by Bob Wing
john powell is one of the most innovative thinkers regarding race, civil rights, public policy, and the law in the country. He is the executive director of the Institute on Race and Poverty and Julius E. Davis professor of law at the University of Minnesota. He was formerly national legal director of the ACLU and has published widely on race, civil rights, and the law.
In recent years, john has become convinced that “bringing racial justice awareness to regionalism is the single most important civil rights task facing us today.” Recently, ColorLines invited him to do a forum on this subject at our offices in Oakland. ColorLines’ editor, Bob Wing, put this interview together based on his talk.
CL: What is regionalism?
jp: Regionalism is the notion that you should think about, fight for, and administer resources at a regional and not just a city or federal level. The economy, the infrastructure (transportation, utilities, etc.), and the labor market all function on a regional level. In general a region can be thought of as a city and its suburbs, what the census calls a metropolitan statistical area. That is why regionalism is sometimes called “metropolitics” by people like Myron Orfield.
CL: Why is regionalism important for anti‑racist work?
jp: Today, metropolitan regions are divided racially and spatially into largely white and affluent suburbs and largely non-white and poor urban centers. These dynamics are at the heart of racial inequality today. If this inequality is to be effectively fought, suburban sprawl and political fragmentation must be combatted by movements for regional and metropolitan equity.
Regional inequity has seriously undermined the efforts of the civil rights movement. By the time the movement came to the north, this structure of suburban sprawl and urban poverty had been put in place and the movement could not effectively address it. A series of policy and Supreme Court decisions like <I>Milliken<I> in the mid‑1970s outlawed desegregation and anti-discrimination efforts across school district and city lines. These decisions protected racial inequality between what were increasingly white suburbs and minority cities.
In fact, while the Supreme Court basically dismantled the ability of whites to garner resources and protect themselves on a neighborhood basis, it actually enhanced their ability to do the same on a regional basis. Just as the doctrine of states’ rights at the beginning of the century was a code for allowing the states to frustrate the rights and economic hopes of blacks, the doctrine of local autonomy and municipal rights have been used to frustrate these hopes at the end of the century.
As a result, whites have been able to re‑isolate minorities in the declining urban core and older suburbs, away from jobs, growth centers, a strong tax base, and other opportunities. This is aggravated by the fact that today suburban voters outnumber urban voters: the political center of regions throughout the country has shifted to the suburbs, again isolating the urban core.
CL: But regionalism seems to be dominated by white environmentalists and suburban interests that are not interested in racial justice.
jp: True. So far, regionalism, “smart growth,” and anti-sprawl movements have been mainly framed around the interests of white suburbanites and environmentalists. Our challenge is to reframe these issues from the standpoint and interests of people of color, who mainly live in the cities and older, declining suburbs, but whose conditions are inextricably connected to the newer, growing suburbs.
In most cases, the cities actually subsidize the suburbs, which in turn suck resources out of the cities. Cities need to fight for equal resources — housing, transportation, jobs, and education — with the suburbs. Cities cannot raise the money they need to deal with issues of concentrated poverty simply within the cities.
CL: How is concentrated poverty related to regionalism?
jp: Although most politicians frame the issue of regionalism mainly through an environmental lens, as a historical matter the central issue driving sprawl is race.
Where there is sprawl — the expanding low-density use of land — and political fragmentation in an area with a substantial minority population, there will be racialized concentrated poverty at the core. Concentrated poverty is where people with incomes below the poverty line represent over 40 percent of a census tract: most of these are people of color.
This pattern is caused by white middle class and upper middle class people fleeing to the edge of the region, taking important resources and opportunity with them and erecting barriers to low-income people of color. Concentrated poverty should be understood as racial and economic segregation combined. It is the segregation of poor people of color from opportunity and resources.
CL: Can you give an example of how this dynamic of sprawl and concentrated poverty actually works out?
jp: Over the last twenty years, the population of Detroit has fallen from just under two million to probably less than a million today. Most of those remaining are low-income black people. At the same time, the population of the Detroit metro area as a whole has increased by 3 percent–but the land it occupies has multiplied times 12. Hundreds of separate municipalities have been created, and they vie to capture resources and keep needy, low-income people out. This is classic sprawl and fragmentation.
The first population that moved to the metropolitan edge was white and upper middle classthe corporate executives of General Motors, Chrysler, Ford, and their friends. When they moved, they brought their auto plants and resources with them. I grew up in Detroit from 1960‑1995, and during that time there wasn’t one auto plant built inside the city of Detroit. In 1960, 56 percent of the jobs in the Detroit metropolitan area were in Detroit proper; today only 18 percent of the jobs are in Detroit.
When rich people move, they also suck resources out of the urban core: businesses, jobs, property taxes, malls, money for highways, transit, police, water, etc. Then other middle class strata in the population follow them, reproducing the same phenomena. This flight was not just looking for the right place to live, but looking for a white place to live.
This in turn left Detroit and dozen of other cities across the country with masses of poor people of color who have much greater social needs than middle class or rich people, but with a decimated tax base with which to pay for those needs. Fewer resources, concentrated poverty. More needs, higher taxes.
CL: But how is this sprawl related to race?
jp: You know, half the people in the country living in concentrated poverty are black. Another third are Latinos. Even though more than half the impoverished people in the country are white, most poor white people don’t live in concentrated poverty. Moreover, during the long economic boom we’ve had in the U.S., the number of people living in areas of concentrated poverty has doubled. So it’s not just economics; concentrated poverty is sorted by race. And this racial sorting takes place not just on a neighborhood level now, but on a regional level: cities versus suburbs, inner-ring suburbs versus outer-ring suburbs, this side of the freeway versus that side of the freeway, etc.
CL: Can you expand on the role of the government in this racialized sprawl?
jp: The government had a central role in the history of sprawl, especially through its housing policy. When the government set up the homeowners loan corporation and then the Federal Housing Authority in the 1930s, it wrote a truly racist underwriting manual to guide them. To qualify for a loan, you had to live in a “racially homogenous community,” meaning an all-white community. The federal government was the first to draw a red line around communities of color, prohibiting loans. Newly constructed homes were preferred over existing homes, thus encouraging the development of suburbs. And then the federal government built highways so people could get from their new suburban homes to their jobs in the cities.
Since the private lending industry wanted to do big business with the federal government, they adopted the same racist policies for making home loans.
These programs racially structured housing patterns just as large numbers of blacks were leaving the south and moving to cities in the 1940s and 1950s. Some economists have estimated that the federal government has spent over two trillion dollars subsidizing the flight of white people out of the central cities. Following the government’s lead, private banks and the secondary mortgage market made trillions of dollars available primarily for white suburbs.
But there is even more racist inequity when one looks at our transportation policy, our infrastructure policy, or our taxing policy. They reflect nothing short of a national suburban policy and an anti‑city policy. And race is central to understanding any of these policies.
CL: What is the difference between regionalism and current urban strategies?
jp: I think in many ways urban strategies, so‑called “in place strategies,” have been the wrong strategy. These strategies focus on specific neighborhoods.
For example, there are hundreds of community development corporations (CDCs) that fight for more low-income housing in their neighborhoods. I say we really don’t need it. If you look at Minneapolis for example, 85 percent of low-income houses are in a few neighborhoods, often at the behest of community advocates. The problem is that concentrating low-income public housing also concentrates poor people away from opportunity and resources. It adds to concentrated poverty.
By contrast, Montgomery County, outside Washington D.C., adopted a mixed-income housing plan. Their plan requires that 15 percent of new housing has to be below market rate and half of those need to be public housing. They thus distribute public housing throughout the community rather than concentrating it in a few neighborhoods. And the public housing is not some cheaply built high rise, but normal commercial units that have been taken off the market. It’s a very popular plan that deserves consideration elsewhere.
By regionalism I’m not suggesting a dispersal strategy, but I am suggesting a comprehensive strategy. We need a strategy that looks at what’s going on in the region and that links people of color with opportunities. This can be done through new transportation lines. It can be done by bringing some jobs and businesses to the community itself. But we also have to have the option of having people move to where those opportunities currently exist outside of the inner cities.
I know there is real concern about maintaining strong communities of color, but can we do this if they are communities of concentrated poverty?
CL: Why do you think many activists are reluctant to take on regional issues?
jp: Many urban social activists are legitimately concerned that regionalism will weaken the political and cultural ties of minority communities that are centered in the cities.
Certainly this is a real issue. But the answer is not to avoid participation in regional discussions, but to participate in such a way that we protect those concerns. With or without us, regional development is occurring and undermining our communities. The corporations, developers, and suburban whites who drive this regional development are not likely to put racial issues on the table. If we don’t come to the table, wealthy and middle class whites will simply continue to set the regional agenda according to their own interests, and we will simply suffer the consequences.
CL: What organizing opportunities does regionalism present?
jp: The core issues are really jobs, housing, and education. But they are also the hardest issues to get political unity on, given the class and racial differentiation of the metropolitan populations. So, unless you already have significant political clout, I suggest you start with easier issues like tax base revenue sharing, transportation, and infrastructure sharing.
These issues appear to be relatively race neutral, but can nonetheless be quite beneficial to people of color. For example, some years ago in Portland, concerns about slowing growth, saving the spotted owl, and maintaining farmland led to an agreement to create an urban growth boundary. Consequently, the resources that would have sprawled out started going back in. Land and housing values in Portland started soaring, including those of the black and Latino communities. In fact, Portland’s black community is accumulating wealth at a faster rate than any other black community in the country. A non‑racial regional decision to create an urban boundary line had positive impact on racial minorities. There are still issues but the environmental community in Portland has started to focus on racial justice issues.
In Detroit, there is a growing coalition between those who want to save farms and those that want to save the cities. And throughout the country, faith-based organizations are successfully taking up this issue. Unfortunately, the civil rights community is not present.
CL: Where do you think regionalism fits in a racial justice agenda? How important is it?
jp: I believe that fighting for regional resources and participating in regional planning are crucial to a successful racial justice agenda. Currently, regionalism is aggravating racial inequality and injustice. People from Al Gore to big corporations to your county boards of supervisor to your regional transit boards make regional decisions every day, and people of color are basically absent from these decisions.
I think that bringing issues of race into regionalism is crucial to a progressive agenda that can cut away at racialized concentrated poverty and inequities in education. In fact, I believe bringing racial justice awareness to regionalism is the single most important civil rights task facing us today.