The following passage is excerpted from The Failures of Integration: How Race and Class Are Undermining the American Dream. (For more on this issue, read an interview with the author.)
The growing concern with sprawl creates an interesting possibility for alignment of urban and suburban, white and minority, affluent and poor interests. Advocates for low-income people and for cities and older suburbs need to be much more involved in the smart-growth and sustainable-development movements. It is highly relevant, and even more important to expanding opportunities and choices for low-income minorities.
Steering growth to the urban core has a number of benefits. It saves millions in public resources by building on existing infrastructure rather than sinking funds into new roads, sewers, and utility lines. It renders cities and older suburbs more vibrant and attractive, especially as an alternative to intense traffic congestion and a withering daily commute. It makes the centers of job growth more accessible to the urban poor, especially when mass transit and bus routes for marginalized communities are improved. It cuts down on loss of open space and uncontrolled growth on the outer fringe. Above all, steering growth inward will contribute mightily to the vitality of existing developed neighborhoods where many people of color live. Coalitions for smarter and more sustainable growth, then, are highly relevant to the project of cultivating successful socioeconomic integration.
Those who come to the growth issues solely from an environmental perspective should also be interested in enhancing race and class integration, because more people will feel inclined to choose neighborhoods in the densely developed urban core as they become comfortable living with difference.
Race and class issues hover below the surface of the smart-growth and sustainable-development debates. It is time to bring them out into the open in order to advance a mutually beneficial agenda. It is time for those in the smart-growth and sustainable-development movements who have not done so to account for their failure to address the issue of inequity, especially of the racist kind … There will be no such accounting, however, without the insistent advocacy of civil-rights and community organizations that are committed to racial and economic justice. They must join in and shape this debate.
Faith-based organizations have an especially critical role to play. They can bring their moral persuasion and values to bear in raising issues of equity and socioeconomic inclusion in the smart-growth debate. At the very least, an inclusive agenda demands that individuals, including those living in advantaged communities, make a personal commitment to accepting some social responsibility. Faith-based organizations have enormous credibility and unique standing to argue this case. In the Detroit metropolitan area, for example, one of the driving forces behind the creation of a new multi-county regional transit authority was a multiracial, city-suburban church-based organization called MOSES (Metropolitan Organizing Strategy Enabling Strength). A new regional entity that will provide greater access and connection between the inner city of Detroit and its surrounding suburbs is an important feat for one of the most racially segregated regions in the country.
In addition to the regionalists, the community builders, and the smart-growth and sustainable-development advocates, there are many other types of interests that could be brought into this fold. Education advocates, for example, should join with smart-growth and community advocates to combat the vicious cycle of sprawled growth that starves school districts in older communities of needed revenues and encourages the flight of the middle class to ever newer school districts on the suburban fringe. And leaders of cities and older suburbs should also participate in this movement because it will enable more middle-class families to see their localities and public schools as viable, attractive options. In sum, all of the organizations currently working to bring about a little more justice and sanity to our mutual existence will be vital in this work.
Nothing transformative will come to pass, however, without an unprecedented activism on the part of those who currently suffer under our separatist system. Far too many people and interests, wittingly or unwittingly, benefit from our fragmented condition. As Frederick Douglass, one of my personal heroes, once said: “Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will.”
Get Grist in your inbox