#ReadUrbanandPlanningWomen2014 entry #18: Alice O’Connor

This week’s entry was inspired by the lunch discussion at the Bedrosian Center on this piece by Ta-Nehisi Coates on reparations, and its follow up bibliography. The group of scholars at the discussion noted that Coates’ highlighted some work on Federal Housing policy that was essentially unknown. I objected and noted that while mainstream understanding of these issue may be new, housing policy folks have known for a very long time that HOLC and the US Housing Act of 1949 had extremely serious consequences for racial discrimination. The work that Coates cites in the article, Ian Shapiro, was published in 1995; he quotes objections to the policies from contemporary housing experts in 1955, like Charles Abrams. The research on zoning’s contribution to redlining goes back to the 1970s and 1980s as far as I know (and I’m not a specialist; I could be wrong; it could be sooner.) Zoning and redlining go hand-in-glove, and policy and planning can not beg ignorance on these issues. We’ve known this, or had it pointed out, for at least 60 years. Just like both white and black abolitionists with slavery, plenty of people knew that official public policies were wrong, and they hardly kept quiet about it. The choice to ignore or drown out those voices was a choice, not a mere reflection of a culture or a people that didn’t know better.

Nonetheless, it looks like Beryl Satter’s 2009 book on Chicago, Family Properties: How the Struggle Over Race and Real Estate Transformed Chicago and Urban America is truly a must-read. Going on my wish-list.

I personally learned the material in my MPL program from the brilliant Heather MacDonald, who had us read Alice O’Connor, a historian of US public policy. The piece that had a big influence on me was:

O’Connor, Alice. 1999. “Swimming Against the Tide: A Brief History of Federal Policy in Poor Communities.” In Urban Problems and Community Development, Ronald F. Ferguson and William T. Dickens (eds). pp. 77-109. Washintong, DC: The Brookings Institution.

This wonderful piece outlines federal policy involvement in impoverished communities throughout the United States from the New Deal onward, and it has a wonderful insight: that place-based initiatives tend to be lavish, efficient, and hidden for affluent Americans, but stingy, convoluted and high-profile when it comes to poverty:

“A [fifth] pattern is that in its treatment of poor communities, federal policy has operated within a two-tiered system of provision that marks U.S. social policy. In this system poor communities, like poor individuals, are assisted through an elaborate concatenation of means-tested programs, while their wealthier counterparts are subsidized throughout through essentially invisible, federalized, non-means-tested subsidies such as highway funds, state universities, home mortgage assistance, and tax preferences. Poor communities are targeted as places for public assistance–public housing, public works, public income provision–while the middle class is serviced by nominally private but heavily subsidized means.”

She goes on to write about how racial discrimination became encoded in community development policy–a nice overview for people looking to understand the differences in how the US provides social policy.

Brettany Shannon has written about this piece as it was anthologized in the Community Development Reader. Her review appears here, and you should go read.