Sunday, July 20, 2014

Waking Up From The American Dream - Suburbanization, Public Transit, and Racial Segregation

Here at Carless In OKC, it's probably fairly obvious that we are not fans of suburban sprawl. The suburbs themselves are not inherently harmful or offensive; it's what they represent, the circumstances from which they grow and thrive, that are problematic. The history of U.S. suburbs is quite insidious, and it's good for everyone to know why they developed in the first place. Other factors contributed to suburbanization, such as the rise of the automobile, the post-WW2 economic boom, and the growth of the U.S. interstate highway system, but it is undeniable that racism and classism played a considerable role in how our current urban/suburban model of living has developed. 

You've probably heard the term white flight before, but in case you're unfamiliar with it, I'll define it here. White flight is a term that is used to describe the vast migration of mostly middle- and upper-class whites from increasingly racially mixed urban regions to racially homogeneous suburban areas. The term "white flight" is somewhat of a misnomer because it implies that whites left the area immediately upon the arrival of minorities into their neighborhoods, but that's not exactly how it went. Yes, there were some who packed up and got out of Dodge the moment they saw (or thought they saw) a non-white person move in on their street, but there were many more who stayed, at least for awhile, and defended "their turf" using various unsavory and unethical methods.

Over the following years during this post-WW2 period there were many practices and institutions in place that served the purpose of preserving the homogeneity of the white urban neighborhoods. Redlining, named for the lines on a map that denoted unfavorable (read: predominantly non-white) areas, involved denying or charging more for services like banking and insurance for residents or businesses within those areas. Institutionalized mortgage discrimination enabled its sinister companion, contract sellers, who preyed on would-be black homeowners by collecting payments on a home and not relinquishing the deed until the contract was paid in full. This effectively stripped the "homeowner" of the ability to build equity while simultaneously saddling him with all the responsibilities of home ownership, along with the looming possibility of being put out on the street in the case of a single late payment.

These practices, along with racially restrictive covenants and violence and intimidation, disenfranchised and discouraged minorities from owning homes or living in certain areas. This cycle went on for at least a couple of decades, most notably in cities like DetroitChicago, and St. Louis, until they fell (or were legally forced) out of practice. The damage, however, had already been done throughout the years of quasi-segregational practices, and when the smoke cleared, by the 1980s, urban and suburban areas were, for the most part, heavily divided along racial lines. (To read more about this time in American history and how it still affects us today, I highly recommend this incredible piece by Ta'Nahisi Coates.)

Since then, there are many metropolitan areas where the public transit situation has deteriorated and consequently reinforced these racial and socioeconomic divisions. In Atlanta, for example, proposed extensions of the local rail system (MARTA) into the surrounding counties have been defeated again and again, despite the fact that Atlanta suffers from notorious traffic congestion and would greatly benefit from expanded public transit for commuters. Why would these municipalities knowingly reject a plan that would relieve one of the biggest problems of the region? Many say - and there's considerable evidence to support this idea - that it's the same old white flight song and dance; namely, that affluent whites who live in the suburban counties don't want to extend public transit to their areas for fear of poor minorities from the inner city gaining access to their precious exclusive neighborhoods. Fearmongering around this idea is widespread; for years, opponents of public transit have spread lies about increased crime and decreased property values that are sure to follow the expansion of service into the Metro Atlanta suburbs, and unfortunately, many have bought into these lies.

Furthermore, a stigma has grown around public transit in many cities, not just the ones with firmly defined urban/suburban racial and socioeconomic regions. Public transit such as commuter rails and buses were once viable transportation options for everyone, but as negative ideas about public transit have spread in some areas, ridership has decreased among those who have the choice to drive. As a result, those left on the buses and trains are the groups who don't have the choice. As this ridership demographic shifts, so does the opinion of what it means to take public transit. This is why, in certain cities, those who utilize public transit are pitied or labeled as less fortunate, regardless of their actual circumstances, and this discourages many people from taking public transportation. Using public transit has become a stigmatized activity in places like Oklahoma City, and as long as this is the case, problems with racial diversity and transportation will, at best, remain stagnant, if not worsen. 
I am not trying to say that everyone who lives in the suburbs is racist, just like pointing out that white people benefit from privilege and institutionalized racism isn't the same thing as saying that every white person is a racist. This is a commentary on the societal systems that have been in place for many years and how they have informed our current state. The way to move forward is to raise awareness and to be open to ways that we can mitigate these conditions for the betterment of everyone's way of life. The first step, to me, is to approach city planning with an open mind - as far as I'm concerned, that's an entirely reasonable order, with the potential for revolutionary effects.

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