Making Connections

So it’s the mid-80s and as young men do, Malcolm Gladwell and Jacob Weisberg throw a lot of parties at their Washington D.C. rental on Adams Mill Road and Kenyon Street. At one such low rent Bacchanalia, Gladwell shoots the breeze with Jefferson Morley, an assistant editor and one of the supervisors along with Michael Kinsley and Dorothy Wickenden of the bright young politico Weisberg at The New Republic. Gladwell brings up a story Morley wrote for the July 9 1984 edition called “Double Reverse Discrimination.”

In The Washingtonian “Gladwell’s Brain” profile by Chris Wilson on January 8, 2007, Morley recalls:

I remember Malcolm questioning me closely both about the sociology and the ethics of the story.

Morley’s reporting concerned the fate of Brooklyn, New York’s Starrett City, a federally subsidized, 1970s era middle-income housing project built on landfill between the predominantly poor black neighborhood of East, New York and the white working class bastion of Canarsie.

What’s fascinating is that in order for the development to get off the ground, the Starrett Company had to quell the protests of Canarsians who feared that their community would mimic the history of neighboring East New York.

East New York had gone from two-thirds white to three-quarters black between 1960 and 1970 and had deteriorated in the process, its property values plummeting and its crime rate rising.” (“Double Reverse Discrimination,” The New Republic July 9, 1984)

In order to get the New York City Board of Estimate to approve construction, which was under assault by Canarsie’s virulent protests, The Starrett Company agreed to maintain a 70% white occupancy rate. So if you were black or Hispanic or some other loosely defined minority looking to get an apartment at Starrett City, you were out of luck if the 30% quota for your kind was already filled. No matter your income or your recommendations or your good-guy-ness.

Five black applicants for apartments didn’t think this agreement was fair and so with the backing of the N.A.A.C.P., they filed a class action discrimination suit against the development in 1979, three years after it opened its doors to tenants. And as these things go, it took about five years for anything to happen after that.

And what happened then is really quite remarkable.

The two sides agreed to settle the case before it went to trial.

They both agreed that the quota controls would remain in effect. Just the percentages would be changed. Instead of a 70/30 white/minority split, they’d move to 67/33. And on May 2, 1984, the Federal District Court in Brooklyn approved the settlement.

Huh? Doesn’t make much sense does it?

Why would the N.A.A.C.P. approve of such a thing, essentially an imposed discrimination policy that shuts out black people purely based upon the color of their skin?

What’s even weirder is that the lawyer defending Starrett City’s White Majority quota was none other than Morris B. Abram, a guy who’d made his name representing Martin Luther King, Jr. And Abram had said himself on numerous occasions that race was an “absurd, unfair, and counterproductive” way of evaluating people. So why did he defend the right of a real estate company to do exactly what he felt was wrong?

What was the thing behind these counterintuitive stances? It sure must have been a powerful and convincing idea. The N.A.A.C.P. and Abram weren’t afraid of a good fight. And this seemed like a great one.

So what gives?

Gladwell probably noticed that Morley referenced the controlling idea ten times in his article without explaining where it came from. Hence Morley’s recollection that Gladwell was interested in the sociology and the ethics of the story…the thing behind the thing that made these formidable forces agree that in this case, and by extension other cases like it, a discriminatory quota keeping black people from living where they wished was in the long term in their best interest.

That’s not a knock on Morley. The New Republic was a serious magazine that fact checked and edited each of its pieces with vigor. It was known for that discipline until the whole Stephen Glass series of boners in the late 90s. But that’s another kettle of fish entirely.

The fact that Morley didn’t need to do a one or two-paragraph background write up about the idea only spoke to its prevalence as a incontrovertible and accepted fact amongst the players in the Starrett City drama. And for that matter, readers of The New Republic too.

So what was this idea?

It was an idea first put forth in 1957 by University of Chicago Sociologist Morton Grodzins in the October issue of Scientific American.

White residents, who will tolerate a few Negroes as neighbors, either willingly or unwillingly, begin to move out when the proportion of Negroes in the neighborhood or apartment building passes a certain critical point. This tip point varies from city to city and from neighborhood to neighborhood. But for the vast majority of white Americans a tip point exists. Once it is exceeded, they will no longer stay among Negro neighbors. (Emphasis mine)

But how did this theory result in what Morley refers to in his piece as “the generally accepted 30% ‘tipping point’” of black residents that caused whites to flee the neighborhood?

In the 60s and 70s, urban areas became less and less diverse. It became known as the “white flight” phenomenon. Attracted by the volatility of the issue and its blatant racial overtones, other academics climbed aboard Grodzins “tipping point” train, giving it more and more weight and eventually making it ubiquitous along the way. Repetition has a way of doing that.

Harvard’s Thomas Schelling, a future Nobel Laureate in Economics and renowned game theorist who contributed to Stanley Kubrick’s creation of Dr. Strangelove, picked up on the notion and theorized further in his papers “Models of Segregation” in 1969 and “Dynamic Models of Segregation” in 1971. Using elaborate game theories, Schelling’s conclusions in his 1978 book Micromotives and Macrobehavior gave birth to that 30% tipping point number.

And then there was Nathan Glazer and Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s Beyond the Melting Pot: The Negroes, Puerto Ricans, Jews, Italians and Irish of New York City, which challenged the whole “assimilation” model of American life. Americans don’t shed their ancestral identities.  They embrace them.  Morley characterized Glazer in his piece as the one “who most forcefully made the point in the early 1970s that whites’ fears of blacks were profound and in many ways justified.”

But geez, if behaviors are tipped so predictably one way, couldn’t they tip back just as predictably? Gladwell may well have thought or even put forth to Morley over a beer or two.

All of this Tipping Point stuff must have fascinated him back in the mid-80s and picking the brain of Jefferson Morley was cool too. But what could Gladwell really “do” with the idea? Especially when the next day he had to call Pfizer to check up on their progress getting a new pill approved by the FDA.

He couldn’t do anything with it. So, he sealed it in a virtual sardine can and stuck it with the rest of the cans in the idea pantry in the back of his mind.

And then, over a decade later when Gladwell looked at crime statistics in New York City and discovered how drastically they had plummeted in just five years time, he made a connection. It was a connection that went all the way back to the conversation with Jefferson Morley at the party he’d thrown with his friend Jacob Weisberg.

Maybe Tipping Points are not just interesting explanations for physics, epidemiology, and sociology…perhaps they’re applicable to crime too? And if they’re applicable to crime, what other phenomena could they explain?

8 comments on “Making Connections

  1. Mary Doyle says:

    Kudos to you for excavating these stories from Gladwell’s past. Learning about the origins of the ideas that led to the evolution of The Tipping Point is fascinating. As always, thanks!

  2. Talmage says:

    Interesting once again. Thanks. Truth is stranger than fiction, it seems. I think we may reach a tipping point in our lifetimes with regard to the theory of intelligent design attaining scientific respect. -Which would change the world profoundly.

  3. Sonja says:

    This was fascinating. Life experiences turned into bestselling book ideas…

  4. Terrific story answering the perennially intriguing question of where ideas come from.

  5. Tony Levelle says:

    I find this story interesting for several reasons.
    – Gladwell resisted the urge to write about the ‘hot story of the day’ that was on everyone’s mind. Instead, Gladwell held out for the story behind the story. He kept his idea in his ‘sardine can’ (great image) until he was ready to turn it into a best-selling, life-changing book.
    – It shows the importance of living in a place that is alive with intellectual ferment, where Gladwell was exposed to significant conversations with interesting people.
    – It shows the value of those ‘sardine tins’ of ideas. Every writer, artist and film maker has them.
    – It also shows the importance of having (or developing) a ‘story sense’. The ability to recognize a great story, and know when it’s time to run with it.
    Thanks again for a great series of posts.

  6. Ellie says:

    Very interesting backstory, Shawn. As far as other things tipping points could be applicable to– I’m sitting here wondering if they could be applicable to adopting new habits. I joined a CrossFit gym about three months ago. Initially my goal was to go 3-4 times a week, which I’ve managed to do every week. Because the workouts are intense, I’m experiencing good results as well as countless other benefits. After the first 3 months, I notice I’ve shifted my goal to not let more than one day go between my last and next workout because more than one day causes me to get out of the flow of going. Now I go at least 4 times a week and sometimes more. The benefits/results I’m experiencing are causing somewhat of a tipping point that makes me want to go more often. I sense a definite shift in my desire to go work out. What I need to do now is apply this technique to my writing. Hopefully it will go something like this– the more consistently I write, the more benefits I’ll feel, which will cause me to write more consistently. Staying in the flow after the tipping point is key.

  7. PA De Voe says:

    Fascinating. I love the way Gladwell synthesizes so much information into an intriguing pattern. Thanks for the analysis

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