Local control over land use may or may not be a bad idea but it’s not its racist origins that make it so

Have you heard that local control over land use1 is bad because it’s racist and was invented to promote white supremacy?2 I mean, I have too, but it’s a nonsensical position, not least because people with the power to pass laws in this country, and I don’t mean legislators especially, but the people who control legislators, are all white supremacists and have always been white supremacists.3 White supremacy is their ecological niche and they couldn’t survive outside it.

Every law they pass supports white supremacy in one way or another.4 This is a fact as true now as it was in the days when only slaveholding plantation owners were allowed in legislatures.5 If a law’s having been passed to support white supremacy were a reason to repeal it we’d have to repeal every law on the books.6 The constitution would have to go as well.7 That’s an extrinsic reason why the idea is nonsensical, but it’s also intrinsically nonsensical.

To see why, assume that the first part of the formulation is true: that local control over land use was in fact invented specifically to promote white supremacy.8 A flaw in the argument against local control arises from a widespread confusion between the purposes for which a tool is created or used and the capabilities of the tool itself. The distinction is pretty easy to see with very simple tools, for instance hammers.

No one seriously thinks there’s a single fixed purpose for hammers, not even hitting nails.9 It’s not somehow misusing a hammer to scratch your nose with it, and there’s no reason not to scratch your nose with your hammer if it suits your purpose. Hammers can be used for infinitely many things and new uses have arrived regularly since hammers were invented. There are certain things which hammers are capable of doing and, knowing those things, infinitely many purposes hammers can be used to further.

The hammer-users, people, are the ones who have the purposes rather than the hammers. We don’t need to know who invented hammers or what problems have been solved with hammers over the millenia in order to be able to use hammers for our own purposes.10 In addition to nail-insertion these might include weighting paper, scratching noses, killing people, breaking windows, preparing walnuts, and any number of other things, most of which were completely unimaginable on the first day of hammers.11

Most contemporary uses for hammers would have been incomprehensible to the clever beasts who invented them,12 and yet that doesn’t make them misuses. Consequently no one says that it’s wrong to kill people with hammers for the sole reason that it’s just not what hammers are meant for. Hammers are meant for whatever they’re capable of doing. If it’s wrong to kill people with hammers it’s because it’s wrong to kill them rather than because a hammer was used. If it’s not wrong to kill them it doesn’t intrinsically matter if it’s done with a hammer. Other things matter, but not that.

More complex tools work the same way. They’re created by one or more people for specific concrete reasons in order to carry out one or more purposes, but once they’re created they can and will be used for any purpose that they’re capable of effecting.13 The original purpose is not controlling in the face of new ways to exploit the tool’s capabilities. Laws are tools as well as hammers, and as such don’t have intrinsic purposes, only intrinsic capabilities. The purposes to which tools are put aren’t limited in any way by the purposes for which they were created.

At this point it may begin to look like I’m arguing that tools don’t have intrinsic moral dimensions beyond their capabilities, along the lines of the argument that people rather than guns kill people. If my argument stopped here that’s about what it’d amount to, which isn’t much. But I’m absolutely not claiming that tool use is free of moral commitments or that tools are value-free or neutral, only that tools aren’t forever tainted by the purposes of their creators. Clearly tools or their potential uses can implicate weighty moral issues. Just for instance, tools can facilitate and even encourage certain actions by reducing the friction of initiating or by more effectively externalizing consequences.

Such facilitating effects encourage the actions or at least make them more likely to occur. In this sense guns actually do kill people even though people are pulling their triggers. It’s disgusting and difficult to beat or stab someone to death and on average anger or courage will fade before fatalities occur. Without so many guns around not only would far fewer people die of gunshot but far fewer people would die overall.14 This is the only plausible line of argument I know that supports blaming intrinsic qualities of tools for the ways the tools are used. The racist origins of local control over land use might conceivably be relevant to its present-day acceptability if that local control has this kind of ability to encourage or reduce the friction against expanding or maintaining white supremacy.

And clearly it does, in a number of ways, many of which are correctly identified by its opponents. There’s no question that under the right political conditions small groups of connected local residents can control or at least appear to control some aspects of municipal politics and use that control to support white supremacy.15 It’s happened with local control of land use in the past and it will certainly continue to happen as long as governments control land use.16

Nevertheless, this fairly undeniable fact doesn’t actually support an argument against local control of land use decisions. It’s wrong to assume that if a law can be or even is likely to be used to promote white supremacy then repealing the law or enacting another reversing it will undermine white supremacy. Sadly, white supremacy is far more resilient than that.17 Money gets forcibly extracted from white supremacy’s victims no matter which laws are enacted or repealed. White supremacy is a windmill. It generates power no matter which way the wind blows.

As long as there are laws and people allowed and willing to enforce them through violence there will be white supremacy.18 Some laws slow down the extraction or make it more tolerable to its victims, but none of them stop it.19 Given that fact it’s reasonable to work for harm reduction via laws that lessen the power of white supremacy even while staying aware that working inside the system can strengthen it in some dimensions at the same time that it’s being weakened in others.

So the question about local control of land use versus its opposite, which I guess would be centralized control, is which of the two gives less power to white supremacy. That’s the option to support if one opposes white supremacy given that it will take a real revolution to eliminate it entirely. And despite its origins as a tool of white supremacy this less harmful option is local control. To see this, assume there is no local control over land use.

That is, we’re assuming all or most municipal land use decisions are made by a central authority at some level, which might be the city, the county, the state, or the feds. But if there’s a level above neighborhoods that can impose decisions forcibly on neighborhoods then people powerful enough to control that authority will control land use in all the neighborhoods in the area.

Control over municipal land use is so incredibly valuable that only very powerful people are in charge of it. It’s worth too much money to let anyone else be involved. Also, the higher the level at which political decisions are made, the more valuable the influence that lets people with the ability to do so control it. Moving land use authority up in the hierarchy places it in the hands of increasingly more powerful people. The higher the authority the more political power it takes to wield it.

So the less local the level at which land use decisions are the more influence locally powerful people will have over the outcomes. These people wouldn’t be in a position to wield political power on that level if they weren’t already enmeshed in white supremacy and completely reliant on it for their livelihoods. They already live in the most racist neighborhoods, and under either system their power over the areas they control is disproportionate. Local control at least creates the potential for less powerful people, who have only small chances to influencing decisions even on the municipal level, to control the development of their areas.

Removing local control over land use would extend previously localized power to the whole city, which will dilute it even further. With local control there’s at least a chance that politically marginal neighborhoods can make some antiracist choices. Both systems are flawed, at the very least because they both assume the existence of coercive force wielded by governments. Until we abolish the police, though, every social system makes the same assumption. Choosing the option that at least potentially weakens white supremacy in some dimensions is clearly, at least to me, the only possible choice.

  1. I’m writing specifically about local control in land use here, and not about other forms of local control. Two other social systems where the issue is relevant have to do with schools and police. The ways in which local controls over these systems relate to white supremacy are pretty different from the way local control in land use does, and that’s the only kind I’m discussing here. I’m also writing specifically about Los Angeles even though not explicitly. If something I say seems wrong to you it might be because you’re thinking of a different city. This essay won’t be finished until that fact is well-integrated, which it isn’t right now, but all my blog posts are drafts.
  2. It’s important to remember that there are at least two meanings of the phrase “white supremacy”. The first meaning denotes the theory that white people should be in charge of society, that is, should reign supreme. That’s the kind that this article is about. To believe in this is not necessarily to believe that white people are superior in any way to non-white people, although that belief is often shared by white supremacists. The details of this are too intricate to explain here but are probably well-known. I just want to point out that I already know that the Central City Association is not a Klan chapter, even if the only reason it’s not is that Carol Schatz wouldn’t be caught dead in white after Labor Day. If the “white” part of this bothers you change it to “zillionaire.” It doesn’t change the meaning of the phrase.
  3. This might sound like a conspiracy theory but it’s not. At the very least legislators control themselves, like everyone does, so there are people who control legislators. Maybe there are only the legislators, although I think there are others, but people who control legislators do in fact exist. If legislators don’t explicitly support white supremacy, well, it doesn’t seem to matter that much since that’s what we have.
  4. It’s also worth remembering that as the United States occupied more and more of North America they were also improving their government technologies. On the East Coast, in the earliest colonies like South Carolina and Virginia, local control over land uses was more a function of the lack of options given less effective communication methods than a conscious choice among other possibilities. By the time US colonialism reached the West Coast communications were more effective, which partially explains or at least allows for the possibility of more central authority so local control becomes more of a choice rather than a necessity. Also, with a couple of centuries of experience using municipalities to coercively extract value from working people zillionaires were increasingly aware of ways to leverage existing social structures to make their extraction methods more efficient. None of this is especially important for understanding how local control functions in contemporary municipal governance.
  5. I can’t discuss this fully in this essay because it’s too tangential, but it’s really true that all laws support white supremacy. Some support it by codifying it and others by disguising its violence behind yet another layer of camouflage. It takes a vast and expensive apparatus to pass a law in this country. It’s not going to happen unless the people who control the apparatus, zillionaires, want it to happen, and they don’t want laws that attack white supremacy.
  6. In theory I’m certainly in favor of repealing every law, but in practice I’d like to see none of the laws repealed for the sole reason that the government whose enforcement gave them meaning and which had the sole power to repeal instead collapsed so suddenly that no one had time to repeal anything. In dreams begin responsibilities. In reality, though, it’s almost certainly good to work towards repealing individually oppressive laws even if laws themselves are intrinsically oppressive, and if it’s not good I don’t have the first idea why so I’ll just keep quiet about it.
  7. Not a bad thing, as I said, but also a reasonable use of the slippery slope against the idea that a law’s having been enacted by white supremacists and used to support white supremacy is a slam-dunk argument against anything when used by people not interested in abolishing the police.
  8. I’m assuming the truth rather than asserting it or arguing for it not because I don’t believe it’s true. Of course it’s true. These kinds of laws were enacted at a time when, like now, only zillionaires could enact laws. No one’s going to spend the kind of resources needed to enact a law if it directly attacks or even is neutral with respect to their means of making a living. Of course their laws promote white supremacy. It’s just that I don’t want to engage with the argument in this essay because it’d be a distraction. The truth of this claim is irrelevant to the argument I’m making now, which is why it’s safe to assume it.
  9. Which were only invented long, long after hammers.
  10. We don’t need to know but we may well want to know. The ways in which a tool have been used and the ways in which it’s been misused are important for understanding the decisions the tool can encourage, the kinds of traps it can lead users into, and everything about its history. My point is that it’s not necessary to know these things to use the tool but I’m in no way arguing that it’s not desirable.
  11. It may or may not be bad to kill someone or to break windows but it’s not doing it with a hammer per se that determines the value of the act.
  12. Hammers predate homo sapiens. Paraphrasing Nietzsche here if that interests you.
  13. I’m purposely writing as if a single person creates tools. Of course this isn’t true in one sense since all tools are social constructions and no one person ever invents them alone. In another important sense, though, it’s as accurate to speak of single tool inventors. An astonishing amount of theoretical confusion about contemporary racial capitalism actually relies on the idea that no one really creates complex tools like laws, that they’re somehow the product of social conditions without being attributable to any one person in particular. In fact, but again too complex to argue for here, it’s usually the case with laws that a single person or a very small group of people known to one another create new laws or modify existing laws sufficiently to count as new tools. This is an extremely important fact that’s only tangentially relevant here. I’m not willing to argue for the primacy of one view over the other. Both are useful ways to look at the situation. In this case it doesn’t matter that much, so I’m going with the sole creator formulation.
  14. It’s possible to use this line of thinking to criticize anti-police arguments based on the fact that modern policing originated in slave patrols. The general idea of this fallacious argument is that policing’s origin doesn’t corrupt its present incarnation. This argument is unsound for a number of reasons, not least of which is the fact that people who use it are, intentionally or not, confusing movement rhetoric with factual assertion in the most refutable way possible, e.g. “what about Minnesota, then??!” And often abolitionists aren’t speaking rhetorically. There are many factual and fruitful ways to interpret the claim about police and slave patrols that don’t involve some kind of “original sin” principle. This argument is too complex to approach in this essay, and even more so in this footnote.
  15. I’m not hedging in bad faith with the “control or at least appear to control” bit nor assuming the existence of a powerful conspiracy behind every putatively locally controlled action. I’m just trying to capture the practical fact that sometimes organized groups of local residents actually can use electoralism or democratic pressure to force elected officials to act against their intentions and sometimes politicians work with organized groups to give their predetermined actions an air of democratic plausibility. Both things happen on a regular basis.
  16. This doesn’t only apply to democratic governments or those which otherwise have some formal mechanisms for popular input. Even monarchs and dictators rule with consent of their subjects even if the barriers to change are immeasurably higher. Bastille Days happen from time to time and no coercive government forgets this. This essay is about contemporary American municipal politics, and in this context it’s true that local control over land use will be used to further white supremacy, with the qualifications discussed below.
  17. It would have to be, right? It’s been around for about 600 years and has only grown stronger to the point where it now enchains the entire world. If it could be materially weakened by understanding and/or action within the system it would already have been to some extent. I’m not being negative, just realistic about the past. On a more historical time-scale clearly white supremacy is going to be brought down by its victims, ably assisted by the weight of its increasingly less tolerable but more perceptible contradictions.
  18. The races of the perpetrators of world white supremacy are irrelevant. Governments that rule by coercion, and this is all of them, fit into the world capitalist system as bolstered by white supremacy and thereby support both systems.
  19. If there are laws there will be police to enforce them, otherwise they’re not laws. If there are police enforcing the laws they’ll enforce them by violence. This is ultimately the only way to compel people to act against their intentions. Only police abolition can finally end world white supremacy. And I do believe the police will be abolished at some point, but who knows if it’ll take a hundred days or a hundred years. We can’t wait till then to act.

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