In this Issue - From the Editor

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The election of Barack Obama represents a turning point in the role of race in United States politics. It proves conclusively that the United States electorate has moved past simple prejudice based on the color of a person’s skin. And it demonstrates that there is a majority coalition in favor of progressive change. This is a milestone, and it offers an outstanding opportunity to advance a new national agenda.

Unfortunately, the election in itself does very little to challenge the economic and social system that inflicts racism on vast segments of the people in this country. To make change, our movements will need to maintain consistent grassroots pressure on the new leadership. But we also need to deepen our understanding of how racial inequality is maintained. Furthermore, we need a solid theory of how and where we can redistribute opportunity so that communities of color and low-income people can gain their fair share of benefits and remedy past wrongs.

Toward the goal of providing a clear understanding of our current starting point, in this issue, we examine the indicators of racism across a broad range of measures: health outcomes, incarceration rates, education levels, equal access to housing, income levels, and wealth accumulation. Contributions from Julian Bond, Sheryll Cashin, Manning Marable, Myron Orfield, and Jonathan Kozol clearly demonstrate that by every indicator racism has a powerful grip on this country. People of color, particularly African Americans, have higher mortality rates, shorter life spans, and more health problems; people of color are more frequently in jail, prison and on parole; are graduating at lower rates from high school, college, and post secondary programs; inherit less, earn less, and retain less money; get offered bad loans, are foreclosed on, evicted and are still restricted to certain areas for housing. It’s clear that we must make deep structural changes in our economic and social practices to remedy these wrongs.

One hopeful avenue for structural change is the integration of divergent streams of thought, including the civil rights movement, smart growth urbanism, and environmental justice into a growing movement for regional equity. By breaking the segregating restrictions of separate and unequal municipal and county governments, this brand of regionalism analyzes the metropolitan area in terms of who gains and loses from public policy decisions ranging from arcane zoning procedures to racist real estate lending practices. In this issue we share the views of leading practitioners from organizations such as Policy Link, the Partnership for Working Families, and the Gamaliel Foundation, as well as theoreticians such as john powell, and Robert Bullard. And in an insightful intergenerational dialogue with Carl Anthony, Juliet Ellis, Nathaniel Smith, Cecil Corbin-Mark, Leslie Moody, and Dwayne Marsh, we consider just how strong this movement is and where it can lead us.

Over coffee a couple of weeks before the election, a colleague said to me: “Sure, they will let a black man be president just like they let all those black men become mayors of cities in the 70s.” At that point, cities were bankrupt, the productive sectors had fled to the suburbs, and the tax base wouldn’t recover for at least 20 years—who better to preside over the declining urban shell than someone who could be discredited, then discarded after the dirty work was done.

In the waning days of the Bush regime, the powers that be have added $2 trillion to the national debt with not a peep of protest from the loyal “opposition.” This piñata* for the disgraced allies of the regime is truly amazing work: a $634 billion installment on a bloated war budget; the well advertised $700 billion bankers bail out fund; a half-dozen smaller tax schemes netting another $200 billion; and a running deficit of $400 billion.

Our progressive coalitions will be up against this economic reality, as will Barack Obama and the renewed Democratic majorities in the House and Senate. But the partial nationalization of the financial system offers us an opportunity to demand far more than we have lost. Reparations and affirmative action are not popular terms in the lexicon of today’s politics, but the truth is both are strategies that have been proven to work.

As we articulate and advance progressive “new majority” solutions to centuries old problems, it’s our responsibility to put the destruction of structural racism on the front burner, and to keep it there.

*Piñata: A paper mâché figure stuffed with candies and toys broken open by children in Latin American fiestas. ?The term accquired a political meaning in the waning days of the Sandinista government in Nicaragua 1990. Government officials, surprised by their election defeat, used their last few months in office to legally expropriate just about everything that wasn’t nailed down, and quite a few things that were (such as Daniel Ortega’s mansion). While the measures were in part justified by the fact that the agrarian reform and peasant expropriations of the land had not yet been legalized, the rank favoritism and personal gain displayed still stand as a high point in transparent corruption.

Race and Regionalsm | Vol. 15, No. 1 | Fall 2008 | Credits

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From the Director's Desk

When Urban Habitat was founded in 1989, we were one of the only regionally-based environmental justice organizations in the country. We worked regionally because it provided a frame of reference to more effectively deal with the systemic causes of many of the issues facing local communities. What we experienced was that decisions on transportation, land use, or siting of industry usually took place in arenas far larger than a particular neighborhood. We saw that poor air quality from idling diesel trucks did not stop at the border of West Oakland but traveled across neighborhoods, cities, and counties. More importantly we discovered that local organizing wasn’t “big” enough to challenge the sources of these sorts of problems.

Over time an intentional “movement” for regional equity has taken hold. There are now many organizations that experience the benefits of framing their work within a regional equity framework. Groups that may previously have been operating in geographic, sector, or issue silos now look for opportunities to link their work across these boundaries. For example, through the work of the Social Equity Caucus, a regional coalition of 75 Bay Area organizations coordinated by Urban Habitat, groups are uniting across nonprofit, public, and private sectors to develop a shared regional agenda for environmental, economic, and social justice. Organizations working on issues such as tenant right’s in Marin are able to connect with groups doing similar work in Oakland and San Francisco. “Going regional” is not always easy especially when local day-to-day work requires an immediate response. But as this issue of Race, Poverty, and the Environment demonstrates, there is a growing number of organizations using this model as both a theory and a practice.

Next month, Urban Habitat and the Social Equity Caucus will host the first inaugural State of the Region conference, where we will examine political, economic, environmental, and social trends that are impacting low-income communities of color throughout the Bay Area. Leaders from labor and the private and public sectors will be participating in this day-long event to deepen our understanding of these forces and to build partnerships and alliances across sectors, issue areas and geography.

In closing, I want to share my excitement over the fact that the country has elected the first black President. As many of you know, President Obama was trained as a community organizer by the Gamaliel Foundation and absorbed many crucial lessons about organizing that have since served him well.  At the United States Mayors Conference in June of this year, Obama assured the mayors that he knew the challenges they face, saying, “I will never forget that the most important experience in my life came when I was doing what you do each day—working at the local level to bring about change in our communities.” He went on to promise that once he is in the White House he will partner with local government to “promote strong cities as the backbone of regional growth.”  Further, he explained, “We need to stop seeing our cities as the problem and start seeing them as the solution. Strong cities are the building blocks of strong regions, and strong regions are essential... That is the new metropolitan reality and we need a new strategy that reflects it.”

While the challenges the country currently faces are unprecedented, we now have national leadership that shares our values and commitment to regional equity. This should inspire all of us to work even harder to ensure that this vision becomes reality for the communities about which we care the most.

Race and Regionalsm | Vol. 15, No. 1 | Fall 2008 | Credits

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The New Majority: Yes We Can!

In the wake of the landslide victory of Barack Obama as President, progressive forces are challenged to develop a larger vision of what is possible. President-elect Obama ran a brilliant campaign. The executive branch of government now has a mandate to bring the troops home, restore good will toward the United States among people around the world, lay the groundwork for a healthy economy, and accelerate the fight against greenhouse gas emissions. Now the hard work must begin. To be effective in the coming era, progressive advocates will need to develop a positive vision for American prosperity and a unifying strategy for how it might be realized. We will have to find ways to overcome fragmentation and to integrate a mosaic of separate issues and separate constituencies into a dynamic and proactive agenda for transformation.

Changes will be needed on many fronts. Not the least of these will be transformation of the ways we live in our cities, suburbs, and rural communities. Metropolitan patterns that developed after World War II have provided a framework for prosperity for well over half a century. On an individual level, that prosperity has proven robust for a great many in the United States. Many working-class families bought houses in growing suburbs, following a promise of homogeneous government, lower community taxes, better public schools, privacy, perceived safety, and even abundant free parking.

The past few decades, however, have revealed limitations in that metropolitan vision. Metropolitan fragmentation and a reliance on private developer decision-making have been subsidized by public investments in transportation and infrastructure. These practices have led to new forms of racial, political, and economic disenfranchisement, social segregation, concentrated poverty, and lack of access to jobs for many left behind. They have led as well to the destruction of many downtowns, the near death experience of others, and economic and fiscal decline of hundreds of cities and older suburbs.

In addition, researchers have documented a range of public health and environmental problems that can be attributed to current metropolitan development patterns: respiratory diseases, asthma, obesity, and automobile accidents. They argue that there has been an over reliance on private developers in making land use decisions. In areas such as Atlanta, the metro region has grown from 65 miles north–south to a staggering 110 miles, four times the rate of population growth. A 1998 Rutgers University study reported that sprawl costs taxpayers more than 20 times what it provides in financial gain to speculators. Among many other problems, this sort of growth leads to loss of air quality, heat islands, and water quality degradation from excessive asphalt.

To be effective, progressive forces must focus on a challenge that is big enough to have an impact—and small enough to be within the reach of ordinary people to organize their efforts in a new way. This Regional Equity movement to rebuild our metropolitan regions could provide such a focus for both the short and longer term. The essays in this issue of Race, Poverty and the Environment provide recommendations for this direction. Building on two decades of work by community organizers, congregations, policy advocates, and labor leaders, the essays included here begin to lay out the possibility of large-scale mobilization needed to rebuild our cities, suburbs, and rural places.

Regional organizing efforts were initially modeled on neighborhood-scale, place-based strategies of the 1950s and 1960s. These grew out of struggles in the poorest communities. More recently, regional strategists have learned to confront structural problems of inner cities as well as older suburbs by challenging racial geography and jurisdictional fragmentation at the metropolitan scale. Building on the lessons of these efforts, President-elect Obama has demonstrated that organizing for change can be taken to scale, eventually reaching the middle class, and even the most privileged members of our communities. Yes we can.

Race and Regionalsm | Vol. 15, No. 1 | Fall 2008 | Credits

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On Race and Regionalism

left Angela Glover Blackwell: I come to this work out of a racial equity perspective. “Regional equity” is helpful because it allows us to mainstream our discussions and get a new boost. But I don’t think we can achieve racial equity unless we actually focus on racial equity. We need to address the unwillingness to deal with race, which continues to place people of color at a disadvantage.

Bruce Katz: We’re really talking about alignment in our work. Take “Fix It First” [a strategy in the Detroit region to invest in existing transportation infrastructure in the city and inner-ring suburbs before building new roads in the suburbs]. We’re making three arguments in favor of the program: efficiency, fiscal responsibility, and equity. All of those come together in a politician’s mind. We’re not promoting just competitiveness, but inclusive growth also.

john powell: In Cleveland, African-American leadership has pushed back against regionalism, saying it has been driven by the white suburbs. They want a kind of regionalism where the interests of African-Americans are up front, and they are pushing us to better say where regionalism has actually benefited marginalized people, and where it hasn’t.

Carl Anthony: The people in leadership understand the language of competitiveness. They don’t really understand racism and inequality. I don’t think you can really make an argument that we should talk about mixed-income housing, workforce housing, and all these things, as if racism doesn’t exist. I think it is necessary to lift this up, and there is going to be tension there. But I don’t think you can get black people in substantial numbers involved in this kind of discussion unless we deal specifically with race. I think the reality is that we’re going to have to do both.

Excerpted from Edging Toward Equity: Creating Shared Opportunity in America’s Regions, Report from the Conversation on Regional Equity (CORE ) By Manuel Pastor, Chris Benner, and Rachel Rosner, Center for Justice, Tolerance and Community, University of California, Santa Cruz.

Race and Regionalsm | Vol. 15, No. 1 | Fall 2008 | Credits

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Editors Emeritus
Carl Anthony
Luke Cole

Juliet Ellis

Jesse Clarke

Design and Layout
Jesse Clarke

Editorial Assistance
Merula Furtado

Publishing Assistant
Christine Joy Ferrer

Editorial Advisor
Carl Anthony

© 2008 by the individual creators and Urban Habitat. For specific reprint information, queries or submissions, please email Much of the work on this site is availble under a creative commons license.

RP&E was first published in 1990 by Urban Habitat Program and the California Rural Legal Assistance Foundation’s Center on Race, Poverty & the Environment. In the interest of dialogue, RP&E publishes diverse views. Opinions expressed are not necessarily those of the editors, Urban Habitat, or its funders.

Urban Habitat
Board of Directors

Joe Brooks (Chair)

Romel Pascual (Vice-Chair)   
Mayor's Office, City of Los Angeles
Associate Director of the Environment

Tamar Dorfman (Treasurer)
S.F. Mayor's Office of
Community Development

Carl Anthony
Cofounder, Urban Habitat

Arnold Perkins
Alameda Public Health Department (retired)

Felicia Marcus
Natural Resources Defense Council

Organizations are listed
for identification purposes only


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