To Avoid Integration, Americans Built Barricades in Urban Space

Urban inequality didn’t happen by accident.

Getty / The Atlantic

George Floyd was killed by a Minneapolis police officer at the corner of 38th Street and Chicago Avenue. The location is significant. It lies in a part of the city wedged between two freeways and not far from an unofficial boundary separating neighborhoods with large populations of black and Latino residents from the mostly white neighborhoods to the south. For decades, this boundary was legally enforced through covenants limiting who could live where.

America’s brand of urban inequality relies on such barricades to ensure that all kinds of problems—of which aggressive policing is just one—are concentrated in particular places. Floyd’s death has created a national uproar over police violence against black Americans, but changing police tactics is not enough. The barricades have to come down, too.

The interaction that Floyd, who was black, had with four police officers late last month was not an anomaly. Data collected before the pandemic indicate that police in Minneapolis use force against black people at seven times the rate at which they use it against white people. Inequality occurs in other dimensions: Black residents of Minnesota make up 7 percent of the state’s population, but 16 percent of the state’s confirmed COVID-19 cases. Floyd’s autopsy revealed that he had been infected with the virus before his death.

Minneapolis is sadly typical. As the nation’s social and political institutions have weakened and Americans have lost faith in government, voters have become less willing to make the kind of public investments needed to confront the country’s major challenges, including environmental degradation, violence, segregation, racial injustice, addiction, mental illness, and economic dislocation. Instead, governments have developed a way for select groups of Americans to avoid those problems by building an elaborate system of barricades in space.

The white neighborhoods just south of the spot where Floyd was killed were never fully integrated, even as Minneapolis’s black population grew in the first decades of the 20th century. That outcome was intentional. Thousands of property deeds in those white neighborhoods included restrictive covenants legally prohibiting property owners from selling or leasing their homes to black Americans and sometimes to Asian Americans, Jews, and members of other disfavored groups. The covenants were not declared unconstitutional until 1948. Even today, the neighborhoods where covenants were concentrated remain overwhelmingly white.

Many barricades that segregate people of color are far more tangible. The construction of highways inflicted wounds that have yet to heal. After Floyd’s death, protesters shut down Interstate 94, a highway that, decades before, had been built straight through Rondo, a thriving neighborhood that was a hub for St. Paul’s black community. One of the messages the recent protesters were sending—that the highways serving far-flung commuters also isolate and alienate those who must live near them—was evident to Minnesota’s leaders. In a press conference, Governor Tim Walz acknowledged the historical significance of the freeway when he said, “It wasn’t just physical. It ripped a culture, it ripped who we were. It was an indiscriminate act that said this community doesn’t matter, it’s invisible.”

What happened in Minneapolis also occurred nationwide under the aegis of urban renewal. When the black population swelled in cities north and south, those municipalities didn’t undertake a large-scale effort to make integration work, improve housing conditions, or protect the rights of black Americans. Instead, authorities razed entire neighborhoods and strategically placed highways, as well as public-housing projects and office buildings, in locations that would solidify the boundary between black and white neighborhoods. The interstates became one more type of barricade. When the federal government invested in highways rather than public-transit systems, it gave white Americans a way to flee central-city neighborhoods while continuing to reap the economic benefits of the city.

In the 20th century, barricades came in many other forms. Rather than build a federal mortgage-assistance program for all Americans, appraisers hired by a federal housing agency drew multicolored lines on maps that determined who could get a loan from the government and who could not. Policy makers didn’t find ways to invest in struggling cities dealing with new populations and fiscal stress; instead, they let small groups of affluent residents split off and form their own cities, drawing up new administrative boundaries and taking their tax dollars with them. Rather than invest the resources necessary to cure homelessness, cities put up barricades between rich and poor. Today, fortified centers of global commerce exist just down the street from desperate poverty.

The brutality that ended George Floyd’s life is the result of this approach to urban problem solving. When crime rose from the 1960s to the early 1990s, few cities invested in the core community institutions that make it less likely. Instead, voters and their elected representatives asked a militarized police force to retake public spaces with brute force, and prosecutors put as many people as possible behind the barricades of jail and prison cells.

American urban policy is built with gated communities and administrative boundaries, with prison walls and gerrymandered legislative districts, with restrictive land-use regulations, and with school districts of wildly uneven means. The nation’s urban agenda is driven by the goal of socioeconomic division. The consequences of this approach are laid bare for all to see. When governments build barricades in space, they shift the burden of social problems to the most disadvantaged communities. They pit communities against one another, amplify the divisions among them, and leave urgent challenges unaddressed.

For decades, urban policy makers and academics concerned with the challenges of concentrated poverty and segregation have debated whether government should invest more resources in the communities that lie behind the barricades—or instead give more families the chance to scale the barricades and move into areas with greater opportunity. But neither approach has ever been implemented on a scale that would make a dent in our system of urban inequality. Why not?

The structure of the barricades Americans have built is solid and resilient. When low-income families move into new communities, they typically drift back into segregated neighborhoods, or their new communities change around them. The structure of urban inequality almost always remains intact. Alternatively, when the federal government has made investments in low-income neighborhoods, those investments are temporary or insufficient to create transformative change. Over time, I have become more pessimistic that this will change; those who sit comfortably behind a wall may simply be unwilling to send their resources over to the other side.

Instead, the wall has to go. Getting rid of it will be deeply unpopular for the segment of the population that has isolated itself in areas of advantage. The entire system of American inequality—a whole way of life—has been built on division. These barricades were not built with consensus and harmony; they were built and reinforced with brute force. The Rondo neighborhood in St. Paul was bulldozed. George Floyd was held down, with his hands cuffed behind his back, as onlookers helplessly watched him die.

If Americans are going to break down the barricades that divide the nation, that will require a progressive social movement—and the same level of energetic, concerted effort that created the status quo.

Entire states, not individual cities, will have to eliminate single-family zoning and enforce the federal requirement that every jurisdiction develop a plan for fair housing. Congress must end the massive federal giveaways, including the regressive mortgage-interest deduction, that give homeowners an enormous incentive to buy homes in the most exclusive neighborhoods they can find and then to oppose any efforts to build affordable housing nearby. The United States needs to advance a national transportation agenda guided by the goals of environmental sustainability and connection, not the physical separation of Americans by race, ethnicity, and class. Legislators must transcend the administrative boundaries of city limits by providing strong federal incentives for regional coordination of housing, commerce, education, and public safety. This agenda is just a starting point.

The United States is a divided nation, and Americans desperately need leadership to remind us all that we are facing a common set of challenges together. But a rhetoric of unity is not sufficient. Over and over again, the barricades that separate Americans have undermined all efforts at reform. To confront American inequality, the country needs to start a large-scale demolition.