The right to protection of property is a Constitutional right given to every US citizen in the Fifth Amendment. Since property ownership tends to be synonymous with affluence, the wealthy have been the largest proponents of the 5th amendment. In the Cato Institute’s Handbook for Policy Makers, Section 34 devotes itself to property rights and the Constitution. We can get a sense for how the founding fathers felt about the importance of property rights from the following excerpt:
“John Locke, the philosophical father of the American Revolution and the inspiration for Thomas Jefferson when he drafted the Declaration of Independence, stated the issue simply: ‘‘Lives, Liberties, and Estates, which I call by the general Name, Property.’’ And James Madison, the principal author of the Constitution, echoed those thoughts when he wrote that ‘‘as a man is said to have a right to his property, he may be equally said to have a property in his rights.’’
The author goes on to say, crucially, that…
“Much moral confusion would be avoided if we understood that all of our rights—all of the things to which we are ‘‘entitled’’—can be reduced to property. That would enable us to separate genuine rights—things to which we hold title—from specious ‘‘rights’’—things to which other people hold title, which we may want. It was the genius of the old common law, grounded in reason, that it grasped that point. And the common-law judges understood a pair of corollaries as well: that property, broadly conceived, separates one individual from another, and that individuals are independent or free to the extent that they have sole or exclusive dominion over what they hold. Indeed, Americans go to work every day to acquire property just so they can be independent.”
The above specifically makes the distinction between what we are entitled to, and what we desire or want. Eminent domain is used by governments to avoid conflicts with the fifth amendment, and over the years, it has caused many battles in courts all over the country. With that said, the following passage is what I’d like to focus on, in the context of zoning:
“Thus, the common law limits the right of free use only when a use encroaches on the property rights of others, as in the classic law of nuisance or risk. The implications of that limit, however, should not go unnoticed, especially in the context of such modern concerns as environmental protection. Indeed, it is so far from the case that property rights are opposed to environmental protection—a common belief today—as to be just the opposite: the right against environmental degradation is a property right. Under common law, properly applied, people cannot use their property in ways that damage their neighbors’ property—defined, again, as taking things those neighbors hold free and clear. Properly conceived and applied, then, property rights are self-limiting: they constitute a judicially crafted and enforced regulatory scheme in which rights of active use end when they encroach on the property rights of others.”
The problem with the above is the subjective nature of defining “encroachment on the property rights of others”. Zoning laws have been used to fill the gap, to further define the limits of encroachment. There was a time, during the Great Migration, when a white family in a northern city could legitimately claim that a black family moving in next door was encroachment on their property rights. Although it may have never been endorsed by the courts, to my knowledge, it was quietly endorsed in other ways, especially in zoning. In more recent times, efforts have been made to define encroachment along religious lines. In the post 9/11 era, Muslims have been the target. In Chicago’s south suburbs, where large Muslim communities have formed, the building of mosques has sparked outrage from those communities. In one particular case, in the suburb of Palos Park, Al-Jazeera reports that anonymous flyers were distributed in the town:
“As well as warning about traffic and reduced property prices, the flyer opposing the opening of the Palos Park mosque highlights the possibility of people from outside of the community coming in, of “large Muslim families moving into your neighbourhood – some of these … have 20 people living in a single family home” and “more women at the Palos Heights Pool with burkas, these women go in the pool with their garments on”.”
Again, the right to protect property, and as a natural extension, its value, is invoked. It is a legitimate cover for illegitimate motives.
It’s not New…
Zoning laws have been written, passed, and justified by invoking constitutional property rights for centuries. Whether it be the banning of Chinese laundries in San Francisco during the late 1800’s, or modern day “snob zoning” in New York City, zoning laws have been legislated by elected officials whose influential constituents demanded it. Tim and time again, it has been done on the pretext of protecting property and property values. Housing discrimination was (and arguably still is) largely justified by white homeowners and their communities (including church leaders and politicians) on the basis that property owners needed to protect the value of their homes, communities, and schools. In Ben Austen’s book, High-Risers: Cabrini Green and the Fate of American Public Housing, riots were regular occurrence in Chicago, in the 40’s and 50’s. Why? For no other reason but because Blacks, whether they were WWII veterans or just migrants from the Jim Crowe south, attempted to move into traditionally Italian, Polish, and Slavic neighborhoods on the city’s south side. From Ben Austen’s book,
“Local churches and community groups endorsed the violence that continued for weeks, and the neighborhood’s alderman condemned not the perpetrators but the CHA for including Roseland in these “ideological experiments.”
The “ideological experiments” from the quote refer to attempts by the housing authority to integrate blacks and whites in the same neighborhood. These neighborhoods were south of the infamous stockyards and the “Black Belt”. White populations had assumed them “safe” from black migration. Interestingly, the Union stockyards had once, and still had, employed many of these Eastern European and Italian immigrants in the decades earlier. Upton Sinclair’s, The Jungle, gives us an understanding how these immigrants were treated in the Stockyards during this time. They were treated awfully, and yet they had little sympathy for black migrants from the South. It seems abuse flows down the status pole. The Great Migration had already started at the time of the mass Eastern European immigration to Chicago. Often times, black workers were shipped in on trains from the south to work the stockyards during the union strikes that became common with the rise of Labor and Socialist movements (this is detailed brilliantly in Upton Sinclair’s book). The hatred that erupted in the anti-Black riots very well may have stemmed from fear that African-Americans were once again arriving as “replacement”. The theme of this fear is timeless, and it has been a part of the social and political dialogue in more recent times.
Robert Taylor Homes
The infamous public housing towers called the Robert Taylor Homes were built as a result of the lack of housing for African-Americans in Chicago. They became a symbol of segregation in Chicago, and an awful symbol at that. I became fascinated with the topic of education inequality in 1995, when I read a piece in the Chicago Tribune titled, Separate But Equal. The article compared and contrasted the difference between two high schools, one on Chicago’s south side, in the Robert Taylor Homes, and the other in the wealthy village of Winnetka, IL. Although only 25 miles of expressway separated the two schools, they were world’s apart when it came to the quality of education they provided their students. At the climax of Brown vs Board [process of desegregation] in 1988, integration had worked wonders to bridge the gap between minority and white student performance. According to Nikole Hannah-Jones, an investigative journalist who put out a fascinating must-read piece in ProPublica, the change was dramatic:
“…on standardized reading tests in 1971, black 13 year olds tested 39 points worse than white kids. That dropped to just 18 points by 1988 at the height of desegregation. The improvement in math scores was close to that, though not quite as good. And these scores are not just the scores of the specific kids who got bused into white schools. That is the overall score for the entire country. That’s all black children in America. Halved in just 17 years.”
The above is from a transcript of an interview she did with Ira Glass of This American Life. In that transcript, Ira goes on to ask her a question about the above progress.
“When I asked Nikole if that was fast, she was all like, “Well, black people first arrived on this continent as slaves in 1619. So it was 352 years to create the problem. So yeah, another 17 to cut that school achievement gap in half? Pretty fast.”
The reason for such a dramatic change in standardized test scoring on the part of black students is actually quite simple: the only reason kids would score differently on standardized testing (given a large enough sample of students) is if they are not getting the same quality of education. It should be expected that kids will score independent of their race, but only if they receive the same quality of education. And therein lies the problem. African-Americans are not receiving the same quality of education. We can even go so far to say that children of wealthier blacks are not receiving the same quality of education as poorer whites. In Nikole Hannah-Jones’ ProPublica piece She points to evidence of this, and cites supporting research done by John Logan of Brown University:
“…black Americans earning $75,000 a year typically live in poorer neighborhoods than white Americans earning $40,000 a year, according to an analysis of census data by John Logan of Brown University.”
It doesn’t make sense, but it’s happening, and it points back to issues/inequality in housing. Quality of education received is directly correlated with how much funding schools get, which is directly related to residential property values. The more funding municipalities get, the better the teachers they can hire, and the more resources they can devote per student. In “Separate But Equal”, the gap in student performance between DuSable High School and New Trier High School (Winnetka, IL) is attributed simply to 3 things. The first is poverty:
“The gap between the two schools is about poverty. Eighty percent of DuSable students live in the Robert Taylor Homes, a housing project that HUD Secretary Henry Cisneros has described as the worst urban misery in America.”
The second is segregation; the below further gives evidence that the simple act of desegregation, with no additional funding, can shrink the gap in student performance:
“It’s also about segregation. Forty years after Brown vs. Board of Education, DuSable High School is 100 percent black. New Trier is 86 percent white and 11 percent Asian.”
Each school’s demographics is an exact mirror of the neighborhood demographic the schools reside in. Winnetka, the village where New Trier High School resides, is 94.8% white, 3.3% Asian, 1.2% other, and 0.3% African American. The Robert Taylor Homes, now demolished, were in the Bronzeville neighborhood of Chicago. Bronzeville has become more diverse today. It’s diversity is a consequence of the removal of the Robert Taylor Homes, which were nearly 100% African American. In 2015, Bronzeville was 71% African American, 11% White, and 14% Asian. Where the Robert Taylor Homes used to be, are now empty lots where BBQ’s are hosted and flag football games are played in the summer.
The third issue is school finances:
“It’s about school finance. In the 1992-93 school year, New Trier spent roughly twice as much per student as DuSable: $12,000 versus $6,000. And it’s about the failure of a sprawling urban school system to use the resources it does have as efficiently as possible. DuSable is one of 554 schools run by the Chicago Board of Education. New Trier is the only school in its district: one principal, one superintendent, one board of education.”
Once again, all three of these issues can be traced back to housing. In turn, those housing issues have have their roots in segregation. Racial intolerance in the northern United States led to African Americans having little to no options for housing upon their arrival from the south during the Great Migration. The violence and segregation directed at African-Americans forced government to build purposely segregated public housing for African-Americans. In every instance, affluent constituents, whether it be in Chicago or Winnetka, demanded zoning laws that protected their property values from the encroachment of African Americans. And in just about every case, legislators, sadly obliged.