Integration or Bust!

I heard a news report today about a study published in JAMA Internal Medicine. They studied African Americans who moved from segregated neighborhoods (including Minneapolis) to more integrated neighborhoods, beginning in the mid 1980s.

African-Americans experience a significant drop in their blood pressure after they move out of highly segregated neighborhoods and into more integrated neighborhoods, researchers report Monday. A study involving more than 2,000 African-Americans found that those who moved from the most-segregated neighborhoods to less-segregated neighborhoods later experienced lower systolic blood pressure, a factor in heart attacks and strokes.”

The researchers didn’t figure out ‘how’ moving to less segregated neighborhoods could affect blood pressure, but speculated that it’s probably because of multiple factors including less stress from being exposed to less violence.

Here’s what we know. When you live in a neighborhood with less stress and exposure to less violence you are healthier. We also know that when you have access to clean air and healthy food you are healthier as well. And we know that we have disinvested in communities or color for decades so that their communities are less healthy than white communities. I suppose then there are two ways to connect folks to healthier communities, right? Move you to a different neighborhood or improve the one you live in now.

It could be easy to read this research and presume that we should pursue integration as the better strategy. Fine. That’s ok. I’m all for de-segregation. But my fear is we create a false choice, that says the only way I can improve your health outcomes is by moving you to an already healthy community versus helping to make the community you live in right now healthier.

Let’s break down quick the difference between the segregated and integrated communities studied in this research.

  1. Segregation is defined as communities with high percentages of people of color (e.g. all white communities are not considered segregated).
  2. The segregated neighborhoods the participants moved from have been disinvested in for decades due to institutional and structural racism and white supremacy.
  3. The integrated (whiter) neighborhoods that the participants moved into received persistent and durable investments over the same period.

Given these realities does it surprise you that people’s health improved upon movement?

No, it should not.

Does it mean we should pursue integration as a singular attempt to improve health outcomes for residents of segregated neighborhoods?

No, it should not.

Separate has never been equal in our country. I get that. And I am all for integration as an outcome of a fair and just society, I just don’t think it’s the only vehicle we should use to achieve a fair and just society. In fact, I might argue the opposite. That if we pursued a more fair and justice society, a natural outcome would be greater levels of racial and economic integration.

It’s a sort of chicken or egg conversation I guess. Which comes first? Fairness and justice or integration?

At the end of the day, research like this should make us committed to a both/and approach to strengthening communities. The problem is not segregation, the problem is the way in which we treat concentrations of people of color differently than the ways we treat concentrations of white people.  Just like there is no penalty for White people who choose to live in a segregated (mostly white) community, there should not be a penalty for African Americans living in a segregated (mostly black and brown) community.

We should increase mobility for folks who want to live in more integrated neighborhoods and at the same time we need to undo 100 years of disinvestment by investing in the places where people live now, improving the places they call home today.





May 15, 2017

Gentrifier v. Gentrification

Erin and I were in San Francisco yesterday. Well, technically we just walked through it for a bit on our way from Oakland to the airport.

San Francisco which is ground zero for gentrification. San Francisco with its highest square footage costs in the country. San Francisco with its astronomical rents.

You can see and feel in San Francisco’s gentrification what I suppose many in Minneapolis are afraid will happen to our own city.

But more than the demographic change that we know has occurred in San Francisco, you can also sense this high level of a consumer/consumption culture. Everywhere you looked there was something to consume. I don’t spend a lot of time in the parts of Minneapolis that already have lots of cool bars and restaurants and condos, so maybe we have some of that here. Or maybe my senses were just heightened on our walk and so I was overly sensitive. Who knows.

But here is what I will say.

If you learn about gentrification just by reading newspaper articles you might think that gentrification is the end result of thousands of people’s taste for mustaches, breweries and cool bars and restaurants.  But let’s be clear, those are the effects of gentrification, they are not the causes.

There is a difference between the gentrifier and gentrification.

The gentrifier is there to consume a city that has been produced for them.

To focus on the gentrifier is to narrowly focus on the individual, rather than the systemic.

We make the same mistake when talking about racism by only focusing on the interpersonal and not the institutional. This myopic view of gentrification (and race) fits well with our overall obsession with the ‘individual’. It’s easier to focus on the gentrifier, rather than the political, economic and social forces producing gentrification in the first place.

Empty buildings become occupied, new bike lanes are created, an art gallery opens, then a new coffee shop, a craft brewery and “all of a sudden” all these new people are showing up to consume what has been carefully curated for their tastes. Hidden from the public eye is all that proceeds the street level changes we see and experience. We never see or hear about conversations between real estate developers and planners or business leaders and elected officials. By the time you see the hipsters, the political and economic forces have already paved the way for this transformation.

Jason Hackworth a professor of planning and geography at the University of Toronto, writes, “Gentrification is much more than the physical renovation of residential and commercial spaces. It marks the replacement of the publicly regulated Keynesian inner city – replete with physical and institutional remnants of a system designed to ameliorate the inequality of capitalism – with the privately regulated neo-liberalized spaces of exclusion.”

Or as Peter Moskowitz says in a much simpler way in his book How to Kill a City,

“…gentrification is the urban form of a new kind of capitalism.”

This, I would argue, becomes an important starting point for our conversations about gentrification, community development and neighborhood revitalization. Capital always goes where it can make the most profit. If that used to be in the suburbs, fine. If that is in the central city, great (of course, don’t forget that in order for the central city to be a place where capital can maximize profit, it first had to be disinvested in!).

Moskowitz acknowledges that while consumption drives some aspects of gentrification, after all inner cities are attractive cultural spaces, gentrification may also represent a “much more sinister kind of individual expression: that of colonial power. In the same way that Europeans colonized the Americas, some see gentrifiers as seeing the inner city as a place lacking control and in need of white civilizing forces. An urban wilderness waiting to be tamed.”

Gentrification is more than just consumption. Gentrification is more than any individual gentrifier. It is part of a system that prioritizes capital over community and profits over people.

It’s a way of being that is grounded in the DNA of our country. We founded our country on principles of cultural imperialism, violence and displacement, and gentrification simply becomes a new form of the same process.

If we want to advance more equitable neighborhood change and development in our city, we’ll need to talk about much more than just buildings, breweries and hipsters. Instead, we’ll need to talk directly about what Moskowitz notes as the same age-old, racist process of subsidizing and privileging the lives and preferred locals of the wealthy and white over those of poor people of color.” 


May 3, 2017

Start with Why

I was in a meeting recently and the facilitator asked the group, ‘So, what problem are we trying to solve”?

I blurted out, “White Supremacy”.

Which I quickly followed up with, “Well, I guess it depends on how far back you want to go?”.

Because right, like anything, we have the choice to deal with the symptoms or deal with the causes of the symptoms. We can work to address issues of racial disparities and racial inequality by tinkering around the edges. Or we can go further upstream and get to the root cause. We can work to take the world as it is, and try to make it a little bit better, or we can work to change the way the world actually works.

This is the difference between static enhancement and transformational justice.

I see a lot of static enhancement in our region. I practice a lot of static enhancement. It’s not all bad.

The work of transformational justice takes more time, takes a deeper analysis, takes more sacrifice and costs (monetary and non-monetary) more. I would argue though, that any work we do in the here and now is better when it’s informed by the longer-term work of undoing and uprooting the root causes of so much of the oppression and marginalization present in our world today.

I am using this perspective as I look at the various municipal races happening in Minneapolis and Saint Paul this year. I’m not much of a party person, so I don’t know much about how the DFL works and operates, though at first glance it feels less than inspiring. In Minnesota, the label of being a ‘progressive’, is one people and groups choose to describe their politics. And then of course there is a continuum of ‘more’ or ‘less’ progressive that is always up for debate.  It’s a good debate, one we should be having as we work to advance more fair and just cities in our state.

If I had to make a continuum of ‘who is more left’ there are a few things I’d be looking for. Going back to what I wrote above, I want to see and hear from leaders who have a strong analysis and perspective of what it would take to change the way the world actually works while they are working to make the world as it is better. Listen, we are awesome about talking about ‘what’ the issues are, but we let our candidates off the hook when we don’t ask them deeper questions about ‘why’ these issues exist and persist.

I want to know what you think about why are wages stagnant? Why do low and moderate income people get left behind in a city that is growing? Why do we allow toxic environments to flourish in some communities and not in others? I want to know what you think about the exploitation and marginalization of people of color and Indigenous people and how that creates the problems we’re trying to solve for today.

If I designed a questionnaire for candidates it might go something like this:

  1. Why are people poor?
  2. How is our society organized to preference White people in our city? What are the consequences of that?
  3. How does a history of cultural imperialism, violence and displacement impact our racial, and economic inequalities?
  4. Where are people of color and indigenous people on the circle of human belonging? Why does it matter?
  5. Based on your answers, how will all of this impact your decision making and policy making?

Your answers to these ‘why’ questions are the meat towards me understanding your analysis and worldview. From there, I might get a better sense of the agenda you plan to set if elected and the decisions you’ll end making (or not making).

Most of our candidates can tell you ‘what’ the issues are. Wages are stagnant. Housing prices are rising. The police are too violent. The air isn’t clean. The transportation isn’t good enough. That’s easy. Most candidates can even probably tell you the 3-4 things they’ll do to address the issue.

I would argue though that letting them stay there is a low bar and a lost opportunity to understanding and pushing our leaders further.

April 30, 2017