Tuesday, October 10, 2006
Land use laws often have unintended consequences. Last night my local PBS station re-aired an episode of the justly famous series “Eyes on the Prize” about the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s. Much of the episode focused on the effort to desegregate department store lunch counters and other public facilities in Nashville, Birmingham, and other southern cities in the early ‘60s. Eventually, of course, laws made racial segregation in such facilities unlawful.
But did the laws create social integration? Downtown department stores used by everyone in a metro area have closed in most cities and moved to suburbs. Many stores in suburban areas are poorly integrated by race because of de facto suburban housing segregation. Meanwhile, more specialized public places (restaurants, clubs, etc.) that remain downtown often remain largely segregated in fact.
Did anti-discrimination laws result in the move of public facilities to the suburbs? No, for the most part, I suspect; anti-discrimination laws did not “cause” commercial “white flight” the way that school desegregation rulings did in many areas. Suburbanization of retail establishments has occurred everywhere, even in places that are racially homogeneous. But the fact of suburbanization certainly has, unfortunately, dampened the ability of law to foster greater social integration.