Sprawl Supports Segregation

[I co-wrote the following op ed for the Hartford Courant with Ann Pratt on November 27,2005. At the time, Ms. Pratt was the Lead Organizer of the Greater Hartford Interfaith Coalition for Equity and Justice.]

The Hartford Courant’s Oct. 9 editorial, “State of Sprawl,” detailed the many public and private forces that either draw people to ever-expanding suburbs or prevent them from moving to urban centers. Federal programs for highway development, homeowner mortgage rate tax subsidies and the creation of Veteran Administration home loan programs were all identified as forces that have historically fueled the engines of sprawl. Similarly, the practices of bank redlining historically discouraged people with financial means from moving into urban centers.

What is striking about this article, as well as the commentary, editorial and letters that followed, is the absence of any analysis of the impact of race and racism on sprawl. Understanding this impact is essential in order for policy directions to be meaningful not only for communities of color but for white communities as well.

For example, it is crucial to understand that the first federal home loan programs intentionally encouraged whites to apply for these loans and excluded people of color. An excerpt from the 1947 FHA underwriting manual states: “If a neighborhood is to retain stability, it is necessary that properties continue to be occupied by the same racial and social classes. A change in racial and social occupancy generally contributes to instability and loss of value.”

Some will argue that such laws, policies and practices have been eliminated and that we treat everyone the same in the public and private spheres. Others will argue back.

At a forum organized by the Greater Hartford Interfaith Coalition for Equity and Justice on Nov. 10, Ohio State University Professor john powell, executive director of the Kirwan Institute, spoke to a crowd of 500 community leaders about how institutional structures continue to damage the lives of people of color. Powell spoke about the concept of “spatial racism,” which he defines as the cumulative impact of policies and structures that work to segregate people of color from opportunity and strip away resources from city and inner suburban communities of color.

A specific example of these policies is housing tax credit programs that create enormous incentives for developers to build low-income, subsidized housing in “distressed” communities. As a result, affordable housing is not created in places of opportunity where people have access to good schools, safe communities and quality employment.

Meanwhile, housing and economic development designed primarily to serve middle- and upper-class white families continues unabated into the remaining acres of Connecticut’s farmland. The government pays for this with new roads, sewers and schools, while people of color living in distressed communities are excluded from the opportunities needed for a decent life.

Even as we condemn segregation, we continue to support it. Suburban sprawl and urban poverty are intimately related, and race sits undeniably at the center of this relationship.

The consequences of these policies are enormous. Consider that 72 percent of Connecticut’s African American and Hispanic children attend high-poverty, low-performing schools, compared with 12 percent of white and Asian students. Less than 32 percent of African Americans own homes in the state, and the Hispanic homeownership rate is at 26 percent.

Black and Latino children are two to three times more likely than white children to suffer from asthma. African American women have a 27 percent higher mortality rate from diabetes than white women.

Powell emphasized that analyzing the causes of sprawl through the lens of spatial racism provides an excellent opportunity to expand dialogue and create solutions to the problems of sprawl. He cited a Wade County, Md., study that showed that when African American and low-income children were placed in low-poverty, high-performing schools with middle-income children, test scores improved by 100 percent.

Similarly, a longitudinal study was done with single mothers, predominately African American and Latina, who moved from the Cabrini Green housing project in Chicago to suburban homes and communities. The most striking change found in the lives of these women and their families was the dramatic improvement in their overall health indicators. Blood pressure, asthma and obesity dropped dramatically. Researchers attributed these changes to the decreased stress levels incurred by living in safe communities, along with access to better foods and cleaner environments.

Much of Powell’s presentation helped to reinforce the policy agenda of the Interfaith Coalition, including reducing Connecticut’s dependency on property tax to fund public education by challenging and demanding that the state become a full partner in funding local school costs; expanding access to health care for low-income and communities of color; and fully funding preschool programs to help close the achievement gap.

Sprawl with jurisdictional fragmentation, as is the case in Connecticut, is a mechanism that sorts people by race and class. It continues to be the source of immense racial disparity and, in many instances, racial apartheid. We will not deal adequately with the problems of sprawl if we fail to take race and racism into account.

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