Joseph Stiglitz recently wrote a cautionary tale to those of us who love cities and believe in their capacity to transform the lives of those who live in them. Focused on Detroit’s recent bankruptcy filing, he implored us to contextualize the decline of Detroit, and its counterparts across the country, in a time of economic deregulation, failed public investment in physical and social infrastructure, and increased economic segregation.
Beautifully written, the piece unfortunately touches lightly on a critical and uncomfortable aspect of the transformation of these cities: race. The racial transformation that US cities experienced between Stiglitz’s youth and today dramatically informed the nature of their decline. In his own Gary, Indiana the African American population increased by over 55% between 1950 and 2000. Along with this increase in the African American population came the rapid decline of the city he so loves. This relationship is critical as we work to expand economic opportunity in cities. Below are important lessons to keep in mind, when trying to make sense of the absurd:

Some Policies Work All Too Well : The geographic isolation of African-American communities across the country was not solely the result of individual families moving out of the cities. It was the result of a series of massive policy reforms that incented white families to move out of the cities they’d lived in and out to cheaper, newer, and whiter suburbs. Policies like the Federal Highway Act and the National Housing Act ensured that “from the 1940s on, the federal government facilitated disinvestment in areas where blacks lived, channeled money into whiter suburbs, and promoted special segregation. Public investment and disinvestment created a template for private action.” Looking at Stiglitz’s example of Bloomfield, a suburb of Detroit where there is “ample economic activity”, it is not a coincidence that 85% of the population is white. These policies worked to create economic opportunity, mobility, and security for some while actively working to exclude others.

It’s More than Just Socio-Economic Status : In cities across the US it is impossible to disentangle racial and economic inequality. Although Stiglitz rightly describes the way the wealthy are “battening down the hatches” by ensuring “that they don’t have to pay any share of the local public goods and service of their less well-off neighbors, and that their children don’t have to mix with those of lower socioeconomic status”, his analysis doesn’t go far enough. Trust, these elites are specifically afraid of what they perceive as the rapid encroachment of African Americans and Latinos into their communities, their schools, and their way of life. This is not only the case in places like Detroit and Missouri, it is true of Connecticut and in the Silicon Valley. Race matters.

We Need a 21st Century Urban Narrative : Origins of the Urban Crisis, the book that Stiglitz refers to by Thomas J. Sugrue, changed my life. It offered a textured narrative of how some cities came to be in decline, while others thrived. In his seminal book, Sugrue traces the history of Detroit through race riots, racial redlining, and the racist practices of housing and employment discrimination. He looked back on a period that seeded the great economic divides that we are currently reaping. I strongly agree with Stiglitz in his assessment that “we need policies — investment in education, training and infrastructure — that smooth America’s transition away from a dependency on manufacturing for jobs. If we don’t, post-Great Recession bankruptcies like those in Jefferson County, Ala., Vallejo, Calif., Central Falls., R.I., and now Detroit will become far too common”. That said, we also need an added set of policies that directly address the deepening racial divide we are experiencing in this country. These policies include Portland’s Racial Equality in Education Policy; Cleveland and San Francisco’s local hiring policies; and Baltimore and San Antonio’s ‘Ban the Box’ policies.

Joseph Stiglitz is right, “we’ve reaped what we’ve sown”, but today we have an opportunity to seed a new economic future that benefits all people.