“The expansion of suburbia and migration from the South has worsened big-city segregation,” wrote Martin Luther King, Jr. in 1967. “The suburbs are a white noose around the black necks of cities… suburbs expand with little regard for what happens to the rest of America.”
During the 1960s, the United States experienced what is widely acknowledged to have been the longest uninterrupted economic boom in its history. Rev. Dr. King watched rural Southern blacks move to Eastern and Midwestern cities in search of jobs, swelling the African-American population of these cities by as much as three-fold. As opportunity-seeking blacks migrated to cities, whites moved to the suburbs for even greater opportunities, and King deduced a cause-and-effect relationship: the nearly-all-white suburbs were growing at the expense of the increasingly-black cities. King believed the demographic impulse of blacks-in/whites-out fostered economic inequality and was morally wrong.
But, really, why should the suburbs be concerned about urban and rural areas, materially or otherwise?
Suburban expansion has created economic opportunity for millions of Americans: new homes, new roads, new stores, new schools, all of which have to be built and supported, creating not only construction jobs, but a multiplier effect of related opportunities in banking, insurance, manufacturing, distributorships, legal work, repair and maintenance services, and so on. Suburbanization, in other words, ramped up the competitiveness of existing markets and created entirely new consumer markets. Think of the single-family home with its multiple-car garage, indoor electronic entertainment center, and backyard crammed with play equipment, swimming pool, barbecue grill, fire pit, garden, and other diversions, all of which keeps the economy humming and creates job opportunities for everyone. True, suburban growth is girded by government subsidies for infrastructure, schools, and home mortgages, but U.S. taxpayers support such massive public investment because suburban living — neither city nor country — is deeply appealing to them personally. So where’s the exploitation?
A fundamental tenet of mainstream economics is that when markets are competitive, there is a balanced match of buyers and sellers, prices and wages are fair, and, therefore, there can be no exploitation of some by others. One of the problems with such reasoning is that we do not start out equal in the labor market. Family circumstances matter. The income of families into which children are born is extraordinarily important for the quality of the public schools they attend. Parents with higher incomes also have more time to interact with their children in ways that stimulate higher academic achievement: one-on-one reading, for example. After that, accumulated wealth kicks in. Wealthier parents may fund their children’s college tuition and initial mortgage payments so the kids can live in upscale neighborhoods and benefit from the same advantages the parents had as children. If by chance you are born into a deprived background, your prospects for a job with decent earnings and decent benefits and enough money to invest in a home and an education for you and your children are going to be more limited. Your job options, income, accumulated wealth, and even your life expectancy cannot be expected to reach those of, say, an engineer or attorney.
People are born and grow up in a very unequal world, a condition painfully evident in American metropolitan areas. One result of the massive population shifts in American cities and suburbs, as Martin Luther King, Jr. pointed out, is inequality in income and living standards, in access to opportunities and basic services such as a quality public education, and in participation in civic and political life. A 2008 United Nations study found that major American cities, including Atlanta, New Orleans, Washington, D.C., Miami, and New York, have levels of inequality as high as those of Abidjan, Nairobi, Buenos Aires, Santiago, and other Third World cities.
The creation and reproduction of inequality, by definition, means that someone must be deprived or excluded or otherwise treated unfairly. If the white, suburban, middle-class homeowner represents the well-oiled pivot of the wheel of American metropolitan life, then the black, urban, poor renter is the worn rim — and this brings us to the question of race.
The anthropologist Ashley Montagu studied historical and contemporary encounters of different peoples, often in situations of inequality, and concluded, “the conception that there are natural or biological races of mankind differing from one another mentally as well as physically is an idea which was not developed until the latter part of the eighteenth century.” For example, there was certainly knowledge of blacks in the Roman world and, as a result of the pilgrimages to the Holy Land, in medieval Europe, but there was no color consciousness. The ancient Romans may have considered people outside their empire to be barbarians and medieval Europeans may have regarded non-Christians as infidels, but they did not make social distinctions based on physical appearance.
Race, therefore, is a recent historical phenomenon — and an invented one.
The first methodical hierarchy of races was devised by Swedish botanist Carolus Linnaeus in the 1700s. In 1735, Linnaeus published his dozen-page Systema Naturae, which categorized animals, plants, and minerals by kingdoms, classes, orders, genre, and species. Linneaus expanded the number of animate and inanimate objects he classified throughout his life. A 1766 edition of his work reached over 2000 pages and divided humans into five races: Americanus, Europeaeus, Asiaticus, and Africanus, so-called for the parts of the world in which they originated, and Monstrosus, the race of sub-human and mythological creatures such as the satyr and wolfman.
Linneaus classified the elements of nature according to their “observable” aspects, which, for human races, included physical traits such as skin color and facial features, and also character judgments such as “opinionated”, “arbitrary”, and “law abiding”.
According to Linneaus, Africanus is “phlegmatic,” “crafty,” “indolent,” and “negligent,” and, Asiaticus is “lurid,” “melancholy,” “fatuous,” and “avaricious” — all negative characteristics. Europeaeus, by contrast, is “gentle,” “mentally acute,” “inventive,” and “governed by laws”.
The sense of hierarchy and mastery with Europeans at the top was not confined to Carolus Linnaeus or the natural sciences at this time. In 1776, British philosopher Adam Smith published the Wealth of Nations, which proclaimed, among other things, the roles of the division of labor, competition, and free trade in increasing wealth. The industrial revolution was underway, new types of jobs were being created by new technologies in new industries, production was increasing rapidly, and British firms were looking for new markets and new sources of raw materials beyond their nation’s borders.
It was painless for Adam Smith and his followers to preach the virtues of competition and free trade since the advancement of British industry, the unparalleled technological advantage that it was building, ensured that increasing competition and dismantling trade barriers between Britain and the rest of the world would not hurt British industry. Britain’s comparatively low costs of production gave it an overwhelming advantage over any competitor. As the wealth of capitalists grew in Britain and other European nations, so did colonialism and the subjugation of people of color and their territories’ natural resources. Competition came to mean a European nation or industry trampling a less powerful population. And free trade didn’t necessarily mean free or fair for everyone; the goal was never to level the playing field, but tilt it in favor of the economically powerful.
The powerful drew upon racial and other classifications to justify their domination and exploitation, both domestically and internationally. Moreover, the classification of people allowed (and still allows) the powerful to exploit others, but recognize it as benignity. Thus, Africans were “backward” because of their inferior technological achievements, retrograde cultural and political accomplishments, and personal indolence, and “free” trade would bring them up to modern standards. Similarly, the urban poor were and are never poor because they got a poor start in life, but because they were lazy, had too many children, didn’t marry, drank excessively, and caroused their money away, and, therefore, they are damn lucky to get any low-paying jobs or public welfare. And women were and remain considered unsuitable for many jobs, especially managerial jobs.
Clearly, any classification — racial, economic, or whatever — is a useful instrument for those doing the classifying. In modern nations, we have come to view classification as an unavoidable and perfectly acceptable way of making sense of social situations.
Sociology as the empirical study of the behavior of groups of people was born around the time of Carolus Linneaus and Adam Smith, and it is reasonable to claim that the understanding and documenting of differences between peoples was its foundational idea.
The classical writers in sociology, most of whom studied “primitive” peoples, defined difference in many ways, but there was always an implicit, if not normative, sense of direction and improvement: that some people, some ways of living were less evolved, less advanced than others, but that with proper guidance they could be shepherded by enlightened Europeans and Americans into the modern age. Emile Durkheim wrote of mechanical versus organic solidarity; Karl Marx of pre-capitalist social formations as opposed to capitalist ones; the German sociologist Ferdinand Toennies distinguished between what he called gemeinschaft and gesellschaft, or community and individual self-interest; Max Weber contrasted modern rational and non-rational belief systems; Henry Maine differentiated between traditional societies organized by custom and status on the one hand and their modern counterparts where law and contract were enforced. Later social scientists have described clashes of power relationships and shown how they can marginalize certain groups from mainstream society: for Franz Fanon, it is the colonized who are marginalized; for Michel Foucault, prisoners and the mentally ill; for Edward Said, Islam and Moslems; and for William Julius Wilson, inner-city African-Americans.
The classification of people as advantaged and disadvantaged, or powerful and powerless, or exploiter and exploited, or modern and traditional, or superior and inferior remains a major undercurrent, if not obsession, for sociology and social thought in general.
As a result, we are conditioned to observe the world in terms of us versus them. Dominant attitudes, behaviors, and beliefs are the standards for normalcy, and this helps explain the longevity of classifications of people.
Not only are we are accustomed through our social science training to seek out differences between groups of people, but the popular media impose values on these differences. Normalcy, in America, is a realm of upper-class lawyers and doctors and physically-thin and impeccably-dressed suburban wives that is impressed on the masses through prime time television. And how does a person who does not — cannot — partake of that world measure herself? As an underachiever? Abnormal? A failure? Media stereotypes persist because of unwritten hierarchies; in fact, stereotypes would make no sense, would be impossible to construct and perpetuate, without pre-existing classifications of people.
The extraordinary degree of insecurity to which American workers are subjected is also a central factor in the perpetuation of racism and discrimination: the fear of impoverishment or bankruptcy, for example, resulting from unemployment or having to take a lower-paying job, thus making it harder to pay the bills. Not surprisingly, then, there are attempts to limit eligibility to compete for particular jobs or buy property in particular neighborhoods. Workers may support restrictions to keep out immigrants, for example, because they believe labor markets will be tighter and wages will be higher than they would be otherwise. The middle-class may try to regulate the lower class from their neighborhoods to protect property values, the largest chunk of their savings.
Status insecurity is also part of the mix, for there is a status hierarchy closely tied to one’s job and income. Lawyers, doctors, property owners, and some teachers enjoy positive social status based on their professions; gardeners, plumbers, delivery persons, and most contract workers do not. Furthermore, those who possess status frequently feel they would morally degrade themselves by mixing socially with those who do not.
Ultimately, Americans express their superiority geographically.
If we can, we move to “better” neighborhoods, with better schools, better amenities, better housing, and people who share our status or the status to which we aspire. Since there is always someone lower on the hierarchy, there will always be reasons for people of almost any means to flee.
The market, of course, reacts to population shifts in metro areas. For example, the environmental health of a neighborhood gets incorporated into home values. In most cities, the price of houses in areas with air pollution, traffic congestion, noise, and crime are lower than in areas without, all other things being equal. The way real estate markets function ensures that polluted and dangerous areas are more affordable, so it shouldn’t be a surprise that poor people find themselves living next to toxic waste dumps or busy freeways or airport runways or drug houses. The goal of capitalism is to make a profit, and attempts by cities to force capital to heed race or gender or ethnicity through, for example, hiring schemes or affordable housing requirements or environmental justice audits are destined to have limited success.
As a result, American cities may celebrate their diversity, but they will never celebrate their equality. Local zoning may encourage ethnic shops and markets, mixed-income housing, and public spaces where people from all walks of life have the opportunity to interact. But the better-off will continue to see themselves as achieving prosperity by virtue of their individual efforts, even though the difference the individual makes is negligible because people, ultimately, are formed socially by family, schools, and work.
In other words, life is unfair and inequality will continue, even with the welfare state and its goal of equal opportunity for all. True equality of opportunity depends on equality of family resources, impossible with capitalism and, therefore, implausible with the best zoning and the most enlightened sustainable development.