Built-In Racism: Persistent Urban Inequality in NYC

As excited as many of us are about the reality of the first Black presidential nominee (and, dare we hope, the possibility of the first ever Black president), as I mentioned in a previous post, this doesn’t mean the “end of racism” as some have suggested. And, I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about why this is. In part, I think it has to do with how “built-in” racism operates in a variety of domains in society. I’ve spent the last twelve years or so living in New York City (having grown up in Texas), so I’m particularly interested in how this works here in the city. In some ways, what I’m suggesting is an analysis that’s similar to the task that Paul Street tackles in his recent book, Racial Oppression in the Global Metropolis, which takes Chicago as the index case. (Note: If anyone knows of a similar title on NYC, please leave a comment or drop me an email.)

The way I see racism function here reminds me of that famous quote from British statesman Edmund Burke, “All that is necessary for the triumph of evil in America is for good men [sic] to do nothing.” To rephrase Burke, all that’s necessary for the perpetuation of racism is for well-intentioned people to do nothing. Contemporary, urban racism is embedded in the normal routines of everyday, private lives and public institutions. Here are just a few initial thoughts on something I intend to develop further. I welcome comments about where to take this next.

Real Estate & Transportation. New Yorkers love to talk about real estate and transportation. While in other places in the U.S., it’s considered impolite to ask how much you pay for housing, in NYC it’s perfectly acceptable dinner conversation to ask someone how much they pay for their apartment. Following that, the second most popular topic of conversation is “what’s your commute?” (Photo credit: Jason Gibbs) Real estate and transportation in the city are deeply rooted in racial politics and is a key factor in the reproduction of racial inequality in other areas. New York City, despite its reputation for “diversity” has some of the highest segregation levels between whites, blacks, Latinos and Asians (according to People and Politics in America’s Big Cities: The Challenges to Urban Democracy, a 2001 report John Mellenkopf and John Logan). While the levels of racial residential segregation typically get discussed in terms of “demographic changes” (as in the press release for the Mellenkopf and Logan). But demography is largely a field written in the passive voice with very little, if any, discussion of the actors responsible for making the decisions that, at least in part, set the mechanisms of racial residential segregation in motion. In another example of this mechanism, New York City Department of Housing (NYCDOH) officials acknowledge routinely steering black and Hispanic applicants away from largely white public housing projects. While the NYCDOH settled a housing discrimination suit in 1992 and agreed to change this practice, there is little evidence that this practice has changed. For most New Yorkers, the home ownership – the primary way that Americans build wealth – is a distant dream. And, yet many black, Latino and Asian New Yorkers were able to achieve this dream, only to find themselves holding the short end of the mortgage crisis stick. According to the Brownstoner, subprime loans made up 27% of refinances last year here in New York, and people of color are more than three times as likely to hold subprime loans as non-minorities, and one in four homeowners with subprime mortgages in Crown Heights and Bedford-Stuyvesant, predominantly black neighborhoods in Brooklyn. Yet, at the same time that people in the rest of the country and in the outer boroughs suffer through the mortgage crisis, Manhattan home prices remain “crazy,” easily the highest in the nation (both to buy and rent). While the middle-class and wealthy whites in most cities in the U.S. flee the center and use their automobiles to “seceed” from urban areas to predominantly white suburbs and exurbs, the transportation math here is the reverse. Here, Manhattan is increasingly an urban center where only wealthy whites are able to live while middle-class and poor (whites and people of color) are pushed to the outer boroughs of the Bronx, Brooklyn and Queens. This sets up a daily migration pattern where working-poor black and brown people commute – sometimes for hours – by public transportation (as on the J train pictured here) into Manhattan to work at menial, low-paying jobs as deli counter staff, bus boys, nannies, door men and day laborers. This pattern of racial segregation in housing lays the groundwork for other forms of discrimination and inequality.

Education. New York City has some of the worst high school graduate rates in the nation, with less than half earning a high school diploma. And of course, it’s not the white kids attending the best schools who are not graduating. The low graduation rates reflect the disparities in spending on schools which is based on the funding mechanism of property taxes and real estate values. This table, “School Funding in Selected School Districts in the New York City Area,” (from the Urban Justice Center’s January 2008 Racial Realities report), illustrates the correlation between the percentage of white students and the spending per pupil. The indisputable trend in this data is that as the percentage of white students increases, so does the spending. So, for example, in affluent, suburban (Long Island) Manhasset, where 80% of the students are white, the spending is over $20,000 per pupil, in contrast to New York City where the proportion of white students is 15% and the spending is around half that, $10,000 per pupil. While money does not guarantee a quality education, it can and does influence a variety of educational outcomes, like graduation rates and likelihood of going on to college. Within this context, teachers act as powerful gatekeepers in deciding – often at very early ages – which students are “college bound” and which are “bound for jail.” Not surprisingly, it is black and brown students, and predominantly young boys, who at 10, 11 and 12 years old, are described by white (predominantly female) teachers as “bound for jail,” (see Ann Ferguson, Bad Boys, University of Michigan Press, 2000).

Employment. In 2006, the unemployment rate in New York City was 4.9% — the lowest rate in years. Yet, despite this relative prosperity, blacks (7.4%) and Latinos (6.1%), still experience recession-level unemployment rates (from the Urban Justice Center’s January 2008 Racial Realities report). Just taking a look at the City of New York as an employer reveals a strikingly disparate pattern of employment, as nearly 80% of the City’s highest paying administrative and managerial job positions are held by whites. In contrast, while Blacks, Latinos and Asians make up 37%, 16% and 4%, respectively, of the city’s workforce, they only account collectively for 19% of the total senior and executive staff of city agencies (from the Urban Justice Center’s January 2008 Racial Realities report). Yet, no one seems to be held accountable for this persistent racial inequality. When the New York City Parks Department agreed to pay more than $21 million to settle a federal class-action discrimination lawsuit filed by the NAACP for a history of racially discriminatory practices, the department announced that it would make “major changes in certain of its personnel practices” as part of the settlement. Still, at the press conference announcing the settlement of the lawsuit – which City attorneys fought against since 1999 – Mayor Bloomberg once again denied any responsibility, saying:

“It was something that took place a long time ago and I think we are satisfied that our procedures today in that department, and I think in all departments, do not discriminate against anybody.” (New York Times, February 26, 2008.)

Of course, the Mayor’s not going to say that the City or any one working for the City discriminates. But then, who’s responsible for the “discriminatory practices” at the Parks Department? It seems that no one is.

Criminal Justice & Political Disenfranchisement. Perhaps the most dramatic and pernicious mechanism for perpetuating racism and racial inequality in New York City is the criminal justice system. As just one example, I wrote in an earlier post about the way that drug policy in New York City is effectively “weeding out” blacks and Latinos from the city. In a 2008 study by Queens College sociologist Harry G. Levin and Deborah Peterson Small, an attorney and advocate for drug policy reform, called “Marijuana Arrest Crusade” (opens .pdf), finds that between 1997 and 2007, 52 percent of the suspects were black, 31 percent Hispanic and only 15 percent white. This sort of systemic racism in arrest and incarceration rates is rooted in policy-level racism in legislation such as the Rockfeller Drug Laws. These laws require harsh prison terms for possession or sale of small amounts of drugs, and are named for Governor Nelson Rockfeller of New York, from the wealthy robber-baron family, who passed these racist laws in 1973. As a direct result of these laws, New York State has opened 38 prisons since 1982, all in mainly white, rural areas “upstate,” all represented by Republican State Senators (photo credit: Lush.i.ous). And, this represents a significant shift in political disenfranchisement in the city for people of color. Nearly 65% of New York State prisoners are from New York City- almost all from poorer neighborhoods of black and brown people. What happens then is a two-fold mechanism of built-in racism that simultaneously disenfranchises people of color while giving political power to white Republicans upstate. First, because the U.S. Census Bureau records inmates as residents of the district where they are in prison, not as residents of the community they come from and where their families still reside, those districts appear to be more populous than they are, thus increasing the number of representatives in those districts. Second, because of felony disenfranchisement laws, those overwhelmingly black and Latino people with the felony convictions are no longer able to vote. And, of course, quite predictably, money follows political power. The state prison system employs almost 30,000 people in Republican senate districts and those prisons in Republican senate districts receive more than $1.1 billion dollars annually to cover their operating expenses.

Media Representations & the Marketing of NYC. Finally, while racist practices in real estate, education, employment and criminal justice make life more difficult for black and Latino New Yorkers, the city’s tourism board and film commission aggressively market NYC to those who live outside the five boroughs, whether they visit the city in person or experience it through mass media (photo credit: Sherene). In 2007, film crews made 245 movies in New York City, a 36% increase from 2002, and a peak in film-making in the city since 9/11. This is no accident. The city’s Film Commission offers huge tax breaks and other incentives to film crews that choose to shoot here. Tourism is also up dramatically; in 2006 (the latest year for which there are figures), an estimated 43.8 million people visited the city. And, this is no accident either, as the city’s leading policy-makers have taken dramatic steps to make the city more “tourist-friendly,” most notably the Disney-fication of the Times Square area. While this transformation involved a complex interplay between urban planning, politicians and venture capitalists, the result urban space is one that is noticeably whiter than it was even ten years ago, and is often the primary tourist destination for those visiting. Similarly, the film and television products filmed here create a mythical New York that is an additional character. The television shows created elsewhere (usually Los Angeles) that are supposedly about New York, or set in the city, such as “Friends” and “Seinfeld,” feature privileged whites who live in enormous apartments, work only occasionally, and reside in a fictional Manhattan that is as white as any suburban gated-community. Such visual media texts function as ideological reinforcement of a white racial identity without overtly speaking race or racism. As New York City gets mass-marketed as a desirable global destination, these different domains converge in interesting ways.

Built-in Racism in NYC.  At a recent forum about police brutality I attended organized by some of my students, several Hunter College students who are also young, African American men, shared their experiences of routine harassment by New York Police.  Another young man attending the forum observed:  “these police practices don’t happen by accident – they happen because rich white people feel safer when young, black and brown people are regularly harassed and locked up.”  I think there is something to this in the way that different facets of built-in racism converge in the city.  Wealthy, mostly white, real estate developers buy up  scarce land in Manhattan and build luxury condos that, mainly, only wealthy whites can afford to live in, and poorer whites, blacks and Latinos are pushed out of Manhattan to the outer boroughs, thus increasing commute times.    White elites pull their children from under-funded city schools and send them to private schools, while the predominantly minority children left in the public schools are early in life tracked as bound for the criminal justice system.  White employers, such as Mayor Bloomberg, deny they engage in racial discrimination in hiring and promotion, yet the evidence suggests otherwise (e.g., the City Parks Department).   White “upstate” politicians (mostly Republican) make laws that enact racist practices in arrest and incarceration in the city (e.g., Rockefeller drug laws); and then, white “upstate” politicians (mostly Republicans) benefit from that system (e.g., increase in prisons and the political power and money tied to those institutions).  Meanwhile, these same white politicians make laws that disenfranchise felons, further ensuring that those negatively affected by the Rockfeller Drug Laws might mobilize politically against those in power. Wealthy, mostly white, policy-makers implement changes in the urban environment (e.g., Times Square, increased policing) that make other whites feel comfortable enough to come and spend their money.  Then, (mostly) white producers of mass media create ideological justifications for those practices by authoring films and television shows that portray a whites-only chimera of New York City.   Within this system, it’s not necessary for any individual person involved in implementing these policies to express (or even hold) overtly racist views, although many (if not most) do.  All that’s necessary for the perpetuation of this type of built-in racism to continue to operate is that people of good will do nothing.


  1. Joe

    Notice too how the very old white racial frame, in urban development actors minds since 1600s, has shaped the actual physical layout and structure of NYC and all US cities.

  2. Jessie Author

    Yes, excellent point Joe. Here in NYC, the presence of predominantly black neighborhoods like Harlem and Bed-Stuy are the result of bankers and real estate developers who are operating through the white racial frame. And, Robert Moses has been especially powerful in quite literally shaping NYC, and was overtly racist. And, his racism got built into the city. Moses was a vocal opponent against black war veterans moving into Stuyvesant Town, a Manhattan residential development complex created to house World War II veterans. I was just at a (white) colleague’s apartment in Stuyvesant Town on Friday, and the vast complex is still predominantly white. Moses also worked to develop suburban Long Island, and he made sure that the roads leading to the Island curved and were covered with low bridges. He intended these as mechanisms for preventing buses from the city from bringing blacks to Long Island. Moses is really a case study all on his own of the white racial frame and the way it shaped the urban development of the New York metro area.


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