by Joel Kotkin 02/04/2015
The election of Barack Obama six years ago was hailed as a breakthrough both for minorities, particularly African Americans, and for his being the first “city guy” elected president in recent history. Both blacks and urbanistas got one of their “own” in power, and there were hopes that race relations and urban fortunes would improve at a rapid pace.
Instead, the recent controversies over police killings of African American men have revealed a shocking deterioration of race relations not seen in a generation. Since the racial euphoria that accompanied the president’s election, views of race relations held by blacks and whites, according to Pew, have become decidedly less optimistic. Nearly half of whites and roughly two in five blacks, according to a recent Politico poll, say race relations have worsened under Obama. Only 4 percent of whites and 13 percent of African Americans thought relations had improved. Another recent survey, this one by Bloomberg, finds 53 percent of Americans opining that race relations have declined under Obama.
For the most part, the current racial discord has been traced largely to the long, uneasy relationship between minorities, notably African Americans, and the police. The disparity in perceptions between whites and blacks are most notable here, says Pew, with 70 percent of African Americans, but barely 25 percent of whites, disputing that police do a good job treating the races “equally.”
Here’s the real tragedy: Some 50 years after the passage of sweeping nationwide civil rights legislation, the institutionalization of affirmative action and billions poured into addressing urban poverty, many African American youth remain well outside the mainstream, unmoored to the economy and far too liable to get into confrontations with law enforcement. This is clearly connected with such factors as the preponderance among African Americans of 70 percent single-female-headed households, nearly half of which are poor.
Then, there are the murder statistics. Columnist Walter Williams has noted that, out of roughly 7,000 blacks murdered last year, 94 percent were killed by another black person. Half of all homicide victims are black, while blacks account for barely 13 percent of the nation’s population. Williams calculates that the black homicide victimization rate is six times that of whites, and in some cities, more than 22 times higher.
Not surprisingly, these sad numbers are also reflected in economic statistics. African American unemployment remains twice that of whites. The black middle class, so responsible for, and understandably proud of, Obama’s elevation, according to the Urban League, in the past decade has conceded many of the gains made over the prior 30 years.
Despite the hoopla about urban revival, a recent study reveals that entrenched urban poverty – places where 30 percent or more of the population lives below the poverty line – actually grew in the first decade of the new millennium, from 1,100 to 3,100 neighborhoods. Meanwhile, the population of these areas doubled, to 4 million. “This growing concentration of poverty,” notes researchers Joe Cortright and Dillon Mahmoudi, “is the biggest problem confronting American cities.”
These trends dwarf the oft-celebrated movement of young professionals and empty-nesters into the urban core. Indeed, notes demographer Wendell Cox, roughly 80 percent of population growth in cities during 2000-10 was from poor people. Not surprisingly, many African Americans have moved to suburbs, where a majority of them now live, according to the Census Bureau.
Also not surprising is that poverty and conflicts with law enforcement are now found in some suburban areas, as was clear in the case of Ferguson, Mo. Yet, poverty in the core cities remains considerably worse than in the suburbs. Despite trite talk about “suburban ghettos,” the poverty rate in the suburbs remains roughly half that of urban centers (as of 2010, 20.9 percent in core compared with 11.4 percent in the suburbs).
Much the same can be said about crime. The overall violent-crime rate in urban cores, although down from 2001, remains almost four times higher than in the suburbs, according to FBI data. Many of the most crime-ravaged cities are heavily African American: Detroit, Oakland, St. Louis, Memphis, Tenn., Cleveland and Atlanta.
Big-city class chasms
The fundamental preconditions for increased racial tensions can be seen in the growing class chasm within cities, particularly gentrifying ones. In New York City, the epicenter of the current debate over policing, good times on Wall Street and among the glitterati has not trickled down into the ghetto. The majority of people in hip Brooklyn, notes researcher Daniel Hertz, have seen their incomes drop over the past decade; roughly one in four Brooklynites, a cohort overwhelmingly black and Hispanic, lives in poverty. Over the entire borough, he points out, residential patterns have become more segregated, and Brooklyn now is second, only to Milwaukee, in terms of racial separation.
In Chicago, like most cities, areas of concentrated poverty have expanded in recent years. Chicago is widely hailed as the progenitor of Alan Ehrenhalt’s “great inversion,” which predicts a continuing shift of rich people into cities while the poor exit to the dreary suburban wasteland. But the reality is far more complicated, as employment in Chicago has dropped below 2001 levels, and middle-class neighborhoods have continually shrunk.
Essentially, amidst renewal, there is greater bifurcation. Prosperous and greatly hyped “super-global Chicago,” notes urban analyst Pete Saunders, enjoys income and education levels well above those of the suburban areas. Most Chicagoans, however, live in “rust belt Chicago,” with education and income levels well below suburban levels. Rather than simply bifurcated, Saunders suggests, “Chicago may be better understood in thirds – one-third San Francisco, two-thirds Detroit.”
The tensions exacerbated by this growing divide are widely evident. Violence is slowly shifting from Chicago’s poorest neighborhoods and into some of the city’s nicest redoubts; Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s 17-year-old son was mugged outside his home. Chicago’s violent-crime rate remains far higher than that of New York or Los Angeles; by some estimates, the city is more dangerous now than during the Al Capone era during Prohibition.
Chicago’s predicament – with a slight increase in murders in 2014 – could prove a harbinger. In some big cities, like Chicago, New York and Atlanta, populations entrenched in poverty will likely remain for the foreseeable future. It’s hard to imagine East New York or the westside of Chicago, much of south Atlanta, or Watts, for that matter, gentrifying anytime soon.
Indeed, Los Angeles, which also experienced a big drop in violent crime over the past decade, now expects to report a 7 percent increase this past year. Late last month, L.A. also experienced a possible attempted assassination of police officers, although the assailants, thankfully, missed.
In some cities, usually smaller and whiter to start with, we are seeing a pattern of what amounts to “ethnic cleansing,” as increasingly isolated communities get driven out of their enclaves by relentlessly rising rents and the loss of blue-collar jobs.
This process is particularly notable in San Francisco, where the black population already is roughly half what it was in 1970. In the nation’s whitest major city – Portland, Ore. – African Americans are being pushed out of the urban core by gentrification, partly supported by city funding. Similar phenomena can be seen in Seattle and Boston where longtime black communities faced near extinction.
Under these circumstances, a degree of racial animus seems inevitable. Some Brooklyn residents, reports theDaily Beast,even justified the targeting of law enforcement officers. For their part, many NYPD officers feel betrayed by Mayor Bill de Blasio’s sympathetic comments about anti-police demonstrations. Some officers have expressed their distaste, inappropriately, by being rude to the mayor and staging slowdowns in arrests.
These racial tensions already are seeping into the political realm. African Americans in New York supported de Blasio’s policing strategy, 2-1, while a strong majority of whites opposed his stance.
The resurgence in racial animus remains arguably the biggest surprise – and one of the greatest failures – not only of Obama, but of our society. In this respect, neither conservative attempts to blame increased racial discord on the president and, now, attempts by his progressive claque to absolve him of any responsibility, really address the more serious issues behind the widening of the racial divide. Cities and communities, divided against themselves by race and class, cannot thrive in the long run, no matter how many publicists and pundits proclaim the battle for urban America already has been won.
This piece first appeared at The Orange County Register.
Joel Kotkin is executive editor of NewGeography.com and Roger Hobbs Distinguished Fellow in Urban Studies at Chapman University, and a member of the editorial board of the Orange County Register. His newest book, is now available at Amazon and Telos Press. He is author of The City: A Global History and The Next Hundred Million: America in 2050. His most recent study, The Rise of Postfamilialism, has been widely discussed and distributed internationally. He lives in Los Angeles, CA.