The worst national disaster in United States history also showcased the dire consequences of localism as the cultural and legal successor to de jure segregation. Long before Hurricanes Katrina and Rita devastated the Gulf Coast, New Orleans’ status as an exceptional city had been lost to Americanizing trends. Its resistance to the conventional racial binary was overcome after Reconstruction; its unique densities and accommodation of the physical landscape were transformed into sprawling divisions by technology and suburbanization. From the Brown decision forward, New Orleans and the metropolitan area around it developed much like the rest of the nation. Localist tendencies combined with legal protections for local autonomy—as exemplified and supported by several key decisions of the Burger Court—to re-segregate the region. A decade before Katrina, New Orleans, like most central cities, was financially incapable of deconcentrating neighborhoods of persistent poverty and politically powerless to wrest a more equitable sharing of state fiscal resources and burdens from its neighboring parishes.

Part II examines the history of New Orleans as a city central to American concepts of racialized space, from slavery to Katrina. Part III argues that localism became the jurisprudential edifice that supplanted de jure segregation there and elsewhere after Brown. Its underlying notions of economic rationalism and colorblind innocence have since been reinforced by decentalization, consumption, political fragmentation and black middle-class antipathy for integration to re-segregate metropolitan America. Part IV argues that this analytic focus on the role of “legal localism” in re-segregating America’s metropolitan regions compels its own remedial principle: equitable regionalism. Under this principle of local government law reform, political coalitions may be possible in joining the interests of antipoverty, fair housing and community development advocates with their counterparts in smartgrowth, environmental preservation and antisprawl organizations. Urban neighborhoods chronically destabilized by poverty need localism’s emphasis on participation through planning devices; similar devices may help to effectuate equitable regional goals. The current antimajoritarian rules have weakened both cities and a great many suburbs, suggesting ultimately that what benefits the isolated urban poor may also improve the welfare of the suburban middle class.


Civil Rights and Discrimination | Land Use Law | State and Local Government Law

Date of this Version

August 2007