Inflated Districts

Michelle Alexander looks at specific policies that have lead to greater incarceration rates in our nation and have exacerbated racial injustice in her book The New Jim Crow. One of the policies Alexander criticizes is the policy surrounding political representation of incarcerated individuals. After Alexander addresses the reality that our nation locks up minority black and brown men at rates far higher than white men, she addresses questions of voting and districting. Below, Alexander explains how incarcerated individuals are counted by the Census Bureau,

“Under the usual-residence rule, the Census Bureau counts imprisoned individuals as residents of the jurisdiction in which they are incarcerated. Because most new prison construction occurs in predominately white, rural areas, white communities benefit from inflated population totals at the expense of the urban, overwhelmingly minority communities from which the prisoners come. This has enormous consequences for the redistricting process. White rural communities that house prisons wind up with more people in state legislatures representing them, while poor communities of color lose representatives because it appears their population has declined. This policy is disturbingly reminiscent of the three-fifths clause in the original Constitution, which enhanced the political clout of slaveholding states by including 60% of slaves in the population base for calculating Congressional seats and electoral votes, even though they could not vote.”

The presidential election of 2016 showed a powerful split in political preferences between rural and urban parts of the country. Metropolitan areas heavily favored the Democratic candidate, Hilary Clinton, and rural areas overwhelmingly favored Donald Trump from the Republican party. Diving deeper into state politics and representation, we see the same phenomenon play out with state representatives. In my home state of Nevada, the two major population centers, the Las Vegas metropolitan statistical area (MSA) and the Reno MSA, vote democratic while the rural parts of the state vote republican. What the policy that Alexander discusses means is that the MSAs in my state end up loosing seats relative to the rural districts and counties because of the way we count individuals. While Nevada may be dominated by the two million Las Vegas MSA inhabitants and the half million Reno MSA inhabitants, the state likely does see a shift in political representation away from the urban centers toward the rural counties that house the state’s prisons.

It is unlikely that the rural representatives of those prisons favor policies that help improve the neighborhoods and living conditions in the urban communities our prisoners come from. Disturbingly, it is unlikely that our rural representatives favor a reduction in incarceration rates at all since their constituents likely rely on the prison for employment.

It is hard to determine residence and people in prison may be homeless, but nevertheless, we do have the ability today to better analyze and record where our individuals lived prior to being arrested and where they plan to return once released. How we choose count individuals who have short sentences versus life sentences is further in the weeds of the issue, but can be impactful when considering prison populations and the communities that house such prisons. Our nation’s constitution checks urban power by over-representing rural communities in congress, and many state constitutions follow the same suit. Emphasizing this distinction however, and providing greater clout to rural districts that house prisons may encourage a backlash against anti-incarceration movements and may make it less likely that the poor and over policied communities from which our prison population derives, is represented and able to advocate for changes that will improve their lives.

Hidden Backstories

Last summer I read extensively on race relations in the United States, and Senator Cory Booker’s United was my starting place. One of the things I was struck by in his book is how recently many actively discriminatory policies were in place, and the lingering effect of those policies. I had never experienced or seen outright discrimination or racism in my own life (I am a white male in my 20s, so it is questionable whether I would have recognized it if I had seen it), and I did not think that discrimination still acted as a major force in people’s lives today. Booker’s book along with several others, helped me understand how racial discrimination has persisted in various forms and helped me see how discriminatory practices from the past still impact the lives of people today.

Regarding housing policy in the United States, Booker demonstrates the lingering effect of racial discrimination with the following, “As Kenneth Jackson writes in Crabgrass Frontier: The Suburbanization of the United States, ‘The result, if not the intent, of the public housing program of the United States was to segregate the races, to concentrate the disadvantaged in inner cities, and to reinforce the image of suburbia as a place of refuge [from] the problems of race, crime, and poverty.’”

In the United States today many large cities are gentrifying, meaning that more wealthy individuals are moving back into the cities, increasing diversity, bringing economic and cultural revival to inner cities, and also driving up the housing costs and cost of living in the cities. This is an opposite trend from what Booker explains by quoting Kenneth Jackson, and if we are not careful it could have the same effect of marginalizing poor groups of society which often tend to be majority racial minorities. In the not too distant past housing policies greatly advantaged white people and disadvantaged black and minority people. White families were shown different neighborhoods when looking for homes and received different treatment in suburban neighborhoods. The result was that it was difficult for black people and minorities in our country to move into newer homes in suburban areas, limiting their ability to build wealth through home investments, creating areas of concentrated poverty, and potentially restricting minority populations to environmentally more hazardous areas. Some of these policies were explicit and some implicit, but many still impact the lives of people today.

Restrictive housing in New Orleans as the city grew and developed in the 1900s created a segregated city with white home owners living and moving into neighborhoods on one side of the city which was higher in terms of altitude altitude, while black people and minorities were restricted to another side of the city with lower lying neighborhoods. When Hurricane Katrina decimated the city, the force of the storm tore up both the higher and lower elevation areas of the city, but the flooding was more pronounced and longer lasting in the lower elevation levels where black people had lived for generations. White people whose families for years had lived in the higher elevation part of the city still needed to rebuild, but with less flooding and quicker drainage, did not have to start over from square one. The housing policies of the not too distant past haunted the city in the early 2000s.

For our society today we must recognize these lingering effects and remember the harm that segregation caused whether intentional or not as we decide how we want to live today. I do not have a clear answer to the problems, but we should recognize when our housing policy as a society and living decisions as individuals lead to greater inequity among racial or economic groups. The gentrification today is not based on overt racial discrimination like the housing policies of the 1950s an 60s, but the economic segregation driving the engine of gentrification could still have the same effects of segregating minority populations into substandard housing and disadvantaging them with greater commute times, and restricted access to services and opportunities.