Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Local government bias in nonmetropolitan places

The New York Times yesterday published a follow up to a story it ran in 2004, when the Coal Run neighborhood outside Zanesville, Ohio (population 25,586) got city water. Here's an excerpt from Kirk Johnson's story:

Until 2004, the city’s water pipes did not stretch all the way to . . . Coal Run Road, a mostly black neighborhood in a hollow beyond the edge of town. As some people here put it, the water seemed to stop “where the black folks started.”

A federal jury in Columbus agreed last month. The jury, citing a violation of civil rights law, ordered the City of Zanesville and Muskingum County to pay nearly $11 million in damages for failing to provide water to each of 67 plaintiffs, including Mr. Kennedy, for over 45 years. The plaintiffs will be eligible for payments of $15,000 to $300,000. The city and county, whose officials deny any racial discrimination, are appealing the ruling.

* * *

The case goes back to 1956, when a now-defunct water board did not extend service to parts of Coal Run Road. In 2002, about two dozen black residents of the hollow filed a complaint with the Ohio Civil Rights Commission, saying they had been denied service because of race. The next year, the commission found “probable cause” of discrimination. A month after that, Muskingum County officials announced they would extend water to Coal Run.

Mark Landes, a lawyer for Muskingum County, asserted that geography--not race--was the real issue. He said those in Coal Run are five miles outside the city limit, and like about 30% of county residents--"almost all of them . . . white"--don't have city water. As he put it, "there's a reason it's called city water."

The story -- and attorney Landes's argument-- reminded me of a recent scholarly publication by Daniel Lichter, Domenico Parisi, Steven Michael Grice, and Michael C. Taquino in Demography 44(3): 563 (2007). Here's the abstract of the article, which is titled "National estimates of racial segregation in rural and small-town America" (emphasis mine) :

The objective of this paper is to provide, for the first time, comparative estimates of racial residential segregation of blacks, Hispanics, and Native Americans in nonmetropolitan and metropolitan places in 1990 and 2000. Analyses are based on block data from the 1990 and 2000 U.S. decennial censuses. The results reveal a singularly important and perhaps surprising central conclusion: levels and trends in recent patterns of racial segregation in America's small towns are remarkably similar to patterns observed in larger metropolitan cities. Like their big-city counterparts, nonmetropolitan blacks are America's most highly segregated racial minority--roughly 30% to 40% higher than the indices observed for Hispanics and Native Americans. Finally, baseline ecological models of spatial patterns of rural segregation reveal estimates that largely support the conclusions reached in previous metropolitan studies. Racial residential segregation in rural places increases with growing minority percentage shares and is typically lower in "new" places (as measured by growth in the housing stock), while racially selective annexation and the implied "racial threat" at the periphery exacerbate racial segregation in rural places. Our study reinforces the need to broaden the spatial scale of segregation beyond its traditional focus on metropolitan cities or suburban places, especially as America's population shifts down the urban hierarchy into exurban places and small towns.

As this scholarly analysis suggests, bias may play out in ways that are more subtle than that acknowledged by the attorney in Zanesville. The decisions about where to draw city boundaries, i.e., decisions about what gets annexed, may also reflect bias that serves to exclude minority populations.

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