In the early 1990s, J. Phillip Thompson was working as deputy general manager of the New York City Housing Authority (NYCHA). He was implementing an experimental program to create public housing in mixed-income settings. He vividly remembers one specific case where he was attempting to move 20 NYCHA resident families into brownstone buildings on Manhattan’s Upper West Side. The neighbors weren’t having it.
“The Upper West Side at the time was the most left, liberal community in New York, and they fought us tooth and nail over moving just 20 families into the neighborhood,” Thompson recalls. It was a lesson that stuck with him: Even when it comes to housing and economic policy, race matters. “I could give you a thousand stories like that,” he adds.
Thompson, now an urban policy professor at MIT, elaborates on that point in a recent Urban Affairs Review article, “Place Matters, and So Does Race.”
The article was written as part of a series of responses, organized by Urban Affairs Review, to the book Place Matters: Metropolitics for the 21st Century, which argues that in order to get federal and state attention and real big changes in policy around poverty and community development, there’s going to have to be a coming together between people in central cities and suburbs, and people are going to have to come together across races. “I agree with that,” says Thompson.
His disagreement with Place Matters begins with the notion that place trumps race in actually shaping economic policy agenda or community development programs. “I think race matters more than geography,” he writes, paraphrasing race scholar Cornel West.
There are other policy areas, Thompson says, where the fact that race matters is more obvious and more widely understood, like policing and criminal justice. It’s clear from growing media coverage of longstanding violence against black and Latino communities that being a person of color in this country is undeniably different from being part of the white majority. As Thompson writes in his article, “Worrying about police brutalizing their children is a universal Black parental concern; it is something upper-class Whites tend not to experience.”
But current and historic economic disparities — for example, median white household wealth in the U.S. is $141,900, while median black household wealth is $11,000 and median Latino household wealth is $13,000 — must inform policies regarding housing and economics as much as they need to shape community policing and criminal justice.
“We can talk about economic commonalities between lower-income whites and lower-income blacks, but there are profound differences as well,” Thompson says.
Thompson speaks from personal experience. His father, a WWII veteran, bought his family’s house in Philadelphia with the help of the GI Bill. “But we couldn’t get it in certain neighborhoods,” Thompson says. “[Black people] couldn’t get a house in certain neighborhoods and that contributes directly to the wealth gaps we see today.”
When policy and program discussions ignore racial differences, all of us lose. We end up with policies that miss the mark, policies that make the same mistakes over and over again. We end up with bad policies, not to mention bad programs. Even advocates with the best of intentions can end up missing the mark, according to Thompson. To illustrate this point, his article cites the national Fight for 15 campaign to raise the minimum wage to $15 an hour, often beginning with fast food worker wages:
The campaign organizers never consulted with local community groups. Had they done so, they might have learned about an epidemic of diabetes and hypertension affecting even Black high school students. For this reason, many local groups in the neighborhoods they targeted had already been organizing against fast foods. The union could easily have joined these local campaigns and helped focus them on improving the food and raising wages. Had they done so, they might have gained much community support. Yet, the union chose not to. Having watched this pattern time and again, I suspect it is because the White leadership of the union (in this case) is afraid of losing control of the campaign to local Black and Latino activists. They want Black and Brown bodies in their organizations, but they fear that Black and Brown leaders will challenge their leadership.
The pattern of otherwise left-leaning, progressive groups ignoring the realities of racial differences in the U.S. economy extends into the heights of the 2016 presidential campaign, according to Thompson.
“If you look at the Bernie Sanders campaign, when they asked Bernie what’s your vision for America, he said Denmark.” Thompson says. “Denmark is one of the least diverse places on earth. That he said Denmark says to me that he really hasn’t thought deeply about issues of race in America, at a time when a majority in cities already are nonwhite, and in 25 years or so the country will be.”
Acknowledging racial differences in the economy has to mean bringing more diverse voices, more diverse imaginations to the table. “You have to go deeper and actually ask people what are the issues we want you to focus on, not just what I think is good for you,” Thompson says.
The Equity Factor is made possible with the support of the Surdna Foundation.
Oscar is Next City's senior economics correspondent. He previously served as Next City’s editor from 2018-2019, and was a Next City Equitable Cities Fellow from 2015-2016. Since 2011, Oscar has covered community development finance, community banking, impact investing, economic development, housing and more for media outlets such as Shelterforce, B Magazine, Impact Alpha, and Fast Company.