Monday, May 10, 2004

Racial Economics of Renaming Streets for Martin Luther King, Jr.

The City Council of Zephyrhills, Florida renamed a street to honor Martin Luther King, Jr. on October 26, 2003, but it reversed the decision and removed his name on April 26, 2004, caving in to white protests. The Council earned a white supremacist website's praise. White protestors argued that "they did not want the bother of changing their addresses," and "[a] business owner told local newspapers that property values would fall, saying streets named after Dr. King were a guarantee of economic blight" (emphasis added, Abby Goodnough, "Honor for Dr. King Splits Florida City, and Faces Reversal," New York Times, May 10, 2004). This is a small episode that can illustrate a larger issue of how oppressions based upon race and class mutually reinforce each other:
Derek Alderman, a geography professor at East Carolina University who has studied the politics of naming streets for Dr. King, said at least 650 streets have been given his name in at least 41 states, often not without controversy.

Most of the streets are in the South, in places where the population is at least 30 percent black. Georgia, Dr. King's birthplace, has the most, Dr. Alderman said. Many run mostly through black neighborhoods, he said, often because efforts to name a central thoroughfare for Dr. King fail.

"The second choices are often not the most prominent, the most healthy streets," Dr. Alderman said.

San Diego's decision to rename a major thoroughfare, Market Street, for Dr. King in 1986 was so unpopular that residents got an initiative on the ballot a year later to change the name back, and won. And in 1979, the Alabama Legislature repealed a 1976 resolution naming a section of an Interstate highway after Dr. King.

But far more common, Dr. Alderman said, is for a city to scrap contentious plans to rename a street well before new signs go up. That happened last year in Muncie, Ind., and more recently in Portsmouth, N.H., which decided to name a park for Dr. King instead. (Goodnough, May 10, 2004)
In other words, racism runs in a vicious circle: slavery, Jim Crow, and continuing discrimination have made Black communities disproportionately poor; racists do not let Black communities claim major streets and highways to honor King or other Black leaders on the left; therefore, most of the streets named after King are located in predominantly Black neighborhoods, economically poorer than predominantly white neighborhoods; then, racists exploit this fact to allege that naming a street after King brings down "property values," ideologically reversing cause and effect! Ideological inversion of cause and effect works in other contexts as well, from redlining to the so-called "war on drugs."

Derek Alderman made some of his publications available to public online -- I encourage you to check them out:
  • "A Street Fit for a King: Naming Places and Commemoration in the American South," Professional Geographer 52.4 (2000): 672-684.

  • "Street Names as Memorial Arenas: The Reputational Politics of Commemorating Martin Luther King, Jr. in a Georgia County," Historical Geography 30 (2002): 99-120.

  • "Street Names and the Scaling of Memory: the Politics of Commemorating Martin Luther King, Jr. within the African-American Community," Area 35.2 (2003): 163-173.

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