For more than 100 years now, members of the Zulu Social Aid & Pleasure Club in New Orleans have painted their faces black and worn caricatured Zulu tribe costumes on Mardi Gras as part of the holidayÃ¢â‚¬s festivities. Activists in the city are saying itÃ¢â‚¬s time to bring that blackface tradition to end. Last month, members of the racial justice group TakeEmDown NOLA staged a protest in front of the Zulu Club headquarters, demanding that they renounce blackface. Members at the club that day responded by putting their blackface on early and brought a Second Line band to drown out the protests.
For TakeEmDownNOLA, their latest protest is consistent with their mission to eliminate all symbols of white supremacy in New Orleans, not just those that honor Confederate military leaders. Blackface is undeniably a legacy of white entertainersÃ¢â‚¬ minstrel shows of the late-19th and early-20th centuries that mocked African Americans and painted them as uncivilized simpletonsÃ¢â‚¬â€�aÃ‚Â caricaturizationthat white people have used to justify the discrimination and dehumanizing of black people.
The New Orleans Zulus, as the story goes, adopted blackface from a group of white vaudevillian actors who had painted their faces black, wore straw skirts, and tossed coconuts around for a theatrical skit that caricatured an African Zulu tribe. Modern-day Zulu Club members defend their practice by saying they are honoring the original group who were poking fun at the white actors. And there is a lot to like with this defense if you are a member of the Zulu Social Aid & Pleasure Club, or a preservationist-hawk for all New Orleans culture. However, if you are neither of those things and you happen to be in New Orleans for Mardi Gras, then Zulu blackface may not be for you. But you will be subjected to it anyway, even if it offends you.
If defending Zulu blackface for the culture, then you could easily argue that the campaign to erase blackface is as futile and misguided as that one time when the NAACP held a funeral for the n-word. Blackface defenders could argue that just as many black people have adopted the n-wordÃ¢â‚¬â€�though with a slightly modified inflection to signify a more endearing connotation, despite the wordÃ¢â‚¬s troublesome careerÃ¢â‚¬â€�the Zulu Clubis doing the same with painted blackface.
Ã¢â‚¬Å“Black face is a demeaning act. It is not only the makeup, itÃ¢â‚¬s the clothes, the buffoonery, itÃ¢â‚¬s the stupidity, itÃ¢â‚¬s the entire devaluation of a race that we have never participated in, so itÃ¢â‚¬s much different what they do and what we do,Ã¢â‚¬ï¿½ said Jay Banks, chairman of the Zulu clubÃ¢â‚¬s board of directors to a local news station. Ã¢â‚¬Å“ItÃ¢â‚¬s not the same thing. Black makeup is not black face.Ã¢â‚¬ï¿½
Others could argue that Zulu-Club blackfacing is a repudiation of the proverbial Ã¢â‚¬Å“white gazeÃ¢â‚¬ï¿½ that the novelist Toni Morrison often references, where black people feel the need to correct their public behavior out of fear of being shamed by observing whites.
ItÃ¢â‚¬s also worth understanding that New Orleans prides itself on rebelling against what the rest of America does or wants it to do, and black New Orleanians can be even more rebellious in this regardÃ¢â‚¬â€�no matter how pernicious the optics are. Consider that this is the city where parents in a black Catholic church held a pro-paddling march when the Catholic school ended its corporal punishment policies.
What these tensions often boil down to is cultureÃ¢â‚¬â€�the defense of a New Orleanian, or a black New Orleanian way of life. It shouldnÃ¢â‚¬t be overlooked that black cultural norms have been under attack in the city, whether itÃ¢â‚¬s noise ordinances to quiet the street-busking that many young black musicians rely on for money, or the rising permit costs for Second Line marches.
Resistanceto some New Orleans reforms also tend to share a perception that white people or Ã¢â‚¬Å“outsidersÃ¢â‚¬ï¿½ are behind them. The blackface debate fits squarely here with some already saying that the TakeEmDown activists are getting propped up by outsiders who donÃ¢â‚¬t understand the culture. Writing for The Lens, Lydia Y. Nichols argued that the blackface protest is, itself, tantamount to white supremacy. Aiming at TakeEmDownNOLA, Nichols, who is black, wrote:
Like many contemporary social-justice activists, they seem to share the white supremacist belief that working-class, Southern Black people need to be changed; that we need to submit to their higher wisdom and agenda. Take Ã¢â‚¬ËœEm Down NOLA reinforces the narrative that the Black masses are stupid and need education Ã¢â‚¬â€� in fact, so stupid that we annually celebrate our own ridicule. Having sought and secured press coverage, Take Ã¢â‚¬ËœEm Down NOLA is not protesting a minstrel show; theyÃ¢â‚¬re starring in a self-produced minstrel show, and it throws into question the sincerity of the groupÃ¢â‚¬s effort to rid the 110-year-old Black club and cultural tradition of the symbols it has long deployed.
TakeEmDownNOLA is having none of this, though. For these activists, whoÃ¢â‚¬ve protested, since 2016, Mardi Gras activities such as throwing Confederate paraphernalia from parade floats, the ZuluClubÃ¢â‚¬s blackface is part and parcel of a larger ecosystem of white supremacist symbols and policies overlording African Americans in New Orleans. They also see this as a ripe time for revisiting and cancelling what they consider to be an odious culture. After all, Governor Ralph Northam and Attorney General Mark R. Herring in Virginia are both under fire for wearingblackface. Meanwhile, a USA Today review of hundreds of college yearbooks has revealed that white people blackfacing is an American pastime that still resonates loudly on present-day universities campuses across the nation.
If punishment is due for white people who do this, then why are we toleratingÃ¢â‚¬â€�no, celebrating it every year in New Orleans?
Ã¢â‚¬Å“Some traditions are bad traditions,Ã¢â‚¬ï¿½ TakeEmDownNOLA activist Malcolm Suber, who is black, told NOLA.com. Ã¢â‚¬Å“The world changes and we have to be in tune with what is happening in the world.Ã¢â‚¬ï¿½
Here the N-word debate is instructive, though it doesnÃ¢â‚¬t exactly provide a strong scaffold for blackface logic. While there is no universal embrace of the N-word amongst black peopleÃ¢â‚¬â€�many African Americans would still love to have the word buried for goodÃ¢â‚¬â€�there is nary a city in the U.S. where you wonÃ¢â‚¬t find segments of black people using the term. But you probably wonÃ¢â‚¬t find black people anywhere outside of New Orleans wearing blackfaceÃ¢â‚¬â€�not even on Mardi Gras in cities like Mobile and Washington, D.C., which both have their own black Mardi Gras traditions. ThereÃ¢â‚¬s also that little point that not everyone in the Zulu Club is black.
Ã¢â‚¬Å“[Zulu Club] members have invited white people to blacken up their faces right along side them,Ã¢â‚¬ï¿½ says Michael Ã¢â‚¬Å“QuessÃ¢â‚¬ï¿½ Moore, one of the TakeEmDownNOLA activists. Ã¢â‚¬Å“Black children and black families have to be exposed to that. ItÃ¢â‚¬s way out of control, over the top, and it should have never been done in the first place.Ã¢â‚¬ï¿½
Perhaps the origins and intention of Zulu blackface are satiricalÃ¢â‚¬â€� though this is up for debate. However, for satire to work the audience has to be in on the joke. But as NOLA.com columnist Jarvis DeBerry, who is black, has written, itÃ¢â‚¬s definitely not certain that the joke was ever supposed to be OK for a global audience.Ã‚Â Ã‚Â
Ã¢â‚¬Å“ItÃ¢â‚¬s unclear what the original joke was meant to be, but it seems obvious to me that it was a joke told by working-class black people of New Orleans to other working-class black people of New Orleans,Ã¢â‚¬ï¿½ wrote DeBerry. Ã¢â‚¬Å“Throughout history, marginalized groups have told jokes among themselves that they didnÃ¢â‚¬t intend for the larger population to hear and certainly didnÃ¢â‚¬t intend for the larger population to join in on.Ã¢â‚¬ï¿½
Blackface in New Orleans is not so much a black cultural expression as it is a Zulu Club cultural expressionÃ¢â‚¬â€�a hyper-localized activity that doesnÃ¢â‚¬t even stretch across the city of New Orleans. Should any parade other than the Zulu ClubÃ¢â‚¬s exhibit people in black face paint, weÃ¢â‚¬d be having a much different conversation.
Yet, though the expression is very unique to this one particular day and this one particular social club, the blackface message gets sent well beyond this club, this city, and this holiday. People visit New Orleans from all around the world on Mardi Gras, and most of the tourists are not up on the historical scripture and verse that could possibly contextualize the blackface images that will greet them. In that regard, many of them will receive it as a greeting, and not with the critical elenchus it deservesÃ¢â‚¬â€�especially not after their third Hand Grenade.
Governor Northam might see these images and use them to justify his adamant stance that he remain in office, even as black legislators are telling him to step down. This is not all about white gaze, either. Millions more people outside of New Orleans will see these images via Instagram, Facebook, Snapchat and other social media networks, and many of them will be repulsed. Black people outside of New Orleans might feel assaulted. They wonÃ¢â‚¬t feel this way because a white person is shaming them; they will feel this way because they know these images were used for decades to paint black people as savages.
Interestingly, the defenders of Zulu blackface culture share a bit in common with the defenders of Confederate monuments and regalia. In no way, of course, should Zulu members be seen as the equivalent of members of the Confederate, or even Confederate supportersÃ¢â‚¬â€� Zulus are not venerating a way of life that sought to preserve the enslavement of African Americans. But by defending a clearly offensive activity such as blackface, they are entertaining the same logic: Heritage, not hate.
The cityÃ¢â‚¬s response to Confederate defenders who used that logic was: Fine, if itÃ¢â‚¬s just heritage, then we can put it in a private museum or theater where you can celebrate it all day amongst yourselves. And TakeEmDownNOLA protests were a critical factor in pushing the city towards that response. The same response could be used for Zulu blackface heritage: Celebrate it in your club quarters, at the Zulu Ball, or in some other private setting. Just keep it off the public streets.
Ã¢â‚¬Å“The Great Migration changed American history not just for the migrants but for all of us,Ã¢â‚¬ï¿½ said Barr. Ã¢â‚¬Å“It made possible American cultural milestones like the Harlem Renaissance, Chicago blues, and Motown, just to name a few. Today we see Ã¢â‚¬Â¦ in the 2010 Census, a higher percentage of the African-American population lived in the South than in any Census in 50 years. I think that these are good signs that much progress has been made.Ã¢â‚¬ï¿½
Indeed, while the Ã¢â‚¬Å“Great MigrationÃ¢â‚¬ï¿½ waves of the early and mid-20th century led to the chocolating of cities such as Chicago and Detroit (MotownÃ¢â‚¬s home), those same two cities today are reporting, for the first time in decades, decreases in their black populations. That may not spell progress for African Americans in the North, but it does appear to be benefitting the South.
According to Brookings Institution fellow Andre Perry, one outcome of black migration trends is that thereÃ¢â‚¬s now a growing squadron of black cities emerging across the urban landscape. There are 1,262 majority-black cities as of 2017 compared to 460 in 1970. This tripling in growth has happened despite the fact that the overall black population has been mostly flat over the same time period. A new Brookings report released this weekby Perry and David Harshbarger seeks to explain how itÃ¢â‚¬s possible that the number of black cities is climbing while the total black population is not.
Ã¢â‚¬Å“The emergence of black-majority cities reflects more than anything else a changing demographic landscape between and within cities,Ã¢â‚¬ï¿½ reads the report.Ã¢â‚¬Å“A new great migration and intra-metropolitan movement have reshaped urban, suburban, and rural communities, facilitating the rise of todayÃ¢â‚¬s black-majority cities.Ã¢â‚¬ï¿½
The report categorizes the top 100 U.S. cities by their black population distributions, placing them in one of four types divided into quadrants:
Cities in the Boomtowns quadrant gained both black and non-black population from 1970 to 2010.
Cities in the White Flight quadrant gained black population, but experienced a decrease in non-black (largely white) population.
Cities in the Suburbanized quadrant lost both black and non-black population.
Cities in the Gentrified quadrant lost black population, but gained non-black population.
From this grouping we learn that most black cities have been formed as a result of white flightÃ¢â‚¬â€�cities that lost white population over the decades while the black population increased, such that African Americans now constitute a majority in them. Milwaukee is listed as an example of this, but it is an anomaly in its midwest region. Most black cities exist in the South, and that itself is explained by the recent migratory trends of African Americans from the North and Midwest moving to cities below the Mason-Dixon line.
The irony is that African Americans had been relatively better off in the cities outside of the South. A study last year found that the children of African Americans who fled the South during the Great Migration ended up with better income and education levels and were more likely to have risen out of poverty than the children of African Americans who remained in the South. The same results were not found for the children of white people who left the South during the same Great Migration waves.
With that in mind, perhaps the recent reverse migration of African Americans to the South could be explained as black people simply returning to their roots, or to share their new financial and economic bonafides with black family and networks that stuck it out in Southern cities. Perry says that it reflects an increase in choice and mobility for African Americans.
Ã¢â‚¬Å“I want black people to have options and if theyÃ¢â‚¬re getting affordable housing and they have a good job, I couldnÃ¢â‚¬t care less where they move,Ã¢â‚¬ï¿½ says Perry. Ã¢â‚¬Å“I donÃ¢â‚¬t necessarily care where they move, I just want them to have a quality of life that propels them to thrive economically, socially, and educationally, and apparently a lot of people think thatÃ¢â‚¬s in the South.Ã¢â‚¬ï¿½
What the return to the former Confederate South has meant for cities such as Atlanta and Memphis is a swelling of African Americans mostly in those citiesÃ¢â‚¬ suburbs. This graph created by CityLab data journalist David Montgomery shows how in manyÃ¢â‚¬â€�though not allÃ¢â‚¬â€�major metros, black populations are growing much more quickly in suburbs than in central cities:
In metro Atlanta specifically, the black suburban population grew by almost 5 percent from 2010 to 2017, while the black population in the city proper shrank by nearly 5 percent. In fact, AtlantaÃ¢â‚¬s inner-ring suburbs have taken on so many majority-black areas that it has triggered some white neighborhoods to rope themselves off to start their own majority-white cities. This trend is referred to as the Ã¢â‚¬Å“cityhood movement,Ã¢â‚¬ï¿½ and while it began with white cities they likely wonÃ¢â‚¬t have the last word on this matter, as several majority-black cities have now either formed or are attempting to form in AtlantaÃ¢â‚¬s suburbs. While some have been foreshadowing that the city of Atlanta might lose its black-city status in the near future, thereÃ¢â‚¬s a strong possibility that a new black city called Greenhaven could soon open up right next to it.
This all lends credence to one of the central ideas of the Brookings report: That despite stagnated black population growth, continued white flight, new white-city formations, and the occasional headlines lamenting the death of Chocolate Cities, black cities donÃ¢â‚¬t seem to be going away anytime soon. Not only that, but black cities have been thriving. In January, Troy University public administration professor Leora Waldner released the findings of a study where she tracked four areas that have incorporated into majority-black cities since 1990: Green Level, North Carolina; St. Gabriel, Louisiana; Miami Gardens, Florida; and West Park, Florida. In all four cases, there were concerns, prior to city incorporation, that these areas were too poorÃ¢â‚¬â€�or, in some cases, too blackÃ¢â‚¬â€�to succeed as cities. What Waldner found: Ã‚Â
None of the cities disincorporated, and archival materials provide evidence of enhanced services such as new parks, transportation, infrastructure enhancements for water lines, and additional police. Moreover, the new cities embraced social justice initiatives in areas ranging from senior healthcare (City of West ParkÃ¢â‚¬s 2nd, 2013) to minority youth employment (City partners with Miami Job Corps, 2012). Thus, the case studies confirm the first hypothesis: new cities of color, even those with high poverty rates, can thrive.
Ã¢â‚¬Å“Black people in the South are vulnerable in conservative states, thatÃ¢â‚¬s no question,Ã¢â‚¬ï¿½ says Perry. Ã¢â‚¬Å“But as we saw in Alabama and Georgia, black people are now mobilizing their strength in ways we havenÃ¢â‚¬t seen before. Cultural protection is real and black people should have the sense that when living in a majority-black place that thereÃ¢â‚¬s more cultural protection for them there, regardless of the larger state context.Ã¢â‚¬ï¿½
In 1968, Esquire spoke with James Baldwin about possible solutions to racial tensions in the wake of Martin Luther King’s assassination. It was a wide-ranging discussion, but it often gravitated towards the issues of housing and policing—two longstanding challenges that have historically obstructed African Americans’ paths toward economic mobility and empowerment in the United States. Asked about low-income housing development, the acclaimed novelist said he didn’t want any more housing projects built in Harlem.
“I want someone to attack the real-estate lobby because that’s the only way to destroy the ghetto,” said Baldwin. Asked what he thought about building low-income housing in the suburbs, he said, “Well, that depends on the will of the American people, doesn’t it? That’s why they are in the suburbs—to get away from me.”
As Amanda Hurley wrote in this 2018 Year in Review series, the suburbs have since grown to become a much more complicated place. But the racism undergirding Baldwin’s sentiments on what the suburbs had become and how they got that way in 1968 still remain with us, 50 years later. And the people most heavily burdened by racism are still taking to the streets to express their concerns and rages over it as well.
The way government and law enforcement officials respond to these protests hasn’t changed much, either—police still are mostly positioned to manage and suppress such uprisings, often by force; government officials, meanwhile, continue to struggle with how to address their root causes. In 2018, as America commemorated King in his final living moments, we seemed simultaneously invested in resuscitating and maintaining many of the problems that he died trying to remedy in 1968.
When it comes to housing, most if not all major cities still contain similar rates of spatial-racial segregation seen in King’s day. The reasons for that lie as much with the real estate lobbies that have continued promoting exclusionary zoning policies as they do with the banks that continue to propagate inequitable lending patterns.
“Where de jure segregation was once the rule, de facto segregation still persists,” wrote Capps. “For example, in Jacksonville, new home mortgages still fall within the very same lines that banks drew to prevent black families from moving into white neighborhoods or building wealth some 80 years ago.’
As for the Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing rule, HUD Secretary Ben Carson has been chipping away at it, and this year he eliminated a key tool that local jurisdictions were to use for figuring out effective ways of deploying low-income housing resources more equitably across cities and suburbs.
The kind of intrusive policing that Memphis adopted was also embraced by other cities in 1968 to quell uprisings that were boiling across urban America, and the U.S. military began gearing up for its own intervention. In 1968, retired intelligence officer Colonel Robert B. Rigg wrote in ARMY magazine how “urban jungles” would give violence-causing activists an edge over police in a revolt. He called for “an effective system of intelligence in the ghettos” that would deploy undercover police and intelligence agents “to fight pitched urban battles here in America.”
In 1968, the federal government under President Lyndon B. Johnson was preparing to handle urban America’s discontent in a different way, having received the findings of the Report of the National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders, aka “The Kerner Report.” That report acknowledged that urban uprisings were triggered by the legacy of racism and economic inequality that had left too many African Americans and Latinos socially marginalized and economically disadvantaged. Riggs was dismissive of the idea that “social, economic, or political reforms” like those called for in the Kerner Report could work as forcefully as a military or law enforcement approach.
What Riggs perhaps couldn’t foresee (or refused to see) was that law enforcement was just as overtaken by racist forces as every other American institution, making it an unsuitable tool for resolving problems rooted in racism. The Kerner Report recognized this in 1968, stating that, “police have come to symbolize white power, white racism and white repression.”
Perhaps this is exactly what Baldwin saw coming when he told Esquire in 1968 that he wanted “the mayor of every city and the President of this nation [to] go on the air and address the white people for a change. Tell them to cool it.”
Baldwin was also prescient in another way: Asked what should be done about the “white flight” from the cities to the suburbs, Baldwin said of white Americans,“If he wants to save his city, perhaps he should consider moving back. They’re his cities, too.”
Well, “moving back” is exactly what happened: It was found in 2015 that nearly half of the 50 largest metros reported increasing white populations for the first time in decades. With that return to the city has come rising living costs that far outpace working-class wages, the resulting displacement of low-income families, cultural clashes in previously minority-dominated neighborhoods that are being reshaped to accommodate new white neighbors, and an increase in nuisance complaints that lead to the over-criminalization of people of color.
A point sometimes lost in that gentrification paradox is that whites have been able to flee from the cities to the suburbs and back with relative ease over the decades, while many African Americans today remain in the same segregated and under-served neighborhoods that their parents were confined to in 1968. That half-century stuck-in-place narrative is reinforced by the government’s failures over the decades to adequately enforce the Fair Housing Act and other laws passed to protect non-white families from racist policies. For many of those families, 2018 was just 1968 all over again.
Amidst news that the U.S. Department of Justice is considering possibly challenging the confidentiality mandate for Census data, retired Census Bureau Chief Demographer Howard Hogan wants you to understand the culture among Census Bureau staff. There are three things that bureau staff prioritizes, according to Hogan: accuracy, confidentiality, and nonpartisanship.
Lecturing at the University of Pittsburgh last week on how the Census measures race and ethnicity, on the confidentiality question Hogan was, well, confident that this would not be breached.
“We take confidentiality seriously,” said Hogan. “The senior staff at the census bureau would resign in protest before they turned over the names. We have perhaps the most sophisticated group of mathematicians and statisticians in the world analyzing how to protect the confidentiality of the data. I’m not going to speak for the administration in question, but as someone who spent 40 years in the Census Bureau, I will speak for our culture: We are still dedicated to protecting everybody’s confidentiality period. No exceptions.”
Hogan doubled down on that when CityLab spoke with him after the lecture, but that was last week. That was before NPR national correspondent Hansi Lo Wang exposed an email from the Trump Administration revealing that it might consider challenging the confidentiality protections of the Census Bureau. Those protections guarantee by law that no one’s individual data could be turned over to any other federal department or agency, and particularly not for law enforcement purposes.
However, the memo shows, if nothing else, that the current U.S. Justice Department is leaving open the question of whether or not another law, like maybe the Patriot Act, could override those census confidentiality legal protections. The leak of these deliberations comes at a time when the Census Bureau is pushing to include, for the first time since 1950, a question about citizenship, which Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross announced earlier this year.
There are several lawsuits currently pending to keep Ross from making that happen, with many of the plaintiffs arguing that asking about citizenship would undermine the official Census count. Many immigrants, both naturalized and yet-to-be naturalized, would avoid filling out the Census the plaintiffs argue, out of fear that their information could be turned over to law enforcement agencies for deportation or other punitive purposes.
“The Justice Department’s failure to confirm that guarantee is cause for great alarm,” said Vanita Gupta, president and CEO of The Leadership Conference Education Fund in a press statement. “At every turn, the Trump administration has politicized the 2020 Census. The addition of Steve Bannon’s unnecessary citizenship question, along with these other fearmongering tactics, is part of a ploy to derail the count.”
Hogan addressed such fears in Pittsburgh mainly by saying that people could skip the citizenship, race, ethnicity, and even the name questions and still get counted for the Census. He acknowledged that people are required by law to fill it out completely, but said the Census Bureau had neither the resources nor the desire to enforce something like that.
The Justice Department, which does have enforcement power, though, is another story, and as Gupta indicated there is plenty of reason to believe that some DOJ officials might very well pursue something like that,given the department’s current mission to ferret out people they consider non-citizens. The documents uncovered by NPR’s Wang might be evidence of that. Despite those documents, Hogan doesn’t believe the Justice Department would take that route.
“I would find it inconceivable that [the Justice Department] would have the resources, the inclination, or would want the public relations disaster of arresting someone for not answering [the citizenship] question,” said Hogan. “I do know that the leadership of the Census Bureau, the Federal Statistical system, and the American statistical community would all be united against any use of Census information for any non-statistical purpose.”
Still, that certain DOJ officials might even be contemplating trying to access Census information for non-statistical purposes could be enough to intimidate people, namely newly arrived Americans, out of completingthe Census, which would have major implications for post-2020 redistricting activities. Congressional, legislative, and even municipal districts are drawn based on Census accounts, which is why it is essential that the Census data is as accurate as possible. Census data also affects how federal funding is apportioned across political district lines.
People like Ross who support including a citizenship question are claiming they need to do so for Voting Rights Act purposes. However, conservatives have been attempting to use Census data as a way to exclude non-citizens in the count to apportion congressional and legislative districts, which is against the Constitution.
In the case Evenwel v. Abbot, plaintiffs tried to argue that districts should only be drawn by counting people who were eligible to vote, primarily by age and citizenship. The U.S. Supreme Court shot that argument down in 2016, however, saying districts may be drawn using total population—including children, the incarcerated, and yes, even non-citizen immigrants—as has been the norm throughout history.
It’s because of such cases that voting rights advocates are suspicious of any motives to include questions about citizenship in the Census, especially when using a Voting Rights Act rationale. And the law around who can be counted in redistricting cases and how, is far from settled when considering the many gerrymandering lawsuits that are still pending. Hogan said that the Census Bureau prides itself on being nonpartisan, and he counts the Bureau staying out of redistricting debates as part of that.
“We do not get into political fights and how states do redistricting is strictly politics,” said Hogan. “We leave that to the Department of Justice and to the states. We provide the data and we let them play with it. Each side has their own statisticians that help them. We just say, ‘Here’s the data and everything we can explain about the data, but how you draw your boundaries is between you and the Department of Justice.’”
However, it seems like the possible misuse of Census data that could lead to undercounts or gerrymandering might be one place where the Census would want to take a stand—not on partisan grounds, but on grounds of making sure the federal government is simply following the law.
The city of Stockbridge, Georgia, came dangerously close to losing half of its municipality this week. It came down to a ballot vote on Election Day that would have allowed a country club-anchored enclave in unincorporated Henry County to snatch away large swaths of Stockbridge to create a new, wealthier city called Eagle’s Landing. The ballot failed—4,545 people voted against it, and 3,473 for—but questions abound concerning how it even came to this point. How could a place with no municipal standing simply redraw the boundaries of another place that’s been a city for nearly 100 years?
If nothing else, the drama around this ballot has exposed the fault lines of “cityhood,” the name for the movement happening around metro Atlanta that has unincorporated territories lobbying for official municipal status. Of the dozen new cities that have formed since 2005, none took residents or properties from other existing cities to do so, as the Eagle’s Landing group attempted to do with Stockbridge. But there were other problems with the manner in which Eagle’s Landing pursued cityhood. Looking at the events leading up to this vote, it probably should never have come up for a vote to begin with.
New cities can only be authorized via ballot initiatives in Georgia, and the sole power for determining whether a new city proposal will land on a ballot lies with the state general assembly. According to Stockbridge Mayor Anthony Ford, the principals responsible for the Eagle’s Landing city proposal never approached Stockbridge city officials to discuss what they wanted to do, let alone alert Stockbridge leaders to the fact that Eagle’s Landing wanted to take parts of their city away.
The Eagle’s Landing group didn’t need Stockbridge’s permission to do it—all they needed was the state’s blessing to get it on the ballot. There’s been much attention drawn to the fact that the Stockbridge residents who were left out of the Eagle’s Landing city plan weren’t allowed to vote on that ballot. But they didn’t have any say in whether it could go on the ballot either, thanks to Georgia’s lax cityhood standards.
Your city plan must commit to providing three of 11 services, such as fire safety, road construction, and electric or gas utilities. (People who live in unincorporated areas have these services provided to them by whatever county they live in.)
You need to secure a legislator who will introduce and carry through the general assembly a bill to have your city proposal placed on a ballot.
You need to have a feasibility study conducted by one of the state-approved academic institutions in Georgia.
The people behind the Eagle’s Landing proposal formed a non-profit organization called the Eagle’s Landing Educational Research Committee, or ELERC, which was headed by Vikki Consiglio, who currently serves on the Henry County Zoning Advisory Board. The ELERC plan stated that it would take on code enforcement, planning and zoning, police, libraries, solid waste collection, and parks and recreation services, according to the feasibility study conducted by Georgia State University’s Andrew Young School Center for State & Local Finance (one of the state-approved institutions for cityhood studies). And finally, the Eagle’s Landing group was able to find several legislators to sponsor a bill to put their proposal on the November ballot.
The actual legislator who represents Stockbridge, state Representative Demetrius Douglas, opposed the Eagle’s Landing proposal. The other sponsors of the Eagle’s Landing bill all represent other parts of Henry County that exist outside of Stockbridge. All six of the bill’s sponsors were white Republicans who were carrying a bill to carve up a majority-black, majority-Democrat city that its own representative in the state assembly was against. The bill eventually passed through the assembly, voted upon by 135 state representatives and senators who have nothing to do with the city of Stockbridge.
“The legislative process was not favorable to the city of Stockbridge, because those individuals who put up the bill did not represent us,” said Camilla Moore, the assistant city manager for Stockbridge. “They say whoever controls the rules controls the process—well, they manipulated the rules, in my opinion, and they manipulated this process that allowed them to push the bill through.”
Georgia Republicans have been more than eager to pass cityhood bills over the past 13 years, with one notable exception—the proposal to convert a huge swath of unincorporated land in DeKalb County, in Atlanta’s eastern suburbs, into a city called Greenhaven. Otherwise, as long as there’s a legislator from the “local delegation” supporting it, and the feasibility study says the new city can afford to provide municipal services, generally the state will put it on the ballot. But even the feasibility study done for Eagle’s Landing was questionable—in large part because the academic institutions that reviewed it had never studied proposals that included incorporating parts of another established city in the new one.
“When this one came to us, we looked at the map they sent us and we said, ‘Part of that is in Stockbridge; maybe you need a different map?’ But they said, ‘No, that’s the right map,’” said Laura Wheeler, a senior research associate at GSU’s Andrew Young School. “Something of this scale was not what anyone saw coming at all.”
The institutions in charge of these feasibility vettings have a very narrow charge from the state—they can only answer the question of whether a proposed city is economically viable, not whether it’s a good idea, or even if it’s lawful. The Andrew Young Center study did not include any debt that Eagle’s Landing might have to pay from when it was part of Stockbridge, and it was completed before a court ruling that said Eagle’s Landing would have to pay it. It wasn’t in the center’s realm of authority to question any of this, and the researchers purposely don’t stake any personal opinions in the feasibility studies to avoid politics surrounding the proposals.
“We were asked a very specific question—does the proposed area create a viable city—and based off that question and available data, we said yes,” said Wheeler. “But perhaps other questions should be asked: What happens to Stockbridge? Also, what happens to Henry County because of this? Those are reasonable questions to ask, but they do not have a place currently in the process, and that process is created by the state general assembly.”
There were many other reasons for people to oppose the Eagle’s Landing proposal. The timing and the optics were terrible: The group was making this Southern secession play right after Stockbridge elected its first black mayor and its first all-black city council. Global finance agencies such as Moody’s said the move could wreck the credit and bond ratings of every city in Georgia. Not to mention that the Eagle’s Landing group’s stated reasons for breaking-away-while-breaking-up Stockbridge rang shallow. They said they wanted more upscale eating establishments, like a Cheesecake Factory.
All of those reasons no doubt gave people plenty of ammunition for voting against it. But the fact that legislators who didn’t represent Stockbridge were the ones carrying a bill to carve it up strongly suggests that it should have never been on the ballot in the first place.
The blog, posted on the real-estate investment platform BiggerPockets, shows how Wise grades real estate for investors, grouping Cleveland’s neighborhoods into four color-coded categories: “A Neighborhoods,”shaded dark green; “B Neighborhoods”shaded light green; “C Neighborhoods,” shaded yellow; and “D/F Neighborhoods” shaded red.
As bad as those tech types reinventing buses is bad, realtors reinventing redlining is like a million times worse //t.co/sNU6MBCdwD
Wise’s maps ring eerily similar to redlining maps, the color-grading system used by the Home Owners Loan Corporation (HOLC), the National Association of Real Estate Boards, and the Federal Housing Administration (FHA) in the early-to-mid 20th century to demarcate which neighborhoods were worthy of property investment. Redlining was technically outlawed by the 1968 Fair Housing Act because it facilitated racial and economic segregation in many U.S. cities, segregation that persists.
Wise bills himself as “the number one seller of Multifamily & Commercial properties in the greater Cleveland, Ohio, area,” in his BiggerPockets bio. When stacking his neighborhood-grading maps against the 1936 HOLC map of Cleveland, one can see that the color-coding schemes have few differences, a testament to how little spatial residential dimensions have changed in Cleveland.
For the HOLC maps of the 1930s, the color-coding was about neighborhood desirability as an indicator for not only whether one should invest there, but also for whether a bank should even give a loan to purchase homes there. Desirability was defined by the neighborhood’s household incomes, the percentage of homeowners, and by “homogeneity”—whether white people made up the majority of the neighborhood.
In the HOLC neighborhood profiles, the first metric identifies what percentage is “foreign families” and “negroes” and what level of “shifting or infiltration” of non-white populations is on the verge.
Wise’s map does not come with neighborhood profiles, but every neighborhood listed in the dark green “A” category has at least a 75 percent white population (except for one, Shaker Heights, which has a 52 percent white population). All are located outside of the city of Cleveland, and most boast median incomes upwards of $75,000. Of the five neighborhoods with median incomes below $75,000, all have at least 80 percent white populations, except for University Heights, which has a 71 percent white population.
The red “F” category is called the “Warzone” in Wise’s blog, and consists of the African-American East Cleveland neighborhood and several zip codes that have majority black populations, and most of which have incomes below $22,000. The D category, also red, consists of just three neighborhoods, each of which have sizable black and Latino populations, all located in the city and with majority renter populations. Wise notes that one of these zip codes, 44109, is split between “the good part,” which is south of highway 71 and the other part north of the highway where the median income is below $30k.
Cleveland is infamously bifurcated by race between its east and west sides, the former being where most of the black population lives and the latter where most of the white population lives. All of the D and F neighborhoods are located on the east side.
And while this blog post was created in 2015, a commenter created a new map in 2017 that showed essentially the same grading, though they didn’t bother placing the D and F neighborhoods on the map. As Wise replied to one of his 90 commenters: “The map as you see it today is pretty much in the same shape as when I originally wrote the blog.”
The blog’s comments are arguably as problematic as the maps. BiggerPockets is a platform used almost exclusively for those in the real-estate trade, so these are the people responding to the post. When the commenters are not giving Wise praise—”You’re a saint, thank you for posting James!” wrote one—they are thanking him for guiding them in their next investments:
This is an awesome post and love the fact that you color coded all the areas so that out of state investors, like myself, can see what areas should not be considered.
Great resource James! Thanks so much. My associate & I invest in multifamily buildings, 4-plex up to 100+ units for long-term cash flow. What area in the Cleveland area would you recommend for these types of investments? Of course we want to avoid the high risk/crime areas, but wish to maintain high occupancy.
Hi @James Wise this is a fantastic if map and many thanks for putting it together. I have printed it and use it as a quick visual resource during due diligence on any property in Cleveland. I wish there was a map like this for all US cities! Well done and thanks for giving back.”
Asked if BiggerPockets monitored for possible discriminatory activity on its blog, the website released this statement:
This is the first time that BiggerPockets has been contacted by a third party about the post you refer to (which is user-generated content, similar to a post on medium.com, a tweet, or a post to a facebook account, and thus not reviewed by BiggerPockets staff prior to the user posting it to their personal member blog on BiggerPockets), and we are not aware of staff involvement in the publication or sharing of this post.
BiggerPockets is not in a position to assess whether this post is unlawful or illegal. The opinions and content belong to the user who posted them, and you are free to respond to the post or reach out to that person.
Wise told CityLab that he “adamantly disagrees” that his maps have anything to do with race or skin color.
“This is an educational document created based solely upon risk factors determined by income, criminal activity, and property damage,” said Wise. “The audience for this particular document is real estate investors buying investment properties for monetary gain. These are not people living in these neighborhoods. These are people who are simply looking to obtain a return on investment. I have no comment on the racial make-up of these neighborhoods.”
Sally Martin, housing director for the city of South Euclid, a suburban municipality outside of Cleveland where Holton-Wise has several properties, said the city took the real estate company to court earlier this year because it failed to register its rental units, which is required by law so that the city can track services such as inspections. Other fair housing advocates in Cleveland who spoke with CityLab said that Wise’s online activities aren’t necessarily illegal, but don’t align with the spirit behind fair housing policies.
“Anyone who has an understanding of the history of redlining and the tremendous impacts that still resonate today would naturally recoil at seeing a map published like that,”said Jeffrey T. Verespej, executive director of the Old Brooklyn Community Development Corp, “due to the mere spitting mirrored image of those illegal and racist housing policies from generations ago being repeated today. The sins of redlining from the past have not yet been repaid and our communities are still being negatively attributed and therefore resource depleted based off of those historical maps.”
Not all housing advocates in Cleveland that CityLab spoke with thought that the maps were totally harmful, though. Some even found silver linings, rather than red linings, in Wise’s maps.
“On one hand you can argue that he is advising real estate investors to not invest in those neighborhoods,” said Michael Lepley, senior research associate for the Fair Housing Center for Rights & Research in Cleveland. “But on the other hand, if he’s engaged in some questionable practices, and if the people he’s giving advice to are engaged in questionable practices too, then you can look at it as maybe he’s convincing bad landlords not to do business in neighborhoods where they might otherwise prey on the most vulnerable.”
In other words, Wise might be doing fair housing advocates a favor by steering away exploitative speculators. According to Lepley, Cleveland was one of the hardest cities hit by the mortgage crisis, which means the city has a lot of foreclosed properties that can be snapped up by foreign investors for cheap, then flipped in ways that end up making them suddenly unaffordable to low-income and working-class residents.
Another problem, according to Frank Ford, senior policy advisor for the Western Reserve Land Conservancy, is that some investors buy cheap, foreclosed properties at low prices, and then do minimal, sometimes below-code renovations on properties before putting them back on the market for resale or for rent. For years, Cleveland did not have strong enough code enforcement inspectors to catch investors doing this, said Ford, though he said this has improved in recent years. But he also thinks that Wise might be inadvertently keeping the vultures away.
“The idea of an investor saying ‘I will stay away from buying property in the most distressed markets’ is a 180-degree flip from what most investors have been doing coming into Cleveland,” said Ford. “Some of us would probably welcome that.”
It’s not clear that this is what Wise is engaging in, though. A recent marketing email from Wise’s company states in the subject line, “We’ve monopolized an entire neighborhood. Do you want in?” It advertises a 15-unit apartment building in Brooklyn, Ohio, a small municipality just outside of Cleveland’s borders that Wise grades as a “C” neighborhood, where owners can expect tenants who are “Blue collar workers, low income workers, retail, service industry workers, factory workers,” and where rents are modest. Wise’s email ad says that the rents in the apartment building currently total $7,817 a month but that “rent can easily be increased to $9,165/mo.”
This property is about two-and-a-half miles away from the Old Brooklyn CDC where Verespej says they’ve been trying to prevent real-estate market exploitation from foreign investors with no connection or accountability to the neighborhood. He says he welcomes investment, but is less convinced that Wise’s maps might have any kind of prophylactic effect against shady real estate investors.
“The lack of investment and the blight is a greater challenge to quality of life and to stability,” said Verespej. “I certainly appreciate looking at silver linings, but I want to stress that decline and disinvestment is a far greater killer than over-investment in neighborhoods throughout Cleveland.”
Despite how prosecutors felt about it, Louisiana voters passed Amendment 2 overwhelmingly on Tuesday, with all but two of the state’s parishes (Louisiana’s term for county) voting to overturn it. This means that as of January 2019 prosecutors will need the approval of all 12 jurors in the box for a conviction—something they haven’t needed to do since the Reconstruction era. A recent study from Harvard Law School Fellow Thomas Ward Frampton explains the history behind this phenom called the “The Jim Crow Jury” and how it has impanelled racial discrimination in the way juries, courts, and prosecutors operate in Louisiana today.
The roots of Louisiana’s jury arrangements reach back to 1898, when Louisiana lawmakers installed the non-unanimous jury provision during its constitutional convention that year. It was a convening called with the explicit mission of finding ways to disenfranchise African Americans by any means necessary. It ensured that, while a few African Americans could make their way onto a jury due to federal civil rights protections (Civil Rights Act of 1875), those black jurors’ votes could be rendered nil when outnumbered by white jurors—a tool that would come in handy when white defendants were on the stand.
Early civil rights activists denounced the new non-unanimous jury law as a “Jim Crow Jury” system, designed to restore white supremacy in the state after Reconstruction was sabotaged. The system ensured that no black jurors could obstruct the increasing criminalization of African Americans, which was a budding enterprise at the turn of the 20th century. Other states entertained adopting a similar non-unanimous jury system, but it was only Louisiana that actually did. (Oregon passed its non-unanimous jury law in 1934). The “Jim Crow Jury” system endured in Louisiana throughout the entire 20th century, helping to establish the state as the incarceration and wrongful conviction capital of the world.
Frampton analyzed data from the Louisiana-based media outlet The Advocate to show the present-day effects of the non-unanimous jury system. For The Advocate’s “Tilting the Scales” news series that ran earlier this year, journalists compiled data from 5,000 criminal jury trials between 2011 and 2017, which included demographic information for more than 40,000 people who were selected for jury pools during that time period. They found that black defendants were more likely to get convicted by non-unanimous juries than white defendants.
The chart below from Frampton’s study shows how the non-unanimous verdict policy has essentially silenced the votes of black jurors in these cases:
This chart showsthat black jurors were more likely to cast “hold-out votes” against the majority than white jurors in cases where non-unanimous verdicts led to convictions. Which means black jurors votes were more likely to be ignored—”empty votes”— in these cases. This was true in parishes where there were only a few black jurors serving in trials and in parishes where black jurors were in abundance. In New Orleans, white and black residents served on juries in roughly equal numbers (during the study’s sample time period) but in the cases where non-unanimous convictions were rendered, black jurors cast twice the number of “empty votes” that white jurors did.Writes Frampton, “Nonunanimity serves to mute the impact of nonwhite jurors even when such jurors are not, in numerical terms, ‘minorities.’”
The data also shows how discrimination impacts the racial composition of juries before the trial phase even begins. Prosecutors have wide (but not unlimited) discretion to strike people from the jury pool for legal reasons (“For Cause” strikes) or for no legal reason at all, (“peremptory strikes),” and in Louisiana, those strikes fall more frequently on potential black jurors. Though federal and state laws forbid attorneys from excluding people from juries on the basis of race, a prosecutor can come up with any reason at all—it doesn’t even have to make sense—to explain why they have rejected a potential black, Latina, or Asian juror on non-racial grounds.
In Louisiana, prosecutors disproportionately strike black jurors whether the defendant is white or black, but they do it even more often in cases with black defendants. Writes Frampton, “The frequency of strikes against black potential jurors was 181 percent of what we would expect if strikes were doledout in a racially balanced manner.”
It’s perhaps because of the revelations from The Advocate’s data that soon after it ran its news series on the matter, Louisiana lawmakers passed a law (unanimously!) to seal all further juror records. Whatever information might be cloaked by that gesture, though, the future of racist jury selection and outcomes is now bleak due to Tuesday’s vote to eliminate non-unanimous juries.
This new law doesn’t kick in until 2019, but when it does, prosecutors will have to recalibrate their approach to picking jurors. They can no longer rely on the convenience of only needing to persuade ten out of twelve people deciding a case. If just one juror is unconvinced, then the jury deadlocks or it’s a mistrial, as is already the case in 48 other states of the U.S.
Norris Henderson, executive director of the organization Voices Of The Experiences (VOTE), has been organizing and building a reform coalition to overturn “Jim Crow jury” policies for years. He himself spent decades in prison after being convicted for murder by a 10-2 jury before being exonerated and released in 2003. He called Tuesday’s vote “the biggest game changer against mass incarceration” in Louisiana.
“In the past, it was like being in a 100 yard-dash, and the prosecutor had been spotted 20 yards,” said Henderson. “There’s no way you could catch up with him. But now that shoe is on the other foot and we now all get to start at the same one-yard line to see who’s the fastest and can finish the race.”
The new mandate for unanimous jury verdicts complements the passing of a law in Louisiana earlier this year that restores voting rights to people who’ve been convicted of felony crimes, which is also a legacy of post-Reconstruction efforts to disenfranchise African Americans. Writes Frampton about that era: “the exclusion of black jurors from the jury box, in tandem with the exclusion of black voters from the ballot box, served as a key lever for the reassertion of white supremacy.”
Today, the restoration of voting rights for people convicted of felonies and the establishment of unanimous jury laws, together, crumbles that assertion.
“It’s a one-two punch on Jim Crow,” said Will Harrell, senior policy counsel for VOTE. “We got him against the ropes. We’re not saying we knocked him out, but we have the momentum and we’re gonna keep on slugging him.”
The security is that tight in this gated country club community, which is neither visible nor clearly accessible from the major streets nearby. This is not Hollywood. This is Eagle’s Landing, a neighborhood in the city of Stockbridge, Georgia, about 20 miles from Atlanta, and it’s one of the few communities in the southern half of metro Atlanta that boasts incomes upwards of six figures, in volumes.
Roughly half of Eagle’s Landing is spread out across seemingly disconnected patches of unincorporated land (meaning belonging to no city) in Henry County. As former Stockbridge Mayor Lee Stewart describes it, “It’s like if you took wet spaghetti and threw it on the wall.” Land logic would suggest that those areas should just be patched together and incorporated into Stockbridge’s borders. But instead Eagle’s Landing would rather just start its own city. The problem with this is that Eagle’s Landing proponents would like to form a city by using land, people, and properties that already belong to the city of Stockbridge.
This would be a completely unprecedented move in Georgia—taking chunks of one municipality to produce another municipality—and one that would help further calcify the steep levels of segregation seen across the region. This would be extreme even for metro Atlanta, where nearly a dozen other neighborhoods have formed new municipalities since 2005, in a trend referred to as the “cityhood movement.” But unlike Eagle’s Landing’s proposal, all of those new cities formed from unincorporated territories.
The Eagle’s Landing plan seeks to merge into its boundaries the primest real estate and wealthiest households from the city of Stockbridge, leaving behind a smaller, mostly African American population with fewer resources to pay for Stockbridge city services. The Eagle’s Landing city proposal will be voted on via ballot referendum on November 6, but Stockbridge residents who live outside the Eagle’s Landing footprint—the people who will be most hampered by the division—are not eligible to vote on it. Meanwhile, neither lawsuits nor letters from global finance agencies warning that the proposal could wreck economies across Georgia have been able to stop it.
And the reason for tearing Stockbridge apart to start this new city? It has something to do with cheesecake. Or at least cheesecake is what was emphasized in a conversation with Vicki Consiglio, the chairof the Committee for the City of Eagle’s Landing, held at the Eagle’s Landing Country Club.
“I serve on the Henry County zoning board,” said Consiglio, “and so I kept seeing all of these places like Bojangle’s, Waffle Houses, dollar stores, and all this going up in our county. And I was like, why can’t we get a Cheesecake Factory, or a P.F. Chang’s or a Houston’s? We have areas that have high incomes, so what’s the deal?”
Eagle’s Landing is a prestigious community that desires leisure, shopping, and dining amenities that reflect their gentry, said Consiglio. But she is convinced that won’t happen unless Stockbridge, or at least what she considers the less desirable parts of Stockbridge, are taken out of the picture. What exists both within and immediately around the country club already looks pretty posh; there is an Outback Steakhouse on the main commercial drag not far from it. But that Outback doesn’t rise to the level of the culinary opulence that Consiglio expects.
“We want it to be that and more,” says Consiglio. “We don’t want [Eagle’s Landing] to go down.”
She pulls out a map that shows the proposed Eagle’s Landing city footprint (the violet colored area in the map below) along the southeastern quadrant of Stockbridge (the mint-colored areas in the map below).
“You saw what that looked like up here,” she said, pointing to the upper part of Stockbridge, where the Waffle Houses and Bojangle’s are—the part she wants to separate from. “We don’t want this,” she said, pointing to the mansion-filled area beyond the country club, “to look like that.”
This kind of influx is typically seen as an omen for wealthier, whiter native residents of a receiving city, especially when they see the race of the city’s leadership changing. When Atlanta elected its first black mayor, Maynard Jackson, in 1973, with a new African-American political elite emerging around him, white Atlantans took flight to the suburbs, mostly to the north of the city. Last year, Stockbridge elected its first black mayor and its first all-black city council in the city’s near-100-year history, so consider its upper-crust residents triggered. But those who might be uncomfortable with that political shift are not escaping to whiter pastures anymore. Instead, they are engaging in the strangest form of white flight wherein rather than moving, they are standing their ground, and building new municipal borders around their mansions and fortresses.
Racism, and geographic/spatial segregation to be specific, is not just about who a neighborhood includes. It has much to do with who it excludes, as well. Taking half of Stockbridge, as Eagle’s Landing plans, would not only leave Stockbridge with a less wealthy population, but also with a black population with weakened voting power. Right now, African Americans are just over 57 percent of the voting-age population in Stockbridge—a clear-cut majority. If Eagle’s Landing were to form, it would take a third of Stockbridge’s population along with it, including a nice chunk of Stockbridge’s black residents. In that scenario, African-American voting power would be reduced such that they wouldn’t constitute a majority of voters in either the new city of Eagle’s Landing nor the old city of Stockbridge. Meanwhile, the white voting-age public would see its voting power rise in both cities.
The Cheesecake Factory did consider coming to Stockbridge at one point1, but balked after an income study revealed that the average median income was too low to justify placing a restaurant there. She blames this on Stockbridge, where median household income is $54,769. So in 2016, Consiglio and her neighborhood colleagues, some of them former Stockbridge city officials, began meeting to figure out what they could do to land if not a Cheesecake Factory, then a Cheesecake Factory-esque restaurant, because the dining halls and pubs in the country club would no longer do.
“It came up to, you know, form a city because that’s the only way you’re going to do it,” said Consiglio. “And if this could happen, we’d have more control of our area, and we’d get to see what comes in here. We’d get to control zoning. We’d get to control code enforcement. Then we can hopefully hold the carrot out and say we want a Cheesecake Factory.”
She started a nonprofit called the Eagle’s Landing Educational Research Committee, or ELERC, and began drafting plans for a new city, but its members soon realized that they couldn’t handle a city comprised solely of their residential neighborhoods. Cities, like businesses, have operational expenses and must, by state law, provide certain services, like trash collection and parks management. Eagle’s Landing home property taxes would not be enough to pay for this, not even in the well-off households beyond the castle. For financial viability, they would need a strong commercial sector that could provide a reliable revenue stream from sales and business taxes. Fortunately for them, a large shopping district like this existed, and not far away from the country club. Unfortunately for them, this shopping district sits squarely within the borders of the city of Stockbridge.
Didn’t matter. ELERC drew the shopping district into its proposed Eagle’s Landing city boundaries anyway, along with a few other choice Stockbridge neighborhoods and properties. To reiterate, this has never been done before in Georgia—taking land from an already established city to create a new one. The only way new cities in Georgia had hitherto formed was through the incorporation of totally unincorporated land.
And it’s because of that fact that Stockbridge officials originally didn’t take ELERC’s proposal seriously—or, at least, they didn’t think state lawmakers would take it seriously. But in late March, the general assembly passed two bills, one allowing for the redrawing of Stockbridge’s city borders, against Stockbridge’s will, and to accommodate Eagle’s Landing; and, another that officially puts the question of whether Eagle’s Landing can become a city on a ballot referendum for November. Georgia Governor Nathan Deal signed the bills in May, putting the Eagle’s Landing city proposal in motion.
“When we talked to the governor about this probably almost two months [before he signed the bills], I led off the conversation and Governor Deal was sitting just as close to me as you and I are sitting to one another right now,” said Stockbridge Mayor Anthony Ford, the city’s first black mayor, “I really honestly believed that he would [veto the bills] based on the conversation. And so I was quite surprised when he didn’t. Some people said I shouldn’t have been, but I have to admit, I was really surprised about that.”
“Up to this point, the city has been fiscally sound and we have a healthy fund balance that allows us to get some projects done,” said Camilla Moore, the assistant city manager for Stockbridge. “What hurts us is that Stockbridge today is the largest city in Henry County, so therefore when you get to [tax revenue] formulas based on population, we’ve been the primary beneficiary of those. If we no longer have the population and the numbers to receive the largest share of those monies, then we get less money to do some of the things that we’re able to do now because of our population in the past.”
Moore has been down this road before. She has been involved in the formation of several other cities around metro Atlanta, including Sandy Springs, the first of the cityhood movement, and South Fulton, one of the more recent cities to incorporate. In those cases, she supported the notion of cityhood, advocating for the idea that city start-ups give residents stronger say in land-use and economic development policies—a seductive prospect if you live in an unincorporated, ill-defined territory that’s constantly overlooked by county and state government. But today, Moore is testifying on how cityhood for Eagle’s Landing might not reap the benefits some people think it will. In fact, she addresses one of Consiglio’s primary concerns head on.
“I’ve heard them say, ‘I really want a white linen restaurant and fine dining,’ but for those of you who have been involved in development, you know imaginary lines don’t make businesses come,” said Moore. “It’s not the old baseball saying, ‘If you build it, they will come,’ because Stockbridge built Eagle’s Landing. This suburban community of Stockbridge has been called Eagle’s Landing for the last 20 years. So if the Cheesecake Factory was coming, they would have been here.”
‘It’s like a divorce…’
When players from both sides of the equation speak about this situation, they often use the term “deannexation” to describe the process of re-appointing land from Stockbridge to Eagle’s Landing. It’s rather anodyne terminology for referencing what could be called a taking, or a land grab unfolding in real time and with the state’s approval. The fact that it’s happening in a city as it grows more black and brown—the city where Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s father was born—only makes it more suspect.
“I use the analogy that it’s like a divorce—you can’t walk out of most divorces and say I’m taking half of your money, I’m leaving you all the bills, and I’m going to take the two good kids, and you can have the two little shitburgers,” says former Stockbridge Mayor Lee Stuart, who opposes the Eagle’s Landing city proposal. “Why rip apart a beautiful community? Why not come together and try to make it better. But it’s because they [Eagle’s Landing proponents] want control.”
The broader implications haven’t been fully examined or investigated by Georgia lawmakers. No one seems to know the endgame nor how catastrophic this form of cityhood could be. But some signs point to reckless. After Deal signed the bills, Moody’s Investor Services sent out a letter stating that the disintegration of Stockbridge to start up the city of Eagle’s Landing would constitute a “credit negative” not just for Stockbridge, but for all of the cities across Georgia.
This could happen, wrote Moody’s, because of the potential for a trend of new-cities-eating-old-cities to metastasize, which would affect the ability of all cities to honor outstanding debt obligations. The S&P Global Ratings followed up with a report that its institutional framework “profile could weaken for cities based on our views of weakened predictability and, potentially, system support should similar actions become more frequent without considerations for overall operations and liabilities.”
In August, Capital One Public Funding, LLC, a municipal bonding corporation that holds nearly $12 million of Stockbridge’s debt, sued state and county election officials to stop the Eagle’s Landing ballot, arguing that breaking up Stockbridge would be a violation of the contracts clauses found in both the U.S. and state constitutions. It is one of three lawsuits currently pending that hopes to stop the Eagle’s Landing proposal from becoming a reality.
On October 19, a federal judge denied an injunction in the Capital One case that would have at least delayed the ballot vote on Eagle’s Landing until the cases were decided on the merits. However, the judge ruled that if Eagle’s Landing won the ballot that it must pay a portion of whatever debts were created when it was a part of the city of Stockbridge.
Consiglio, meanwhile, has maintained that Eagle’s Landing would not be ponying up for any of Stockbridge’s debts, even though the new city would be taking half of the properties that Stockbridge used to secure the municipal bonds it currently holds. She is undeterred by the judge’s ruling, and disputes the judge’s interpretation of the relevant law.
“I’m still adamant about it,” says Consiglio. “I stand my ground and I will continue to stand my ground, even though this [language] is in [the judge’s order].”
A classic but tenuous pledge: No new taxes
If Eagle’s Landing were forced to take on some of Stockbridge’s debt, it would call into question one of Consiglio’s main selling points for Eagle’s Landing. She has pledged that the new city of Eagle’s Landing would impose no new taxes and specifically no property taxes on its residents.
But that claim is based on the assumption that Eagle’s Landing would be starting tabula rasa, with no other debts or expenses other than the regular costs for starting up a city. In fact, Eagle’s Landing’s lawyers said during oral arguments that the new city would be willing to impose property taxes on its residents if need be.
“It is ironic that the proponents of Eagle’s Landing actually advocated this position with the court when they had previously promised referendum voters that there would be no property tax in Eagle’s Landing,” said Chris Anulewicz, the attorney representing Stockbridge in the case. “Those proponents have already broken their biggest promise to the voters before the City of Eagle’s Landing referendum has even taken place.”
Yet, both of the Eagle’s Landing websites still emphasize that there will be no new taxes in the new city.
Consiglio refuses to back off from her, even if the movement’s lawyers may be telling courts something different. But asked if she was guaranteeing no new taxes when talking with potential Eagle’s Landing city residents, she couldn’t do it.
“I can’t use the word guarantee, but we do not want a property tax,” said Consiglio, emphasizing that their city charter states that they could impose one if need be. “I can’t guarantee anybody anything. I’m not the mayor and I’m not the council. All I can say is, as the organizer of the city of Eagle’s landing, I am pretty emphatic about there not being a tax and I will fight that to my dying grave.”
‘What’s wrong with wanting better?’
Stockbridge and Eagle’s Landing are already segregated, and it’s because of this condition that Eagle’s Landing was able to demarcate the choicest neighborhoods of Stockbridge for inclusion in its new city map. But there is no desire on Consiglio’s part to entertain the integration of the two, or even consider what benefits could come of that. The separation of the two is the point, and it’s not just so that the Eagle’s Landing gentry can better access a Cheesecake Factory. El-Mahdi Holly, who is running to represent House District 111 in the state legislature, says he picked up on this when he attended some of the early meetings that Consiglio’s group had with neighborhood residents, which he said started right after Donald Trump was elected.
“They would always preface their statements by talking about how Stockbridge residents themselves are keeping a filthy community, that they’re not cutting their lawns, that trash is everywhere, that these people just don’t care for the properties,” said Holly, who opposes Eagle’s Landing taking land from Stockbridge, even though he lives in the Eagle’s Landing “bubble.” Holly’s district once included much of Stockbridge, but the parts of the city where black, Latino, and lower-income families reside were cut out of it in a 2015 wave of redistricting. (Voting rights advocates are currently contesting this in court as an unlawful racial gerrymandering.)
“What that said to me is that these people have excluded themselves from the rest of the people in Henry County,” said Holly. “Because the people they were referring to in Stockbridge are the people who go to our churches, and that we shop with in grocery stores, that are kids go to the same schools with—these are our neighbors. It’s a ploy used to have people think of themselves as being better than others, and provided that you give them that justification, then you can pick their pickets.”
Consiglio balks at any accusations of racism or bigotry. As far as she’s concerned, Stockbridge is a poorly run city, despite the fact that it was recently honored with an award for Excellence in Financing Reporting by the Government Finance Officers Association. Even Consiglio admits that Stockbridge does have a deep well of financial resources. The city does have several million dollars stored up in a rainy day-type fund, to be used in an emergency, which Consiglio said could be used to pay off whatever debts it has should Eagle’s Landing takes what it wants. The irony is that Eagle’s Landing could be creating the emergency that would cause Stockbridge to have to break open that rainy-day piggybank. More than anything, Consiglio just wants to “control what comes in here and what it looks like” for Eagle’s Landing.
“What’s wrong with wanting better?” says Consiglio. “What’s wrong with being able to say I want to control what goes on around me? Stockbridge is going to be Stockbridge after all of this is over. They will be a sister city. We don’t hate Stockbridge. It’s an old city and they have a heritage. That’s awesome. Good for them. But this is not it. This is Eagle’s Landing. Not Stockbridge.”
And with that, Consiglio has to end the meeting and leave the country club. She’s off to a dinner meeting at Serafino’s Italian Restaurant in the nearby Villages at Eagle’s Landing. It’s an elegant dining place that serves a Salmon Felicia for $29.95, a “Million Dollar Cake” that costs $7.50, but you can get the “Regular Cheesecake” for $7.00. It’s no Cheesecake Factory, but it will have to do for now.
The Cheesecake Factory neither confirmed nor denied this. They sent a statement: “”Our restaurant development team is always on the lookout for premier sites to further grow The Cheesecake Factory brand presence, and all sites that fit our criteria for success will be seriously considered.”
Speaking with The Atlantic’s editor-in-chief Jeffrey Goldberg at the Citylab Detroit conference this week, former New Orleans mayor Mitch Landrieu broke down his perspective on why the Civil War was fought.
“Well, the first thing it was fought for was to destroy the country,” said Landrieu. “I think we can agree that had the Confederacy won, the United States as we knew it, would have been fractured. So it was against the United States. The second reason is it was done to preserve slavery.”
The discussion was about how to develop a national dialogue on race and diversity, particularly during an era when the president is fanning the flames of racial tension and promoting white nationalism. Earlier this year, Landrieu released his book In the Shadow of Statues: A White Southerner Confronts History. The title is an allusion to his work while mayor to take down four monuments in New Orleans that represented paeans to Confederate and white supremacist causes. On the day they came down, Landrieu, as mayor, gave a passionate speech on race, in which he said:
This is, however, about showing the whole world that we as a city and as a people, are able to acknowledge, understand, reconcile, and most importantly, choose a better future for ourselves, making straight what has been crooked and making right what was wrong. Otherwise, we will continue to pay a price with discord, with division and yes, with violence.
One could say that this is exactly what has happened since he made the speech. Just days before Landrieu’s talk in Detroit, a white terrorist Robert Bowers opened fire in a Jewish synagogue in Pittsburgh, killing 11 people and injuring several others. Bowers’ attack was motivated by his hostility towards this Jewish community’s participation in a refugee settlement program, which brings people from impoverished and war-torn countries such as Afghanistan, Haiti, and Somalia to the U.S.
CityLab spoke with Landrieu at the conference about his thoughts on the Pittsburgh synagogue killings, how to lead a sanctuary city in times of racial violence, the long history of black people fighting to bring down Confederate monuments, and, of course, whether he is running for president.
First, do you have any thoughts you’d like to share with the city of Pittsburgh about the tragic killings that just took place there?
Personally, to the Pittsburgh community and all of the families, I know that they know that the nation grieves with them because the individuals that were lost were friends and family members. On top of that, it was the most aggressive attack against Jewish citizens that the country has ever seen. It’s laid on top of the shootings in Kentucky [Editor’s Note: A white man killed two African Americans in a grocery store in Jeffersontown, Kentucky, over the weekend.] People forget about Tamir Rice. People forget about what happened in Charleston when nine African-American lives were taken at Emanuel A.M.E. church. It’s all the same iteration of the poison of hate.
It fuels the immigration debate. It fueled the Confederate monuments debate. It’s all the same thing, and unfortunately it’s not just in the United States of America. You see a worldwide trend that is giving air to this notion of white supremacy and hating people based on race, creed, color, sexual orientation, and it’s something that needs to be identified, called out, and confronted. It is sad, but it can be beaten back if you call it out for what it is.
How should cities that are aspiring to have “sanctuary” or “welcoming” status respond in the wake of this violence? Should they dial such efforts back or keep pushing forward?
Well, first of all, it’s really hard because when you have people that want to use weapons to hurt other people, it’s very hard to stop them in that act. What you can do though as a community is have an ethos that diversity is a strength. It’s not a weakness. That everybody is welcome irrespective of race, creed or color, sexual orientation, nation of origin, etc. The other side really tries to get a leg up by creating the impression that somehow that means that you are for violence and crime. No, every mayor in America and every citizen wants to live in a safe place and wants to make sure that people who commit crimes and hurt other people on a day-to-day basis are [punished]. I would just say to them, you should treat them based on their behavior but not of their race, creed or their color.
The president continues to make the wrong point, that people who are Muslims are prone to be terrorists; that people who are Mexican are prone to be rapists; that people who African Americans are prone to be criminals. That’s just not the world that we live in. We’re not supposed to aspirationally think that way in America, so you have to create those conditions on the ground. And you do that by being inclusive, not exclusive. The president is the exact opposite of what you should be. And his language is the exact opposite of the language we should use. Now I want everybody to be careful about this. He’s not necessarily the cause, although he’s exacerbating it. He’s a much larger symptom. The country needs to start looking at itself and ask why are we susceptible to these kinds of provocations from him? The way to win is to go vote, to elect other people that think differently.
Some people say that talking about racism when discussing politics is too divisive. How have you tried to keep the issue of racism central in this environment?
There are many people who are admonishing those of us who want to talk about race and say, ‘Oh, don’t talk about it,’ as if not talking about it is going to cure the problem. I completely disagree with that. I think you cannot go around race. You can’t go over it, you actually have to go through it, and you have to talk about it. You have to acknowledge that it is a complicated issue for the country. You have to find a way to address it. You have to be willing to work through it on both sides of the issue. Discriminating against somebody based on race is one of the iterations of hate, like discriminating against somebody because of their religion. It is poison from the same tree. You see it roaring its head. You can’t ignore it as though it’s not happening. You’ve got to call it out and say, look, this is a problem. That’s not who we are. That’s not what we do.
To the extent that for some reason we now have a president, the only one that’s ever talked like this—the way to confront that is to vote for people who don’t think like that and, to check him. He came out and made a recommendation that we end birthright citizenship as though somehow as the president, he could alter the Constitution. We don’t have a kingdom. We live in a representative democracy and the president can’t alter the Constitution. The Constitution reflects the will of the people. And so the will of the people has to make itself known, and we do that normally through elections and that’s why I want to encourage people who disagreed with his view of the world to go vote and make sure that they check him for the next couple of years.
Perhaps one of the unintended consequences of actions such as taking down Confederate statues, is that people who support what the Confederacy stood for get rallied up and they vote their values and people into office.
I mean as a general rule, as a general rule, whatever action is taken in politics—any one of them benign or malintended—creates a backlash. Wherever there’s a consequence there’s a repercussion. But some of them that have to be made. For example, President Obama’s election created a backlash. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t have done it. You’ve got to question why are we having a backlash to that? We’re not actually trying to hurt you. We’re trying to help you. The fact that some people see it that way—look, we’re in a democracy, you know. And the battle place of ideas is on the street. Let’s have the argument. You know, at the end of the day, the way it’s supposed to work is that the people who go to the polls and vote for their elected representatives, are supposed to elect people to represent their values. And if for some reason we made a wrong turn a couple of years ago with electing Donald Trump, which I would strongly argue that we did, and he has taken us backwards, as he promised he would do, then you have to say, oh shoot, he really meant “[Make America Great] Again,” like way back when and we don’t want to go back. We want to go forward. You got to course correct and the way you course correct is by the next election, and that’s going to be in a couple of days.
In your book you talk about your decisions around bringing the Confederate monuments down in New Orleans, and there is a decades-long movement of black people working to do that.
It was more than decades. It was hundreds and hundreds of people that have been trying to do that for a long, long period of time. I mean, I can remember back in the 60s, Lolis Eric Elie, and Nils Douglas, and Judy Reese Morse’s father, who was a Freedom Rider, Oretha Castle Haley—all of those people advocated for it. And then of course [former New Orleans mayors] Dutch Morial talked about it. Marc Morial talked about it. Sidney Barthelemy. They all tried. Our team was really just standing on the shoulders of huge numbers of people that helped make that happen. We found ourselves in an interesting political moment where it became possible. But I think about Avery Alexander, who was one of my great friends and one of my heroes, who got pulled down the steps of city hall. He tried to take those monuments down, too. So there was a decades-long struggle almost from the time they went up.
I’ve credited them every time I talk about it. I thank them and everybody else who had anything to do with it. They were an important part of a much larger whole, and I’ve done that. I say it in the book, actually in the end of the book. I credit everybody and I think I named them as well. So you know, sometimes people can’t take yes for an answer, but I feel they did their part along with a whole bunch of other people.
Pugh was on hand at CityLab Detroit to discuss how the city has been handling its opioid problem. She said she wants Baltimore to be a “national model for treating addiction alongside every other disease,” in part by introducing a hospital program that screens patients for opioid addiction and directs them to treatment. CityLab interviewed her at the conference to discuss the other ways that she’s been addressing crime, who the city’s next police commissioner will be, and how her “tear it down” approach to lingering problems has been received so far.
It will be one year next month that we created the violence reduction task force. That is a collaboration between law enforcement officers who are responsible for public safety and our other agencies that impact public safety, whether it is housing or transportation or the health department. There are maybe 20 different agencies that engage in this daily 8 a.m. meeting at the police department with the command staff. It was under the commissioner that I appointed, [Darryl] De Sousa, that we said, OK, we’re seeing results in violence reduction, but how do we keep it fresh? One of the conversations was, let’s take it outside. Let’s walk the neighborhoods that we’re talking about. We wanted people in these communities to know that the conversations are taking place outside of the walls of City Hall.
I’ve done probably close to 40 walks, which does not include the listening tours that I go on throughout the neighborhoods just to knock on doors and have conversations with people one-on-one about what they need.
Part of taking the conversation outside of the walls of City Hall is sometimes things get picked up that the public wouldn’t normally hear, such as when a local media outlet captured a sound clip of you during walking through an East Baltimore neighborhood saying, “We should just take all this shit down.” Would you like to provide further context for that?
The reality is that the neighborhood where I was walking around is broken. It’s a neighborhood where drug addiction has flourished. Operating in that particular footprint is one of the largest methadone clinics in the city. And while they may bus people in, they don’t bus them out. Then you have just just block after block after block after block of boarded-up houses. Yet there are businesses that choose to operate in that area—liquor stores right next to drug treatment centers. It just doesn’t make sense to me. Then to look at trees growing through boarded-up homes—this is not normal. It’s just not normal.
So no, I don’t think the conversation was taken out of context. I was very serious about tearing it down, and it will be torn down. If you would’ve walked with me in that neighborhood, then you would have witnessed the number of boarded-up houses, the smell that existed over there. It’s unconscionable that we have neighborhoods like that.
In terms of your police department, the city signed a consent decree in 2017 to bring major reforms, but Attorney General Jeff Sessions has been working to undermine such reform agreements. How is that affecting the city’s ability to hold police more accountable?
People said that with the Trump administration coming in we wouldn’t be able to get one signed—ours is signed and operational. One of the things he’s committed to doing is improving police departments, and so around that are technological needs. We’re in a city where technology has not been supported for decades. When you think about being under a consent decree, it’s not just about constitutional policing—it’s also about the resources that need to be made available so that you can police neighborhoods and communities.
If you look at 2002 up until 2017, we were losing more police officers than we were bringing in, because we often look at budgets in terms of how do we cut them to be balanced, but not looking at what is actually occurring in your city. From 2002 up until 2017 we lost close to 900 officers. And in the last four or five years of the previous [mayoral] administration, we lost 545 officers, but on our books it says we have 2,800 officers. The books say you can have 2,800 officers. We were probably around 2,100 to 2,200 when I got there, and now we’re at about 2,300 to 2,400. But if we were to actually plan out our police department, we would need about 2,800 to 3,000, with the crime rate that we are currently sustaining at this point. The things that the [Trump] administration could support is the training of police officers and dollars for additional officers, because we don’t have enough.
Here’s our problem: Now we’ve had to deploy everybody that’s here in the police department, whether you’re in an administrative position or whatever, you’re in the street today because I need you on the street patrolling our city. Those are the kinds of gaps that [the U.S. Justice Department] can help us fill.
Just kidding, but I know you set a goal for the end of the month to select a new commissioner.
I tell people I won’t be forced, even though I set the goal for the end of the month. We will come pretty close to that I think.
So you will make the end of the month?
We may or we may not. We’ll come come close to one side or the other, probably on the other side of it.
Since you brought up technology, Baltimore hasn’t been doing great on that front, with police officers accused of manipulating body cameras and a very controversial spy plane program operating over the city.
Before my time [as mayor] there was a plane in the sky without the full awareness of the community, which is something that doesn’t exist currently. But that’s not the proper technology. What I’m talking about is training on how police use body cameras. But an example of the lack of technology: In 1997 they started putting computers in police cars in Montgomery County, Prince George’s County, and Baltimore County, but not in Baltimore City. So I as mayor was able to secure funding to begin putting computers in police cars in Baltimore City. Those are the kinds of investments we need. I don’t care if [Sessions] agrees with the way we are policing, but those are things you would want to do to enhance the ability of police officers to police communities and neighborhoods.
For us, the consent decree is about constitutional policing. Sessions may or may not agree with how we train officers to be more constitutionally responsible to the people, but you have to equip people with the tools that they need first of all, in order for officers to be able to do the job that they’re supposed to do.
The Tree of Life synagogue that Robert Bowers stormed, killing multiple members and police officers, is an anchor institution of Squirrel Hill, known as being Pittsburgh’s “Jewish neighborhood.” There is a heavy concentration of Jewish institutions, families, kosher delis, grocers, bookstores and other businesses there, and yet calling it a Jewish neighborhood obscures the diversity and variety of people and places that compose it. On any given day you’ll swipe arms at bus stops and cafes with people from a broad range of ethnicities and nationalities. Many of them are students from universities such as Pitt, Carnegie Mellon, and Chatham that all rest just beyond Squirrel Hill’s borders.
And the rich cultural diversity that attracts so many of them to Squirrel Hill, Pittsburgh’s most populous neighborhood, is tragically perhaps the same thing that makes it vulnerable to bigoted attacks like the one Bowers committed today.
Squirrel Hill is the place where mobs of folks flood every weekend for pancakes and hash from Pamela’s—a tourist trap, for sure, where presidents and celebrities make pilgrimage when visiting Pittsburgh, but one where the taste and quality of the food actually matches its reputation. It’s where you can get some of the best Chinese cuisine not just in the city, but arguably in the entire Rust Belt, at restaurants such as Chengdu Gourmet, Sichuan Gourmet, and Taiwanese Bistro Cafe 33. It’s where folks squabble over whether Mineo’s or Aiello’s has the best or most authentic Italian-American pizza, and where any DJ worth any ounce of respect on their name goes digging for vinyl at Jerry’s.
About a mile up the road from the Tree of Life synagogue is Allderdice High School, where rappers Wiz Khalifa and the late Mac Miller are alumni, along with many other of the city’s fiercest hip hop talents. Just last month, a bunch of them gathered for a vigil for Miller at a park not far from the synagogue that was the reference spot for his 2011 debut albumBlue Slide Park. You’ll find signs on the front lawn of many houses throughout the neighborhood that read: “No matter where you are from, we’re glad you’re our neighbor” in English, Spanish, and Arabic. It is literally Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood.
The Tree of Life synagogue recently hosted an event by the organization HIAS, which helps refugees from countries in conflict, many of them from Africa, South America, and the Middle East. According to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, on the morning of the shooting, Bowers reportedly wrote on a social media site: “HIAS likes to bring invaders in that kill our people. I can’t sit by and watch my people get slaughtered.”
Terrorists like Bowers and Roof are assailing the very idea of “sanctuary” and taking out their racial venom in actual religious sanctuaries. This kind of sanctuary was important for someone like me when I lived in Squirrel Hill in 1998, as a student at the University of Pittsburgh. I was a young black man who was not well-traveled and lived in predominantly black neighborhoods for most of my life. As a student, I wanted greater exposure to other cultures, but it has always been difficult to find that in Pittsburgh outside its campuses. To live black in Pittsburgh is to constantly be confronted by whiteness, as whites make up the majority of most of the city’s 90 neighborhoods. While Squirrel Hill isn’t exactly Brooklyn in terms of access to non-white cultures, it is particularly exceptional for Pittsburgh. It is one of the few places in the city where I have felt some semblance of lucidity, mainly because it’s one of the few places where I am not regularly rudely reminded of my proximity to whiteness. As a good friend of mine, also black, described it: “It is maybe the least racist of Pittsburgh’s many racist majority-white neighborhoods.”
Other black folk I know who grew up and lived in Pittsburgh most or all of their lives expressed similar feelings when I reached out to them about this. Pittsburgh writer Deesha Philyaw lived there for over 20 years said she’s “never had a negative experience” there and in fact her children have attended bar mitzvahs at the Tree of Life synagogue. Real estate broker and journalist Keith Reed attended middle school there and “never had any issues” with the kids in the neighborhood.
“I have always felt comfortable there,” says Janis Burley Wilson, president of the August Wilson African American Cultural Center. “My mother took me and my sister shopping there when we were kids. It’s a neighborhood I felt comfortable having my kids walk on their own, getting ice cream or kids much with friends. Diversity in population and amenities—that’s what Squirrel Hill represents to me.”
This is of course not to say that there isn’t racism in the community—I know several people of color who’ve had tough experiences there based on their race or religion. Even Reed says it the neighborhood where he was first called a “nigger” by a white person. But he says he “never took that to be about the neighborhood.” Whether it was or not, the critical part is that he as a black man did not see it as a reflection of the community. The history of black-Jewish relations is far from one of complete harmony. But Squirrel Hill’s reputation challenges that tension. Jewish families began filling in Squirrel Hill in the 1920s, with more migrating there in the decades afterward, particularly around the time of the Holocaust. They were seeking sanctuary. Once they hit critical mass, they could have closed the doors to Squirrel Hill behind them, building walls around its borders in the mold of Trump. Instead, they seemed more invested in not replicating the persecution that drove many of them to Pittsburgh in the first place.
When Chicago police officer Jason Van Dyke testified in his own defense about why he shot Laquan McDonald, killing him with 16 shots, Van Dyke said he felt that his life was threatened, based off a look on the African-American teenager’s face.
“His eyes were just bugging out of his head,” said Van Dyke. “He had just these huge white eyes just staring right through me.”
This is the Black Boogeyman defense that has been given in testimony after testimony from police officers in court when testifying about why they shot or killed an African American they suspected was up to no good. And usually it works, but in this case it did not. Van Dyke was found guilty Friday of second-degree murder of Laquan McDonald, and was also handed guilty verdicts for aggravated battery for each of the 16 shots that he fired into McDonald’s body on October 20, 2014. That’s six to 30 years for each of those counts, not including the years he could get for the second-degree murder charge.
In the past when police officers have taken the stand to describe what was going through their heads when they decided to pull the trigger on often-unarmed black suspects (McDonald had a small knife in his hand when Van Dyke killed him), they usually recount something about the suspect’s demeanor or behavior—their facial expressions, size, stature, or something the suspect is smoking—that made them afraid for their life:
When Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson testified about Michael Brown, the unarmed teenager he shot and killed, Wilson said that Brown “was just staring at me, almost like to intimidate me or to overpower me,” and that when he grabbed Brown “it felt like a five-year-old holding onto Hulk Hogan.”
Cleveland police officer Timothy Loehmann said in police interviews that he thought the 12-year-old black child Tamir Rice looked more like an 18-year-old when he pulled up in his squad car and shot Rice in split seconds, killing him.
Officer Jeronimo Yanez said after killing the African-American man Philando Castile in Falcon Heights, Minnesota, outside of St. Paul, that it was dark and he could “barely see” but because he smelled cannabis smoke he thought that Castile had a gun and wanted to kill him. Said Yanez:
“I thought if he’s, if he has the, the guts and the audacity to smoke marijuana in front of the five year old girl and risk her lungs and risk her life by giving her secondhand smoke and the front seat passenger doing the same thing then what, what care does he give about me. And, I let off the rounds and then after the rounds were off, the little girls was screaming.”
Baton Rouge police officer Blane Salamoni said after killing the African-American man Alton Sterling that, “From the minute I walked up I was in fear of my life, because I knew there was a high probability that he was armed with a firearm and he was trying to get it.” Salamoni said that he was cursing at Sterling while he shot him because profanity is “100 percent used to gain compliance from the suspect,” in high stress situations and that, “Obviously a lot of thugs and people on drugs curse.” His partner Officer Howie Lake II called Sterling an idiot after Salamoni shot him because:
“I called him a f—ing idiot because it didn’t have to go that way. I was amped up on adrenaline because he made it go that way. Sterling could have just surrendered his hands and went back to jail.”
White Americans, particularly those in law enforcement, have invoked the “bulging eyes,” large body size, the use of cannabis, and the “thug” appearance of African Americans since at least the late 19th and early 20th century to describe black men as threatening. These brute tropes that have been used in racist movies like “Birth of a Nation” and other Ku Klux Klan propaganda in campaigns that claimed America as a country under siege by menacing African Americans roaming the landscape. These were also ways to scare people during the so-called “Great Migrations,” when African Americans were migrating into northern cities en masse.
Specifically, there is a demonizing process that happens to unarmed Black men posthumously. Unlike earlier Black icons and figures, such as Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Malcolm X, that were vilified while alive and then sanitized in death to be repackaged as an acceptable part of the United States historical narrative, these men are portrayed as thugs and criminals to seemingly justify their deaths while simultaneously shifting blame away from law enforcement.
This was language Chicago police officer Van Dyke relied on to describe McDonald, and why not? It has worked so effectively throughout history for police officers, especially those in Chicago. In 2015, 95 percent of police officers involved in shootings in cities across America were not even charged with a crime, let alone convicted, according to Mapping Police Violence.
Van Dyke is now the first police officer in Chicago to be found guilty of murder for killing a civilian in decades. The fact that this comes at the expense of an African-American life seems to hint that justice is turning a corner, at least in Chicago. The verdict is still out on that, but at least the message has been sent that cops can no longer rely on racist descriptions of African Americans to save their own lives.
While the city of Atlanta has been too busy to hate, it’s also apparently been too busy to change street names that honor white supremacists and slavery supporters.
Over the years, Atlanta has changed the name of seven streets that honor Ku Klux Klan and Confederate leaders—but that leaves several dozen still saddled with such name associations. Atlantans have long debated what to do about these, but last year’s alt-right rally in Charlottesville moved the local leadership to finally take action. The city created the Confederate Monuments Advisory Committee in August 2017 to explore ways to deal with the Lost Cause namesakes spread across the municipal landscape. The task force identified six monuments and roughly 30 street names that could soon possibly meet the chopping block.
Some of those names, like Walker Street and Gordon Place, sound pretty benign. The average pedestrian might have no clue that there are Rebels—specifically, Confederate generals John B. Gordon and James George Walker—hiding behind those boring signs. But others that are more overt: Take, for example, Confederate Avenue and East Confederate Avenue.
Those two street names were up for discussion at a City Hall public hearing last week, called by city council member Carla Smith, an African-American woman. And while you might think that “Confederate Avenue” is a slam-dunk candidate for renaming, not everyone who showed up for the discussion was in agreement.
The Atlanta Journal-Constitutionreports that one man named David Moreland testified that as a descendant of a Confederate soldier, and as someone who sang “Dixie” songs with his friends in school, that he’d find changing the street’s name an “abomination.” From his testimony, as reported by the AJC:
When I was a young boy, you were proud to be an Atlantan, proud to be a Georgian, proud to be a Southerner, and you were darn proud to be a descendant of Confederate ancestors. … Is there any wisdom in tearing down Confederate Avenue? Is there any justice? There’s a road named in this town after my family. We’re descendants of slaveholders. Does that mean me and my two brothers should go to a concentration camp? My people are not white supremacists and I am not a Nazi. Where does this end, folks?
He was not alone in his romance with the Confederate past at the hearing, but he was outnumbered: Most attendees wanted to change the name to “United Avenue.” (Another, less popular option was was, uh, “Considerate Avenue.”) After low-hanging fruit like Confederate Avenue is out the way,the city will commence hearings on thornier questions—whether, for instance, Bell Street is named after Confederate Congressman Hiram Parks Bell or another, less objectionable Bell. And what exactly is Memorial Drive—one of Atlanta’s longest streets, stretching from Stone Mountain in the far northeastern suburbs to the city’s downtown—memorializing: a Confederate cause or nah?
The task force’s report on the matter also identified three separate eras when Confederate street names and monuments were created. There was the immediate post-Civil War era, from the war’s end leading up to 1889. Then there was the Jim Crow era, from 1890 to 1930, when the bulk of Confederate monuments were created in the U.S.; the era of “massive resistance monuments,” beginning in 1954 with no end in sight, when local governments began erecting Confederate memorials in response to the Brown v. Board of Education U.S. Supreme Court ruling that outlawed racial segregation. In 1955, Georgia Governor Marvin Griffin promised that “there will be no mixing of the races in the classrooms” and then had the state flag altered so that the Confederate battle insignia would cover two-thirds of it (the flag was later changed again in 2003 to remove the Confederate parts). In 1958, the state acquired Stone Mountain—where the Ku Klux Klan was reborn in 1915, and where a huge carving honoring Confederate leaders had been started. The memorial project was re-started and finally completed in 1972.
Georgia is one of a few states that prohibits anyone from moving or destroying a Confederate monument—in fact, they can’t even be “concealed, obscured, or altered in any fashion.” The law doesn’t say anything about street names, but renaming streets in Atlanta is neither cheap nor simple: The proposal must be reviewed by the city’s urban design commission, then its public works department, then the utilities committee, and finally the city council. If you want to suggest naming a street after a living person, that person has to be at least 75 years old (No, Bobby Brown Parkway is not named after the King of R&B). Just to get started, the application fee is $2,500, which is compounded by the costs to the city for replacing the street signs if approved. Which is, yes, expensive.
But keeping streets named after Confederates comes at an expense as well.
“Every day I have to tell someone that I live on Confederate Avenue,” resident Kristy Marynek testified at the public hearing last week. “And that cost to me is that it makes me sound as though I am complicit in continuing to stigmatize my brothers and sisters in reminding them of this painful history.”
There are currently 26 lawsuits that have been filed against the pig farms for this, and so far, courts have sided with the black families in the first three of them. The latest verdict in August resulted in a federal jury awarding $473.5 million to six black families living near one of the farms. The prior two lawsuits resulted in awards of $50 million and $25 million to separate groups of plaintiffs.
The state and the pork/farm lobby have not responded kindly: “From the beginning, the lawsuits have been nothing more than a money grab by a big litigation machine. Plaintiffs’ original lawyers promised potential plaintiffs a big payday,” reads a statement from Smithfield.
“For the first time in three decades, we’ve had contract growers confronting people in our community and we’ve never had that before,” said Naeema Muhammad, co-director of the North Carolina Environmental Justice Network. “As a result of [the multi-million punitive damage awards], the industry got pissed off and went into all-out war on our communities, posting signs saying ‘Stop complaining or put down the bacon,’ and holding public rallies calling out members of our community. They are pitting the farmers against their neighbors.”
This shows how black families were living with environmental hazardry far before this week’s hurricanes came ashore. Florence only made it messier—at least 21 of the open-air pig-feces lagoons in North Carolina were overtopped and spilled over due to Hurricane Florence. What makes Duplin County’s story more disturbing, though, is how unoriginal it is.
In addition to Duplin County, there dozens of other areas of major and long-running environmental justice significance in the Carolinas, that are perennially imperiled by natural, man-made, and racism-made disasters. A report titled “The State of Exclusion” from the University of North Carolina’s Center for Civil Rights provides a comprehensive accounting of the dangers faced in many of these areas. The historical narratives of these cities and communities constitute the core canon of environmental justice. A few of those are mapped below:
While Warren County is widely considered environmental justice’s ground zero, one could argue that that distinction really belongs to Princeville, where from the beginning of its very existence, in 1865, African Americans had to develop a city that was resilient to both flooding and the mob violence of white people who were dead set against the formation of a black metropolis. Princeville residents had to develop that kind of fortitude for their city if for no other reason that there was hardly anywhere else they could go.
“Early Princeville residents had to endure harsh swampland to survive,” writes Richard M. Mizelle Jr. for Open Rivers. “Their existence in this space was not a matter of chance or choice, but instead the discarded and unwanted space was what former slaveholders allowed them to occupy.”
For Princeville and many of the other disaster-prone communities listed above, these were not necessarily the places where people wanted to live, but where they were forced to settle because of rabid racism. And those areas happened to be in swampy, low-lying lands that were vulnerable to flooding, or terrains that were made vulnerable by the placement of toxic pollution-spreading facilities around it. For these towns and cities, the discussion around environmental justice is not based on place, but rather where these African Americans wereplaced.
Today, the proportion of people of color living within three miles of a swine farm is 1.5 times higher than for whites in the state, according to a Title VI Civil Rights Act complaint filed in 2014 by Earthjustice and several local environmental organizations. The complaint notes that African Americans alone are 1.54 times more likely to live within three miles of a swine facility than white North Carolinians are.
The hog farms that have been ordered to shell out for negatively impacting black communities’ health in Duplin County have argued that these families could simply move somewhere else. And maybe they’d have a point if those families arrived in Duplin County after the farms and lagoons were already set up. But those families owned and settled the land well before the first hogs got there. The black families have a multi-generational vested interest in remaining there—desiring not to break up their friend and family networks, which many of them depend on to survive. Their ancestors may not have had a choice about where they located to, but the hog farms did. And those farmers chose to locate near black communities, with the state’s permission.
The history of environmental justice is paved with stories just like Duplin County’s, where government officials at some level permitted the placement of a toxic site near a black, Latino, or Native American residential area. The same goes for government officials who made policy decisions that unnecessarily but tragically imperiled communities of color—think the Flint water crisis. The question today is: What obligation do government agencies have to environmental-justice communities, considering that history? This question is especially critical in the climate change era, when hurricanes and floods are promised to occur more frequently and furiously.
“Coal-ash ponds, hog farms, and industrial logging are all concentrated in the same communities, so when we see the impacts of climate change, like Hurricane Florence, those communities are much slower to recover because of the extraction industries that already exist,” said Colette. “But also, from the biomass industry we’ve had a massive increase in clear cutting of wetlands, which are natural flood protections for these communities, and that’s making it even more difficult to rebound and be more resilient.”
Meanwhile, they’re fighting those battles as they fight their way out of the slog of recovery from Hurricane Florence. Many of these places had barely recovered from Hurricane Matthew in 2016. Muhammad of the North Carolina Environmental Justice Network said that the state’s relief efforts for Matthew were so “disrespectful” that she and other grassroots activists had to assemble their own squads to build a recovery apparatus for black families living in the most heavily impacted areas.
“When [recovery/relief agencies] distributed goods to the people impacted by the storm, they didn’t do it in respectful ways,” said Muhammad. “They just brought it and dumped it in piles and made people sift through it. So we set up distribution centers to sort the materials out and grouped it in categories so that people could easily access what they needed without feeling like scavengers.”
Similar grassroots recovery and relief efforts were also mobilized ahead of Hurricane Florence. Under the banner A Just Florence Recovery, a group of social justice organizations in North Carolina—among them, the North Carolina Climate Justice Collective, the NC Environmental Justice Network, and the Southern Vision Alliance—banded together to assist with evacuation and, now, recovery and relief efforts. They’ve partnered with veterans of prior coastal disasters to ensure that federal and philanthropic funding don’t get exclusively channeled to the usual relief NGOs, like Red Cross, that have let vulnerable populations down in the past. Just as important, they’ll be fighting to sustain the historically significant environmental justice communities across the Carolinas—making sure that they aren’t permanently taken off the map.
“What we’ve discovered from going door-to-door helping folks after hurricanes is that the recovery process is designed to shut out the most impacted communities: low-income and people of color,” said Muhammad. “Our community members just want to breathe clean air, drink clean water, and not be made sick when they step outside.”
When it comes to the environmental justice movement in the U.S., few states can lay claim to as many origin sites, case studies, and defining landmarks as North and South Carolina. The historical narratives of African Americans across both urban and rural landscapes in these two states constitute much of the canon of the environmental justice movement.
These communities and cities not only have endured racism of both the policy-driven and violence-driven variety, but many of them are also located deep in the most defenseless zones of the Carolina floodplains, or in regions that are inundated with toxic pollution sources: large industrial animal feeding operations, open-air lagoons where volumes of animal waste are kept, storage facilities for coal-ash waste, landfills and other massive garbage disposal stations.
The guaranteed upheaval of climate change puts these communities in even more precarious positions. There are many communities of color that fit this description. Below is a list of eight of those places whose existences are threatened under the weight of environmental disasters past, present, and into the future:
Wilmington, North Carolina: African Americans have been fighting for their right to exist in the port city going back to at least the Wilmington Insurrection of 1898, when white authorities stripped away black people’s rights to vote and hold office through deadly force. This despite the role of African Americans in building most of the city’s major landmarks. In 1971, racial tensions over the lack of protection for African Americans in the face of hostile desegregation efforts led to a riot and the false arrests of several black activists who’d become known as the “Wilmington Ten.” One of those activists, Ben Chavis, would later become a pivotal figure in the birth of the modern environmental justice movement. Wilmington is usually one of the first cities hit by hurricanes off the Atlantic coast, and its environmental risks are increased by its proximity to hog farms, nuclear reactors, and coal-ash ponds—one of which has already spilled over due to Florence.
Royal Oak, North Carolina: Another place founded by formerly enslaved African Americans, Royal Oak sits today in perhaps one of the most parlous locations in the state. It is surrounded by waste facilities of virtually every genre, and what makes its location even more unstable is that it is an unincorporated community. Although it’s located within the city of Supply, Brunswick County refuses to extend water and sewer service to it. With the help of the University of North Carolina’s Center for Civil Rights, Royal Oak residents were able to sue to stop the county from expanding one of the landfills last year. Given its proximity to Wilmington, it’s vulnerable to many of the same hazards, including flooding, coal-ash spills, and nuclear-reactor discharges.
Warren County, North Carolina: This area helped launch the environmental justice movement when, in 1978, African Americans protested and laid down in the streets to stop trucks from delivering tons of poisonous PCB-contaminated materials in a landfill near their homes and farms. Among those activists was Ben Chavis from The Wilmington Ten, who coined the term environmental racism in describing how toxic-waste facilities were disproportionately placed near communities of color.
Around the same time, several African-American urban planners, engineers, and architects were drawing up the plans for a black municipality called “Soul City.” The campaigns to stop the toxic dumping and to launch Soul City both failed, and landfills still dot the Warren County terrain today. Hurricane Florence did not bring significant flooding due to its last-second turn south. Yet this remains one of the more vulnerable locations in North Carolina due to the spread of waste and trash around it.
Spartanburg, South Carolina: Since the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency took up environmental justice as an official policy goal, it is has proudly spotlighted the city of Spartanburg, South Carolina, the pilot site for one of the federal agency’s most esteemed EJ programs. The EPA seeded it with a $20,000 grant almost 20 years ago, and helped the city leverage that into millions of dollars in new investments to help clean up some of its most blighted neighborhoods. The funding also helped the city set up new health centers, which helped people ailing from pollution from an old fertilizer plant and waste dump. In 2015, it won an award from the American Planning Association. Under Florence’s wrath, more than 2,300 people lost power in the city.
The era of profit-driven policing may be drawing to a close in Philadelphia now that the city has agreed to considerably scale back its policies on when and how police can seize private property from civilians. Up until now, Philadelphia police could confiscate a person’s cash, car, or house—evicting people with little notice—if there was suspicion that the person might be associated with a crime.
Called civil asset forfeiture and dubbed by opponents as “policing for profit”, the practice was a mechanism for padding police coffers and salaries with the funds generated from these confiscations. Meanwhile, the person whose assets were taken would have to prove they were innocent of whatever crime they were suspected of to begin a cumbersome process for reclaiming their property. In one case, Norys Hernandez almost lost her home to police after they arrested her nephew on a drug violation that she was unaware of.
Under a new consent decree agreement announced Tuesday, police and prosecutors can only seize people’s assets under a very limited set of circumstances— mainly if they can prove that it is evidence for a major criminal case—but those seized assets cannot be used to pay for police salaries or expenses. Also under the new agreement, the victims of past civil asset forfeiture abuse are entitled to reparations.
The consent decree is the result of a lawsuit filed four years ago by the criminal justice reform organization Institute for Justice against the city of Philadelphia to dismantle its civil asset forfeiture laws, which were then considered some of the worst of any U.S. city. Philadelphia was taking advantage of Pennsylvania’s law that allowed law enforcement agencies to keep 100 percent of proceeds and property seized from criminal suspects, even without a conviction. A new state law went into effect last summer that heightens the threshold for police and prosecutors to do that, but it falls far short of the kind of reforms that the city of Philadelphia just agreed to, which include:
Police now have to provide a detailed receipt of the property seized to the person they seized it from. The receipt must include instructions on how that person can retrieve their property.
Court forfeiture proceedings papers must be filed within 90 days of a person’s assets being seized or else the assets must be returned. A person can file for immediate return of their property if they depend on it to live or work—a car, for instance, for those who work for Uber or Lyft as their primary job.
Whereas before prosecutors controlled court forfeiture hearings, now that control belongs to judges. Prosecutors can no longer threaten taking a person’s property for not making repeated returns to court, and property owners can file for a continuance if they can’t make a hearing.
Instead of using seized assets to pay for police salaries or new equipment, funds will now be given to community-based drug rehab programs.
A $3 million fund has been set up to help people recoup what police took from them, and also to compensate them for being wronged. People who submit a qualifying claim in time will receive at least $90 for having their rights violated. All cash and property will be returned to those who never ended up convicted of a crime. If you were convicted of a low-level offense or were a first-time offender, you are eligible to have 75 percent of your property and cash returned to you.
The city had already begun taking measures to reform its civil asset forfeiture policies in 2015, when it agreed that it would no longer take people’s homes without giving them proper notice or allowing them due process. Not only would property owners not be guaranteed a hearing before these reforms kicked in, but they weren’t even guaranteed a lawyer or public defender. Prosecutors justified these takings, and what otherwise might seem like violations of people’s constitutional right to counsel, by suing the property itself rather than suing the person owning the property, which led to bizarre court case titles such as Commonwealth v. 2000 Buick or U.S. v. One 2003 Mercedes Benz CL500 (the federal government is heavy in the civil forfeiture game as well).
Institute for Justice president Scott Bullock called the Philadelphia consent decree “an unprecedented blow against civil forfeiture.”
Civil asset forfeiture is still used widely by police departments across the country, and by federal law enforcement, despite bipartisan calls to end it, and despite multiple lawsuits to stop it in other cities. The U.S. Justice Department’s investigation into the Ferguson police department in Missouri in 2015 found that the police there grossly abused civil forfeiture policies to fund its own budget and even to fund the city’s general budget. A recent study from economics professors at Clemson University and George Mason University found that police officers increase their arrests in cities and counties that are in fiscal distress and where civil asset forfeiture policies are the strongest. Under those conditions, African Americans and Latinos are arrested more often than white people when it comes to drug and DUI violations, which are the kinds of crimes that usually led to police confiscating a suspect’s car and cash.
“Revenue-driven law enforcement may also disparately impact minorities because the logic of revenue maximization can systematically encourage police to focus their efforts on vulnerable groups,” reads the study.
“For too long, Philadelphia treated its citizens like ATMs, ensnaring thousands of people in a system designed to strip people of their property and their rights,” said Darpana Sheth, a senior attorney at the Institute for Justice and director of its Initiative to End Forfeiture Abuse. “No more.”
Speaking at a gathering of public housing authority directors in Washington, D.C. earlier this week, HUD Secretary Ben Carson re-upped his argument that affirmatively furthering fair housing—which in principle means desegregating neighborhoods—actually just means building more housing. Said Carson at the gathering:
While the prior [AFFH] rule focuses on analytics to discover discrimination, I want to take a closer look at the archaic local and state regulatory barriers—such as zoning and land use restrictions—that are preventing the construction of new mixed-income multifamily developments, whether in poor or wealthier neighborhoods.
“I’m not making any recommendations at this point, as I’m in a studying mode to get a better handle on the challenges,” said Carson at the gathering. “After all, we first need to understand why landlords say no to voucher holders, before we can persuade them to the point of saying yes.”
However, there is already a great deal of research out there on why landlords say no—a lot of it from Carson’s own department—and much of it points to discrimination. The day after Carson made the speech, a study from a group of economists began circulating heavily on Twitter: It found that African Americans pay more in rent for identical housing in identical neighborhoods than white tenants do—a gap that increases the whiter a neighborhood becomes.
Wow: New paper suggests that discrimination causes black renters to pay substantially more than whites for identical homes in identical neighborhoods; the amount of the exploitation is greater the more white the neighborhood //t.co/0lHlzvYxXXpic.twitter.com/fOJqQzg9Wk
To reach this finding, the economists used HUD data culled from more than 450,000 housing voucher users between 2000 and 2002. Reads the study:
In equilibrium, the aversion of some landlords to dealing with black tenants and the aversion of some white tenants to black neighbors should lead to a sorting of landlords and tenants. Landlords with little or no aversion to dealing with blacks should work in predominantly black areas and landlords with the greatest aversion in predominantly white areas. A similar sorting across neighborhoods will occur for white tenants. As a result, the black rent premium is likely to be greatest in heavily white neighborhoods. Racial rent differences might also reflect differences in the revenue that landlords expect to receive from people of different races and expected differences in the cost of serving them (Ewers, Tomlin, and Wang 2014). These expectations might be based on prejudice or experience.
As it happens, HUD knows quite a bit about how much of it is prejudice because it has studied this topic considerably. HUD released three major studies this year that identify the various ways that black and Latino tenants face discrimination in the rental market, and why landlords refuse to accept tenants with vouchers. Carson acknowledged these studies at the public housing directors gathering, but only mentioned how landlords were frustrated with “paperwork,” inspections, and how local housing authorities manage tenant disputes. Meanwhile, the studies from his office reveal far more than that, granularly detailing exactly how landlords discriminate against people who use vouchers and why.
HUD sponsored a report prepared by Johns Hopkins University’s Poverty and Inequality Research Lab in May called “Urban Landlords and the Housing Voucher Program,” for which 127 landlords and property managers were interviewed in the cities of Baltimore, Dallas, and Cleveland. Excerpts from some of these interviews are included in the study and the language used nakedly illustrates prejudice. Instead of using standard forms to screen potential tenants such as credit reports and background checks, most of the landlords interviewed said they use “gut feelings” to decide if they’ll accept a tenant.
Two of the researchers on that study, Eva Rosen and Philip Garboden, wrote an op-ed in 2016 that elaborates on landlord discrimination. A landlord named “Gus” (a pseudonym) discussed with them why he doesn’t use standard screening tools like background checks:
It’s not that Gus thinks screening isn’t important—he’s intimately familiar with the costs of placing the wrong tenant. But he believes that the characteristics of a good tenant aren’t written on their application or in their demographic profile. He seeks some unmeasurable quality—a combination of personal responsibility and stability. At first blush, his strategy appears in sync with HUD’s guidance to take context into account. But like many landlords, Gus’s biases are embedded within a highly racialized worldview. To illustrate this, Gus noted that most of his tenants are black or Hispanic and he would never reject someone based on race, but in the next breath declared, “If they’re just some n***** I don’t want them.”
In another HUD-sponsored study on landlords’ acceptance of vouchers that was released in August, researchers set out to examine this dynamic in five cities: Los Angeles, Newark, Philadelphia, Washington, D.C., and Fort Worth, Texas. This one involved testers, or people posing as prospective tenants to assess how landlords engage with them. The testers would first call a landlord to ask if they accept vouchers, and then would set up appointments to meet with the landlords in person if they did.
However, there were so many landlords in Fort Worth and Los Angeles who refused to accept vouchers from the start, the researchers had to drop those cities from their list and change the scope of their study. For the cities remaining, they found that landlords were more likely to deny voucher holders in wealthier neighborhoods. In the cases where landlords said they did accept vouchers and would meet with the (tester) tenants, the property managers and owners only showed up for 58 percent of the appointments. Meanwhile, the high rates of voucher denials prevented the researchers from having a large enough sample size to determine if voucher tenants were treated differently because of their race.
But we do still know something about how racism plays out in the rental housing search based on not only the “Urban Landlords” study, but also another HUD-sponsored study released this year called “Racial and Ethnic Differences in Housing Search.” In this study, people were interviewed about their experiences when looking for rental housing, and researchers found that African Americans often go into the search process expecting to encounter discrimination. In fact, their own search habits are affected by the possibility that they’ll be rejected because of their race. For example, some African Americans completely filter out neighborhoods that appear to be too white even if they could afford to live in them or the neighborhoods were close to their schools and jobs.
The way that black renters are often received (or not received) by white landlords informs this. Here’s a sample of one respondent’s interview, explaining how discrimination played out in a scheduled appointment to a view an apartment:
One high-income Latino woman (with no children), for example, relates a story about how she sent a friend to look at a potential rental unit because she was unable to do it herself because she was out of town for work. She explains, “And she was there first, and she knocked on the door. The woman didn’t answer, and she was like, ‘are you sure this is the address?’ I’m like, ‘that’s the address she gave me.’ I sent her a screen shot. Anyway, the next couple showed up, and it was two White people, and then the woman opened the door, and then that’s when my friend kind of went, like, ‘Hey, like I have been out here.’ The woman was like, ‘Oh, I didn’t see you. Come in.’ She goes in. I’m like, ‘Was it a mistake to like invite my Black friend?’ I told my friend, Bridget, I’m like, ‘Girl, you are Black. I’m brown. I don’t know if that was a good combo.’ And she was like, ‘right.’ I’m like, yeah. I could have asked another friend, you know. I have like diverse friends.”
Taken together, the discrimination that people of color and voucher-holding tenants face is well documented, particularly in Carson’s own wheelhouse. At the public housing directors gathering, Carson mentioned some of the policy recommendations from the “Urban Landlords” study that he thought could help improve voucher acceptance: insurance programs to help landlords pay for damages in rental units, and loans for landlords to renovate properties. And he also, again, said he wants to incentivize building more mixed-income multifamily housing complexes.
Writing for Bloomberg Opinion, Noah Smith applauded these proposals as good news for increasing affordable housing, and Carson graciously thanked him for that on Twitter.
ICYMI: @HUDgov is taking on the #NIMBYs. I agree with @Noahpinion that we must look at increasing the supply of affordable housing by reducing onerous zoning regulations. Zoning laws are holding back America’s cities. #YIMBY//t.co/5K3dVAOd7A
While history will note Emanuel as the mayor at the dawn of a new era of police reform in Chicago, he will likely get none of the glory. Rather, he’ll be known as the leader whose decisions in one particularly egregious case of police brutality brought Chicagoans’relationship with city law enforcement to a breaking point.That case is the killing of the African American teenager Laquan McDonald by Chicago police officer Jason Van Dyke in 2015. Emanuel’s unforced errors in handling that case devastated Chicago families and blemished his mayoral legacy. He failed to take his own advice by letting the serious crisis of police misconduct go to waste. The question is whether there’s anything he can do now to change that.
This was the political climate that greeted Emanuel as he started his second term as mayor in mid-2015, and he could have gotten in front of the policing issue before a clash happened. Instead, just months into that term, he antagonized both sides. At an October 2015 White House gathering of law enforcement officials, Emanuel said Chicago police officers had gone “fetal”—that they were shrinking back in their public safety duties because of social media-driven backlash to police brutality, or out of fear they’d get caught on live-streaming services doing something shady. In that one statement, he scapegoated police reform activists and infantilized the police force.
What made Emanuel’s “fetal” comment worse was that he made it while sitting on damning video footage that implicated Chicago police officer Van Dyke in the shooting of Laquan McDonald in October 2014. Emanuel withheld the clip from public viewing for more than a year after the killing, citing pending investigations, but the few officials who did see it worried that its contents could jolt the public into possible riots. The video did not depict police in passive mode; instead, the dashboard camera footage showed Van Dyke firing his weapon on McDonald as he walked away from the officers. The only person left in a fetal position from that police encounter was McDonald, who died from the shooting.
The official narrative
Up until the release of the video, the official narrative was that Laquan McDonald lunged at Van Dyke with a knife. The city settled with McDonald’s family for $5 million just days after Emanuel was reelected in April of 2015. A clause in the agreement stipulated that they could not show the video to anyone until the investigation and any resulting trial or process was complete. It was only because of the relentless FOIA filings and lawsuits of journalist Brandon Smith that Emanuel was forced by courts to publicly air the footage. When the city finally released it, just before Thanksgiving that year, Van Dyke was charged with first-degree murder. Until that point, he had been kept on the police payroll.
The argument that Van Dyke was an isolated “bad apple” cop on the force was undermined by data obtained by the Chicago-based media organization the Invisible Institute. Researchers there discovered through their own FOIA and lawsuit filings that tens of thousands of abuse complaints had been filed by Chicago residents since 2002, but the city only investigated a tiny percentage of them. An even smaller percentage of those complaints ended with disciplinary action. The Invisible Institute’s online Citizens Police Data Project maps where the city complaints were filed from, the kinds of complaints submitted, the officers named in those complaints, and how many complaints each officer received.
According to their findings, Van Dyke was the subject of 26 complaints of misconduct—20 involving excessive force. The first allegation against him, a personnel violation, happened not even a year after he joined the Chicago police force in 2001. It was information like this that Emanuel initially worked to keep cloaked from the public eye, just as he did with the McDonald footage, until courts made his administration come clean. University of Columbia law professor Bernard E. Harcourt flat-out called Emanuel’s handling of the McDonald case a “cover-up” in The New York Times.
“If you think about the sequence of events in the 13 months leading up to the release of the video, everything that happened was in support of that narrative,” said Jamie Kalven, executive director of the Invisible Institute. “Withholding the video, falsifying reports, officers commandeering and destroying a video [of the shooting] from Burger King [Ed. Note: the FBI disputes this], stonewalling the press endlessly and, ultimately, the $5 million settlement with the family of Laquan McDonald—all of that was in service of the official narrative and meant withholding information from the public. It’s what brought the Emanuel administration down essentially.”
Reform, on Emanuel’s terms
After the McDonald debacle, activists from Black Lives Matter and the Black Youth Project led protests around Chicago demanding that Emanuel’s resignation. There were, in fact, many calls from both in and outside of Chicago, from activists and even elected officials for the mayor to step down. But Emanuel, who’s infamously hard-nosed, would not budge. Instead, he began taking other steps that would at least give the appearance that he was now serious about reforming the police.
That kind of reversal (also seen recently on the proposal to have police radio in when they aim their gun at people) could be considered the Emanuel doctrine on police reform: Reject measures that might reveal humiliating or incriminating information about the police, until publicly forced to accede. Which perhaps explains why by January 2016, just over half of Chicagoans surveyed by the Chicago Tribune said they weren’t confident that Emanuel could handle police problems. For African Americans and Latinos it was 61 percent.
Chicago’s police problem is also a race problem: The mayor’s task force finished its investigation in April of 2016, stating in its report that Chicago police “have no regard for the sanctity of life when it comes to people of color.” According to the report, nearly three-quarters of those shot or killed by police officers between 2008 and 2015 were black, compared to 15 percent for Latinos and 8 percent for white victims. African Americans only comprise a third of Chicago’s population. Not only that, but in 2013, while Chicago police were far more likely to stop and search African Americans and Latinos than whites, police were far less likely to find drugs or weapons on people of color during those searches.
The Justice Department’s investigative report, released in January 2017, found many of the same racial disparities, but also noted that it was the city’s own policies that allowed them to fester—notably by not taking citizen complaints about the police seriously. Federal investigators reported that the city had received over 30,000 complaints of police misconduct during the time Emanuel was mayor, but 98 percent of them resulted in no discipline for police officers. Reads the Justice Department’s report:
The City does not investigate the majority of cases it is required by law to investigate. … Some of these investigations are ignored based on procedural hurdles in City agreements with its unions, but some are unilateral decisions by the accountability agencies to reduce caseloads and manage resources. …Regardless of the reasons, this failure to fully investigate almost half of all police misconduct cases seriously undermines accountability. These are all lost opportunities to identify misconduct, training deficiencies, and problematic trends, and to hold officers and CPD accountable when misconduct occurs.
“In the aftermath of McDonald video the city was in a state of crisis, and there was a real opportunity for him to be a transcendent leader, but he never took advantage of the moment,” said Lori Lightfoot, the chair of Emanuel’s police accountability task force, who is currently running for mayor. “But Emanuel never truly understood the nuances of local policing. He’s looked at them through a purely political and transactional lens and hasn’t stepped back to understand that public safety is a sacred trust.”
“This standard of intent is untenable”
While the city wraps up its consent decree work, Lightfoot is concerned that the language isn’t strong enough on some of the more physical ways that police have been known to interact with civilians. Black Lives Matter shares these concerns, saying in a public statement that it “falls far short of what’s required in order to end the reign of lawlessness and brutality that we’ve endured under this Police Department.”
Lightfoot notes that the consent decree addresses foot pursuits—when and how police may run after suspects—by saying that the independent monitor should wait until 2021, after enough data is collected, to decide whether to adopt a formal policy on that.
Meanwhile, the Justice Department report flagged the Chicago police department’s foot chase record as “reckless” and asked why it had a policy for vehicle pursuits, but not for foot pursuits. The DOJ report lists several instances of Chicago police officers chasing people “without a basis for believing the person had committed a serious crime,” and then injuring or shooting unarmed suspects while in pursuit. DOJ’s recommendation on this:
Develop, train and implement a foot pursuit policy that makes clear that foot pursuits are dangerous and that sets forth guidelines for foot pursuits that balance the objective of apprehending the suspect with the risk of potential injury to the officer, the public, and the suspect. The policy also should address unsafe foot pursuit tactics to ensure the risks of foot pursuits are not increased;
Lightfoot also is worried that the consent decree only prohibits police from putting suspects in chokeholds “if there is an intent to reduce the intake of air or put pressure on a person’s airway.” (This suggests a question: What other function is there for choking someone?)
“This standard of intent is untenable,” said Lightfoot. “Under this policy, an officer would simply deny an intention to cause harm after using a chokehold. The Chicago police department must be prohibited from using chokeholds, full stop.”
“Proactive, affirmative transparency”
The evidence of Chicago police violence against civilians, and minorities in particular, keeps expanding. The Invisible Institute recently updated andrelaunched its Citizens Police Data Project website with more comprehensive data on police complaints now dating back to 1967. Among their latest findings: Racial disparities in police use of force have increased over the last decade, even though Chicago’s black population has decreased. In fact, they found that of the five police districts with the highest rates of excessive force against African Americans, four of them are in predominantly white districts.
For Invisible Institute’s executive director Kalven, one of the best things he believes the Emanuel administration can do to improve police-community relations is to make all police misconduct files instantly available to the public. It took a 2014 court ruling, from Kalven’s lawsuit against the city, for these files to be formally declared public information. And yet civilians still have to go through the FOIA process to access it. The city could put all of these files on its website tomorrow. That’s another major reform missing from the consent decree, but Kalven is still pushing the city to do this.
“Just put all of the disciplinary information out there so that we as citizens can monitor the [consent decree] process and really be meaningfully engaged,” said Kalven. “That would be such an expression of good faith, to institute that kind of proactive, affirmative transparency.”
What’s also stopping that from happening is the police union, which has been fighting to block transparency. In fact, the union took the city to court for the right to destroy police misconduct files older than five years. The union lost, but it jammed up the process to make those files public for nearly two years. If there has been a positive spot in Emanuel’s police reform agenda it’s his willingness to stand up to the union. The mayor, in fact, worked “shoulder-to-shoulder” with police reform activists, said Kalven, in court against the union’s request to destroy older police misconduct files.
Meanwhile, current police union president Kevin Graham told CityLab that he and Emanuel have not spoken since Graham became the leader of the local Fraternal Order of Police union chapter last year. Its prior president, Dean Angelo, did engage with Emanuel after the McDonald killing and for the Justice Department probe. Which may bewhy the union members voted him out. Graham, his successor, is reported to take a far harder line on police reforms than Angelo did.
“The only way this city will move forward is if we elect someone who takes seriously the rule of law,” said Graham. “Unfortunately, here in Chicago, we have bowed to various groups who say that all of the problems are with the police.”
Graham singled out the ACLU as one of those groups. “The ACLU is not a friend of the people of Chicago, because they have caused the increase in crime, in part,” he said. Although he did not mention them by name, Black Lives Matter and Black Youth Project 100 have also been instrumental in pressuring Emanuel to adopt certain police reforms, and some of their leaders were included in the consent decree process. They also successfully mobilized voters to remove former Cook County prosecutor Anita Alvarez from her office in 2016, for taking more than a year to charge police officer Van Dyke after he killed McDonald.
Note to all other candidates in the running to become chicago’s Next mayor: it will not be easier for you, we still have an agenda that is pro-community/public schools/quality jobs and anti-divestment/policing/corruption. #ByeRahm
Van Dyke’s court trial began this week, and it could expose other ways that the Emanuel administration hushed the facts and initially protected McDonald from criminal punishment. With Emanuel no longer facing reelection, Kalven said he can use this as an opportunity to take a much bolder stance on police reform, regardless of the outcome of the Van Dyke trial.
“There are few incidents of police violence that we know as much about as we do the Laquan McDonald killing, and the subsequent institutional response,” said Kalven. “And yet the core narrative is still unstable. The trial is a critical part of that landscape, but it would be a mistake to read a guilty verdict as a demonstration that we are somehow healed as a society, or that we’ve addressed the underlying problems.”
These tragic events, combined with the years of police violence preceding them that triggered uprisings in Ferguson and Baltimore, suggest that for many, cities across the U.S. might be unsafe to travel to if you aren’t white. This was a serious thing for African Americans to consider during the Jim Crow era, and it even inspired its own literary genre: the Green Books for black motorists and travelers. These were essentially travel guides for African Americans to navigate the racially hostile terrain of the South.
New Orleans-based writer Jan Miles has revived the enterprise with the publication of her book The Post-Racial Negro Green Book, released in November last year, which continues the service of identifying the problem of a lack of safety and security for black travelers. There’s a twist on Miles’ book though: Instead of listing hotels, restaurants, and gas stations that African Americans can patronize, as the original Green Books did, Miles’ book lists various acts of police violence and racial profiling in a given place that have made the news in recent years. It also delves into both concrete and abstract examples of racism reported, such as mass incarceration, sentencing disparities, microaggressions, and even white privilege.
For example, for the section on Louisiana, Miles not only lists the police killing of Sterling in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, but it also lists an incident two years prior to that in which a white Baton Rouge cop was found with racist text messages on his phone saying that black people were “niggers” and “nothing but a bunch of monkeys.” She also lists a 2013 calamity in Baton Rouge involving Ervin Edwards, an African-American man who was arrested for violating a city ordinance requiring pants to be worn at the waist. Edwards was taken to a Baton Rouge jail where he was tased and then left unconscious for ten minutes on the floor of a cell where he died.
Another distinction between Miles’ book and the original Green Books is that while the latter focuses on the South, Miles documents examples of racism across all fifty states. She began documenting these occurrences for the purpose of creating an online archive, but later came up with the idea to present it in the Green Book format. What she created ended up becoming the “inverse” of the Green Book, showing not where it was safe for black people to travel, but rather a litany of reasons why these places may not be safe for African Americans to travel to at all. Miles’ book only coversincidents from 2013 to 2016, but she says she has enough material from 2017 alone to create a follow-up book.
“You couldn’t do a book like the original Green Book anymore,” says Miles, “but where we are now is at a place where you could do an inverse of the Green Book, because we have so much more access to reports and video in this technological internet era. You’re now able to compile all of that and fill an actual book with that type of information, which is horrifying.”
Miles tabulates much of the info for her book from reportsby the NAACP, American Civil Liberties Union, district attorney offices, and state civil rights agencies. And while Miles’ book locates racism in multiple forms, beyond the kind experienced in the accommodations industry, it still very much serves as a travel advisory guide, as the Green Books did before it. It provides the kind of travel cautions that even civil rights groups themselves are taking up these days—the NAACP issued two travel advisories for African Americans in 2017 against American Airlines and the state of Missouri.
However, Miles encourages people of color to engage in a more robust form of travel agency, beyond merely avoiding certain places. In the “What You Can Do” section of the book, she invites people to join local activist groups, to attend workshops on shoring up organizing strategies, and to find places to divest and divert resources from if they tolerate racial discrimination.
A 1949 version of the Green Book stated optimistically that “there will be a day some time in the near future when this guide will not have to be published.”Indeed they stopped publishing in the late 1960s, near the apex of the Civil Rights movement. But given today’s racial violence, perhaps that was premature.
Earlier this month, Brentin Mock reported on the burgeoning cityhood movements outside of Atlanta. Now he talks with the mayor of the newest city on Atlanta’s outskirts, Stonecrest.
You may have heard about the Amazon HQ2 proposal from Georgia offering municipal naming rights to the corporate behemoth—as in, the company could have its own city called Amazon, Georgia. That offer came from the city of Stonecrest, which sits about 20 miles east of the city of Atlanta. Stonecrest has only, itself, be…