Fairly recently, a dear friend became troubled about the way his neighborhood was changing. He was reluctant to speak of it at first, because it involved the anthropological and sociological third rail of American public discourse: race. Several homes near him had recently been purchased by Negro families. After that, several more homes in the neighborhood went on sale. My friend was alarmed, as he saw an influx of black families as destabilizing to what had been a peaceful, safe environment for his wife and children.
I agreed with him. Even prosperous, seemingly stable black families can bring with them the problems for which their race is known: noise, disruptive behavior, drug abuse, high traffic of nonresidents into and out of the neighborhood, fights and petty crime. The problems arrive with the youth of their race. Many of the same phenomena accompany the arrival of Hispanic families.
The above are established facts. Charles Murray has put hard numbers to them in his recent book Facing Reality. If my friend wanted to secure his family and home against a degradation in their quality of life, he would have to move. He was reluctant to do so, as it would involve accepting new debt, but in the end he saw that it was the best course.
Which brings us to today’s topic.
Among the mechanisms prosperous communities have used in attempting to secure themselves, zoning is preeminent. A neighborhood that excludes all but residential properties on large lots has guaranteed that anyone moving into it will at least possess the financial wherewithal to do so. The desirability of the neighborhood will then make the price of such lots high. The exclusion of multiple-family structures raises another significant barrier to entry.
So-called minority-rights groups have attempted to pierce the barriers created by zoning with “lawfare.” To this point, they’ve been largely unsuccessful. However, the Left is attempting a Samson-smash of the walls around such neighborhoods by outlawing single-family zoning:
[In Virginia,] in the midst of the high-stakes McAuliffe vs. Youngkin race for governor, the conservative group Frontiers of Freedom Foundation is running an ad that highlights Terry McAuliffe’s support for Joe Biden’s plans to undercut single-family zoning.
The ad, which I found powerful, reminds voters that attacks on local control of zoning can come from states as well as the feds. In fact, this has happened in California which recently abolished single-family zoning. The anti-McAuliffe ad pointedly reminds Virginia voters of this news from California.
As commentator Paul Mirengoff notes:
Few issues matter more to voters than the character of their neighborhoods and the character of their schools. The second issue — schools — has become a high-profile one. Maybe now the first one — neighborhoods — will come into prominence.
Possible – but expect massive blowback in the form of racism-shouting and claims of “discrimination” and “exclusion.” As it has become an act of extreme courage to reply to such attacks by saying “You bet your ass I want to exclude your kind. You bring trouble wherever you go,” those attacks have more power than usual. Nevertheless, that is the intention, and a perfectly valid one it is.
In the past, the attack on protective zoning has come via the courts. A case that reached the U.S. Supreme Court in 1974, Warth v. Seldin, is illustrative. Bob Woodward and Scott Armstrong noted it in The Brethren:
In one case (Warth v. Seldin) civil-rights activists in Rochester, New York had challenged a nearby suburb’s zoning law. The ordinances required all homes to be single-family residences on large lots, in effect barring low-income minorities. The challengers sued to overturn the ordinance as discriminatory. Two lower courts had denied them standing and refused to hold a hearing on their claims. [Associate Justice Lewis] Powell was assigned the majority opinion for his fellow Nixon appointees and [Associate Justice Potter] Stewart, who agreed with the lower courts that the activists didn’t have standing to sue in federal court. His opinion said that the challengers had failed to allege and prove they could not buy a particular residence; the case was hypothetical; the alleged injuries were intangible and speculative….
As Stewart explained it to his clerks, the case called for a value judgment, not a legal one. The challengers were asking the courts to rule on economic differences that kept low-income minorities from living near affluent whites. “What they are actually asking us to do is to overrule the capitalist system,” Stewart said….
[Associate Justice William] Brennan’s dissent argued that Powell was using legal technicalities to prevent the disenfranchised groups from pressing their claims. And there was a Catch-22. In order to have the standing to sue, you had to have the money to begin building a low-income housing project and be willing to go to the inconvenience of filing a plan so the local zoning board could reject it. In order for the poor to sue, they had to be rich. Brennan found the whole idea absurd and deceitful. It was the ordinance being challenged—not neutral economic factors—that insured that the housing market would never change….
Brennan saw this as the extension of a disastrous trend. The lower courts would get the message that the poor must prove precisely how they were affected before they would even have standing to bring suit in federal court. The Court would no longer be the final protector of rights, the guarantor of fair play.
Those paragraphs from The Brethren express a tremendous amount: first about legal principles and judicial procedures, second about the attitudes and orientations of the Justices. Potter Stewart, a moderate conservative, was aware of the underlying intent of the suit, but in voting on the verdict stayed within the established rules of jurisprudence: The plaintiff must prove that he has been injured, or definitely will be irreparably injured, to have standing. As there was no provable injury from an ordinance that effectively prevented low-income residents from becoming close neighbors to high-income residents, the plaintiff lacked standing and the suit was without merit.
William Brennan, a left-liberal, saw things differently. He felt the exclusion of low-income people from high-income neighborhoods was itself an injury: a moral wrong. He saw the zoning ordinance as a denial of “minority rights.” That this is an extreme, wholly unjustifiable creation of a right, which Brennan sought to assign to “low-income minorities” against more affluent persons, is at the heart of the greater part of today’s racial and ethnic conflicts.
Compare Brennan’s implied assertion of a “right” for low-income persons to live cheek-to-jowl with high-income persons with the outcries of exactly the same persons against “gentrification.” Could the hypocrisy be any clearer? But more pointed still is a John Derbyshire essay about the “theory of magic dirt:”
In the past couple of decades we’ve seen the rise of one particular explanatory strategy. That strategy recently acquired a name—or possibly it’s had the name for a while and I only just recently noticed. Whatever, I really like the name: Magic Dirt.
The core idea is that one’s physical surroundings—the bricks and mortar of the building you’re in, or the actual dirt you are standing on—emit invisible vapors that can change your personality, behavior, and intelligence.
That’s why, for example, you read so much about “bad schools” or “failing schools.” The thing to be explained is that schools whose students are overwhelmingly non-Asian minorities—blacks and mestizos—get much worse results on academic tests than schools whose students are majority white and East Asian. This has been so for decades, defying even extravagantly expensive efforts to change it, like the Kansas City fiasco of the 1990s.
Parsimonious explanation: innate differences in behavior, intelligence, and personality between the races.
Magical explanation: Bad schools! The bricks and mortar of these schools, the asphalt of their playgrounds, are giving out invisible noxious vapors that enstupidate the kids!
Gentle Reader, it cannot be said better than that. If one’s physical surroundings or neighbors determine one’s one “behavior, intelligence, and personality,” then pace William Brennan, it would be at the very least unkind to deny “aspiring” low-income Americans the chance to improve themselves by living next door to high-income Americans. But unkindness has no legal weight, so the Left has to represent the claim as a denial of “minority rights.”
Most people would prefer not to live among criminals, drug addicts, the dissolute and irresponsible, or politicians. These persons tend to “lower the tone” of a neighborhood, rendering it displeasing to those of us who like order, responsibility, and privacy. Thus we save as much as we can from what we earn, use it to buy “a decent place to live” when the opportunity presents itself, and thereafter do our best to protect our new homes and their environs from the kind of maltreatment that comes from criminals, druggies, etc. This is in keeping with the American conception of private property rights: You can have what you want as long as:
- Someone is willing to sell it to you;
- You have the means to pay for it.
But groups do not have rights as such. Neither do “neighborhoods.” So when a prosperous district coalesces and the residents resolve to limit what changes can occur there, the usual recourse has been zoning ordinances. While the decisions of zoning boards are not always received with approval, preserving the character of neighborhoods for their existing residents is the predominant use of zoning.
Zoning ordinances can legally specify:
- Permitted uses (e.g., single-family residential; multiple-family residential; commercial; light industrial; heavy industrial; mixed);
- Minimum lot size.
They may not say “No parcel in this zone may be sold for less than $X.” And they may not make any mention of race or ethnic heritage. So it’s at least possible, if against the odds, to find a parcel in a “prosperous” neighborhood that’s available dirt-cheap. Legally, if the owner is willing to sell it to you, your neighbors-to-be can do nothing about it no matter what they think of you or yours.
But dirt-cheap parcels in affluent neighborhoods are exceedingly rare. The demand for such parcels is high. The Law of Supply and Demand functions to make them dear. And your neighbors-to-be probably like it that way, so you’d better have the means.
As matters stand, Negroes are less likely than Whites and Asians to possess the means to purchase parcels in very affluent neighborhoods. That’s been the case for many decades. Often the minimum lot size dictated by the zoning ordinances is part of the reason. Other things being equal, large lots are more expensive than small ones, for the same reason that large diamonds are more expensive than small ones: there just aren’t that many of them. If the zoning ordinances forbid breaking up such a lot and selling the fragments, there’s nothing to be done about it.
But the key is not race nor ethnicity; it’s finances. Low-income Whites and Asians face the same barrier to entry. Affluent residents are no more eager to live next to low-income Whites or Asians than next to low-income Negroes– and there are a lot more low-income Whites than low-income Negroes. But you don’t hear them on the six o’clock news. “White trash” is dispreferred by the rights activists as a group to champion.
All that having been said, this remains: when a formerly all-White neighborhood is first penetrated by Negro families, the residents look to their defenses. Even if the initial penetration is by solidly middle-class Negroes with intact families, homes will swiftly go on the market, often in great numbers. The demographics of the neighborhood tend to change rapidly, as does the prevailing level of law-abidingness, public order, and general civility. Whites have learned to fear what comes with a Negro incursion, and all the wishes of the bien-pensants will not prevail against that hard-won lesson. Good intentions are powerless before the desire for “a decent place to live.”
See also the meaning of the venerable term blockbusting.