EXCLUSIVELY WRITTEN FOR TRUTH TO POWER
There is a common misconception among environmentalists and peak-oilers (I count myself among both) that cars created the suburbs. The car suburb, however, became what it is with regard to cars only incidentally. The real motive for the suburbs was plain garden-variety white supremacy. Cars simply became necessary to facilitate the spatial segregation that simultaneously confined African America largely to decaying urban spaces and built the 'burbs as white enclaves. It's not that simple any more, of course. All things change all the time - as we'll see momentarily - but it was white fear and loathing of the Dark Other that set the whole process in motion.
The sudden discovery - still ongoing - that most of us (more than half the US now lives in Suburbia) are trapped here if and when our private automobiles run out of gas (or the money to buy it), came after suburbanization was a fait accompli. This is the stage in any historical process where people begin to indulge themselves in disambiguation of the past - simplifying what has happened until it appears that it was predictable all along. Since we believe this - that things are predictable - we are easily convinced that correlation equals causation in our reconstructions of history; and we apply those correlatives that are familiar and comfortable. Ergo, because oil companies and auto manufacturers participated in the development of Suburbia, they were the conscious agents of it all along. White environmentalists and many white peak-oilers are not well-versed in the history of race, and they have shitty heuristics for understanding how it is constituted.
Not surprisingly, their heuristic - the equivalent of what we call intuition, or common sense - is that of Suburbia, which has been the predominant mode of white American thought since the late 1960s. It is what Matthew Lassiter calls "the prevailing language of middle-class meritocracy and color-blind innocence."
The City of Richmond's present pattern of residential housing... is a reflection of past racial discrimination contributed in part by local, state, and federal government... Negroes in Richmond live where they do because the have no choice.
-Bradley v. Richmond (1972),
District Judge Robert R. Merhige, Jr.
We think that the root causes of the concentration of blacks in the inner cities of America are simply not known.
-Bradley v. Richmond (Appeal, 1972),
Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals
Highway construction, urban renewal programs, loan policies, municipal annexations, and court decisions that re-coded race as untouchable-class, were all instrumental in the development of Suburbia, and the concomitant development of the Black ghetto. These practices were not accidental or self-organizing or the product of "market forces." They were systematic, intentional, and imposed. When the preponderance of evidence showed in court (Bradley v. Richmond) that this was the case, the Fourth Circuit established the official federal position on the matter. "We don't remember how it got to be this way; therefore we can do nothing about it."
I mention this just to set the stage for my main thesis. The history of this development is ably and accessibly articulated in Matthew Lassiter's very important book, The Silent Majority - Suburban Politics in the Sunbelt (Princeton University Press, 2006).
The population shift to the suburbs and the power shift to the Sunbelt economy requires a new metropolitan framework for political history and public policy that transcends the urban-suburban dichotomy and confronts instead of obscures the pervasive politics of class in the suburban strategies of the volatile center. Surely an honest assessment of the nation's collective responsibility in creating the contemporary metropolitan landscape remains an essential prerequisite for grappling with the spatial fusion of racial and class politics that ultimately produced an underlying suburban consensus in the electoral arena. If "the problem of the color line" represented the fundamental crisis of the twentieth century, the foremost challenge of the twenty-first has evolved into the suburban synthesis of racial inequality and class segregation at the heart of what may or may not be the New American Dilemma. (Lassiter, p. 323)
Lassiter's "dilemma" was that of racial segregation, segregation which was spatial instead of formal... segregation which required no White and Negro water fountains. The court-supported myth that the new segregation is de facto and not de jure flies in the face of the overwhelming evidence to the contrary. In fact, it is very much like the Israeli "facts-on-the-ground" approach to the occupation of Palestine; and the condition of the vast majority of African America remains structurally more colonized than merely unequal.
But I want to look at another dilemma that has settled in on the suburbs themselves, and which has pushed the entire United States into a potentially calamitous conjuncture.
If we do not understand the suburb - as a system - based on its historical development, then we cannot understand the post-Apartheid "Sunbelt" South, which is fundamentally based on the expansion of suburbs, and with it the expansion of political power in the suburbs. This expansion of political power would culminate with the 1972 re-election of Richard Nixon.