Cities White People Like

As always, I’m late to the conversation about Aaron Renn’s post at The New Geography, probably because my better judgment tells me that blogging about race is something I should simply avoid. Reihan and Ta-Nehisi Coates have staked out two hermeneutic poles, with Reihan at the wonkier end discussing preferences in housing wealth accumulation and Coates (there’s that damn first name/last name blogger’s conundrum again — having never met nor exchanged tweets with Mr. Coates, I’ll default to the last name but defer to his preference if it matters) steering the debate toward a more personal scale.

For those who haven’t seen it, Renn’s post argues that self-described white urbanists have claimed all the cachet of urban living without any of the social or political challenge by gathering in enclaves like Portland and Minneapolis — places that turn out to have suspiciously small black populations:

This raises troubling questions about these cities. Why is it that progressivism in smaller metros is so often associated with low numbers of African Americans? Can you have a progressive city properly so-called with only a disproportionate handful of African Americans in it? In addition, why has no one called these cities on it?

Renn is using a rhetorically convenient definition of “progressivism” here, since it means a particular combination of fussy transportation policies and land use regulation, not left-leaning politics as generally understood. He has stacked the deck in other ways (whites manage to self-segregate quite well in larger metros, for instance, and how, exactly, would one “call these cities on it?”), but it’s the source of his resentment that I find interesting. At the risk of putting a lot of words into his mouth, I think he’s implicitly claiming that any American cultural experience is inauthentic if it fails to reckon with the presence of African-Americans, not as victims, but as members of a shared history and culture. He’s reminding white Americans to check themselves before settling for any cultural accomplishment that excludes blacks, who, as James mentions in citing Sullivan, are quintessentially American in even the most reactionary sense. You could make the case, for example, that we have seen the Front Porch Republic and it’s full of black people.

I like Coates’ response to Renn, and respect his admonition to resist dragging blacks into what is, at bottom, a political and aesthetic argument among whites. I’d prefer to live in a country that lets Denver be Denver, in his words. But let’s cut Renn some slack. There are still white people out there trying to reckon with America’s racial heritage as a story of black people living as ‘something apart, yet an integral part.’ He’s part of a tradition of well-meaning whites scolding one another for the gaps in their definition of “American.” Sometimes this comes off as tendentious, sanctimonious, and patronizing (remember Sasha Frere-Jones’ idiotic claim that Stephin Merritt was a bigot for not liking Outkast? ). Other times it’s just awkward (see “Mellencamp, John”). But a lot of white guys — especially Southern white guys — who had to read The Invisible Man in high school took it to heart and still feel under its authority. They try to thread the needle between self-segregation and PC condescension, and if they fail, I hope they try again.

So here ends my foray into writing about race. Now go read Renn’s roundup of crazy utopian homesteading in Detroit.