Why Are We Not More Scared to Drive Our Kids Around?

The other night I was reading a novel—which I won’t give the title of, since I’m about to discuss a significant, albeit telegraphed early on, plot point—where one of the main characters, a girl about to graduate high school, is grieving her long-distance boyfriend who was killed in a school shooting. The next day I checked in with a blog I’ve been following on and off for years, and the blogger, prompted by the anniversary of the September 11th attacks, was talking about her fears for her children, a large portion of which revolved around them possibly getting randomly shot. Now, both the novel and the blog are set in the United States, and not in New York City, which means that both the teenage character and the real-life blogger spend part of their time driving. Which led me to wonder, not for the first time: why aren’t we more generally scared of putting our kids in cars?

I don’t mean to single the blogger out (which is why I’m not linking to her, either). I have all sorts of irrational worries about my kids, sometimes while blithely hauling them around in a large metal box going at high speeds near other large metal boxes going at high speeds. This morning I needed to take my older daughter to the doctor (she’ll be fine) and I was debating between taking her to her pediatrician or to an urgent-care clinic. Now, I love the pediatrics office I found for my girls and would recommend it to you in a heartbeat, but from my house it’s a solid twenty-minute trip, via the highway, before you factor in Atlanta rush-hour traffic. Now, I took multiple courses on transportation planning, and have friends who do transportation planning for a living, and regularly read planning and policy experts who hate cars and write at length about the many different ways cars can damage the people who drive them. And it still took me a couple minutes to realize my kid would be safer if we opted for the urgent-care clinic, just because she’d be spending less time in the car.

Nor is this a recent phenomenon, I promise you, as the daughter of a mother who worried about everything, who would have thought herself a bad mother if she didn’t worry about everything, and who had been hit multiple times (she herself hadn’t caused an accident since she was 15—I wish I could say the same), and yet still let my brother and me wiggle out of our seatbelts and lie down in the back seat, because that was how you got kids through long road trips in the 1980s.

And yet the statistics would suggest that we should be much more scared of driving than of anything else. According to the CDC, in 2017 there were a total of 31,786 reported deaths of Americans under age 15. (I’m using Table 6, “Number of Deaths from Selected Causes, by Age,” beginning on page 34. That the CDC splits data into ages 5-14 and 15-24 means we can focus on kids being driven around by their parents, rather than driving themselves, which changes the risk equation.) However, by far the biggest killer of children under age 14 was “Certain conditions originating in the perinatal period,” meaning things that can go wrong during gestation or after birth; the CDC attributed 11,000 deaths under age 1 to those causes. So let’s subtract those out, to get a better idea of post-birth threats.

Of the 20,786 deaths remaining, 1,399, or 6.7% of the total, were from motor vehicle accidents. Homicide—this is all homicides, not just with firearms—accounted for 937 deaths, or 4.5% of the total. Of those, homicide by firearm made up 260 deaths, or 1.3% of the total. More children under age 15 died from car crashes than from cancer (1,237 = 6.0% of the total) and more children died from pneumonia than from getting shot.

Now, you can say that 260 is 260 too many, and make your policy choices from there. That’s a separate issue. I’m not arguing that we overestimate the risk of mass shootings (although I think we do), my question is why, relative to our fear of mass shootings, we seem to underestimate the risk from car accidents, and refuse to change our behavior. I can say I try to keep my children safe, but you can plausibly argue that, living in the suburbs and frequently driving on highways, I’m a bad mother and a hypocrite.

I will confess to not having followed the latest research on driving and risk perception. I did bust out my copy of Tom Vanderbilt’s Traffic (everyone should have a copy of Traffic) and find the chapter on underestimating risk (pages 272-274 in the 2008 hardcover edition):

Psychologists have argued that our fears tend to be amplified by “dread” and “novelty.” A bioterrorism attack is a new threat that we can dread because it seems beyond our control. People have been dying in cars, on the other hand, for more than a century, often by factors presumably within their control. We also seem to think things are somehow less risky when we can feel a personal benefit they provide (like cars) than when we cannot (like nuclear power)…. Driving is voluntary, it’s in our control, and there’s a reward. And so we fail to recognize the real danger cars present….

We have deemed the rewards of mobility worth the risk. The fact that we’re at the wheel skews our view. Not only do we think we’re better than the average driver—that “optimistic bias” again—but studies show that we think we’re less likely than the average driver to be involved in a crash. The feeling of control lowers our sense of risk. What’s beyond our control comes to seem riskier, even though it is “human factors,” not malfunctioning vehicles, faulty roads, or the weather, that are responsible for an estimated 90 percent of crashes.

Vanderbilt does devote some time earlier in that chapter to differences in car-crash risk by sex (namely: women were more likely to crash in general, but men were more likely to drink and then drive, and more likely for the crash to be fatal) but doesn’t break out the specific question of whether or not our mental risk equation changes when our kids are in the car. I suspect it does in some ways, such as driving less aggressively, but less in others, in that we’re not uprooting our lives to live in places where driving is less necessary.

I would add a couple more points:

  • The blogger I mentioned above has three kids. This is pure off-the-cuff speculation on my part, and not something I can claim to have studied with any real thoughtfulness, but my best guess is that public-transport-dependent life becomes considerably more difficult once you have more kids than you have hands. I may be underestimating the ease of life with three or more kids in urban neighborhoods where everything you need is within walking distance (I’m thinking specifically now of Hasidic parents in Brooklyn). But that isn’t an option for most of the United States, leaving families dependent on cars, and so they may mentally downplay the risk associated with cars out of necessity.

  • Car-crash risk isn’t evenly distributed. Vanderbilt discusses this, too: in particular, it’s higher in rural areas, and higher for older cars. A 2017 study of crashes between 2010 and 2014 that resulted in the deaths of children found that the average age of the car involved was 9.4 years. It may be that careless hypocritical suburban parents like me aren’t so much being careless and hypocritical of the risk to our kids, since we can afford the newer cars with the greater built-in safety features. Rather, we’re offloading car-crash risk to poorer drivers and their children.

  • It might be—might—that the daily lives of the people who drive larger conversations of what we should and should not be afraid of are not as impacted by cars. The 2017 Politico piece on media job clustering illustrates how many media and writing jobs (both print and online) are in or near New York City, and having been a journalist living in New York City, I’m going to go ahead and venture that not many of those journalists want to deal with the hassle of owning a car even if they can afford one. I’m not sure that argument really holds, though. It’s not as if those non-car-owning journalists would downplay car risk because they like cars; quite the opposite. (See, for example, “Was the Automotive Era a Terrible Mistake?” for the New Yorker by Nathan Heller, a self-confessed non-driver. Heller doesn’t answer the question outright, but, breaking Betteridge’s Law of Headlines, he seems to lean towards yes.)

Thinking about this question does illustrate how hard it will be to wean people off their car dependency. We wealthy parents—the ones with the greatest resources to tap, and thus the ones who should have the easiest time changing our behavior—are supposedly so protective of our kids, being helicopters and snowplows and snowflakes around them; and yet all the while we drive them to school, we drive them to after-school activities, we drive them to friends’ houses, we drive them to visit grandparents. You can hate cars. You can hate cars with a well-documented, evidence-based passion. You can hate what cars do to cities, to the earth, to pedestrians and cyclists, to trees, to animals—you can make a very, very good case for hating cars. And people have. And you can make every version of that case to us, up to and including “You are putting your children in more danger than you realize, and it will be far more your fault if something happens to them while you’re driving, than it would have been if they’d been shot by a random psycho or colonized by a random clump of cells.” And you’d be right. And we don’t budge. And what then?

"Gretchen, Stop Trying to Make Megaregions Happen."

For someone who likes geeking out about public transit, I discovered Alon Levy’s blog embarrassingly late in the game (May of this year). The most fun posts he writes are those along the lines of American Transportation Is in the Hands of a Bunch of Parochial, Self-Satisfied Idiots—see, for example, his reaction to the GAO report on construction costs, which he describes as “a total miss,” and that’s before he’s even really gotten started—but the most recent post hit closer to home. Levy writes about the rise and fall of the idea of the “megaregion,” and where the term might still be applicable:

The key takeaway is that rich cities do not have to be in megaregions. The Northeast Corridor is a rich megaregion, and San Francisco, Los Angeles, and Chicago anchor smaller megaregions of their own; but in Europe, among the richest cities only Frankfurt and Amsterdam are in megaregions, while London, Paris, Hamburg, and Munich are not. Megaregions are areas of high population density and interlinked social networks. Their size may give them economic advantage, but it doesn’t have to; urbanists and urban geographers must avoid overselling their importance.

“Closer to home” because for a good chunk of my grad-school career, 2005 to 2009, I worked at the Center for Quality Growth and Regional Development (CQGRD) at Georgia Tech, and CQGRD was one of the loci of the megaregion idea that Levy’s discussing. (The other major center of megaregional research, as Levy notes, was the Regional Plan Association, through its America 2050 initiative; and there were other groups contributing, such as SCAG and the planning programs at UT-Austin, Penn, and Virginia Tech.) Catherine Ross, who edited the book Megaregions: Planning for Global Competitiveness, was my doctoral adviser, and we co-authored one of the book’s chapters together. My dissertation research ended up being at an entirely different scale, so I haven’t had a chance to discuss megaregions with Dr. Ross in a while; but the concept is still part of her research agenda.

Now, if you read Levy’s post, you may be raising an eyebrow right now, because Levy very specifically states that Atlanta is not in a megaregion; and yet we at CQGRD were pretty consistent on insisting that there was such a thing as the Piedmont Atlantic Megaregion, and that it ran from Birmingham to Raleigh, including parts or the entirety of six different states. And at this point you’ve probably got both eyebrows up, because: states? If megaregions consist of interlinked metropolitan areas, why bring states into it?

The original idea of the “megalopolis,” first put forward by Jean Gottmann in the early 1960s, was meant to describe the Boston-New York-Philadelphia-Washington corridor. The idea was that connectivity—economic, social, in terms of trip choices—was so dense between those cities that it was hard to define any one of their areas as isolated from the others. Not surprisingly, that’s the area where Levy finds the description works. But a similar number of trips doesn’t exist between Birmingham and Raleigh, or even Birmingham and Atlanta. (For those who don’t spend a lot of time in the American South: Birmingham and Raleigh are almost 900 kilometers apart by highway.) To claim that Birmingham-Atlanta-Raleigh is similar to Boston-New York-Philly means straying from Gottmann’s definition quite a bit.

Which is what we did, when we talked about megaregions. Instead of relying solely on existing density, we talked about cultural and environmental similarities, expected population growth trends, and freight flows. (This is part of the reason why we talked about states rather than metropolitan areas: a Piedmont Atlantic Megaregion defined solely by metropolitan-area social connections wouldn’t include the port of Savannah.) But that flowed from the bigger difference between Gottmann’s megalopolis and the megaregions of the 2000s. Gottmann started with the existing connectivity and asked what changes that connectivity implied in how people thought about where they lived, and what the connectivity might portend. But the megaregion was a framework to get to the connectivity. It was more prescriptive than descriptive.

You can still find, for example, the original 2005 briefing by Robert Lang and Dawn Dhavale, then both at Virginia Tech (Lang is now at Brookings), in which the hopeful language is hard to miss:

When the Census Bureau does formalize a geographic concept, it gains power. Consider a recent example…. In 2003, the US Offi ce of Management and Budget (OMB), which oversees the Census Bureau, responded with the designation “Micropolitan Area.” Now micropolitans are literally on the map. Businesses, government agencies, and planners have new geography to work with. Publications took notice—Site Selection Magazine, for example, started a list of “Top Micropolitans” in which to locate businesses…. Megapolitan Areas (or “Megas”) have a similar potential. Once they are officially recognized, private industries and government agencies would embrace this new geography.

The argument all along was that if the planners and policy-makers of the various metropolitan areas and states could just be talked into putting their heads together, the resulting growth could be shaped to reap more of the potential benefits of density and connectivity. A megaregional approach could be used to help policy-makers brainstorm across state and metropolitan-area lines and mitigate the kind of at-each-other’s-throats infighting that led to the likes of the Tri-State Water Wars. Whereas the Bos-Wash corridor had had geography and history contributing to its connectivity (pre-car urban settlement + smaller amounts of land to settle + a high concentration of academic and research activity), PAM was going to need some top-down direction.

Hence one of our megaregion-focused initiatives was a 2009 one-day symposium at which elected officials and policy-makers from throughout PAM showed up and talked infrastructure, with the idea of fostering megaregional coordination and pressing for national-level goals (not least a commitment to high-speed rail). By the way, if you check the America 2050 archives, you’ll see a picture of one of the speakers, Pat McCrory, who was then mayor of Charlotte. Then-Mayor McCrory was very affable and pro-cooperation and pro-transit and charming, and so when he got elected governor of North Carolina later on, I assured a worried friend that he would be pro-cooperation and pro-transit and generally not too awful. And if you take away nothing else from this blog post, remember: do not under any circumstances ask me for stock tips.

I’m joking, but you can start to see the problem. Megaregion-as-policy-driver was a hard sell that got harder after that symposium: neither the recession nor increased political polarization at the national level helped its cause. (The one place where it did get some purchase was the FHWA, thinking about freight routes.) And megaregion-as-theoretical-construct didn’t travel well: could the same word be applied to growing dense population centers in Asia and growing (but considerably less dense) population centers in the United States? There was a lot of discussion of potential European megaregions, as Levy notes, but the following ten years didn’t bear out the megaregional predictions there either.

This is all, admittedly, the insiderest of baseball, possibly not even of interest to people doing megaregional research right now. Having not kept up with that research, I’m not in a good position to disagree with Levy’s finding the whole concept weak. (His invocation of fans in the Bos-Wash corridor crossing state lines to attend conventions does make me wonder: would we have had a stronger case for PAM if we’d showed how people travel for SEC football games?) I did want to add to the history of the megaregion idea in the 2000s while I could, though—some of the work we shared and relied on is already dead links. And the whole effort does illustrate the tensions in planning for the spatial forms you want, as opposed to the spatial forms you’ve got.

Why the Sanders Campaign Is Right to Eschew "Broken Windows" Policing

After I read the detailed criminal-justice section recently published as part of Bernie Sanders’s 2020 campaign platform, I went and found the original 1982 Atlantic Magazine essay on “broken windows,” to figure out whether it was worth saying anything about the Sanders campaign’s full-throated rejection of the idea. (To quote: “And we must end harmful policing practices like racial profiling, stop and frisk, oppressive ‘broken windows’ policing, and the militarization of police forces — all of which actively undermine public safety and community trust in law enforcement.”)

My prior thinking, which I wanted to re-evaluate, is that broken windows as originally defined is not necessarily or automatically racist or “oppressive.” And it’s certainly not supposed to go hand-in-hand with militarization of police forces. Having re-read it, I still think that’s true, but I also think the Sanders campaign is right to say they want no part of it.

So first we have to talk about what George Kelling and James Wilson were originally talking about when they talked about a broken-windows approach to policing. I suspect a lot of people assume the phrase is synonymous with “stop-and-frisk,” a policy which gives officers wide leeway in stopping suspects and then itself became shorthand for the phenomenon of racist cops harassing people of color. (Here’s a 2016 NPR piece that explains how broken windows was linked to stop-and-frisk, mostly because the Bratton-led, Giuliani-backed NYPD talked about embracing the former and then embraced the latter. The article gives the impression that Kelling and Wilson were initially publicly okay with the association, though Kelling later regretted it.) Here’s the basic idea: say you have a building, or car, with a broken window. Not only does the broken window make looting the building or car logistically easier, it also sends a signal that whoever’s charged with protecting the building or car doesn’t have the energy, or the means, to defend the building or car; that the looting is more likely to go unpunished. Increase the number of broken windows on the street or neighborhood, and then the street or neighborhood risks becoming known as a place where the costs of crime are lower; and, whether crime actually goes up or not, that newfound reputation affects the residents of the street or neighborhood, making them more fearful and lowering their quality of life.

Broken-windows in its original form is thus place-based, which is why I’m talking about it in a planning blog. You go after marks of “disorder”, to use Wilson and Kelling’s word, not because by arresting the window-smasher (or graffiti artist, or homeless person passed out in the street) you increase the chances of catching a criminal who has also done violent crime. That’s what the NYPD claimed to have done after they began cracking down on subway violations, and that was the justification for stop-and-frisk. But it doesn’t necessarily follow from a place-based approach to broken-windows. You patch the window, or chase off or fine the graffiti artist, to send the signal that someone cares about the neighborhood, and that those who threaten its order will be punished.

Thus you don’t need arrests en masse to follow a broken-windows strategy. You don’t need to punish rule-breakers severely, because that’s not how you raise the cost of attempted crime. It’s not about throwing the graffiti artists in jail for long periods of time; it’s about cleaning up the subway cars, over and over. Kelling said as much, writing approvingly in 1991 of David Gunn’s “Clean Car” campaign for the NYCTA:

The Clean Car Program started by pulling graffiti-covered trains out of service, cleaning the cars, and sending them back out on the road. Police were assigned to ride fulltime on the first clean trains, and clean trains went into special protection yards. But the program went further; it guaranteed that the first “broken window” would not lay untended and lead to the next. Once a train was entered into the program and cleaned, it would never again be used while graffiti was on it. If a train was tagged by a graffitist, either it would be cleaned within two hours, or it would be removed from service. As a result, graffitists would never see their tags on clean trains again. They might be able to paint their tags over other graffiti on cars that were not yet entered into the program, but not on clean cars….

Early efforts to deal with graffiti assumed it was a law enforcement problem, so it was natural that the police deal with it. They did. They arrested graffitists—again and again. More trains got tagged, even as arrests increased. Meanwhile, other departments conducted “business as usual.” Gunn changed this. He understood that the graffiti problem was a complex mix of vandalism, poor maintenance, inadequate leadership, and lack of resolve. Through his close oversight of an interdepartmental task force charged with yearly goals—goals they exceeded every year—graffiti on trains was wiped out.

Here’s where broken-windows gets more complicated than just arresting people (or just arresting people of color). If we think of the subways as one place, it becomes clear that for the broken-windows approach to work, the enforcers need intimate knowledge of the place. Cars needed to be tracked, classified, cleaned immediately if graffiti’ed upon, and repeatedly inspected. The same for a neighborhood: why is that window broken? Was it broken yesterday? Who’s responsible for fixing it? Can they fix it? If not, do they need help, or motivation in the form of a threat of a code-violation? And so on.

Hence a lot of Kelling and Wilson’s article talks about neighborhood patrolling. They advocate that police officers patrol on foot, rather than by car, because people on the street will be understandably less eager to approach cars, and the car-bound officers are thus going to be warier of those who do approach cars. (Triple all this if the officers are already approaching the situation as if they’re soldiers in hostile territory.) Furthermore, they define the community as law-abiding, and the police officer as an aide, not the sole enforcer: “The essence of the police role in maintaining order is to reinforce the informal control mechanisms of the community itself.” The setup ought to be police-and-community versus disrupters, not police versus community, with disrupters included in the community.

You may be snorting and rolling your eyes at this point, believing the history of American policing is so drenched with racism that any setup that involves cops bonding with majority of-color communities is naïve at best. And your distrust is relevant. But put it aside for just a second: even if a hypothetical law-enforcement agency were to adopt a more place-based, community-trusting approach, that still wouldn’t solve the problem of mutual distrust and perceptions of racism.

Here’s what I mean. Suppose you have a majority-black neighborhood that suffers from the spatial signals of neglect, and decreased quality of life as a result. Suppose the local police force decides to apply a broken-windows approach to this particular neighborhood. Car broken down by the side of the road? Let’s get it towed quickly. Guy hanging out looking angry on the street corner? Talk to him sooner rather than later. Broken window? Knock on the door, and if there’s no answer, look the landlord up and give them a call. And so on.

If the strategy works the way Kelling and Wilson say it should work, then that police force will have improved the lives of people of color in that neighborhood. But: the people who got targeted are also more likely to be people of color, and vulnerable. Someone who might not have the money to fix their car now has to deal with it getting towed. Someone who might not have the wherewithal to do home repairs now has notice to hurry it up with the home repairs. The angry-looking fellow, who has a perfect right to stand on a street corner, may be further upset after the conversation—because who wants an armed cop to come up and start chatting, however benign the cop’s intentions?

Of course, “a cop” is different from “Officer Bennett, who sat with my sister for two hours and talked her through a panic attack.” A broken-windows approach could, in theory, work if there’s a level of mutual trust between individual community members and their public servants. But that kind of trust is hard to establish. The Sanders campaign platform includes expanding the availability of unarmed first responders who can work with, and address situations before, the police, which sounds like a good idea to me; but those first responders, too, would need to build trust over time. And that trust, even if it were established, wouldn’t necessarily be generalizable or communicable outside the neighborhood. If Officer Bennett and Angry Dude get into an argument, the neighbors might be all, “Thank God, someone needed to tell Angry Dude he was being a jerk,” but someone outside the neighborhood might watch Officer Bennett’s bodycam footage and, lacking the neighborhood knowledge, see the argument as another example of racist police harassment.

This isn’t even limited to policing. Pete Buttigeg was following a place-based approach with his housing policy focusing on dilapidated houses in South Bend. But he was criticized by black advocates, who argued that the dilapidated homes weren’t the property of “absentee” landlords, but people of color who bought or inherited the houses and lacked the necessary resources to fix the properties. Compare that to the approach in Mobile, Alabama, where addressing “blight” seems to have been a careful step-by-step process, including tracking down every potential claimant to a property the city wanted fixed, even if there were 120 claimants and Alabama law required talking to all of them. It could be that the mayor of Mobile got a more sympathetic reporter than Buttigeg did, but I suspect that if Buttigeg were trying to work quickly (“1,000 Houses in 1,000 Days”) then he probably couldn’t have given his team time to investigate every absentee-landlord issue even if they’d requested it and he’d admired them for requesting.

Long story short, a non-oppressive, locally sensitive broken-windows approach doesn’t scale. It certainly doesn’t scale to the federal level. My initial reaction to a lot of the Sanders campaign points was to wonder how the goals would be achieved at the national level, when so many of them seemed dependent on state policies. (I will also admit to some cynicism about the promise to fund public defenders more broadly, when 40-year-old existing mandates, like those for special education via the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, remain underfunded. The Sanders campaign promises to get federal IDEA funding up to 50% of the total; my understanding is it’s rarely been funded at even 20%.) If you’re running for mayor of a smaller municipality, “We’re going to invest resources in policies that are locally sensitive and careful, and devote time and thought to balancing the due-process rights of individuals with the needs of the larger communities,” you’re still biting off quite a chunk, but at least it’s within the realm of theoretically possible. A presidential campaign can’t, and therefore shouldn’t, go that route. No one can fix broken windows from the White House.

Why Didn't a More Diverse Gwinnett County Vote For MARTA?

The New York Times’s new 1619 Project, reflecting on the 400th anniversary of the bringing of slaves to American soil, includes an article on how two centuries of segregation influenced metropolitan Atlanta’s urban form, leading to, among other things, traffic jams. A large part of the article discusses how racism fueled the two Gwinnett County votes, in 1970 and 1990, to turn down (partially federally funded) MARTA expansion into the county. Which is pretty well established. If you’re not familiar with the history of MARTA being shunned by the white-flight counties, Doug Monroe’s 2012 piece for Atlanta Magazine describes it in more detail, and more passionately. (During our public-transit unit of the class this summer one of my students found that piece for me, unasked, unrewarded by extra credit.)

I will add here that fear of crime also played into both the 1970 and 1990 votes, as violent crime was more prevalent both generally in the United States and in the Atlanta metropolitan area than it is now; it was particularly salient for the 1990 vote, because IIRC there was an extensively-covered stabbing at a MARTA station in the months leading up to the vote. But generally in the United States and in the Atlanta metropolitan area, it is hard to untangle “fear of crime” and “fear of people of color,” and at the time of the 1990 vote Gwinnett residents were going on the record calling Atlanta residents “the wrong people,” so the point stands.

But if white racism -> isolationist settling in far-flung counties -> spurning of public transit, and then the far-flung counties get less white and still reject public transit, what’s going on? That’s the question alluded to but not answered in the last part of the article:

Earlier this year, Gwinnett County voted MARTA down for a third time. Proponents had hoped that changes in the county’s racial composition, which was becoming less white, might make a difference. But the March initiative still failed by an eight-point margin. Officials discovered that some nonwhite suburbanites shared the isolationist instincts of earlier white suburbanites. One white property manager in her late 50s told a reporter that she voted against mass transit because it was used by poorer residents and immigrants, whom she called “illegals.” “Why should we pay for it?” she asked. “Why subsidize people who can’t manage their money and save up a dime to buy a car?”

The quote is an odd veering-off—one would have expected that, following an assertion about nonwhite suburbanites, the reporter would then quote a nonwhite suburbanite. So the reader is left with the overall impression that little has changed and Gwinnett is still full of racists—and I won’t be the foolhardy soul to say there aren’t white racists in Gwinnett, but I think the nonwhite population of the county is being dismissed too easily.

First, a quick recap of how the demographic shift happened:

Data for 2018 is from  Census Population Estimates ; I extracted the 1970 and 1990 data from  the NHGIS data set from IPUMS .

Data for 2018 is from Census Population Estimates; I extracted the 1970 and 1990 data from the NHGIS data set from IPUMS.

Apologies for making that a picture and not a real embedded table; if your screen reader is baffled, the quick summary is that Gwinnett went from 95% white and 5% black in 1970, to roughly the same in 1990, to 62% white and 25% black by 2018.

(Obviously when we say “people of color” or “nonwhite” we generally include people of Hispanic/Latino/Latinx descent, but that’s not how the Census works; it treats race and ethnicity as two separate categories. The 2017 American Community Survey, which is a slightly different data set than the one I used above, has a total population for Gwinnett of 889,954, of whom 184,621, or 20.7%, identified as Hispanic or Latino. Of that population, 3.6% selected “black or African-American” as their race, so we can safely say that the black and Hispanic/Latino/Latinx populations of Gwinnett don’t overlap very much.)

So what happened? First of all, turnout was relatively low: approximately 90,000 votes were cast, which meant 89% of Gwinnettians didn’t participate. Second, the Times isn’t quite right in implying that suburbanites of color generally voted against the measure. If you look at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution’s map of the vote, you can see pretty clearly that the “Yes” corridor clusters roughly around I-85, an area that has large populations of Latino (closer to DeKalb) and Asian (in Duluth / Suwanee) residents.

The “No” vote, meanwhile, gets stronger the further out from I-285 you get, the Daculas and the Loganvilles. By the white-racist hypothesis, this makes sense. If you reject the white-racist hypothesis, it actually still makes sense: Dacula to Doraville is about 25 miles, which, even if you hire Alon Levy and somehow give him a magic wand so he can make rail construction happen at closer to European costs, is still a good $4 billion. (Officials were guessing $200-300 million per mile before the vote, which, reading Levy, seems optimistic.) If you know the rail project is never going to get close enough to you to let you ditch your car, you either need to be selfless indeed or see other benefits, and the Daculans may simply have never seen those other benefits.

Third, George Chidi, who writes for the GeorgiaPol blog (and who supported MARTA expansion), argued soon after the vote that MARTA supporters didn’t make their case well enough even to black voters:

The MARTA vote lost in large part because of a revolt among black taxpayers in southeastern Gwinnett around Snellville. These voters — who are somewhat more conservative than black voters generally — perceived little personal benefit for paying $100 a year in increased taxes for the services of a bus line, maybe.

…let’s be clear: this was an old-fashioned tax revolt, of exactly the same flavor that killed the statewide T-SPLOST a few years ago. The rebranding of the MARTA governance body as The ATL didn’t help; state government and GDOT haven’t built enough goodwill with the electorate of either party to be trusted with new projects.

I’ll add a fourth possible reason: a lot of potential voters might not have been all that excited by the hub-and-spoke approach MARTA rail is locked into. That goes even for black voters in south Gwinnett. To get from there to black communities in the likes of Stone Mountain or Lithonia, you drive. If the Gold Line gets extended from Doraville to Gwinnett Place Mall, you’d still drive. (Or take the bus, but MARTA, like a lot of transit authorities in the United States, has a hard time selling its buses to the public.) The same calculation applies for residents going from Dacula and Buford to Johns Creek or Roswell. Gwinnett is more diverse, both in the casual way we use the term and in terms of actual demographics; and so is DeKalb, and parts of Fulton north of the city, and parts of Cobb. Because of that, it may be that Gwinnett residents may not value the rail link to downtown and yet still not be “isolationist.”

In short I think the white-racism-led-to-highways-led-to-traffic analysis, while more fairly applied to the 1970 and 1990 votes, loses steam when applied to the March 2019 vote. You can be pessimistic about both race relations generally and about metropolitan Atlanta’s ability to mitigate its congestion by expanding transit options; but the latter doesn’t map as neatly onto the former as it used to.

On that New York Times nail-salon article.

By which I mean "The Price of Nice Nails," by Sarah Maslin Nir (with assistance from a small army). It's getting a lot of attention, and deservedly so. There's a Part 2, mainly on the health hazards of working as a manicurist, and there's now a sidebar also by Maslin Nir, "3 Ways to Be a Socially Conscious Nail Consumer," because the Times is not averse to suggesting that you, the reader, whether you get salon manicures or not, want to feel superior to the unidentified customer in the story who threw a fit after one of the workers profiled got nail polish remover on her Prada shoe. (One way to be a conscious nail consumer, social or not: goddamn, y'all, don't wear your expensive shoes out to get pedicures.)

Way #1 is "Interview your manicurist," which raised my eyebrow, since it becomes clear in the article that many of the immigrants working for sub-minimal wages are at a significant disadvantage due to their lack of English. Moreover, it implies a level of trust between worker and customer that is simply not there under the best of circumstances. If you don't have a way to lessen your manicurist's dependency on his or her job in a big hurry, you don't have the ability -- or the right, I'd add -- to force that trust.

Another common reaction is "Tip more," but Maslin Nir pushes back against that one, pointing out that according to her team's findings, the tips won't make their way back to the workers anyway. Jordan Weissmann elaborates over at Slate, and adds that this analysis probably applies to immigrants working in other super-cheap consumer markets -- Chinese food deliveries, for example. (Not directly related, but do check out Emily Guendelsberger's dissection of working as an Uber driver for the Philadelphia City Paper, which also came out yesterday.)

Weissmann thinks the better long-term conscience balm is to press for better labor law enforecement. I'd add that there are already going to be organizations on the ground that know better than the average manicure recipient does what these exploited workers want and need. (To my surprise, it appears Maslin Nir and her team weren't in touch with such organizations when recruiting interviewees.)  For example, Nicole Hallett, the Yale Law professor quoted in both the article and the sidebar, works with Yale Law School's Worker and Immigrant Rights Advocacy Clinic, which in turn works with Latino Justice. The Asian Law Caucus has a section on workers' rights. And so on.

A couple more related thoughts:

- I personally am not familiar with what academic literature may exist on how immigrant entrepreneurs treat non-co-ethnic workers. One of my advisers did her dissertation research on undocumented workers in LA's Koreatown and would know more about this than I would.

- Relatedly: reading the article, there were places where I was wincing and wondering how much force the stereotype of Offhandedly Racist, Money-Obsessed Korean Store Owner has in New York City. Korean store owner/black clientele tension was a topic of a fair bit of research in the late 1990s (example, from Kyeyoung Park, who writes frequently on Korean-American entrepreneurship) but I wouldn't call the larger perceptions of Korean-American capitalists nuanced, exactly.

- Interestingly, in the second piece there's actually more discussion of Vietnamese nail salon owners, who are more prevalent nationally, and the division between owner and worker is less pronounced: the implication being that owners and workers alike face health hazards, though the workers have less power to take preventative steps. (See also this piece from KPCC, in Southern California, last year, which frames the health-hazard issue in terms of Vietnamese-Americans of different class levels working proactively.)

- Relatedly relatedly: I haven't read this, but I want to now.

#NotAllKoreaboos: on economic integration, intruding into spaces, the inadequacy of good intentions, and shopping.

One of the things that's been keeping me busy this semester is a studio, run by my co-adviser, looking specifically at the immigrant communities in and around greater Norcross. I haven't said much about it here, and don't plan to, because (a) I don't have permission from the other studio participants to talk about it, and (b) we're going to be conducting interviews with local actors and I certainly don't have their permission to talk about it. When the final report is made public I'll let y'all know.

Suffice to say that I've been thinking about some of the issues we've discussed in the studio space. For example: the idea of "integrating" what I'll vaguely call ethnic-minority concentrated economic activity. ("Ethnic enclave" used to be the term, but the literature's moved beyond that; I need to catch up to the literature.) What does it mean to be "integrated"? How does a space simultaneously serve the needs of a (presumably underserved) minority and the greater public? In order to be "integrated," does a space need to lose the characteristics that made it useful to the minority in the first place? Or to phrase the question a little more aggressively: why should such spaces be required to adjust to majority needs?

So the other day I went up to Duluth, to the shopping center with the H-Mart. (For those of you not familiar with Duluth, it's currently  majority-minority, with 22% of the population reporting Asian descent.) I had errands to run nearby, and we're always in need of groceries; but when I got out of the car I just walked around the shopping center, and ended up pausing in front of a store -- Mimi's, it said, and then 미 미 -- that sold cosmetics. Paused for long enough that it would really look silly if I didn't go inside.

Inside: hair bands, jewelry, cute notebooks , and yes, cosmetics. The store was almost empty save for the two shopkeepers and three other women, younger than me and white. And for the record, my father's family came to north Georgia from England (we think), and my mother's parents were both descended from Ashkenazi Jews of central Europe; which makes me whiter than a mayonnaise factory in a snowstorm.

One of the shopkeepers was demonstrating BB cream or something similar to the group of three. They oohed and aahed. I stuck to the other side of the store, feeling jumpy with embarrassment. I know why you're here, I was thinking in their direction. You're here for the same damn reason I am. And sure enough, when one of the three went in front of me at the cash register, excited at her new find, I saw three rubber bands around her wrist, and one of them said SHINEE World.

I couldn't quite figure out -- I still can't -- why I felt not only out of place but intrusive. The three women I was trying to disassociate myself from weren't acting particularly disrespectful; on the contrary, they seemed thrilled to get the shopkeeper's attention and careful explanation. I got rung up by the older of the two women working there -- I bought a cute notebook, because that's  what I do, and a snail mask, because it said Charmzone on the back and that's one of the few brands I've heard of, and because I have heard enough about the power and advances of the Korean cosmetics industry to hope that a snail mask can do something for the bags under my eyes -- and after she handed me my bag I said, "감사 함니다," (kam sa ham ni da, the formal "thank you"; it's one of three phrases I can say in Korean) and bowed a little, and both shopkeepers smiled at me, though I couldn't say whether they were genuinely charmed or just being indulgent.

And it doesn't make sense, to look down upon people outside a culture to start at one entry point into that culture (K-pop, in this case) and pursue other strands of knowledge about said culture. That's how learning works. That's how the Korean government, to some extent, wants the Hallyu Wave to work in the first place. If you're interested in learning more about Korean cosmetics, isn't going to a Korean-branded store and asking the Korean-American staff there for recommendations among the more respectful ways to do it?

And yet I keep feeling like I'm blundering into delicate territory. Ever since Madeleine Lee posted her "Am I a Koreaboo?" essay I've been turning it over in my mind. (See also this.) Because while Maddie came to K-pop as a way of connecting with a culture that informed her parents' history but hadn't been available to her as a kid, I sort of stumbled upon it with no history at all: I started listening to music, and then developed an affection for some of the people performing the music (or their personae, more accurately), and then wanted to know more. My intentions were, and are, relatively good, but one of my favorite not-actually-William-Blake lines is about the road to hell being paved with good intentions. If you put my curiosity about Korean culture in the context of centuries' worth of Orientalism, it looks less charming and more potentially threatening.

This seems relevant not only to my music writing -- which is still a hobby, no matter how much I enjoy it -- but to my studies of immigrant entrepreneurship as well. How do I make sure that I, as a researcher, respect the experiences, needs, desires, and opinions of the people I presumably want to help? How can I conduct valid qualitative research, given that I haven't been steeped in these cultures and will miss a lot of social and cultural cues? How do I make sure not to make too much of a respectability that will be conferred on my scholarship not because I'm actually doing good work, necessarily, but because I'm white? Planning is a field that, by its very nature, encourages arrogance: you need a certain amount of self-confidence in the first place to follow Burnham's mantra of making no little plans. Throw white supremacy into the mix and there's a lot of room for potential distortion, whatever the researcher's intentions.

I'm still figuring out how to use data, and what my data will look like, and what my research question will look like. I'm still holding back a bit, I think, for fear that what I produce will be not only imperfect but flawed in a predictably, eye-rolling-ly, current-flawed-power-structure-endorsing-ly exclusionary way. I still haven't tried the snail mask.

Why blog (some more)?

Because I miss it.

Because I think writing is like a lot of other things: with more practice I get better at it.

Because I have found, somewhat to my chagrin, that one of the ways I learn is by exposing my arguments -- in all their flawed, half-baked non-glory -- and putting them up for, well, argument.

Because I've already drafted my entire Facebook feed into my dissertation-writing support group, and the rest of the Internet is feeling left out.

Because I like the idea of transparency in thinking and scholarship.

Because y'all have no idea how much you need to know my favorite track on 1989 ("Style," at the moment).

Because it'll be easier for Pejman to link to me now that I'm no longer on Tumblr.

Because I would rather y'all read this rambling silliness than whatever (even less useful) rambling sillinesses I wrote ten years ago that might come up on a search.

Because I have something to say.

Because I want other people (especially women) with something to say to read this and think, "Huh, she thinks she's awesome enough to be read, I'm considerably more awesome than that, I should write too."

Because writing is my way of connecting, of keeping at bay the scripts of loneliness, self-doubt, and self-pity that play, un-usefully, in my head.

Because: hello.