer since his opponents in both 2005 and 2009 were non-white Democrats. In 2001, running as an R, he squeaked out a victory over the white liberal Mark Green. But even there, it’s tough to read much into the racial side of things because Bloomberg was at the time so closely tied to Giuliani, whose relations with the black community were really bad.

          Then again, maybe the answer is that in NYC at least, white liberals tend to be the swing voters who are easily persuaded by a centrist candidate in local elections but just about always vote (D) in national elections.

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          • Hmm…. I didn’t want to over-read into it that Bill Thompson was black. However, he was endorsed by the President, both Senators, Cuomo, Rangel, etc…., yet still lost heavily along the West Side and in the whiter parts of Brooklyn. Which, of course, weren’t as run-away as the more conservative parts of the city, but still.

            Put another way, I think black attitudes towards Bloomberg are interesting but not particularly relevant to explaining why upper-class, white liberals weren’t persuaded to elect a non-white Democrat over Michael Bloomberg.

            Thanks for the insight, Mark.

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      • Doing a little poking about on the webs on this, (not being from NY, I haven’t followed this race or have much invested in it) many seem to be claiming that Thompson ran a weak campaign and that Bloomberg’s billions scared off the Democratic machine, including Obama, from giving much support to Thompson.

        To the more general question. I shouldn’t be surprised if liberal non-whites have different priorities and focuses than liberal whites. I would imagine this would be difficult to quantify over the entire US as I’m sure that southern liberal whites may very well have different concerns than whites from the NW or NE. Similarly, the focus of liberal non-whites must also show some difference depending on the particular make up of that group in different areas.

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  7. I think you’re spot on w/this, Will.

    A letter to NR from Denmark some years back has stuck with me—the author said universal health care was right for Denmark, wrong for the US for the reasons you give.

    In Denmark, if you max on the system, you take advantage of your neighbor. The government isn’t faceless, it’s your neighbor. It’s practically kin.

    In the US, not exactly the case…

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