Problems We Don't Really Want to Solve

Image from the  Library of Congress

Image from the Library of Congress

I have a lot of conversations with people about the challenge of doing fill-in-the-blank: improving public schools, building affordable housing, replacing corporate chains with local mom and pop shops, getting public infrastructure expenditures in line with the local tax base… And here’s my general response. We, as a society, don’t want to solve these problems. Not really. So we won’t.

Not all that long ago the huge disparity of racially segregated schools became a national embarrassment and a moral dilemma. Federal troops were brought in to enforce integration as part of the constitutional civil rights movement. But what really happened in practice?

Black children were shuffled in to white schools by armed soldiers. In response, white families immediately pulled their kids from the public system and enrolled them in a parallel private system of Christian academies. Then the public schools were radically defunded by white dominated local councils that no longer valued the public system and didn’t want to spend white tax dollars supporting the de facto black system.

As federal regulators pressed down on such districts to force higher funding levels the white population simply moved across municipal boarders to new suburban districts where poor blacks (and poor whites) couldn’t afford to buy homes. The feds then instituted inter-district busing of black kids to white suburban schools. That sent many prosperous white families packing to other counties or states where there simply weren’t many black people anywhere near them.

The threat of white kids rubbing shoulders with black kids was so intolerable that whites would do absolutely anything to avoid the situation. They said it wasn’t racism. The black kids were just dangerous and a bad influence. This was true in Alabama and Boston and just about everywhere else. It wasn’t a problem society really wanted to solve. So we didn’t. It’s still with us today.

One of the side effects of this pattern is that towns learned to zone and code development in a way that made it highly unlikely that poor people of any color would ever be able to move in. Minimum lot size, minimum home size, auto-dependent zoning, and so on kept out the riffraff. If you couldn’t afford a fully detached single family home and at least one halfway reliable car you were excluded – not by unconstitutional illegal racial covenants, but by economics and geography.

This triggered the feds to institute affordable housing mandates which played out along similar lines as school desegregation. Local governments would do almost anything to filter out “the wrong element” through land use policy. If state or federal funds were in jeopardy some minimally compliant garden apartments were build on the far edge of town – usually next to the landfill.

When mandates for public transit were tied to highway funding towns reluctantly ran mostly empty buses once an hour between the mall, the community college, and the senior center. It was transit. But it was also useless.

This is the system that we’ve inherited. But here’s the rub. A larger and larger proportion of the American population of all colors is slipping from comfortable middle class status to a state of reduced circumstances. Many of the folks who always believed they could buy their way in to the better places are now finding themselves in the lesser environments – the kinds of situations they were happy to impose on others in the past. And they’re really pissed off about it.

(Top image from DOJ)

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