Whatever happened to Integration?

Lance Freeman's picture

This year in Parents Involved in Community Schools Inc. v. Seattle School District and Meredith v. Jefferson County (Ky.) Board of Education the Supreme Court ruled that school districts could not assign students on the basis of race, even if the goal was to promote integration. To some this is the end of an era, with affirmative action and other diversity promoting programs in jeopardy as the court has now come full circle using the Brown decision to outlaw programs that promote integration. Most commentators on this ruling have highlighted the implications for school integration programs and even affirmative action more broadly. But the ruling also speaks to an issue pertinent to planners as well-racial segregation in American cities, and by racial segregation I am referring to the segregation of African Americans who are by far the most segregated group in America.

Because American cities are so segregated by race school districts across America have to resort to schemes of the type ruled unconstitutional by the Supreme Court to achieve a modicum of racial diversity. Since most students attend local schools, segregated neighborhoods produce segregated schools. Segregated neighborhoods also contribute to segregated employment patterns with minorities, and especially blacks, often residing in places with fewer and less remunerative employment opportunities. Finally, segregated neighborhoods, while providing minorities with the opportunity to elect their own representatives, also encourages white politicians to ignore minority concerns since relatively few minorities reside in their districts anyway. Ironically, while the importance of achieving racial diversity in schools and the workplace is often argued, the importance of achieving racially diverse neighborhoods is seldom discussed. But if America is to achieve the promise of a racially inclusive democracy, diverse neighborhoods are at least as important as diverse schools and workplaces, for the racial composition of neighborhoods goes a long way in determining the racial composition of the latter two. If American neighborhoods were indeed more racially diverse, there might be less of a need to resort to controversial schemes to achieve racial diversity in schools or the workplace.

Planners, as the profession expressly concerned with our cities, have little to brag about with regard to achieving racially diverse neighborhoods. For much of the profession's modern history planners could be implicated in directly contributing to segregated neighborhoods-building segregated public housing and fostering the use of exclusionary zoning to keep minorities out of most suburbs. In the wake of the Civil Right movement most planners talk a good game, claiming to be in favor of diversity. But the glacial change in segregated residential patterns over the past few decades suggests little has been accomplished.

To be fair, achieving racially diverse neighborhoods is a challenge. Many whites are resistant to having too many minority neighbors because they associate too many minorities with neighborhood decline. And most racial and ethnic minorities prefer to have at least some neighbors that look like them. As a result whites often flee neighborhoods that have more than a token presence of minorities while minorities seek out neighborhoods with a substantial minority presence, proclivities that serve to reinforce existing segregation patterns. Coupled with persistent housing discrimination faced by minorities and differences in thee type of housing whites and minorities can afford and one gets a sense of the many obstacles to achieving racially diverse neighborhoods. Achieving racially diverse neighborhoods would also undermine the electoral base of many minority politicians. Not surprisingly, minority politicians who are the natural advocates in most diversity issues are silent here. And in some ways advocating for residential integration is patronizing to minority communities. Why must a neighborhood have whites to be a "good" neighborhood?

If diversity is important, however, achieving it at the neighborhood level is probably just as important as anywhere else. While planners can't and shouldn't hope to engineer some type of racial nirvana, and integration doesn't have to mean the end of predominantly black neighborhoods, more could be done to promote racially diverse neighborhoods. As Douglas Massey and Nancy Denton have shown in their book American Apartheid the racial segregation of America's cities is neither an accident nor solely a reflection of different economic resources between whites and blacks.

The challenge for planners, then, is to be innovative in developing strategies that promote residential integration without being too heavy handed or inviting claims of "reverse discrimination." Achieving racially diverse neighborhoods would go a long way toward rendering superfluous the need for racial balancing in schools that the Supreme Court deemed suspect.

Lance Freeman is an associate professor of Urban Planning at Columbia University.

Comments

Comments

Can planners save my mixed race neighborhood?

I grew up in an all-white town, now I want to live in a mixed race (especially African American and white but I'm open to all) neighborhood. I call it the "Sesame Street effect."

I have tried to find a comfortably racially balanced neighborhood in America. One where everyone feels like they belong and no one feels pressured to leave.

So, searching for that mixed nirvana, I've been around the country -- San Francisco's Mission, Brooklyn's Park Slope, New Orleans' Bywater, Philly's South Side. In each I find the same situation -- white hipsters (like myself) moving into formerly majority black or latino neighborhoods in such numbers that eventually the neighborhood tips to majority white hipster, and then increasingly middle class white eventually becoming all white and all middle class.

I end up being surrounded by the same suburbanites I grew up with (I guess we all watched Sesame Street!).

This isn't news of course. But the issue of why it happens (and how we might positively affect it) requires more tools than a planner in a democracy has to work with. When white hipsters move into a "cool" neighborhood, we bring our amenities with us - our coffeeshops, our bars, our grocery stores, our bikeshops. And I say "our" because these stores reflect cultural values and are invariably dominated by the white hipsters with a mere smattering of neighboring working class African Americans or latinos.

The white hipsters make it easier for the regular white suburbanites -- the ones who can only deal with so much non-white middle classness, the noodges -- to move into the neighborhood because of the cheap housing and/or the access to the financial district. They bring their wine shops, their French bakeries, and then pretty soon the Whole Foods comes in and then zoop, she's gone, Blanche.

Planners have a hard enough time getting people to ride the bus. How can we hope to stop (or even affect) monocultural demographic waves? How can we help people see beyond their own cultural blinders?

Eric Ganther
(who's certainly open to suggestions!)

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