In 1969, city planners opened what was widely celebrated as America’s first under-expressway park in an African American neighborhood in Miami. At the time, says Dr. Nathan Connolly, professor of history at Johns Hopkins University, it was considered a “wonderful idea.” 

Connolly said the project highlighted the stark ironies of urban development and environmental racism. Children played on a playground underneath a roaring expressway seeping toxic exhaust – the same expressway that had displaced 50,000 people when it was built two decades before. And yet, Connolly said, the project was celebrated with ribbon cuttings and praise.

“There was no criticism about whether this is what the city of Miami needed,” Connolly said.

The Miami example highlights what Connolly sees as a major force in policymaking: unquestioned “common sense” ideas, and the powerful interests that shape them. 

In a webinar for Economic Mobility Policy Forum members last week, Connolly laid out a framework for analyzing the assumptions behind decisions, considering both the public “common sense” argument being made and what he calls “powers common sense” – the options that only seem feasible when certain interests precondition the debate.

Though Connolly’s analysis focuses on history, his framework can be applied to present-day policy decisions. A critical look at the assumptions behind what seems like common sense can help empower the historically marginalized and prevent decision-makers from inadvertently causing harm.

School desegregation, Connolly said, often meant the closing of black schools, which had served as employers and community institutions for the black community. The reason: an underlying “common sense” assumption that black schools were inferior.

Even policies that seem benevolent can be harmful if they are underwritten by harmful assumptions. In his lecture, Connolly outlined how school desegregation in some places harmed the black community because of these “common sense” assumptions.

The Brown v. Board of Education Supreme Court ruling, making desegregation the law of the land, had similar effects to housing segregation policies before it, Connolly argues, because both were ruled by similar interests. 

School desegregation, Connolly said, often meant the closing of black schools, which had served as employers and community institutions for the black community. The reason: an underlying “common sense” assumption that black schools were inferior. As a result, Connolly said, black school employees were demoted, black schools were shut down, and white families still avoided true integration by fleeing to the suburbs.

“As [Seattle] strives to become a more responsive partner rather than a bureaucratic apparatus that governs through mandates and directives, policy administrators like myself should consider the communities’ needs first and we should create spaces for their collective voices to be heard,” Moss said.

Connolly’s advice to practitioners is to keep history in mind and avoid giving powerful interests a way out of difficult societal change. He pointed to the example of Charlotte in the 1970s, where a judge was “inflexible” about allowing white parents to get out of busing policies – and the policy was a success.

The key, he said, is focusing on keeping people “tethered to communities” and providing city and metro-level services rather than relying on suburban fringes.

“Anything empowering impoverished families to have a say into local government, and not giving others escape hatches to get out of paying into the local community chest” will have a positive impact, Connolly said.

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