Geography of Race

Autumn Awakening | Vol. 18, No. 2– 2011 | Credits

To order the print edition of "Autumn Awakening" use the back issues page.

To read more of our stories please sign up for our RP&E quarterly newsletter and occasional updates.



PDF icon 18-2.GeographyofRace.pdf1.79 MB

Lawsuit Breaks Suburban Affordable Housing Limits— Challenges Affluent Sprawl

On a warm afternoon, late lunchers linger at sidewalk tables in downtown Pleasanton. Small shops and restaurants fill Main Street’s carefully restored Old West-style wood buildings. Business parks ring the town and beyond them, low rolling hills meet the skyline.

Money magazine ranked Pleasanton among the 100 best small cities in the U.S. in 2010. The article pegged the median home price there at $465,000, and the median family income at $134,282—more than double the California average. It touted Pleasanton’s strong school system and abundance of parks, trails, public art spaces, and jobs.[1] This eastern Alameda County city of 70,000 has more than 2.3 jobs per household, the most lopsided ratio in the region.[2] Pleasanton, it seems, has plenty of everything—except housing.

Thou Shalt Not Build

City ordinances, ballot measures, zoning decisions, and General Plan provisions put in place since the 1980s have created a severe shortage of housing, particularly affordable housing. Pleasanton’s Housing Cap, approved by city voters in 1996 and reaffirmed in 2008, barred it from ever building more than 29,000 units of housing.

The housing restrictions prevent many who work in Pleasanton from living there, forcing them to become commuters. Of the 47,000 people who work in the city, around 42,000—almost 90 percent—commute to their jobs. Only about 4,000 of them take Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) trains; the rest drive, adding to the pollution and traffic congestion in the region.[3]

A lawsuit brought by San Francisco-based Public Advocates on behalf of Urban Habitat and housing activist Sandra DeGregorio overturned Pleasanton’s most stringent housing restrictions. The settlement in Urban Habitat, et al v. City of Pleasanton, et al required the city to plan and rezone for more affordable housing and sparked a broader conversation about what makes a community sustainable.

“For decades, the standard definition of sustainability focused on environmental sustainability,” says Connie Galambos Malloy, senior program director at Urban Habitat. “Now we are learning how closely environmental sustainability and equity are linked.”

Keeping it Green for the People Who’ve Got ‘Green’
Ironically, when the slow-growth majority on Pleasanton’s City Council first put the Housing Cap on the ballot in 1996, they framed it as environmental protection.

“We put the Housing Cap on the ballot because we wanted to keep growth within bounds that our infrastructure—especially our sewer system—could handle,” says Becky Dennis, who served on the Council from 1993 to 2002.

The Council originally paired the Housing Cap with an urban growth boundary to rein in sprawl. The Growth Management Ordinance, in place since 1986, limited the total number of housing permits that could be issued annually to 750. The city’s refusal to zone for high-density residential uses effectively blocked construction of affordable housing.

Without zoning in place, each proposal to build apartments or other high-density projects had to be debated and approved separately. This led to many Planning Commission hearings, prickly negotiations with anti-growth neighbors, and usually a reduction in the number of affordable units getting built.
Most of the low-income housing that made it through this process served seniors rather than families. Only 20 of the very-low-income units built between 1999 and 2006 were open to families with children.[4]
Regional Housing Needs Assessments (RHNA)
To distribute housing needs evenly within each region of the state, California’s Housing Element law provides for “Regional Housing Needs Assessments” (RHNA), prepared periodically by regional councils of government (COG). Schedules vary by region, but the assessments typically cover an eight-year period.
The RHNA includes existing and projected needs for housing at all income levels: very low-income (50 percent or less of area median income); low-income (50-80 percent of median); moderate income (80-120 percent of median); and above-moderate (more than 120 percent of median).
COGs calculate housing needs by looking at population and employment growth, existing employment, and household and employment growth near transit in the entire region and in each city or town. A jurisdiction’s housing needs obligation reflects its share of regional growth.

As Pleasanton was tightening its housing limits, it was becoming more racially diverse. It changed from 95 percent white in 1980 to 67 percent white in 2010 (in a county that is only 35 percent white). But the city’s power structure remained 99 percent white and upper middle class, and housing policy became “the electric third rail in Pleasanton politics,” says Dennis.

“Opposition to developers and residential growth presenting itself as environmental heroism is irresistible political candy,” she says.
While Dennis herself became an outspoken advocate for affordable housing, the growth limits became tools for exclusion—just as they did nationally after the federal Fair Housing Act passed in 1968. Because the Act barred overt discrimination, suburban communities turned to zoning to enforce de facto segregation.

“The power to zone entails the power to exclude,” said Richard Marcantonio, managing attorney at Public Advocates and lead counsel on the Pleasanton suit, explaining that communities use zoning powers to block affordable and multifamily (apartment) housing.

The landmark court decisions outlawing exclusionary zoning asserted that land use and zoning policies must serve the regional welfare, holding that regions thrive environmentally and socially when all communities have a share of affordable housing.[5] By 1980, housing activists in California had secured a state law that required periodic “Regional Housing Needs Assessments” (RHNA) to evenly distribute housing for all income levels. (See box.)

 The 1999-2007 RHNA tasked Pleasanton with building 5,059 units of housing; 729 of them had to be affordable for very-low-income families and 455 for low-income families. By 2006, the city had not even rezoned sites for affordable housing, despite the best efforts of Citizens for a Caring Community (CCC)—a small interfaith group that has become Pleasanton’s most vocal and persistent housing advocate.

Thanks to CCC, Pleasanton’s 2003 Housing Element included a plan for accommodating its affordable housing need. Under Program 19.1, the city had one year after the adoption of the Housing Element to identify enough sites for high-density residential use to meet its regional housing needs goal. It then had until June 2004 to modify its general plan and rezone so the housing could be built.

For three years, CCC lobbied for enforcement of Program 19.1. Members wrote to the Planning Commission, the City Council, and the California Department of Housing and Community Development; they met with commissioners and council members and testified at zoning hearings.

“We kept speaking out at City Council about fair share, but it was like talking to a stone wall,” says CCC activist Pat Belding, who then sought legal help from Public Advocates.

By June 2006, the number of units that could be built under the Housing Cap was too small to meet the city’s RHNA. City staff reports disclosed that only 1,686 units could be built under the Cap, far fewer than the 2,889 units in the RHNA. Public Advocates sent Pleasanton an official “demand letter” detailing the city’s violations of state housing law,6 and a coalition made up of CCC, East Bay Housing Organizations (EBHO), the East Bay Community Foundation, and the Tri-Valley Interfaith Poverty Forum began meeting to discuss next steps.

When All Else Fails, Sue
“Because Pleasanton’s low- and moderate-wage workers could not afford to live there, they were effectively without a voice to impact the policies keeping them out,” Galambos Malloy says. “That’s why it became important for regional groups to take action.”

Public Advocates filed suit against the city of Pleasanton in October 2006. Urban Habitat, et al v. City of Pleasanton, et al charged the city with violating state laws that require communities to meet their fair share of regional housing needs and with discriminating against people of color, female-headed households, and families with children, all of whom suffered disproportionately from the lack of affordable housing.

Settlement Points Way for Climate Change Planning
By opening up this opportunity-rich community, the settlement in Urban Habitat, et al v. City of Pleasanton, et al could make Pleasanton a model for organizers trying to ensure that the regional planning required by SB 375 serves equity as well as the environment.
SB 375—one of the laws passed to implement California’s climate change legislation—seeks to reverse decades of suburban sprawl. It directs regions to develop a “Sustainable Communities Strategy” (SCS) that will reduce driving and greenhouse gas emissions by supporting transit service that links jobs and affordable housing.
“The same policies that drove segregation and disinvestment in communities of color have also generated the sprawl that SB 375 aims to curtail,” says Richard Marcantonio, managing attorney for Public Advocates and lead counsel on the Pleasanton suit. “SB 375 provides a powerful opening for redrawing the regional map of opportunity and exclusion—on top of its environmental goals.”
Though Pleasanton has one of the region’s sharpest imbalances between jobs and housing, many other Bay Area communities follow its pattern. Most Bay Area cities and towns of more than 25,000 people—41 out of 57 studied by the Association of Bay Area Governments—lack sufficient housing for their low-income workers.
Since SB 375 only sets goals and does not prescribe the planning strategies for regions to bring jobs, affordable housing, and transit closer together, Bay Area activists have formed a broad network called “6 Wins for Social Equity” to engage in the SCS planning process. They are advocating for a strategy to bring affordable housing to all the area’s job-rich transit-connected communities and expand existing local transit service. This will help spread the social benefits of communities like Pleasanton and reduce sprawl as well.
Cities that export their housing needs, as Pleasanton did, create a sprawling “commute-shed” of low-wage workers. Affordable housing near jobs will cut vehicle miles traveled to work and greenhouse gas emissions, benefiting low-income workers and the regional environment alike.

Because the case included a discrimination claim, one plaintiff had to be an individual who had been harmed personally. Sandra DeGregorio, a Latina single mother and student teacher who had been active in the Tri-Valley Interfaith Poverty Forum for years, stepped forward.

DeGregorio had been spending more than half her income to rent in Pleasanton. “Some places said they had affordable apartments, but they had a waiting list and it took more than two years for one to open up,” says DeGregorio. She and her two children ended up moving out of town to find housing that would not break their budget.

Because the case also claimed that Pleasanton’s actions impacted the entire Bay Area, Urban Habitat stepped in as a plaintiff to represent the regional welfare.

The Alameda County Superior Court dismissed the case in May 2007. Public Advocates and its co-counsel, the California Affordable Housing Law Project, appealed and won reinstatement of the suit. The California Attorney General’s office joined the suit in 2009, concerned that the imbalance between jobs and housing would keep the region from meeting the greenhouse gas reduction targets set by AB32, the state’s climate change law.

Superior Court Judge Frank Roesch upheld the plaintiffs’ claim when the case came to trial. His March 2010 ruling overturned Pleasanton’s Housing Cap and ordered the city to zone for affordable housing. Pleasanton opted to settle rather than appeal.

By the Numbers: Exurbia Stays White

While suburban America overall is becoming much more racially diverse, there exists great demographic diversity among suburbs within metropolitan areas. In particular, the peripheral, low-density portions of large metro areas, often termed “exurbs,” remain distinct exceptions to the melting pot image.
Exurban counties represent 2.5 million people or just over 1 percent of the total large metropolitan population, but many are expanding very rapidly.
The 20 fastest growing exurban counties in the 2000s are located in a broad range of U.S. regions, from metro areas in the South (Atlanta, Richmond, Raleigh), to the West (Ogden), Midwest (St. Louis), and Northeast (New York). Population growth in these counties proceeded at three to five times the U.S. average rate from 2000 to 2010.
In contrast to the overall suburban populations of their metropolitan areas, most of these exurban counties are overwhelmingly white.
Sixteen of the 20 are more than 75 percent white. (Wilson County, TX near San Antonio is the most diverse, with Hispanics representing 38 percent of residents.)
Whites also account for the bulk of the recent population growth in the exurbs—at least 80 percent in 15 of the 20 exurbs.
Across all exurban counties, whites account for 73 percent of recent population growth, many times that group’s 8 percent contribution to overall U.S. population growth in the 2000s. In some ways, these exurban areas reflect the historic image of suburbia in terms of new housing, growth, and demographic detachment from the more urban portions of their metropolitan areas.
Excerpted from “Melting Pot Cities and Suburbs: Racial and Ethnic Change in Metro America in the 2000s,” a Brookings Institute report.

Under the settlement agreement signed in August 2010, the city agreed to pass an ordinance prohibiting discrimination against families with children needing affordable housing; to prepare a new Housing Element for its General Plan by August 2011; and to rezone three sites in Hacienda Business Park for high-density housing, with a minimum of 15 percent or 130 units (whichever is greater) of affordable housing.

Settlement Helps Community Rethink “Green”
In implementing the settlement agreement, Pleasanton opened a new community conversation on sustainability. It set up a 20-member task force to review plans for the new development at Hacienda Business Park and held community meetings to get input on the new Housing Element, especially on potential locations for affordable housing.

CCC members began working with the Great Communities Collaborative to ensure that the settlement terms were fulfilled. The collaborative comprises seven organizations that are dedicated to equitable transit-oriented development. The Non-Profit Housing Association of Northern California and EBHO took the lead in Pleasanton, with support from Greenbelt Alliance and Urban Habitat.

“People were having conversations about density, about what Pleasanton means to them,” says Peter Cohen, former policy director of EBHO, which has been involved in Pleasanton housing issues for years. “They were changing their idea about protecting the community and seeing their community in relation to the region.”

If the Hacienda Plan discussions prompt a broader shift in thinking, Pleasanton could be a model for other communities trying to move toward a more inclusive, regional perspective—one that sees affordable housing near jobs and transit as a building block for sustainability, not an obstacle to it.
“Pleasanton has some real lessons to teach us about how to find common ground in a political moment of dramatic demographic change,” says Galambos Malloy.

3.    Data compiled by BART between July 2010 and May 2011 show an average of 3,666 people taking the train from Pleasanton during the evening commute.
4.    Letter from Public Advocates to Pleasanton City Manager Nelson Fialho, June 20, 2006.
5.    Southern Burlington County N.A.A.C.P. v. Township of Mount Laurel, NJ, 1975 and Associated Homebuilders of Greater East Bay v. City of Livermore, CA, 1976.
6.    Letter from Public Advocates to Pleasanton City Manager Nelson Fialho, June 20, 2006.

Marcy Rein is a freelance writer and editor living in Richmond, California who works with Urban Habitat as a communications consultant.


Autumn Awakening | Vol. 18, No. 2– 2011 | Credits

To order the print edition of "Autumn Awakening" use the back issues page.

To read more of our stories please sign up for our RP&E quarterly newsletter and occasional updates.



PDF icon 18-2.rein_.pdf965.91 KB

Social Justice in Suburbia

East Contra Costa Needs Regional Resources

For three years running, poverty has been rising and median income declining. The latest U.S. Census report paints a dire picture of the state of the working family today. Yet, as Bay Area social justice advocates chart out their next  moves, they must recognize that the geography of race and class has shifted. Big things are happening in outer-ring communities like eastern Contra Costa County—a.k.a. East County—and the region needs to pay attention.

The Changing Landscape of Race and Class
In his landmark book about race and class in Oakland and the East Bay, Robert Self describes the suburbs surrounding Oakland as the “white noose.”[1] The line between predominantly black East Oakland and almost exclusively white San Leandro was well known in the country and helped to reinforce the common perception of “white” suburbs and “black” cities. But in the Bay Area, which has long been multiracial, with a complicated and spread out geography, this was never completely the case. Yet, it has been a fact of life for African Americans to be confined to a handful of cities at the core of the Bay—namely, Richmond, Oakland, San Francisco, and East Palo Alto.

Over the past generation, this geography has been changing. The Bay Area’s low-income and communities of color are no longer concentrated exclusively in inner core cities. They have been moving in large numbers to the outer suburbs—most notably, to the eastern Contra Costa County communities of Bay Point, Pittsburg, Antioch, Oakley, and Brentwood. Today, over half of East County’s 250,000 residents are African American, Latino, Filipino, or East Asian.
For new immigrants, as well as longtime residents, East County is a place of both opportunity and struggle. Many were able to become first-time homeowners by taking advantage of East County’s relatively affordable housing stock. But rampant predatory lending practices that targeted buyers of color led to skyrocketing mortgage payments and declining home values that put East County at the epicenter of the national foreclosure crisis. In Brentwood, nearly 2 percent of the homes faced foreclosure last August.[2]

As the housing industry slump spread to other parts of the economy, increased unemployment put further pressure on East County families. Even with the recession “officially” over, East County continues to suffer from some of the highest unemployment rates in the Bay Area. Pittsburg’s unemployment rate was 17 percent last July and overall unemployment was nearly 14 percent for East County.[3] To make matters worse, the USS-POSCO steel plant in Pittsburg—one of the largest employers in the area—has announced a partial closing this winter, threatening the livelihood of over 700 workers. According to Oakley resident and local community organizer Nancy Marquez, the combined impact of foreclosure and unemployment has been particularly devastating for African American and Latino families.

Fight for Social Justice Goes Suburban
The streets of East County may not remind anyone of Cairo’s Tahrir Square, but activists and a small but vibrant social justice community have been diligently working in the suburban terrain not normally associated with social activism. What is truly notable about the current level of activism is that the organizers are not going it alone. They are forming different, often interlocking partnerships for different issues at the county, regional, state, and national levels and working with everyone, from local governments to major hospital chains.

Groups, such as the Contra Costa Interfaith Supporting Community Organization (CCISCO) and the Alliance for Californians for Community Empowerment (ACCE), have been building coalitions and campaigns to target issues at the local and regional levels. ACCE is part of the East County Environmental Justice Collaborative—a partnership between La Clinica de la Raza and the Contra Costa Health Department—which has worked on everything from clean water to speed bumps, with a focus on the low-income unincorporated area of Bay Point. La Clinica has been a local partner of the regional Great Communities Collaborative (GCC), a Bay Area regional effort to link transportation with affordable housing and socially just land use planning around transit stations. And CCISCO has successfully partnered with GCC and La Clinica to bring a new low-income health clinic to the fast growing city of Oakley.

The idea for a health clinic came from organizer Marquez and some youth members of CCISCO’s Oakley Local Organizing Committee when they found out that 40 percent of their church members were uninsured. The county had been considering a school-based clinic to meet the growing demand for low-income health services. “But none of it was ever far east enough for people to benefit,” says Marquez. So, they took matters into their own hands—building relationships with local health providers, such as John Muir, Sutter Delta, Kaiser Permanente, and La Clinica. They also got critical support from the City of Oakley, which stepped in to guarantee the lease for the clinic in 2010, thus adding bricks and mortar to the plan. Remarkably, the campaign was conducted through the worst years of the foreclosure crisis when organizational resources were simultaneously needed for anti-foreclosure work at multiple levels.

Forming Alliances for a New American Majority
CCISCO and ACCE are partners with their parent organizations and groups—such as the National People’s Action, the Industrial Areas Foundation, the Right to the City Alliance—in the New Bottom Line coalition efforts to link the foreclosure crisis to a broader conversation about the economic structure of rising inequality in America. They are all part of what CCISCO Director Adam Kruggel calls, “Alliances for a whole new American majority.” They have been involved in protests in Oakland and San Francisco and local rallies that have garnered national attention and appearances in Antioch by Jesse Jackson. Last May, a prominent pastor and CCISCO leader from Antioch was arrested at a Wells Fargo shareholder meeting—part of a regional action involving more than a dozen local organizations.

Despite their successes, East County organizers are anything but sanguine about the roadblocks they face. The growing poverty, lack of local jobs, and poor transportation network make it physically hard to get everyone together. And while its diversity is one of East County’s great strengths, it also puts forth the challenges that are all too familiar to inner-city activists involved with organizing across race, class, and ethnicity.

Organizers frequently have to overcome what Kruggel calls “the Levittown mindset,” especially among homeowners who blame themselves for their personal housing crises. Trying to explain the structural issues behind bad mortgages, low property values, and lack of local jobs is difficult in a place without a deep tradition of community development institutions. So, CCISCO focuses instead on basic community-building among faith communities to help people connect their personal struggles to the conditions of society as a whole.

Regional Responsibility Through Sub-Regional Coalitions
There is one challenge, however, that local organizers do not feel they should have to endure—a lack of resources and support from the region’s core. “The biggest obstacle we face is finding resources—for CCISCO, for schools, for cities, for everything,” says Marquez. Foundation support and attention from regional social justice organizations like Urban Habitat and EBASE is primarily focused on the region’s core, especially on gentrifying neighborhoods and communities still struggling with the legacy of disinvestment, redlining, and redevelopment. Even the Great Communities Collaborative recently decided to curtail its involvement in East County following the completion of certain land use campaigns they have been working on.

Much like the debate about personal responsibility in the foreclosure crisis—rather than assign regional responsibility for a crisis with deep structural and historical roots—many point to the mistakes of East County cities and homeowners for the problems they face. In truth, the East County’s hardships were not entirely self-inflicted. At the local level, anti-growth policies and rising housing costs in the Bay Area’s inner core pushed many lower-income families to the outer regions in pursuit of affordable homeownership. At the regional level, transportation planning failed to keep up with the East County’s growing population, 80 percent of whom commute to work. The federal government, which heavily subsidized the earlier Bay Area suburban cities, turned its back on suburban development in the last 30 years. It also changed regulations to make it easier to sell subprime mortgages and other predatory finance structures to uninformed home buyers and owners. East County cities were pretty much left to deal with the sudden influx of primarily working class African American and Latino residents by themselves.

By the Numbers: Urban Suburban Population Trends

Hispanics now outnumber blacks and represent the largest minority group in major American cities. The Hispanic share of population rose in all primary cities of the largest 100 metropolitan areas between 2000 and 2010. Across all cities in 2010, 41 percent of residents were white, 26 percent were Hispanic, and 22 percent were black.
Well over half of America’s cities are now majority non-white. Primary cities in 58 metropolitan areas were “majority minority” in 2010, up from 43 in 2000. Cities lost only about half as many whites in the 2000s as in the 1990s, but “black flight” from cities such as Atlanta, Chicago, Dallas, and Detroit accelerated in the 2000s.
Minorities represent 35 percent of suburban residents, similar to their share of overall U.S. population. Among the 100 largest metro areas, 36 feature “melting pot” suburbs where at least 35 percent of residents are non-white. The suburbs of Houston, Las Vegas, San Francisco, and Washington, DC became majority minority in the 2000s.
More than half of all minority groups in large metro areas, including blacks, now reside in the suburbs. The share of blacks in large metro areas living in suburbs rose from 37 percent in 1990, to 44 percent in 2000, to 51 percent in 2010. Higher shares of whites (78 percent), Asians (62 percent), and Hispanics (59 percent) in large metro areas live in suburbs.
Fast-growing exurban areas remain mostly white and depended overwhelmingly on whites for growth in the 2000s. Whites accounted for 73 percent of population growth in outlying exurban counties, well beyond their 8 percent contribution to national population growth over the same period.
Excerpted from Melting Pot Cities and Suburbs: Racial and Ethnic Change in Metro America in the 2000s, a Brookings Institute report.

“No one ever thought that Antioch was going to be one of the largest cities in the county. Yet, we don’t have the same voice as Richmond and Concord,” says Councilmember Mary Rocha. “Everyone points the finger at us, but why can’t we get the same opportunities like the rest of them had?”

Bay Area Take Note, East County is Here to Stay
East County has an active and ambitious but under-resourced activist community that has to largely fend for itself. Moving beyond the current situation requires concrete steps at the East County and regional levels.

Regional foundations, think tanks, intermediaries, associations, coalitions, and social justice networks need to see East County as an integral part of the Bay Area that is fundamental to the question of social and spatial justice over the next decade. There needs to be a broader commitment to working diligently on this critical frontier of suburban struggle, as well as finding the necessary funds and resources for it. Regional organizations that engage in advocacy in the East County must work to build the deep and lasting relationships needed to support local community leadership. They must move forward a serious social equity agenda, rather than taking a campaign-by- campaign approach. These lessons have been learned repeatedly in Oakland and Richmond and must not be forgotten in the East County.

Moving out of the foreclosure crisis and combating poverty, underfunded schools, and significant fiscal challenges requires a major investment in the economy and transportation network of the area that no single actor can manage on their own. Historical divisions between the East County and the rest of the region, and divisions between social justice activists and elected officials have to be overcome to create a new, broad-based coalition to push for regional, state, and national investment in the East County’s future.

History could have been written differently if critical thought and investment had gone into managing density, accessibility, and transportation in the region’s core. East County cities might not have had to cope with such rapid growth. But as things stand today, the East County is home to over a quarter million people of all incomes and ethnicities—many of them transplants from the urban core. It’s high time the Bay Area took regional responsibility.

1.    Self, Robert, American Babylon: Race and the Struggle for Postwar Oakland, Princeton University Press, 2005.
2.    Data from RealtyTrac.
3.    Data from U.S. Bureau of Labor statistics. (Note: Unemployment rates are not seasonally adjusted.)

Alex Schafran is a doctoral candidate and Chris Schildt is a graduate student at the Department of City and Regional Planning, University of California, Berkeley.

Autumn Awakening | Vol. 18, No. 2– 2011 | Credits

To order the print edition of "Autumn Awakening" use the back issues page.

To read more of our stories please sign up for our RP&E quarterly newsletter and occasional updates.



PDF icon 18-2.schafran-schildt.pdf979.95 KB

African Americans Moving South—and to the Suburbs

The U.S. Census Bureau released findings from the 2010 Census this month that reveal a dramatic migration underway within black America. Over the past decade, hundreds of thousands of black people have relocated to the South and around the country, have moved from the cities to the suburbs.

Nearly 60 percent of the black population now lives in just 10 states, six being in the South, with the black population in Florida, Georgia, Texas, and North Carolina growing by more than 20 percent in the past decade. Overall, between 2000 and 2010, the percentage of the nation’s black population living in the South grew (from 53.6 percent to 55 percent),* while the percentage living in the Northeast and Midwest shrank (to 17 percent and 18 percent, respectively). The number living in the West remained about the same (8.8 percent).

Much of this growth is due to black migration to the South from other regions of the country, according to the Brookings Institute. The numbers are clear: black people have been gradually migrating below the Mason-Dixon Line.

They are also moving from inner cities to suburbs. The proportion of the black population living in the biggest city of a given metropolitan area decreased in all 20 of the nation’s largest metro areas in the past decade.

For example, the percentage of the Detroit area’s black residents living in the city of Detroit itself dropped by 16 percent. Other major cities home to large black populations, including New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, Washington, DC, and Oakland, have all experienced large black population losses as well, as residents have left these places for suburbs or the South—or both. Notably, Southern metro areas top the list for national gains in suburban black residents.

The movers—like migrants worldwide—also tend to be strivers. A few studies have found that among them is a sizable cohort of first-time Southern dwellers who tend to be younger, wealthier, and more educated than the larger black population.

So what do these striking trends mean for black communities, both those that are growing and those that are shrinking? Patterns of residence and migration are shaped by many complicated factors. There are institutional forces, like housing and labor markets, government incentives, and neighborhood characteristics. And there are individual and interpersonal factors, like age, education, and family relationships. But there are also important consequences. Where one lives can affect access to housing, employment, social services—and to the basic structure of a community that so many families depend upon to survive and combat hard times like the ones in which, we now live.

Southern Discomfort
For decades, major cities in the Northeast, Midwest, and West have suffered from de-industrialization and the associated job loss, residential segregation, infrastructure decay, and cost-of-living increases. The impact of these changes have been especially strong in black communities. Before the 2008 recession even began, the black populations of many big Midwestern cities had double-digit unemployment. “Folks are moving here for the lower cost of living,” says Sendolo Diaminah, who recently moved from New York to North Carolina and founded the community organization, People’s Durham. “Some had family who were here. There are tons from New York. Some wanted to get their kids out of a situation of violence and drugs.”

But families fleeing the economic collapse in Rust Belt and Northeastern cities have likely found similar troubles in the South, which has suffered some of the hardest blows in the current downturn. The South used to outpace the nation in economic performance, due to in-migration and development. That trend has ceased. And while the South may have entered the recession with low unemployment rates, those rates have since risen dramatically, exceeding even some of struggling post-industrial cities in the Northeast and Midwest. Black unemployment in Atlanta hit nearly 16 percent in 2010—twice the rate of 2007.

On top of the job loss, suburban metropolitan areas in the South, like Atlanta, Miami, and Houston have high rates of job sprawl, in which jobs are neither centrally located nor equally distributed throughout the metro area. That makes job opportunities harder to find and jobs more difficult to manage once found. In fact, suburban poverty rates find their peak in Southern metro areas. And once-enticing housing markets have been damaged by high rates of foreclosure, which disproportionately affects blacks in Georgia and Florida (though other Southern states with large black populations, including Texas and North Carolina, have not been as severely affected).

The same dynamic is playing out in many suburbs. Desires for better employment opportunities, affordable housing, safer neighborhoods, and better schools are surely drawing many black families to the suburbs. But the trend of relocating to the suburbs may not always be driven by choice. Gentrification is likely pricing black families out of their homes in places like San Francisco, Oakland, and Washington, DC, cities that have seen significant black population loss paired with an influx of whites. Meanwhile, poverty is rapidly expanding in suburban communities and black population rates have grown fastest in lower-income suburbs, according to the Brookings Institute.

Furthermore, blacks are less likely than whites to live in suburbs with high job availability and suburban social service organizations often lack the capacity and funds to address increasing need. Many suburban governments have also been unwilling to accommodate new lower-income residents, reluctant to build multi-unit housing, and opposed to the construction of shelters and social service centers. It is difficult to say that the suburban dream is being fulfilled for black America, especially when predatory lending and foreclosure rates continue to disproportionately impact black families and the nauseating wealth gap between blacks and whites further deepens.

The Cities Left Behind
Inner city neighborhoods that have lost black residents also face new challenges as a result of this migration. In cities across the country, community schools have been shuttered as the number of school-aged children has dropped. Inner cities, which still have high levels of need, can expect fewer federal funds as Census results inform the distribution of money for community development, utility assistance, Head Start programs, and senior housing.

The increased dispersal of black families across municipal boundaries may also impact the election of politicians most willing to address the unique concerns of black constituents. Black concentration in major cities allowed for the election of black mayors, city council members, and congressional representatives in the 1970s, 80s, and 90s. With the black population spreading beyond central city neighborhoods, will black voting power be weakened? This is of specific concern now as states are redistributing and redrawing political districts based on the Census.

Connections to family, friends, and organizations in old neighborhoods will likely change as well. Will congregations shrink? How will personal relationships be maintained or strained?

N’Tanya Lee, a former director of Coleman Advocates for Children and Youth, a grassroots organizing and policy advocacy organization in San Francisco, reflects on how housing stability and relationships stretched from city to suburb are impacting San Francisco Bay Area families. “A black high school student goes to school in San Francisco, stays with an auntie, but their mom lives with her boyfriend in Richmond and grandma lives in Hayward. She kind of lives here; kind of doesn’t,” Lee says, painting a hypothetical picture of the instability. “What’s the anchor? Where’s the ‘home’ to organize around? Parents move to Sacramento and kids still go to school, crash with friends, or live with grandparents. Families are constantly traveling by BART and highways to visit core members of their families, who are spread out.”

As Lee suggests, with more black families spread across the metropolitan landscape, the strategies of progressive and grassroots organizers must adapt, too. How will organizing efforts arise from growing black communities themselves, as residents strive to add their voices to communities that may be experiencing racial diversity for the first time? Looking closely at the causes and consequences of black migration to the South and the suburbs, we can see there are new challenges to building power to make fundamental change.

Despite these challenges, it is important to remember that the growth of strong Southern black communities and the loosening of urban segregation are exciting events. Black America has responded to migrations that were both larger and more culturally significant than those we see today with adaptation and redefinition and renewed vitality.

The Applied Research Center is exploring black population shifts with an intent to serve organizing efforts and also reflect them. We are following and supporting a number of community organizations to learn more about movers and their communities and also to capture the trends and strategies they will use to organize in the midst of these population shifts. By looking up from Census reports and directly engaging community organizations, researchers can better compile, tailor, and disseminate clear and persuasive pictures of population change to support fights for powerful communities.

John Sullivan is a research associate at the Applied Research Center, which publishes Colorlines (, where this article was first published.  

Autumn Awakening | Vol. 18, No. 2– 2011 | Credits

To order the print edition of "Autumn Awakening" use the back issues page.

To read more of our stories please sign up for our RP&E quarterly newsletter and occasional updates.



PDF icon 18-2.sullivan.pdf116.7 KB

Black Belt Power: African Americans Come Back South, Change Political Landscape

Much of the media buzz about the 2010 Census has focused on the role of Latinos and new immigrants in changing the face of the country.
It makes sense. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, about half of the nation's growth over the last decade was driven by growth in the Latino community, much of it in Southern states.

But equally influential in the South's rapidly-changing demographics is another story with a longer historical arc: The return of many African Americans to Southern states after a decades-long exodus during the Jim Crow era.

The Great Migration of some 6 million African Americans from the South between World War I and 1970 is one of the most significant demographic upheavals in U.S. history. According to author Isabel Wilkerson, at the turn of the last century, 90 percent of all African Americans were living in the South. By the end of the Great Migration, nearly half were living outside the South, mostly in the cities of the North and West.

The civil rights movement did not end racism, of course, but it did change the South enough to entice many African Americans to come back, igniting a reverse migration movement that continues to gain steam.

As a result, the South's share of the black population—57 percent—is now the highest it has been since 1960.* That is still less than the 90 percent mark before the Great Migration, but as the New York Times reported earlier this year, it is a dramatic change.

During the turbulent 1960s, black population growth in the South, and Southern states was less than 10 percent of the national increase. Since then, the South has increasingly claimed a greater share of black population growth—about half the country's total in the 1970s, two-thirds in the 1990s, and three-quarters in the decade that just ended.

The shift could significantly strengthen the political power of African Americans in the South, especially in the historic Black Belt stretching from the mid-Atlantic to East Texas. (See map on page 16 showing where the South's African American communities are concentrated, according to the latest Census data.)

 A glimpse of the political force this represents was seen in 2008, when record-breaking African American turnout helped push Florida, North Carolina, and Virginia into blue territory.

It's also seen in Georgia, the epicenter of the Black Belt, where the African American community grew by more than 579,000 since 2000—the leading ingredient in making it the seventh fastest-growing state in the country.

The 2010 Census also offers a glimpse of how Southern African American communities are changing. Atlanta echoes a trend found across the South and the country, where suburban black neighborhoods are growing at the expense of the urban core. The New York Times notes that “just 2 percent of the black population growth in the last decade occurred in counties that have traditionally been black population centers.”

African Americans moving South also tend to be young: 40 percent were ages 21 to 40, meaning that the political force of the latest phase of African American reverse-migration to the South will be felt for years to come.

Chris Kromm is the executive director and publisher of Facing South and Southern Exposure where an earlier version of this article appeared.


Autumn Awakening | Vol. 18, No. 2– 2011 | Credits

To order the print edition of "Autumn Awakening" use the back issues page.

To read more of our stories please sign up for our RP&E quarterly newsletter and occasional updates.



PDF icon 18-2.kromm_.pdf116.7 KB

By the Numbers: Black Flight in the S.F. Bay Area

  • There were 480,000 African Americans living in the Bay Area’s nine counties, accounting for 6.7 percent of the area residents.
  • The three counties with the largest share of African Americans were, Alameda (190,000), Contra Costa (97,000), and Solano (60,000), which accounted for nearly three-quarters of all African Americans living in the Bay Area.
  • The three counties with the smallest African American populations were, Napa (2,600), Marin (7,000), and Sonoma (7,600).
  • Only two counties had African Americans making up more than 10 percent of their total population: Alameda (12.6 percent) and Solano (14.7 percent).
  • Income Levels for African Americans
  • The median household income for African Americans in the nine counties was $48,000.
  • The lowest median household income reported was in San Francisco County ($29,000), followed by Alameda County ($38,000).
  • The highest median household income for African Americans was in Solano County ($60,000), followed by Sonoma County ($58,000).
  • Counties with the lowest median household income had the largest percentage decrease in their African American population since the 2000 census.
  • African American Transit Ridership
  • On average, 14 percent of the Bay Area’s African Americans used public transportation to get to and from their jobs.
  • Transit ridership was the highest in San Francisco County (39.9 percent), followed by Alameda (15 percent) and Contra Costa (12 percent) counties.
  • Transit ridership was the lowest in Santa Clara County (2 percent), followed by Solano (3.5 percent) and San Mateo (7 percent) counties.
  • Counties with the largest percentage increase in their African American population also showed the lowest transit ridership.
  • Black Flight Between 2000 and 2010
  • Overall, African American populations in the nine Bay Area counties decreased by 30,000 or 5.8 percent since the 2000 census.
  • Five out of the nine counties—Santa Clara, Marin, Alameda, San Mateo, and San Francisco—showed a decrease in their African American populations.
  • Three counties showed the largest percentage decrease in African Americans even as they showed an overall increase in populations. They were San Francisco (-19.2 percent; +3.7 percent), San Mateo (-17.7 percent; +1.6 percent), and Alameda (-11.7 percent; +4.6 percent).
  • Alameda County had the highest absolute drop in the numbers of African Americans (-25,000), followed by San Francisco (-11,000), and San Mateo (-4,000) counties.
  • The four counties with the smallest percentage growth in population over the last 10 years—San Francisco, Marin, San Mateo, and Alameda—were also the counties with the largest decrease in their African American populations.
  • Black In-Flight Between 2000 and 2010
  • Three of the four Bay Area counties with the largest percentage growth in overall population also had the largest percentage increase in their African American populations: Napa (+62 percent); Sonoma (+16.7 percent); and Contra Costa (+9.4 percent).
  • The three counties showing the largest absolute growth in the numbers of African Americans were: Contra Costa (+8,300), Solano (+1,900), and Sonoma (+1,000).
  • The four counties—Napa, Solano, Sonoma, and Contra Costa—showing an increase in their African American populations were primarily suburban or rural.
  • The counties with the highest percentage growth in their African American populations also had the highest median household income and lowest transit ridership in the region. Conversely, counties with the largest percent decrease in African Americans had the lowest median household income and highest transit ridership. 
Frank Lopez is Urban Habitat’s Social Equity Caucus coordinator.


Related Stories: 

Twenty Point Plan to Depopulate Black Atlanta

Atlanta is often affectionately called the “Black Mecca” of the South but the city has undergone a dramatic demographic shift over the past four decades. Black Atlanta is shrinking and there are 20 major reasons—a “20-Point Plan”—that account for this depopulation. Many of them are detailed in a book I edited in 2007, entitled The Black Metropolis in the Twenty-First Century.

The 2010 census revealed a significant exodus of blacks (29,746) out of Atlanta city over the previous decade. At the same time, the number of blacks in the metro Atlanta area grew by 490,982—a 40 percent increase. The lion’s share of blacks who migrated to metro Atlanta settled in the suburbs—not the city—a trend unlike the one that gave the city a black majority and its first black mayor, Maynard Jackson, in 1973. Metro Atlanta now has the second largest black population of all U.S. metropolitan regions, surpassing Chicago and just behind New York.

Atlanta’s overall population grew from 467, 455 in 1960 to 496,973 in 1970—with the share of blacks increasing from 39.9 percent to 51.3 percent. During the 1980s, the city’s overall population decreased from 425,022 to 394,017—but the share of blacks increased from 66.6 percent to 67.1 percent. In the first decade of the 21st century, the overall population grew from 416,474 to 420,003, but the share of blacks jumped downward from 61.4 percent to 54 percent.

Atlanta’s demographic transition is not an overnight phenomenon. It is important to note that the black exodus happened in an era of black mayors and majority black city councils. The impetus behind this demographic shift may be summarized in the following 20 points:

1.    The 1996 Summer Olympics, which set in motion a surge of policies and practices that fueled the black depopulation trend.
2.    Demolition of public housing in the city.
3.    Overt hostility towards the poor and homeless populations.
4.    Heightened class warfare between black elites and the black underclass.
5.    The squandering of Atlanta Empowerment Zone funds designed to revitalize low-wealth minority neighborhoods.
6.    Diversion of public funds into private ventures, away from the city’s core black neighborhoods.
7.    Dismantling of the public health safety-net through privatization of Grady Hospital.
8.    Failing public schools.
9.    Defunding of the Metropolitan Atlanta Rapid Transit Authority (MARTA).
10. Racial redlining and disinvestment by banks, mortgage firms, insurance companies, and commercial enterprises.
11. Predatory mortgage lending.
12. Gentrification and displacement in urban core neighborhoods.
13. Shortage of affordable housing.
14. Discrimination in both, housing rental and sales.
15. Racial steering by real estate agents.
16. A spatial mismatch between black residential areas and job centers.
17. Movement of jobs from city centers into the suburbs.
18. Black suburbanization and re-segregation in low-jobs suburbs.
19. Closures of grocery stores and supermarkets in black areas, leading to expanding “food deserts.”
20. Breakdown of de facto power-sharing arrangement between white business elites and black political elites.

These 20 points are by no means exhaustive. Nor are they ranked by order of importance. But taken together, they explain the powerful forces behind the depopulation of Black Atlanta—a long-term trend that will likely continue into the future.

The 1996 Summer Olympics was Atlanta’s Hurrican Katrina—setting in motion a surge of policies and practices that fueled the black depopulation trend. Atlanta’s 20-point plan is strikingly similar to the “20-Point Plan to Destroy Black New Orleans,” which I wrote several months after Katrina and its floodwaters devastated that majority black port city in 2005.

2010 census data shows Black Atlanta moving towards a numerical minority in the near future—a population shift that has profound implications for local electoral politics. A smaller black footprint will most likely mean a loss of black political power in the city.

Current Mayor Kasim Reed won by a slim margin of 714 votes in 2009 and some pundits predict that Reed may well be the last black mayor of Atlanta for some time to come. But then again, the pundits had made similar predictions during the tenure of previous mayor, Shirley Franklin. Only time will tell.

Robert D. Bullard is a professor of Sociology and director of the Environmental Justice Resource Center at Clark Atlanta University.

Autumn Awakening | Vol. 18, No. 2– 2011 | Credits

To order the print edition of "Autumn Awakening" use the back issues page.

To read more of our stories please sign up for our RP&E quarterly newsletter and occasional updates.



PDF icon 18-2.bullard.pdf41.91 KB

Black-Latino Coalitions Block Anti-Immigrant Laws in Mississippi

One year after Arizona’s dread SB 1070 took effect, progressives have transferred their fear and loathing to the 2011 winner in the mainstream media’s toughest-immigration-law-in-the-nation contest: Alabama’s HB 56. Its unconstitutionality and inhumanity go further than Arizona’s law by requiring children to prove legal residence before enrolling in public school and making it a crime to give an undocumented person a ride in your car.
The good news is that Alabama and Arizona are still immigration policy outliers. While legislators in at least 24 states filed Arizona-like legislation this year, just five—Alabama, Utah, Georgia, South Carolina, and Indiana—passed watered-down versions of SB 1070. In many states—Georgia, Alabama, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Nebraska and, most triumphantly, Mississippi—the threat of a viral SB 1070 has engendered and strengthened coalitions between immigrant supporters and African American elected leaders who have played visible, pivotal roles in opposing, softening, and defeating Arizona copycats.

“It is a new kind of Southern strategy,” says James Evans, a five-term Mississippi state representative, AFL-CIO organizer, minister, and leading member of the legislative black caucus.

“This is a fight against a kind of venom that black people in Mississippi understand on that heart level,” Evans says, tapping his heart. “But this is hearts and minds working together. Walking together is how we all win, now and further down this long road.”

Richard Nixon pioneered the old Southern strategy through which Republicans pandered to racism and won over Southern white Democrats disaffected after desegregation and civil rights legislation. Now, though, Latinos’ growing presence and electoral clout in the South and other regions, coupled with the moral authority of civil rights, has yielded a new game plan. This one depends not on racial and cultural division but on unity. In Mississippi, a methodically constructed alliance of African Americans, immigrants, and their supporters has grown downright formidable and, Evans suggests, “can help show the country a better way, a path to higher ground.”

It hardly happened overnight. But in the past few years, Mississippi activists’ formula of black and immigrant partnership within a “workers’ rights/civil rights” frame, abetted by dogged labor organizing, has added up to visible success.

In the 2011 legislative session, Mississippi lawmakers introduced 33 bills that sought to make it easier to deport immigrants, or else make life more difficult for them. They included bills that would have: denied undocumented people access to public benefits (which is already prohibited under federal law),  restricted immigrants’ ability to rent apartments (federal courts have ruled similar bans unconstitutional), and mandated “English-only” in conducting government business. By April, all the bills were dead, including an Arizona copycat—SB 2179—which, after it passed both chambers, advocates had assumed was unstoppable. The bill would have made it a crime to fail to carry immigration papers and would have authorized state, county, and local police to determine the immigration status of a person during a “stop, detention, or arrest.” The bill went further than Arizona’s by allowing for immigration checks during traffic stops. The version that passed the Mississippi State Senate would even have allowed people to sue municipalities or law enforcement officials for failure to enforce immigration laws. Through legislative legerdemain, Democratic members in the House, led by black caucus member Edward Blackmon Jr. and Judiciary Committee Chair Willie Bailey, killed the bill.

Similar bills died similar deaths in 2010 and previous years as black lawmakers spent significant political capital fighting them. Black caucus members are regular speakers at immigrants’ rights rallies. They take to talk radio and attend community forums, urging constituents to oppose harsh immigration bills and to join pro-immigrant marches. In recent years, African American legislators have used the power of their committee chairmanships in the House to let anti-immigrant bills languish and expire—despite the fact that their own legislative heft has hardly come easily in Mississippi, the only state whose official flag incorporates the Confederate flag.

Hellbent on Unity
There are no Latino or immigrant members in the Mississippi Legislature. Compared with Georgia (where 9 percent of the population are immigrants) and North Carolina (7 percent), Mississippi has few foreign-born residents (only 2 percent, or about 60,000 people), according to the U.S. Census. Latino immigrants living just outside the capital, Jackson, complain of roadblocks where police and sheriff’s deputies ask for papers, jail people who can’t produce any, and hand them over to federal authorities for deportation. In February, local police in several towns around Jackson cooperated with federal agents in raids on immigrants’ homes. Mississippi, then, might not seem the most fertile ground for growing a pro-immigrant coalition. But in 2000, a white labor organizer named Bill Chandler founded the advocacy group Mississippi Immigrant Rights Alliance (MIRA), hellbent on unity.

Raised in a racially diverse neighborhood of Los Angeles, Chandler had worked with Cesar Chavez’s United Farmworkers across the South and later in Mississippi, organizing mostly African American workers in a variety of industries. He witnessed the migration of Latino workers who first came for jobs in the state’s burgeoning casino industry and chicken processing plants and later to clean up and rebuild after Hurricane Katrina. Chandler understood why the growing presence of exploitable labor worried the struggling African American workers he had helped organize over the years. (About 44 percent of African Americans in Mississippi live below the federal poverty line.) He also feared that white conservatives would exploit potential tensions to divide two disenfranchised groups. But he had long ago learned how to intercept that problem by organizing workplaces with significant shares of both Latino and African American workers, so that “everyone benefited.”

With MIRA, Chandler embarked on a parallel legislative strategy. He began by approaching African American leaders in the state legislature to seek support for immigrants and by organizing an annual “Unity Conference” that cemented relationships between traditionally black civil rights organizations, labor, and immigrant activists. Meanwhile, MIRA staff members organized Latinos and African Americans in workplaces and through community forums in their neighborhoods. Chandler vowed never to ask white legislative allies to sponsor pro-immigrant legislation. He turned first to Representative Evans and to a former teacher and union leader, State Senator Alice Harden, to sponsor bills. Pro-immigrant proposals included efforts to provide undocumented immigrants access to driver’s licenses (a measure passed the Senate but failed in the House) and to offer undocumented students in-state rates at public colleges (the measure died this year). Several local black civil rights activists sit on MIRA’s board, as do union officials. In community forums and meetings with immigrants, most of whom come with no knowledge of the bloody protests and legal struggles that dismantled segregation, Chandler and others point out that if it were not for black civil rights leaders, the immigrants’ rights movement would have no foundation.

“And now? We would not be able to do anything for immigrants without the black caucus beside us. We’d be nowhere,” Chandler says. “This coalition would not benefit anyone if a Latino worker could not see African Americans as their allies.”

Local Government Responds
MIRA’s strategy has trickled down to local government. Right after SB 1070 passed in Arizona, the majority black City Council in majority black Jackson responded by implementing an anti-racial-profiling ordinance designed to protect immigrants. MIRA’s legal project director, Patricia Ice, who is African American and married to Chandler, first presented the idea to the prominent black civil rights lawyer and newly elected City Councilman, Chokwe Lumumba. Ice wrote the legislation, which prohibits police from asking people to prove their immigration status, and Lumumba introduced it.

“This was a message to immigrants that they are welcome here in Jackson,” says Lumumba. “A bigger Latino population would help us politically, sure. But it is right, morally. If we’ve learned anything in Mississippi, it’s how to stand together against oppression.”

In the coming months, Chandler and Ice hope to persuade other municipalities to adopt ordinances like Jackson’s. They think there may also be support for such a measure in Canton, a majority black town of about 12,000, just north of Jackson.

Just days before a pro-immigrant march on the state Capitol, MIRA staff members had driven out to a dusty trailer park in Canton and talked with dozens of Latino immigrants about the proposals before the legislature. Most of the immigrants who rent the dilapidated trailers here work in the chicken processing plants that have become a staple industry in Mississippi. Isela Gonzalez, who hangs and cleans chickens in a Peco plant next to the trailer park, went to MIRA’s meeting. On the day of the rally, Gonzalez, who was pregnant at the time, recalls waking up “tired and sad.” Her common-law husband, the father of her children, had recently been deported, she said, after a sheriff’s deputy stopped him while he was walking back from work and asked him for papers he did not have.

“I became happy when I got to the march,” she says, cradling her newborn son in her arms. “I saw that we are not alone. There are people with us.” Gonzalez joined “a lot of Mexicans and Guatemalans and white people” that day, adding, “I saw many more black people who seemed like important people, the bosses, that day.”

Gonzalez’s correct perception upends the ubiquitous narrative that casts African Americans and Latinos as adversaries in a zero-sum game. As journalist David Bacon documents in his book Illegal People, African Americans in Mississippi have seen themselves displaced by employers who have hired more easily exploitable Latino workers. But as Bacon also points out, and as MIRA takes pains to bring to light, the true villains are the less visible forces undermining economic security for all low-wage workers. Research bears this out. After conducting a large statistical analysis, Yale University economist Gerald Jaynes testified to Congress in 2007 that he and colleagues found very modest effects upon African Americans’ wages resulting from immigration. Jaynes, like MIRA, stresses that African Americans’ economic stability is undermined far more by factors like the decline of manufacturing jobs, weakened unions, a computerized information economy, and educational inequalities.

“Look, everyone needs to put food on the table. Everyone wants to walk down the street without getting harassed,” Chandler says in MIRA’s scruffy Jackson office. Outside his door, immigrants sit waiting for the start of a workshop on the naturalization process. “We need to respect the different histories here between groups. But the folks in that waiting room and African Americans looking for a living wage? They are engaged in the same struggle, and it is not with each other.”

Black leaders on the national level, too, have spoken out in recent months against efforts to pit the two groups against each other. In March, Michigan Democratic Representative John Conyers and Maxine Waters, a Democratic representative from California, sharply questioned Republicans’ motives for holding a hearing on the effects of immigration on U.S. unemployment.

“The notion that is underneath the surface of pitting African American workers against Hispanic workers and immigrants is so abhorrent and repulsive to me that I want to get it on the table right now,” Conyers said.

Also in March, a few weeks before an immigration enforcement bill passed in Georgia, Congressman and civil rights icon John Lewis showed up unannounced and joined a rally against the measure. Outside the Capitol in Atlanta, Lewis stood with members of the state’s legislative black caucus. With microphone in hand, he strode straight toward the metal barricade cordoning off the mostly Latino crowd. His voice boomed over cheers and applause.

“I was involved… in the civil rights movement. I got arrested… I was beaten, left bloody. But I didn’t give up,” he said. “And you must not give up.” The crowd quieted and Lewis flowed into preacherlike cadence: “We are all brothers and sisters. It doesn’t matter if we are black, white, Latino, Asian American, or Native American. We all live in the same house. If any one of us is illegal, then we all are illegal.”

Before putting down the microphone, Lewis, a leader of the 1965 march from Selma to Montgomery, offered his fellow protesters a parting gift: “If any of you get arrested and go to jail, I am prepared to get arrested and go to jail with you.”

Susan Eaton, research director at the Charles Hamilton Houston Institute at Harvard Law School, is the author, most recently, of The Children in Room E4: American Education on Trial. This article was originally published in The Nation

Autumn Awakening | Vol. 18, No. 2– 2011 | Credits

To order the print edition of "Autumn Awakening" use the back issues page.

To read more of our stories please sign up for our RP&E quarterly newsletter and occasional updates.



PDF icon 18-2.eaton_.pdf161.18 KB

Census Bureau Contributes to Prison-based Gerrymandering

When Brooklyn native Ramon Velasquez was sentenced to prison, he was transported to the Attica Correctional Facility, about six hours and 350 miles from his home. Although acutely aware that he was far from where he lived, Velasquez did not realize that his transfer to Attica would also result in his community’s political clout being displaced. That’s because the U.S. Census Bureau—contrary to the provision of the New York State Constitution, which considers Velasquez a resident of Brooklyn even during his time in prison—counted him (and all other incarcerated persons in the United States) at the location of the prison rather than at his home.

Velasquez assumed that he would be counted in his home district during his prison sentence. After all, he had no connection to the local community in the district in which he was imprisoned. Incarcerated people  are not allowed to use local services and do not participate in local community affairs in any meaningful way. If allowed to vote, they are required to cast absentee ballots in their home districts. As Velasquez wrote in the Huffington Post, “I always considered Brooklyn my home, which is where my family lives.” And that’s where he returned directly upon his release.

Effect of Prison Populations on Democracy
Following the 2000 Census, New York’s Redistricting Task Force drew new legislative districts based on the population data, which counted 71,466 incarcerated people at the wrong location, posing a serious problem for democracy in New York.

Using incarcerated populations to pad numbers in districts with prisons artificially inflates the number of “constituents” in those districts. It gives extra political clout to some people solely on the basis of their residential proximity to a prison, while reducing the political representation of others, especially urban residents and communities of color. “Prison-based gerrymandering” dilutes the political clout of voters in districts with disproportionately high incarceration rates, such as Velasquez’s home borough of Brooklyn.

Furthermore, the practice of counting incarcerated people as though they were residents of the county in which they are confined undermines the constitutional principle of “one person, one vote” and distorts our democracy on every level, from local school boards to state legislatures.
The New York legislature has since ended prison-based gerrymandering with a 2010 bill that reallocates incarcerated people to their home districts for redistricting purposes. But most states and many local governments have not put forth similar legislative solutions to ensure that incarcerated populations are counted in their home districts.

Anamosa: A Case Study in Gerrymandering
The city of Anamosa, Iowa provides one of the clearest and most dramatic examples of how prison-based census data can skew matters. In 2005, Anamosa resident Danny Young was voted onto the City Council as a write-in candidate with a total of two votes. The two people who cast ballots for Young—his wife and his neighbor—were among the few true residents of the city ward with a legal vote as the balance of the “constituents” were the 1,321 people incarcerated in the Anamosa State Penitentiary.

Since the city had included the prisoners in the general population count during a 2002 redistricting, the 58 true residents of Young’s ward ended up with as much power in local government as the over 1,300 residents in each of the other wards. In other words, padding the ward with the prison population gave 1 percent of Anamosa’s population a 25 percent stake in political representation. Asked whether he considered the prisoners his constituents, Young told the New York Times, “They don’t vote, so, I guess not.”

The Anamosa City Council was a stark, if likely unintentional, example of prison-based gerrymandering. When viewed through the lens of state rather than local districts, however, the effects on minority voting power become quite striking. The prison population is nearly a third African American or Latino, but Anamosa is a small, rural city where less than 2 percent of the residents are black or Latino.

When Iowa draws its state legislative districts, the district that contains the Anamosa prison gets credit for the prison population. All other districts will suffer as a result of padding this state district. The biggest victims of prison-based gerrymandering are the urban communities like Waterloo and Iowa City that send disproportionate numbers of people to prison and are denied their true population at redistricting time.

Hearkening Back to Slave Population Counts
Across the country, prison-based gerrymandering has the effect of siphoning off political clout from the communities where most incarcerated people come from, and transferring it to the districts where they are confined but cannot vote. This use of incarcerated “phantom populations” has a disconcerting resemblance to the pre-civil war practice of counting slaves as three-fifths of a person for the purposes of U.S. Congressional apportionment. It artificially boosted Southern representation under the 1787 Constitution’s infamous “three-fifths” clause.

Soaring incarceration rates are actually escalating the harmful effects of prison-based gerrymandering on minority political power. The prison population in the United States nearly tripled between 1987 and 2007, and the over 2 million people currently behind bars make up more than 1 percent of our total national adult population. Our nation’s unprecedented reliance on incarceration raises many social, economic, and cultural concerns, with some of the most disturbing statistics reflecting the racial disparities in our criminal justice system. In 2009, black men were incarcerated at a rate 6.4 times higher than white men, and Latino men were incarcerated at a rate 2.4 times higher than white men.

While a disproportionate number of the incarcerated are people of color from urban communities, the majority of new prisons are built in non-metropolitan, predominantly white communities with low incarceration rates. In fact, we found that in over 173 counties in the U.S., more than half the black population is incarcerated. This does not reflect heightened racism in these counties. It merely demonstrates that the people behind bars in those counties are not from the area. Despite this critical demographic difference, the Census Bureau counts incarcerated people—who have been unwillingly transported far from home and who cannot vote or participate in the local community—exactly as if they were residents living freely in the community with a stake in local government.

Wisconsin Should Rethink its Districts

The issues that concern the residents of a district with a prison are generally substantively different from those of the incarcerated in that district. When incarcerated people need to access the legislature, they reach out to representatives from their home districts. As Henry Hamilton III of the Wisconsin NAACP explains, “Legislators from communities where prisoners are from, and [to which they] will likely return, are more inclined to sponsor and support legislation that will benefit the prisoners upon reentry, as well as their victims and their communities.”
In the current round of redistricting based on the 2010 Census, Wisconsin displays some of the more dramatic instances of prison-based gerrymandering. The 53rd Assembly District, for example, has the highest concentration of prisons in the state and 5,583 of its “constituents” are to be found behind bars. Without the prison population, District 53 would fall below the required population size for a district—beyond the allowable 10 percent deviation from ideal population size. Including the prison population in the census count gives every 90 residents of District 53 the same amount of political clout as 100 residents of any other district. Moreover, demographically, District 53 claims a sizable African American population. But a closer examination shows that only 590 of its 2,784 African American “constituents” actually reside outside prison walls.

Movement to End Prison-based Gerrymandering

While states like Wisconsin continue to use flawed census data in redistricting, there is a growing movement to end prison-based gerrymandering that has inspired changes at the national, state, and local levels. Maryland and New York have both passed legislation to count incarcerated people at their homes for the current redistricting cycle, while California and Delaware have passed laws to fix the problem during the 2020 cycle. At the local level, more than 100 county and municipal governments across the country already exclude incarcerated populations from redistricting plans.

Although the Census Bureau once again counted incarcerated people in the wrong location for the 2010 Census, it has agreed to publish detailed data on incarcerated populations much earlier than in the past. This gives state and local governments the information they need to avoid prison-based gerrymandering in time to use it in their redistricting processes.

As for Anamosa—as soon as citizens discovered that prison-based gerrymandering was compromising the fairness of their City Council, they wrote up a petition to switch to an at-large system that ensures equal weight for each vote cast. Council Member Danny Young was one of the first people to sign on. 

Leah Sakala is a policy analyst at the Prison Policy Initiative.

Autumn Awakening | Vol. 18, No. 2– 2011 | Credits

To order the print edition of "Autumn Awakening" use the back issues page.

To read more of our stories please sign up for our RP&E quarterly newsletter and occasional updates.



PDF icon 18-2.sakala.pdf111.87 KB

Immigration and Mass Incarceration

In July 2011, Representative Luis Gutierrez (D-IL) was arrested during a demonstration in Washington, DC, to protest President Obama’s refusal to use his executive powers to halt deportations of the undocumented. Gutierrez’ arrest came only two days after Obama had addressed a conference of the National Council of La Raza, reminding attendees that he was bound to “uphold the laws on the books,” conveniently forgetting the history of the civil rights struggle that had made his presidency possible.

With over 392,000 deportations in 2010, more than in any of the Bush years, many activists fear a repeat of the notorious “Repatriation” campaign of the 1930s and the infamous Operation Wetback of 1954, both of which resulted in the deportation of hundreds of thousands of Latinos. But a few things are different this time around.

One crucial distinction is that we are in the era of mass incarceration. Many of the undocumented are being sent to prison for years before being delivered across the border. While the writings of Michelle Alexander and others have highlighted the widespread targeting of young African American males by the criminal justice system, few have noted that in the last decade the complexion of the faces behind bars has been changing. Since the turn of the century, the number of blacks in prison has declined slightly, while the number of incarcerated Latinos has increased by nearly 50 percent, crossing the 300,000 mark in 2009.

A second distinction is the rise of private prison corporations. For prison industry leaders, such as Corrections Corporation of America (CCA) and the GEO Group, immigrant detention has been their lifeblood. Just over a decade ago, their bottomlines were sagging. Newly built prisons sat with empty beds while share values plummeted. For 1999, CCA reported losses of $53.4 million and laid off 40 percent of its workforce. Then came 9/11.

Steven Logan, then CEO of Cornell Industries, a private prison company that has since merged with GEO, spelled out exactly what this meant for his sector: “I think it’s clear that with the events of September 11, there’s a heightened focus on detention, both on the borders and within the U.S. [and] more people are gonna get caught… So that’s a positive for our business. The federal business is the best business for us. It’s the most consistent business for us, and the events of September 11 are increasing that level of business.”

Logan was right. The Patriot Act and other legislation led to a new wave of immigration detentions. Aggressive round-ups supplied Latinos and other undocumented people to fill the empty private prison cells. Tougher immigration laws mandated felony convictions and prison time for cases that previously merited only deportation. Suddenly, the business of detaining immigrants was booming. PBS Commentator Maria Hinojosa went so far as to call it the new “Gold Rush” for private prisons.

The figures support Hinojosa’s assertion. While private prisons own or operate only 8 percent of general prison beds, they control 49 percent of the immigrant detention market. CCA alone operates 14 facilities providing 14,556 beds under contract with ICE and have laid the groundwork for more business with a vast lobbying and advocacy network. From 1999 to 2009, CCA spent more than $18 million on lobbying, mostly focusing on harsher sentencing, prison privatization, and immigration.

One significant result of their lobbying efforts was the passage of SB 1070 in Arizona, which nearly provides police with a license to profile Latinos for stops and searches. The roots of SB 1070 lie within the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), a far right grouping that specializes in supplying template legislation to elected state officials. CCA and other private prison firms are key participants in ALEC and played a major role in the development of the template that ended up as SB 1070.

For its part, GEO Group has also been carving out its immigration market niche. Earlier this year, they broke ground on a new 600-bed detention center in Karnes County, Texas. At about the same time, the company bought a controlling interest in BI Corporation, the largest provider of electronic monitoring systems in the U.S. The primary motivation for this takeover was the five year, $372 million contract BI signed with ICE in 2009 to step up the Bush era Intense Supervision Appearance Program (ISAP 11). The Feds hired BI to provide ankle bracelets and a host of other surveillance for about 27,000 people awaiting deportation or asylum hearings.

Sadly, the Obama presidency has consistently provided encouragement for the likes of CCA and GEO to grow the market for detainees. While failing to pass immigration reform or the Dream Act, the current administration has kept the core of the previous administration’s immigration policy measures intact. These include Operation Endgame, a 2003 measure that promises to purge the nation of all “illegals” by 2012, and the more vibrant Secure Communities (S-Comm), which allows local authorities to share fingerprints of all detainees with ICE. Supposedly intended to capture only people with serious criminal backgrounds, S-Comm has led to the detention and deportation of thousands of people with no previous convictions.
At the La Raza conference, Obama tried to console the audience by saying he knows “the pain and heartbreak deportation has caused,” but his words failed to resonate. Instead, Rep. Gutierrez and others took to the streets to demonstrate that “I feel your pain” statements and appeals to the audacity of hope carry little credibility these days.

It is time for a serious change of direction on immigration issues, or pretty soon the mass incarceration of Latinos may come to be called the “New Operation Wetback.”

James Kilgore is a researcher at the Center for African Studies at the University of Illinois. He is the author of two novels, We Are All Zimbabweans Now ( and Freedom Never Rests, both written during his six-and-a-half years of incarceration. 

Autumn Awakening | Vol. 18, No. 2– 2011 | Credits

To order the print edition of "Autumn Awakening" use the back issues page.


To read more of our stories please sign up for our RP&E quarterly newsletter and occasional updates.



PDF icon 18-2.kilgore.pdf91.29 KB
Pull Quote TEXT ONLY for featured stories in image slider: 
"Since 2000, the number of blacks in prison has declined slightly, while the number of incarcerated Latinos has increased by nearly 50 percent, crossing the 300,000 mark in 2009."