By Paul M. Ong and Silvia R. González (Click here to view the entire P&R issue)
In Uneven Urbanscape (Cambridge University Press, 2019), we present a theoretically grounded view of how society produces and reproduces racial economic inequality through the urban spatial structure. Many of the basic ideas are not new, and they have been discussed widely among PRRAC members. What we offer are extensive quantitative analyses to document the patterns, causes, and consequences of urban disparities in three arenas: home ownership, employment and early education. Geographic patterns and dynamics are not epiphenomena of aspatial processes, but are instrumental in the construction of injustices. Findings from multi-level econometric models show that both neighborhood and individual factors shape outcomes. The book focuses on the global city of Los Angeles in order to examine systemic differences in geographic access and isolation from 1960 to the present day.
While it is important to understand how disparities are produced within each sphere, the processes do not operate in isolation. Commonalities across arenas point to deep inter-connections. Processes are embedded in others and causality runs simultaneously in multiple directions. Taken together, the overlaps constitute a larger structure comprised of extensive intersectionalities to create a web of spatial racism. There are three forms of interactions: inter-market, inter-sectoral, and inter-generational.
A primary example of inter-markets is related to transportation mismatch and jobs. Residents of marginalized neighborhoods face higher cost of automobile ownership from discriminatory financing, insurance premiums and traffic enforcement, thus lowering the probability of purchasing a reliable vehicle. In turn, the lack of transportation resources in conjunction with spatial mismatch has a negative effect on employment and earnings. The link between the automobile market and labor market are both sequential and simultaneous because having a job and having a car are jointly determined. There is a similar linkage in the real estate and financial markets, where biased lending interact with segregated housing markets, ultimately contributing to the racial wealth gap.
Inter-sectoral refers to the coordination of the three major societal sectors: markets, the state, and civil society. The best example is the highly fragmented educational system for young children. The private sector competes for affluent students from families that can afford the exorbitant tuition. The competition pushes the public sector to cater to the desires of more privileged segments, resulting in impenetrable district lines, restrictive neighborhood attendance zones, and selective magnet and charter schools. Furthermore, these racialized educational spaces empower differentiated collective action within the non-profit sector. Affluent parents are able to raise substantial extramural funds to supplement public budgets and to geographically restrict where and how the money is allocated, thus exacerbating educational inequality.
Inter-generation refers to the weaving of events across time through path-dependent developments. Past discrimination contributes to today’s inequality in home ownership. Historical redlining and segregation severely hindered the previous generation’s ability to accumulate wealth; consequently, their children are less well-endowed and less likely to have the economic means to purchase a home. Equally troubling is the intergenerational reproduction of inequality through the spatially fragmented educational system. As discussed above, the school system is failing to level the playing field for disadvantaged students of color, failing to prepare a disproportionate number to be economically productive adults. These examples depict a system where inter-temporal linkages enable inequality to ripple across generations, perpetuating cycles of racial disparities.
While our study utilizes Los Angeles as a case study, the fundamental processes are likely to be present throughout urban America. Residential segregation, the foreclosure crisis, spatial and transportation mismatch, and school segregation are endemic to other metropolitan areas. Observable outcomes are consistent with underlying institutionalized practices. More research, however, is needed to peer into the “black box” of norms, values, and implicit biases that influence everyday behavior within real estate institutions, neighborhood organizations, governmental agencies, and business enterprises. At the same time, it is critically important that we apply a systems approach to unravel the complexity of the systemic production of inequality. Injustices must be tackled at the interconnections and intersections of what speciously appear as disparate silos. Modern regional models combined with “big data” offers tremendous potential to generate needed insights.
Understanding how the urban structure produces and reproduces racial economic inequality is a foundation for instrumental knowledge to identify feasible points of policy and political interventions. Findings from past and current spatial research have been used to fight for fairer automobile insurance premiums, reasonable asset limits for those transitioning from public assistance to work, anti-displacement legislation, and just environment-oriented sustainability programs. Engaged scholarship is a component of the struggle to transform the academy from being a privileged institution complicit in the web of racism into one that embraces the moral responsibility to promote social justice.
Paul M. Ong (email@example.com) is a research professor and director of the Center for Neighborhood Knowledge at UCLA’s Luskin School of Public Affairs, and a member of PRRAC’s Social Science Advisory Board. He is an economist and urban planner who focuses on race, ethnicity and socioeconomic inequality. Silvia R. González (Jimenez) is a researcher at the UCLA Center for Neighborhood Knowledge and a doctoral student in urban planning at UCLA. She has worked extensively as a researcher and consultant with nonprofit, community-based, and government organizations on projects related to neighborhood change and gentrification, displacement avoidance, environmental equity, and climate planning (firstname.lastname@example.org).