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"Clean, Safe and High-Value" Neighborhoods Are Nice Ways of Saying "White" Without Bringing Race into It

By Rich Benjamin

Hyperion Books

The following is an excerpt from Searching for Whitopia by Rich Benjamin (Hyperion, 2009).

In twenty-first-century America, how do so many Whitopias hatch and flourish?

A few white readers may protest that their neighborhood’s appeal has nothing to do with its racial composition. The homogeneity of where they live is “irrelevant” or “coincidental,” they say. But divorcing a Whitopia’s appeal from its predominantly white composition is like extracting the marshmallow from the s’more. Impossible. Each is fundamental to the other.

Whites may not move to a place simply because it teems with other white people. Rather, to many Americans, a place’s whiteness implies other qualities that are desirable. Americans associate a homogenous white neighborhood with higher property values, friendliness, orderliness, hospitability, cleanliness, safety, and comfort. These seemingly race-neutral qualities are subconsciously inseparable from race and class in many whites’ minds. Race is often used as a proxy for those neighborhood traits.

Through most of the twentieth century, racial discrimination was deliberate and intentional. Today, racial segregation and division often result from habits, policies, and institutions that are not explicitly designed to discriminate. Contrary to popular belief, discrimination or segregation do not require animus. They thrive even in the absence of prejudice or ill will.

It’s common to have racism without “racists.”

The law does not forbid segregated or discriminating neighborhoods. It simply forbids intentional discrimination. Successful plaintiffs in a discrimination lawsuit must prove that someone intended racial bias.

And the legal standard to establish proof of that intent is very high: The plaintiff must present a “smoking gun” and this particular gun is often impossible to furnish. The 1973 Supreme Court decision San Antonio v. Rodriguez held that a school funding system based on local property taxes that perpetuated egregious disparities in per-pupil spending between mostly white districts and mostly minority districts does not violate the Constitution, because the plaintiffs could not prove that the funding differences emerged from intentional racial discrimination. Another landmark Supreme Court decision, Arlington Heights v. Metropolitan Housing Development Corp (1977), reinforced this “intent doctrine”: The court ruled that a suburban village did not discriminate, because it did not intend to discriminate when it set-up zoning that disproportionately harmed racial minorities.

There is a terrible disconnect between our everyday experiences and the law: In day-to-day life, racial inequity continues without intent, yet courts require evidence of intent before the law can acknowledge or effectively confront discrimination. Regrettably, the absence of explicit intent has become a common crutch that justifies private decisions that wreak racial havoc upon minorities.

Not to know what has been transacted in the past is to be always a child, said Cicero.

The history of the U.S. housing market shows the corrosive influence of discriminatory public policy on private decision-making: For many decades, private lenders, neighborhoods, and citizens adopted intolerant public policies. Discriminatory government behavior was aped by the public, and blended seamlessly into the “free market.” Covert and overt, these segregating and unjust public and private practices made it difficult, if not impossible, for blacks to own homes in broad swaths of America’s suburbs.

From 1934 to 1962, the Federal Housing Administration (FHA) underwrote $120 billion in new housing. Less than 2 percent of that went to nonwhites. From 1938 to 1962, the FHA insured the mortgages on nearly one third of all new housing in the United States. Its Underwriting Manuals, however, considered blacks an “adverse influence” on property values and instructed personnel not to insure mortgages on homes unless they were in “racially homogenous” white neighborhoods. Under its eligibility ranking system, the FHA often refused to lend money to or underwrite loans for whites if they moved to areas where people of color lived. Some scholars now call the government’s handiwork a “$120 billion head start” on white home ownership, on white equity, and on whites’ ability to pass along wealth from one generation to the next.

The private sector then played its part. Banks regularly “redlined,” denying credit to qualified black borrowers. Individuals and neighborhoods, taking the Federal Housing Administration’s cue, maintained “restrictive covenants” to ban blacks from purchasing homes.

Home ownership through a thirty-year mortgage has long been the primary mechanism by which most American families created wealth. So deferred home ownership opportunities have compounded economic disadvantages for racial minorities.

Segregation is no longer codified by law; it is propped up by the “innocuous” and “nonracial” choices local governments and average citizens eagerly make. One warm afternoon, Brian Dill, the vice president for economic development in Forsyth County, Georgia, a lily-white upscale exurb north of Atlanta, tells me that his county has resisted zoning for apartments and condos in fear of future “blight.” A dissenting voice in his county, Dill wishes Forsyth would allow for more varieties of housing in order “to recruit and retain a diverse workforce.” Nationwide, municipal governments enact suburban land-use and zoning policies to promote larger lot development, to sustain private property values, to restrict suburban rental housing, all of which limit the influx of black and Latino households.

Such public and private behavior continues residential segregation, inflicting a double whammy: The residential segregation furthers unacceptable disparities in wealth between the races, and it creates a geography of opportunity, determining who has access to the valuable resources that improve one’s life.

Thirty years after the civil rights era, the United States remains a residentially segregated society in which non-Hispanic whites, Latinos, and blacks inhabit different neighborhoods with a vastly different quality of services and opportunities.

In spite of decades-long income gains among Latinos and blacks, non-Hispanic white households enjoyed a median net worth of $79,400 — eight times the net worth of Latino households and ten times the net worth of black households. Even at similar income levels, significant wealth gaps between the races remain. In terms of wealth, America is now the most unequal country in the industrialized world.

Most Whitopians I encounter don’t purposefully practice racial discrimination and don’t give segregation much thought. Rather, they engage in a form of “opportunity mapping.” Like geocachers on a treasure hunt, they chase communities according to “opportunity indicators”: housing, education, medical facilities, crime rates, perceived sense of safety, outdoor amenities, and social comfort (simpatico values). James, who is over the moon in Whitopia, says he literally created a spreadsheet charting his “wish list” and “won’t list,” then identified five communities congenial to those lists, crunched some numbers, checked the results against his wife’s common-sense sniff test, and settled on Utah’s Dixie.


Not only do whites follow the opportunity, they leverage their connections and capture public resources (e.g., tax dollars) to bring opportunity along with them. The geography of opportunity — or, the geography of homogeneity — is becoming frighteningly entrenched. Such geography forecasts trouble for our democracy.

“Geography is more important than before because spatial segregation has not just residential but economic implications,” according to Roberto Suro, founder of the Pew Hispanic Center and a preeminent scholar of race in America. “The wholesale shift of the middle class to the suburbs has been followed by the movement of economic activity outside the urban core. As a result, the landscape is clearly demarcated into zones of privilege and zones of abandonment. Society concentrates its best resources — green spaces, doctors’ offices, new schools, and sewer lines — in some areas, neglecting others. In the United States, this separation still has an important racial component, because most of the people living in the zones of privilege are white, of course, and those in the zones of abandonment are not.”

Over all, levels of residential segregation remain high for Latinos and blacks, says Douglas Massey, the Henry G. Bryant Professor of Sociology and Public Affairs at Princeton University, and a world-renowned expert on race. “According to the latest data, half of all urban African Americans live under extreme conditions of racial isolation and another third live under conditions that would qualify as high segregation for any other group.” Modest declines in blacks’ segregation have occurred in cities with small black populations like Seattle, Tucson, San Jose, and Minneapolis, according to Massey.

“Asians and light-skinned blacks and Hispanics seem to be able to take advantage of socioeconomic mobility and gain entrée to advantaged, integrated neighborhoods,” he adds. “The black/non-black divide continues to loom as a major cleavage in American society. And segregation on the basis of class has been rising. Poor dark-skinned minorities are confined to very disadvantaged neighborhoods, while affluent and educated minorities share more advantaged neighborhoods with similarly situated whites, especially if the minorities have light skin.”

The philosophy and policies that underlie desegregation are under intense assault from administrative actions, voter initiatives, and court cases. The Supreme Court’s 2007 landmark rulings in Parents Involved in Community Schools v. Seattle School District and in Meredith v. Jefferson prohibited assigning students to public schools for the purpose of achieving racial integration. These court rulings also declined to recognize racial balancing as a “compelling state interest.”

The rise of Whitopia dovetails with the nationwide decline in support for racial integration. In 1964, 41 percent of Americans wanted the federal government to integrate our public schools. By the early 1990s, 95 percent of Americans wanted integrated schools in principle, but only 34 percent wanted the federal government to help make integration a reality. By the early 2000s, our public schools continued their slide toward re-segregation: They are less integrated now than in 1970.

Prepositions can help orient us around the varieties of racism. Interpersonal racism exists between people. Institutional racism exists within institutions. Structural racism exists across institutions, public policy, and other important domains (education, the judiciary, real estate, etc.).

The difference between interpersonal racism and structural racism is huge. In combating each, we might consider C. Wright Mills’s distinction between troubles and problems. Troubles are what individuals have. Problems are what groups create and then like to ignore. Interpersonal racism is only a trouble. Structural racism is a problem.

Structural racism is baked into our national psyche and behavior. It is “the blind interaction between institutions, policies and practices, which inevitably perpetuates barriers to opportunities and racial disparities,” according to the Center for Social Inclusion, a non-partisan research organization. So the PC-diversity racket badgers us into “sensitivity,” but has little to say about structural racism. And the conservative echo chamber upbraids black leaders for churlish racial asides, with no regard to the target of the leaders’ agitation: structural racism. We fumble in defining and identifying structural racism, so we are reluctant to acknowledge it. Even when structural racism is acknowledged, its ambiguity and enormity frighten us out of action.

Picture this. A government agency decides to build low-income housing for low-income Latinos and blacks. The agency “fails to look for locations near jobs and important infrastructure, like working schools, decent public transportation and other services,” the Center for Social Inclusion’s literature explains. In fact, the new housing is built in a poor, mostly black and Latino part of town. “When the housing is built, the school district, already under-funded, has new residents too poor to contribute to its tax base. The local government spends its limited resources on transportation to connect largely white, well-to-do suburban commuters to their downtown jobs. The public housing residents are left isolated, in under-funded schools, with no transportation to job centers. Whole communities of people of color lose opportunities for a good education, quality housing, living wage jobs, services and support systems.”

When asked about his county’s white homogeneity, Norman Baggs, a longtime resident of Forsyth County, Georgia, and former editor and publisher of the Forsyth County News, replies: “There’s a suburban elitism among people who move into communities like this.” Baggs remembers attending a public meeting years ago where a woman stood up to say she lived in a $150,000 house, but didn’t want to look out her window at a $100,000 house. “By that elitism, you restrict, negatively, the ability of certain groups of people to come here and live.” Baggs attributes the “elitism” to county officials, developers, and residents.

On my journey through Whitopia, examples of structural racism surface over and over—from how towns and neighborhoods are zoned, to how chambers of commerce favor or discourage certain newcomers and businesses, to how political and business establishments address social conflict (stay tuned on Forsyth County, Georgia). If whites and nonwhites interact pleasantly on a one-to-one basis, how does a Whitopia mushroom? Structural racism is what we need to train our eyes to see.

Some Whitopians are indifferent to their community’s homogeneity with downright orneriness: Why do you have to make race an issue!? And others with Zen serenity: We don’t let it be an issue for us ;-> Whitopia is a tale of racial segregation, abetted by Uncle Sam, by local governments, by business interests, and by individuals, all of whom say they are offering or chasing powerful “nonracial” incentives.

Copyright (c) 2009 Rich Benjamin. Published by Hyperion. All Rights Reserved. Available wherever books are sold.

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