How jurisdictional fragmentation exacerbates inequalities

How “the preferences of white property owners have been institutionalized” by land use policy

Trounstine’s largely quantitative work of political science is a clear portrait of how white property owners have leveraged the power of separate political jurisdictions to exclude others while enriching themselves. Segregation by Design reveals how “the preferences of white property owners have been institutionalized through the vehicle of local land use policy” since at least the postwar period (Trounstine, 2018, p. 3).

Trounstine, J. (2018). Segregation by Design: Local politics and inequality in American cities. Cambridge University Press.

Using land use and zoning policy in combination with school district boundaries, affluent suburban communities have “promoted the generation of property wealth through segregation and unequal allocation of resources, institutionalizing prevailing race and class hierarchies” (Trounstine, 2018, p. 12). While this concept isn’t necessarily novel, Trounstine adds tremendous empirical value through her extended analysis of rich historical data to demonstrate how governments have implemented policies with segregationist effects for the past century.

One of Trounstein’s core findings shows that when whites lost political control, they moved to suburbs where they could maintain control over public spending and land use decisions. In her analysis of voting records, she finds that “[w]hites voted down bonds for civic improvements, abandoned public schools, and railed against an activist government” in the contentious period of school integration, the Civil Rights Movement, and urban unrest.

Many whites simply left their integrating urban neighborhoods “to move to the suburbs where they had much greater political control over neighborhood boundaries” (Trounstine, 2018, p. 34).

Using detailed data on neighborhood segregation and political attitudes, Trounstine shows that “when central city politics does not favor their interests (and suburbs do), white and upper-class residents are more likely to reside in different cities, rather than in different neighborhoods” (Trounstine, 2018, p. 168). Conditions that white residents might consider unfavorable include “minority mayors” and “more active policy agendas” (Trounstine, 2018, p. 184). The data bears this out as well, with Trounstine showing that between 1970 and 2000, “[n]eighborhoods became more racially integrated within cities, but whole cities became more racially homogeneous, increasing segregation between them” (Trounstine, 2018, p. 21).

The implication of this point is that if whites had only desired a more homogeneous racial environment, staying in white neighborhoods within municipal boundaries would have sufficed. Instead, the reality that white isolationism accelerated over this thirty-year period demonstrates that whites actually sought to escape urban municipalities altogether.

At the root of many of the issues and inequalities discussed in Segregation by Design is the concept of local autonomy and control wielded by small political subdivisions.

If the U.S. had stronger regional, state, or federal service provision or tax equalization, many of the stark differences in quality of life among jurisdictions would be muted.  Leveraging the power of the state to create separate political jurisdictions has “institutionalized power of the white property-owning community” leading to state-supported efforts to “grant themselves exclusive access to good schools, paved roads, and nice parks, while shifting the burdens of urban life to the poor and communities of color” (Trounstine, 2018, p. 210). It is this state-sanctioned nature of segregation that is at the heart of Trounstine’s argument.

Without the politically granted power to exclude others and hoard opportunity, the impact of these isolationist residential tendencies would not be so strong. Why should state and federal law intervene to address the impacts of local inequalities driven by this jurisdictional fragmentation? One major rationale, according to Trounstine, is that the decisions suburban communities make have “profoundly affected nonsuburban residents while preventing them from participating in the decision-making process” (Trounstine, 2018, p. 21). This tugs at the notion of democracy, with the idea of “political equality” and “representative government” becoming “hollow concepts” in practice (Ibid.). The exclusionary policies of suburban communities, as Trounstine writes, have a profound effect on nonsuburban residents. 

Questioning income segregation isn’t new

Additional historic analysis, this time of zoning districts in Atlanta, reveals how the impetus for zoning was clearly the maintenance of property values and residential segregation. Before being declared unconstitutional, Atlanta had explicitly racial zoning designations which classified H1 height districts as “white race districts” and other areas as “colored district and an apartment house district” (Trounstine, 2018, p. 82). After explicitly racial zoning was declared unconstitutional, the only necessary change was to remove the reference to colored and white districts.

The meaning and intent behind the zoning approach remains clear: single-family districts were intended for whites, while multi-family districts were intended for all other racial groups. While it may seem like these major changes to land use were implemented without resistance, Trounstine provides evidence that some advocates were opposed to the use of exclusionary zoning in the time period.

While most of Segregation by Design is retrospective, Trounstine offers a few recommendations for moving forward.

Like other scholars, she recognizes that local control results in unequal outcomes and perpetuates patterns of exclusion. As such, intervention by regional, state, and federal levels of government could help address policies with segregationist impacts. Trounstine writes that “…desegregating neighborhoods and schools is likely to require stripping, to some degree, local control” (Trounstine, 2018, p. 213) and suggests that building multifamily housing would become mandatory. At an individual level, she recommends “giving lower-income residents massive housing subsidies—allowing them access to segregated neighborhoods” (Ibid.) but notes how politically unlikely both solutions are.