By Edward G. Goetz
I want to thank Eric Michael Rhodes for his thoughtful read of my book, The One-Way Street of Integration. The great challenge of writing the book, which Mr. Rhodes seems to have sensed in his remarks at the end of his review, was in articulating a vision for how to use housing policy in the pursuit of racial justice and regional equity without reducing that effort to a series of variations on the single theme of shifting lower-income people of color across the metropolitan landscape. The policy debate, about which Mr. Rhodes makes fair observations, will go on – my book is quite unlikely to resolve that disagreement. His engaging review, however, provides me with the opportunity to elaborate my argument.
First, practical matters: We need to reclaim the notion of “fair housing” from those who reduce it to merely an integration objective. The lack of good, decent, affordable housing in communities of color is also a fair housing issue and one that would be addressed by an aggressive housing improvement initiative across the country. The disproportionate occupancy of substandard housing by people of color is part of that fair housing issue. Perhaps more to the point given the housing trends in major U.S. cities, the forced relocation of lower-income people of color from neighborhoods that have for decades experienced disinvestment and neglect but that are now receiving renewed investment, either through processes of gentrification or large scale public housing redevelopment, is a fair housing issue. And yet fair housing lawyers oppose efforts by local governments and activists to provide preferences to neighborhood residents for affordable housing that might insulate those families from forced displacement. It is a myopic vision of fair housing at best.
Second, we flatter ourselves and slide into paternalism when we act on the idea that we know best about where lower income POC should live. Third, we rob communities of color and their leadership of agency if we do not acknowledge and attempt to facilitate a stay-in-place option. Fourth, we take our eyes off of the real objectives; the enhancement of housing choices for low-income POC, if we pretend to know which is the best choice for them, and when we fashion our policies to incentivize or require that choice. Fifth, we need to refocus on breaking down barriers to choice, including building subsidized housing in exclusive white enclaves.
But beyond practical policy matters, defining the disadvantages faced by people of color in our metropolitan areas solely, or even chiefly in terms of segregation, obscures the deeply embedded racism and the structures of public and private racial subordination that operate in this country. Integrationism imagines that the rearrangement of people in space is a substitute for the hard work of dismantling structural racism. Further, it underappreciates the subtle and not so subtle ways in which it legitimates and ratifies that racism. By positing integration into predominantly white neighborhoods as the means of uplift for lower income people of color we incorporate white racism into our public policy approaches. We define the ideal neighborhood as one that is mostly white. We incorporate and ratify the white racism that would lead to white flight if ‘too many’ people of color entered a community. As Cheryl Harris wrote in 1993, we, in fact, define our goals in ways to avoid disturbing “the settled expectations of whites that their interests – particularly the relative privilege accorded by their whiteness – would not be violated.”
Cheryl I. Harris, 1993. “Whiteness as property.” Harvard Law Review, 106, 8, June.
Edward G. Goetz is Professor of Urban and Regional Planning and the Director of the Center for Urban and Regional Affairs at the University of Minnesota. He has served as Associate Dean and as Director of the Masters of Urban and Regional Planning program at the Humphrey School. He specializes in housing and local community development planning and policy. His research focuses on issues of race and poverty and how they affect housing policy planning and implementation.