On One Hand

November 10, 2009

Can good urban planning combat racism?

Filed under: sociology — ononehand @ 1:10 am

Can good urban planning reduce racism? It’s a pretty audacious point, but Nate Silver, numbers wizzard at fivethirtyeight.com who predicted the 2008 Presidential Election outcome to within fractions of a point, suggested so.

His argument is, essentially, that people living among those of other races and cultures have been shown, through fairly well-grounded scientific analyses, to be more tolerant. The first two thirds of Silver’s presentation go over the scientific examination of where more people with self-identified negative attitudes towards people of another race (focusing on African Amerians) live. In this case, rural uneduated states that are traditionally associated with social conservatism had the most people citing race as their reason for voting against Barack Obama in 2008, and there Obama did the worst compared with Bill Clinton in 1996. (The states include Arkansas, Tennesee, West Virginia, Kentucky.)

The second part of the argument is that people in cities have more interaction with people of other races or cultures. That is obviously true because more diverse people happen to live there, but Silver also argues that a way the city is laid out can play a role in how often people walk around and meet their neighbors.

A possible counter-argument Silver didn’t address is the causality problem, or the chicken-or-the-egg argument. Do people living in rural areas naturally become more racist, or is it, rather, that racists choose to move to rural areas? Do people in a winding, suburban-style subdivision evolve to have more racially problematic attitudes over time or are those neighborhoods just a magnet for people who didn’t want to live among blacks in an inner city? One could easily argue that “White Flight” in the 1960s, when white people fled cities to racially-homogeneous suburban areas, left the tolerant white populations in the city while those seeking to escape the influx of non-white newcomers were less tolerant to begin with.

Still, it’s fairly easy to see how growing up among people of other races and identifying them as part of your peer group would prevent stereotyping and vilification. A white child who has a few Hispanic friends is less likely to believe in insidious stereotypes about them than one who grew up with none (though having friends who are people of color does not preclude somebody from being racist).

This argument may ultimately have less to say about urbanism than it does about racism: in the months leading up to the 2008 elections, commentators often cited strong poll numbers for Obama among blacks, and conservatives claimed “rampant black racism against whites” in America. But this report indicates that white populations would have more negative attitudes towards people in another racial group than blacks or latinos would have towards whites, since it is easy to be white and never interact with a black person (if you live in a rural area) but extremely difficult to be a person of color and never interact with a white person in the United States.


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