Thursday, October 22, 2009

Coates and Co. on The White City

There's a spirited discussion on Ta-Nehisi Coates's Atlantic blog about Aaron Renn's essay The White City, and Renn himself stops by to join in the conversation. In his essay, Renn noted that many cities such as Portland and Seattle that are praised for their progressiveness have something in common: few African Americans. One objection Coates raised to Renn's argument was that Renn excluded large cities such as New York that do have significant African American populations and of course also attract young progressives. In response, I noted that many of the soi dissant young progressives in New York end up congregating in trendy neighborhoods that are far less diverse than the city as a whole.

I made a similar comment in the comment thread following Renn's essay and linked to a post of mine from earlier this year that included the photo above, from a New York Times article on the burgeoning culinary entrepreneurship movement in Brooklyn. I noted that the photo gave a sense of the sort of diversity one might find in some of the trendier neighborhoods in New York City.


Joel said...

The subtext of Renn's essay implies that there's some sort of causation connecting the "progressiveness" of a city and the absence of diversity. But at best, I only see a correlation, and only anecdotally. It's weak sauce, innuendo.

DaveinHackensack said...

Well he does make a legitimate point, I think, about different policy priorities (e.g., re global warming).

Trumwill said...

I think it's a pretty useful counterpoint to the notion that the only reason white people move from the suburbs is their hatred of minorities, but the Portland argument carries with it pretty much the same "weak sauce", as Joel put it.

In both cases, the whites are moving to a place populated with people with similar priorities, values, and worldviews. Both would welcome minorities that share those characteristics (though I would say that liberals in Portland would be more welcoming for reasons both admirable and shallow).

DaveinHackensack said...


Wouldn't most people welcome those who share "similar priorities, values, and worldviews" -- regardless of their ethnicity?

Joel said...

I do suspect that policy preference is one part of demographic strata but the issue is far more complex than that. That's why I generally stand with TNC on that point. As for pictorals, you can counterpoint with Dainsley Gordon here in progressive Seattle.

Trumwill said...

I would like to think so (and said as much), though there are some exceptions and these exceptions are not necessarily even distributed.

Some people are slower to believe that people from different ethnic backgrounds could share their worldview. I think that these people are more likely to be conservatives in suburban areas. I also think that some people would bend over backwards to convince themselves "These people are like me!" in reference to minorities, and these people are more likely to be liberals in urban areas.

DaveinHackensack said...

"Some people are slower to believe that people from different ethnic backgrounds could share their worldview. I think that these people are more likely to be conservatives in suburban areas. I also think that some people would bend over backwards to convince themselves "These people are like me!" in reference to minorities, and these people are more likely to be liberals in urban areas."

I think you're wrong on both counts, Trumwill, and the zeal with which conservatives welcome minority candidates is one reason why I disagree. Another is the white urban liberals' tendancies to live in neighborhoods where they will be surrounded by other white liberals (and Asians). If more of them really thought that most non-Asian minorities were like them, they would move to neighborhoods and cities where they could live among them.

Trumwill said...

Regarding white suburbanites and Republicans, I'm not saying that most are racist or even that a significant minority are. Rather, I'm saying that they are in higher numbers.

If I haven't been sufficiently clear on the matter, I consider the notion that whites and conservatives move to the suburbs to be a pretty dishonest statement. I was raised in the Republican suburbs and by and large the conservative whites I knew there were not that way. But... some were. Are.

Regarding the enthusiasm with which conservatives embrace minority candidates, it's an interesting issue. I can elaborate on it if you would like, but in my observation conservatives generally need proof that a black guy is in their corner (or more trustworthy than a white guy) and without it assume that he's likely to be something of an opponent to their way of life. Given the way that blacks vote, this is not entirely unreasonable. But it's a standard higher than liberals generally place. Liberals assume that agreement and are often stunned when minorities go their own way (see Cali Prop 8).

Regarding the latter, gentrification is the process by which whites move into broadly minority areas. As it happens, both in my previous location (southwestern US) and current location (Pacific northwest), I have lived in such neighborhoods. These are not conservatives moving into these neighborhoods.

My current neighborhood is a sort of interesting case. It's a predominantly black (or at least as black as this area gets) former high-crime zone that turned itself around. Now that it's safe, whites are moving in, land values are increasing, and long-time residents face the possibility (diminished somewhat by the current economy) of being priced out.

Anyway, I'm not saying that they succeed in convincing themselves of that they have a lot in common with minorities. Merely that they want to. And wanting to be convinced of something makes it more likely.

DaveinHackensack said...

"I can elaborate on it if you would like, but in my observation conservatives generally need proof that a black guy is in their corner (or more trustworthy than a white guy) and without it assume that he's likely to be something of an opponent to their way of life. Given the way that blacks vote, this is not entirely unreasonable. But it's a standard higher than liberals generally place."

Related to this, a frequent commenter on Ta-Nehisi Coates's blog is (or at least claims to be, I haven't independently verified her identity) Anna Perez, the first African American press secretary to a First Lady (Barbara Bush, in her case). Today she is an Obama supporter and frequent critic of conservatives. In this thread I asked her about that, noting that it appeared she had been treated quite well by conservatives in her career and yet here she was on the other team. You can see her response there.

I still disagree with your point about liberals thinking they have a lot in common with (non-Asian) minorities. At least not today. Maybe back in my parents day there was some of that sense of idealism and naivete. I grew up in a half-black town that, in addition to a middle class section, had a poor section and quite wealthy section (Eddie Murphy is trying to sell his old house there now, for $15 million -- half off its initial listing price). Instead of sending me to the mostly-black elementary school within walking distance, my parents volunteered to have me bussed to the almost all-black school across town, to help integrate it. I don't think a lot of progressives are doing that with their kids these days.

In general, they are sending their kids to private schools or moving to towns with "good" schools.

The NYC venture capitalist Fred Wilson (whose kids go to private school) has been raising money for NYC public schools on his blog. A commenter asked why he and other donors who also sent their kids to private schools didn't just help the public schools by sending their own kids there, and becoming involved parents. Everyone had an answer that had nothing to do with the demographic composition of the public versus private schools, and yet they all steered clear of the public schools. If they really believed minorities were just like them (or their kids), I wonder if they would be shelling out $30k per kid per year to isolate their kids from the minority kids.

JK said...

Ehh, in the case of Fred Wilson's kids, it's a lot bigger than race, it has to do with class.

I don't think wealthy people who send their kids to private school do so to "isolate" themselves from minorities, although that is a side effect. Most private schools for the upper middle class and rich folk offer scholarships targeted at minorities and their websites display the few minorities they do have as tokens in every other picture. There is a black person on Groton's (one of the favored private schools of our nations WASP Elite - Boston Brahmins) website in every other picture, surely out of proportion to the actual black attendance. (The blacks in the pictures also appear to be mostly foreign blacks - perhaps the children of African political/business elite)
Also, one of the interesting things about reading "The Chosen" was that there wasn't any systemic discrimination against blacks in pre-Civil rights Harvard and Yale admissions, in fact they always went out of their way to look for and accept "talented Negroes" (Princeton was another story-it heavily engaged in the most hardcore, mean-spirited form of discrimination). So I don't think people who pay 30+k per year for private school want to isolate their kids from minorities per se - on the contrary they wish they had more minorities on 'their level', so to speak. (Well, only certain kinds of minorities -not the minorities that actually compete too hard with their own kids)

What the coastal wealthy people like FW do with their children is segregate them from the "lower" classes (including the majority of white people), which happens include blacks and hispanics disproportionately. They know this and often feel bad about it (Ap-PEAR-ances, darling!), so they devise little reforms in their spare time (rarely commiting too much energy to the cause) to appear magnanimous and not the snobs they often really are. Their snobbishness really shines through when they think of excuses to isolate themselves even from overachieving minorities. Jews had to fight through this (now they are intermarried throughout the original WASP elite) and now it is Asian kids being excluded. The irony of the success of the more exclusionary right wing WASP elites is that their tactics installed and reinforced left wing sensibilities in the group they targeted who inevitably grew up to become part of the modern elite. But at the same time, elite education is a business, and the whole reason Columbia fell out of favor with elites to become a second-tier Ivy is because it had the temerity to remain a meritocracy and let in too many of those lower class (at the time) NY urban Jews, which caused the elites to choose HYP for their kids instead.

^That's for the multimillionaire Fred Wilson example, which has different dynamics than what goes on in the general pop.

For us more normal folks, moving to a new neighborhood is rarely necessary anymore unless your home state is seriously lagging in recent education reforms. School choice is pretty common these days, and most schools offer more advanced classes for kids who can demonstrate talent. Charter schools can also be pretty good - the leading elementary school in my state uses a completely random lottery to decide which applicants get in, and turns the diverse bunch of accepted kids into the best performers statewide. (The best high school in the state is also charter - but it does use selective admissions)
Neighborhood schooling is also a pretty popular concept these days even in states with poor, heavily minority areas - contrary to what we're often told, many minority parents don't like having their kids bussed all the way out to the boondocks every day and would prefer to have neighborhood schools. It is hard for poor minority parents to become involved in their child's schooling when it is a 45 minute drive away in socially unfamiliar territory.

DaveinHackensack said...


I think reality is somewhere between your comment and mine. You're right that race qua race really isn't the issue for affluent folks who put their kids in private schools, but as I suggested in a previous comment to Trumwill, it's really not the issue for anyone (or, perhaps more accurately, anyone this side of parts of the Deep South). I don't think anyone would have a problem sending their kids to school with, say, President Obama's kids, or Neil Degrasse Tyson's kids (if he has any).

Also, re FW, from what I can tell of him, he doesn't seem like a snob at all, and seems pretty open to corresponding with different sorts of people. In his defense, he also noted, in response to that commenter I alluded to above, that the demographics aren't too different between his kids' private school and the local public school. Given the extent of gentrification that has hit some NYC neighborhoods, he may not be far off. I don't know.

Related to Fred, in a recent post of his, where he wrote about his charitable drive for NYC public schools, I challenged him to think about what he expected these kids to do for a living in the future. I linked to a couple of posts I've written here about the challenges of finding decent livelihoods for most Americans given the effects of globalization. So far, he's just said he's against my idea of limiting unskilled immigration. Still waiting for his response to the rest of the ideas I mentioned.

JK said...

I should have been clearer that I didn't intend to lump FW in with my rather negative generalization of members of his social class. I don't know him at all, and besides, the behavior of people groups often appears to be an emergent property of a collective rather than an ideology that each and every member of the group subscribes to.

I meant to find a place to add in my above comment that the hard thing for most parents these days is before and after school care. With two parents working these days, quality childcare is still a considerable expense even when sending kids to a public school. That's why I support the aspect of the President's education reform that entails a lengthening of the school day to match typical working hours, 8 - 5 (the teachers unions are against it, of course). A full year of school would be fine with me also. I think we'd find many Americans would have a lot more discretionary income to put into the economy if we weren't paying a large sum for quality before and after -school care.

DaveinHackensack said...

The longer school day is a really old idea. I had a karate teacher who was also a public school teacher in some urban district in NJ -- Paterson or East Orange or somewhere - who proposed a charter school that would be open for 12 hours a day. His idea was that the kids would get three meals there, they would be supervised doing homework and participating in other after school activities, etc. His proposal was rejected. If memory serves, there have even been more recent calls for boarding schools. There really isn't much new under the sun when it comes to education policy.

trumwill said...

I feel about the school day the same way that I feel about school finance: I would love to invest more if only current investments were being properly utilized. Expressly using school as day care (more than we already do) sits poorly with me without clear ideas of what we're going to do with that time and whether there will be an opt-out provision for parents that feel that they could make better use of that time.

It's unlikely that we will homeschool, but that's partially because we plan to supplement their school learning at home. Asking that we leave our kids in school longer, and for purposes largely having less to do with education, would make me reconsider. If their public education is like mine, that's likely to just be a lot more wasted time.

trumwill said...

Regarding liberals and their desire to relate to minorities, it's possible that I'm slightly off-kilter on the subject. Maybe it's less "they're like me" and more of a multi-cultural "they're just as worthy - or more worthy via authenticity - as me in their own, hard-to-relate-to way". Maybe some combination of the two.

In any event, it remains my experience that white liberals want to like minorities moreso than do conservatives to the point of being willing to rearrange reality to make it more possible. Of course, there are limits to how much one can rearrange reality and so they often ultimately end up spending time with people that don't require the effort.

(And again, none of this is to say that I agree with the Conservatives/Republicans hate minorities meme. Just that they're more wary, more skeptical, and less likely to be excited at the prospect of trying like hell to relate to people different from them.)

JK said...


I agree that a longer school day should be an opt-in type of a deal. Perhaps only mandatory for the schools that really suck. But for sets of parents that both work, a school day that ends at 2:30 or 3 is fairly rediculous, something seemingly designed soley to milk us of our hard earned dollars. From 3 - 5 there are all sorts of things possible that would require minimal extra work for school staff yet benefit student lives greatly.

Also, I think all of us (caring parents) take it for granted that we have to supplement our children's education at home, no matter where they receive it! Going all out and homeschooling is a whole 'nother deal though.
Take it from someone who was homeschooled for most of his early years: It's over-rated.

Most of the kids I encountered in that sphere had severe socialization problems. Think smarter versions of Napolean Dynamite. While they may have been smart, very few became successful compared to their academic equivalents in the Public system I went to later. And if you are not one of the extremely fundamentalist religious types, it can be disconcerting to have much of the show ran by quacks. It's often hard to (legally) homeschool on your own without an umbrella school of some kind, so unless there is a significant network of people you are sure you can relate to in your local homeschooling scene, I'd only seriously consider homeschooling if it is your only other option to sending your kids to those schools lovingly featured on The Wire. By high school if you have a bright child you'll have to put them into the system anyway - Honors and AP level work these days is next to impossible for the vast majority of parents to teach on several subjects simultaneously. Colleges also do not like accepting many home schooled kids, for several good reasons.

trumwill said...

Thanks for sharing your thoughts. I hope Dave doesn't mind if we're hijacking this thread.

By my second-hand observation, homeschooling seems to be a mixed bag. I am quite worried about the socialization aspect in part because my wife and I have social difficulties anyway. On the other hand, I think a fair amount of social discomfort comes from some pretty dreadful public school experiences and at times I wonder if the "socialization" of my school undercut my social confidence to such a degree that it may have been a net negative.

If our kids were going to a big school like I did, I wouldn't worry as much about academics. As you say, there are programs to help out with that. However, we're likely to end up in a small town somewhere. I'm not sure what options are going to be there. On the other hand, the place where my wife is interviewing next week is supposed to have outstanding schools. So it would be a moot issue at that point.

JK said...

If you're worried about your child being too introverted, there are preventative steps you can take, without doubling down on the problem by homeschooling. Homeschool nerdery is an order of magnitude more severe than public school nerdery - it can be totally crippling.

Martial arts classes (you can sign kids as young as 3-4 nowadays) have good results in producing confident children. But if you're going to homeschool anyway then try to make sure that most of your kid's socialization does not come from other homeschoolers, otherwise they will be the only type of kids he will be able to relate to. I think my saving grace in being able to adjust to the public school system was that my parents weren't as wealthy (at the time) as other homeschooling parents, so we had to live in a regular neighborhood with lots and lots of kids, as opposed to a large house on a multi-acre property in the countryside. Even so, I wish I hadn't been homeschooled at all. It was very boring, and did have some negative social effects even for a relatively "normal" guy like myself.

DaveinHackensack said...

Related to your discussion here, I've wondered if homeschooling within a two parent family is perhaps suboptimal for many people economically today. What if, say, a half dozen couples who shared similar values built houses near each other on one piece of cheap rural land, so they could share the babysitting and home schooling duties? None of the couples would have to shell out for daycare or private school, and they would spend less on housing. They could also offset their grocery bills by doing some farming.

More broadly, I think more Americans are going to have to rethink basic living arrangements along these lines in the years ahead.

Another thought: I read an article in the NYT a while ago about a kid who was home schooled, but his mother made sure that a lot of his educational opportunities involved things outside the house (going to museums, etc.). They were black, so to avoid truancy/delinquency suspicion by the police, the kid (really a teen) would wear a suit when he traveled around during the school day.

JK said...

That sounds pretty much like Communism there Dave. lol. I think I've actually heard of people doing that. The key is the shared values part...and short of strong religious belief, it is hard to have that kind of bond between families.

The teen in the article you describe does not sound atypical, most (at least every family I knew) homeschooling families do make a lot of trips outside the house visiting museums, historical landmarks, etc. Most of the kids got a very good education (except in fields like biology, geology, and astronomy, where young earth creationism ran the day). They were just very strange children who became very strange adults who still live with their parents because people do not like to hire or promote weirdoes, especially weirdoes with strongly held, fringe religious and political beliefs worn on the sleeve (they often lack the social skill of discretion). It may sound like I'm describing a small minority of homeschoolers, but actually it probably fit 90+% of the families in the movement when I was homeschooled in the late 80s to mid 90s. Maybe in states like New York and California there is more philosophical diversity among homeschoolers, but in most of the country it is solidly a fundamentalist thing. Almost every homeschool curriculum in print still is from a fundamentalist publisher in the deep south (A Becka and Bob Jones are two popular ones). One of my Health books in elementary school even had a quack chapter on the negative effects of rock music, the devils music. Christian fundamentalists homeschool to isolate their children in a bubble from the supposed sinful corruption of the secular world. In other words, a way to keep kids brainwashed during their formative years so they will still hold extreme religious beliefs when they are adults. I would probably write a polemic book on the subject describing some of the lunacy I encountered but I wouldn't want to hurt my parents' feelings or embarrass them. They were just trying to do what was best, and they weren't as bad as their homeschooling friends anyway.