photo: a bus shelter in San Francisco during the Covid-19 pandemic
Can Americans muster a collective response to serious crisis? Since the 1970s, it's been difficult. Michael Short/Bloomberg

In Coronavirus, the U.S. Faces a Problem It Can’t Fix by Segregation

For decades, the U.S. has used spatial barricades to isolate advantaged people from serious social ills. To defeat Covid-19, that won’t work.

Since the 1970s, the United States has relied on one primary strategy to deal with poverty, pollution, and various other social problems and challenges: quarantine. We have carved up cities and communities with spatial barricades, built fortified enclaves for the affluent, and pursued solutions that relied on segregating the haves from the problems of the have-nots.

Now comes the coronavirus, a crisis that refuses to be contained by the barriers we’ve built. (Indeed, because of its connection to international airline travel, it alighted in the booming global cities first.) In a nation that has learned to solve problems by trying to isolate them in space, how can we come together to defeat this virus?

To find an answer, we have to look back and understand how we got to this point.

In the early 1960s, the dominant approaches to solving the challenges of the moment were grand, public, collective. Presidents Kennedy and Johnson put forth a vision of what the United States could become. In 1964, Johnson told graduates of the University of Michigan, “in your time we have the opportunity to move not only toward the rich society and the powerful society, but upward to the Great Society.”

But just a few years later, this vision had faded. A horrific war in Vietnam raged on. Pollution was turning skies hazy and making rivers toxic. Violent crime rose sharply in major cities, and riots tore through hundreds of cities from 1965 to 1968. Steady jobs disappeared, the gap between the rich and the poor widened, and poverty and desperation became more visible on city streets.

We had two choices, as a nation. One option was to pursue the vision Johnson had presented that day in Ann Arbor, and the kind of wide-reaching proposals put forth in documents like the Kerner Commission Report of 1968: We could make enormous investments to reduce inequality and build thriving cities, and come together to solve the challenges of urban decay, concentrated poverty, economic dislocation, segregation, pollution, violence, and racial injustice.

Instead, the United States made a different choice.

Americans—particularly white Americans, economic elites and their political representatives—no longer considered making massive investments to confront the problems of the cities. Instead of taking bold steps to reckon with entrenched racial inequality, they asked how to maintain racial separation in increasingly diverse urban areas. Sidestepping the problems of joblessness and deep poverty, they sought ways to preserve economic advantage in a time of rising inequality and state retrenchment.

During the Great Depression and World War II, the challenges of the moment were met with bold, national plans of action. But from the 1970s onward, America’s major crises and challenges have largely been met with a response driven by the goals of avoidance and separation. Instead of collective movements and public investment, we have tried to carve up space and quarantine social problems, to allow the most advantaged segments of the population to isolate themselves from those problems, and to restrict who can access areas of opportunity. To deal with the most pressing challenges we face, we have created an elaborate system of barricades in space.

Our spatial barricades have come in many different forms over the years. In the early 20th century, Jim Crow laws, racial zoning ordinances, and redlined (and yellow-lined) neighborhoods were used to create rigid boundaries in space that maintained racial separation; in the postwar era, interstate highways and urban renewal projects accomplished the same feat. Today’s forms have shifted. We have converted an age-old barricade, the prison cell, and made it a core institution in our society, locking up millions of Americans, disproportionately young men of color, behind the bars of state and federal prison cells. And we continue to find new ways to divide up and fortify our communities.

In cities like Atlanta , for example, groups of neighbors near the city’s border have created their own governments, forming an administrative barrier between them and the city next door. In new municipalities like Sandy Springs, Georgia, affluent residents no longer needed to share their tax dollars with the rest of the city. Nearby, new cities are still forming and residents are still voting to reject the expansion of rail lines in an effort to maintain separation between the city and the surrounding areas. Other barriers are more literal: Hidden Hills, California, a small bloc of land just west of Los Angeles that was incorporated as an independent city back in 1961, now sits behind gates that protect its wealthy residents. When fires raged outside Los Angeles in November 2018, two famous homeowners, Kanye West and Kim Kardashian, decided not to rely on public resources and instead called on private firefighters to protect their property and their neighborhood behind the gates.

That’s an extreme example of a nationwide phenomenon. Every inch of American soil is demarcated with political, administrative, and physical barricades erected to hoard resources, to quarantine social problems, to restrict access to advantaged spaces, and to preserve and reproduce social inequalities.

As trust in the federal government has fallen rapidly over time, we have become a nation that has been taught to respond to great challenges by avoiding them, rather than bringing people together and working toward a solution. This approach has meant that the most pressing challenges facing us have gone unaddressed, the burdens of our national problems have been shifted toward the most disadvantaged, and inequality has continued to grow.

Can the crisis we now face be any different? Why would we come together to solve this challenge of a new pandemic virus, when we’ve been conditioned to avoid the major problems that have arisen over the past half century? The map of confirmed cases reveals a sobering answer: A spatial solution to Covid-19 is not possible. The virus is everywhere, or will be soon, directly affecting the lives of every American. The disease has demolished spatial barricades and party lines; it may force us to come together.

We have seen signs of this reluctant and fitful cooperation already, as the initial relief legislation put forth in the House generated more expressions of bipartisan goodwill than any piece of legislation in recent memory. (The Senate, so far, is a different story.).

The good news is that we have evidence from national efforts to deal with crises like the threat of terror and the financial meltdown of 2008 to suggest that it’s still possible for the United States to come together and respond to national challenges, even if those responses are slow, imperfect or incomplete. But we can only do so when the problem transcends the barricades we’ve erected for decades to reinforce American inequality. This, clearly, is that kind of problem.

If we can muster the collective investment needed to fight back against Covid-19, perhaps it will provide a reminder of a basic fact about our species: Our fates are intimately connected. Once coronavirus stops spreading, we will face a global recession, extreme inequality, and the ongoing existential threat of climate change. We have become a nation that responds to these kinds of challenges by giving people the chance to separate themselves from the problem. This virus should show us there’s an alternative way to solve the challenges that face us, collectively.

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