Tuesday, February 15, 2011

De-segregation: Ending Apartheid, Lost Cause, or Dubious?

The cover story in last week's Chicago Reader is, I think, not to be missed. It deals with the continuing racial segregation that leaves much of the South and Far West Sides nearly universally African American and impoverished. Segregating neighborhoods means segregated schools. And as anybody who has visited, worked in, or been a student as all-black schools knows, the issue of educational apartheid leaves those schools and students with fewer resources. Additionally, there's the issue that Black and White citizens are at odds, largely because Whites - who generally tend to hold the economic and political capital to get things done - do not understand African American concerns. De-segregationists argue that most Euro-Americans do not understand or care about Black community concerns because there are few lasting relationships between Blacks and Whites in hyper-segregated cities like Chicago.

On this date 42 years ago—February 10, 1969—federal district judge Richard B. Austin issued a ruling aimed squarely at a persistent Chicago problem. "Existing patterns of racial segregation must be reversed if there is to be a chance of averting the desperately intensifying division of whites and Negroes in Chicago," Austin wrote.

The case, Dorothy Gautreaux v. the Chicago Housing Authority, concerned the location of public housing—projects were being built only in the city's black ghettos because whites didn't want blacks in their neighborhoods. But the broader issue, as Judge Austin noted, was residential racial segregation, a matter of much concern throughout America back then.

The nation was "moving toward two societies, one black, one white—separate and unequal," the National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders had declared a year before Judge Austin's ruling. Chaired by Illinois governor Otto Kerner, the commission called for sustained efforts to end segregation.

Chicago's ghettos in the 1960s were notorious for their shootings, robberies, rapes, fires, joblessness, single-parent families, dreadful schools and high dropout rates, rampant alcoholism and heroin addiction, abandoned buildings and vacant lots.

Lucky we fixed all that...

most African-Americans are clustered in two areas, as they were in the 1960s: a massive one on the south side, and a smaller one on the far west side. The south-side section, between Western Avenue and the lake, stretches more than a hundred blocks north to south, from 35th Street to the city limits at 138th. This African-American subdivision of Chicago includes 18 contiguous community areas, each with black populations above 90 percent, most of them well above that. The west-side black section includes another three contiguous 90 percent-plus community areas. Fifty-five percent of Chicago's 964,000 African-Americans live in these 21 community areas, in which the aggregate population is 96 percent black. Two-thirds of the city's blacks live in community areas that are at least 80 percent black.

On the flip side are the 33 community areas, most of them on the north and southwest sides, with less than 10 percent African-Americans. In 26 of these community areas less than 5 percent of the residents are black.

Latinos are segregated in some neighborhoods, too, but not nearly as dramatically; they're a buffer group, living in community areas with whites or with blacks, and sometimes with both.

The maps for 1970 and 1980 show that the south-side "black belt" was still swelling in the 70s, to the south and west; the last wave of migrants was arriving from Mississippi and other southern states. From 1980 on, what's remarkable about the maps is their consistency from decade to decade...

This pronounced, persistent separation of the races would be worrisome, or at least curious, even if separate were equal—which of course it isn't. The hypersegregated black neighborhoods continue to lead the city in the same wretched problems as in the 60s. In some ways, things are worse. There's not just a lack of legitimate jobs in these areas today, but also a surplus of people without skills—and more of them have criminal records now as well, from the war on drugs. Predatory lending has multiplied the number of abandoned buildings in these neighborhoods...

Other ethnic enclaves have existed in Chicago, of course, but they were never nearly as concentrated, and their residents tended to assimilate and disperse fairly quickly. For Chicago's blacks, dispersal wasn't an option; given the violence that greeted them when they moved into white neighborhoods, the safest mode of expansion from the black belt was into adjacent neighborhoods. Blacks were met there with bricks and bottles and occasionally bombs, but there was some safety in numbers. Various legal or quasi-legal methods were used to hem blacks in as well, such as restrictive covenants that forbade white property owners in border neighborhoods to rent or sell to blacks.

In the middle decades of the 20th century, southern blacks streamed into Chicago and other northern cities, seeking jobs. Chicago had three kinds of neighborhoods then: white, changing, and black. Or, as white Chicagoans knew them, good, going, and gone. Whites continued to resist the incursions, sometimes violently, but before long they usually fled, moving west within the city or following the newly built highways into the suburbs. Many of the city's biggest employers moved to the suburbs as well. In the ghettos left behind, unemployment and poverty grew.

In the late 1960s, efforts to improve the circumstances of urban blacks began to change from desegregation to "community development"—programs aimed at making ghettos more habitable. White conservatives favored anything that might keep blacks where they were. White liberals liked the money that community development programs provided. Black politicians grew fond of segregation, too, since it provided a stable electoral base.

One of the insidious traits of segregation is how easy it makes it for the haves to ignore the plight of the have-nots. For most whites, concentrated poverty and its many ills are an abstraction—something they read about but rarely see, since it exists in parts of town they don't live in or work in or visit. On the north lakefront, where the neighborhoods are more diverse than most in Chicago, residents may also be fooled into thinking it's the norm throughout the city.

Chicago city-west side     from John Hancock centerphoto © 2009 班森 | more info (via: Wylio)

Much of this, I agree with (I've found true community development programs to be about empowering the communities, rather than relying on the government or other entities perpetually). But then a friend brought up some interesting points to ponder. And I'd like to hear some other voices on this topic, but here's what he had to say:

jason- can institutionalized racism not exist in an integrated city? as much as i enjoy the diversity of cultures and races that exist in this city, i at times question the legitimacy of racial/ethnic integration. i think about the racism and lack of professional connections for black students as i attended my predominately white christian college, while my friends who attended black colleges had all the opportunities my white classmates experienced.

the reason why chicago area has one of the largest black middle and upper class population in the country is because of segregation some would argue. segregation put blacks in position to grow strong businesses and network socially, economically and professionally. sometimes when people say integrate, i hear "deconstruct the black community". destroy our businesses, colleges, churches and social clout. by integrating blacks may be subject to more direct racist influence of white chicagoans. you can't force integration so what is the point? a lot of neighborhoods and suburbs are segregated not b/c of laws, but b/c whites continue to flee once a neighborhood reaches 15% black. why would blacks want to deconstruct the very institutions and social outlets that have allowed them endure jim crow and support their civil rights movement?

many of these ghettos are poor and disadvantaged b/c the people are poor and disadvantaged. historical institutionalized racism put them in that position but integration doesn't have to be the solution. why does a black ghetto have to be dispersed or integrated for people to have appropriate resources for school and stable homes? that's like saying blacks are not competent enough to have a stable community of their own. i know plenty of stable communities w/ populations of blacks above 50%-80% through out the united states.

at the same time this is coming from someone who frequents neighborhoods and night spots that are less than 40% black. i've gone to school w/ white kids my entire life though i lived in black enclaves as a child. i currently live in a community that is only about 20% black at best. i may enjoy diversity but i have noticed i tend to be out of the loop when it comes to networking chicago as an educated black man. that is a huge problem when living is a racist city like chicago.

Of course, I don't think my friend is suggesting, like Justice Thomas does, that segregation is an innocent choice made possible by a bunch of innocent little choices. Many people have argued that the African American community suffers because upper-middle class Black families fled all-Black neighborhoods when given the opportunity, and with them went the resources and the sense of community. But I’m not knowledgeable enough on that subject (and I don’t think I can fix that deficiency with any amount of quick research) to say for sure - which is why I’d like to hear your thoughts on this trend, and the counter-trend.

I do have a few thoughts on this conundrum, however.

Some people who seem to argue for desegregation are really arguing for gentrification – whites moving back to burgeoning areas currently populated by minority families. What this tends to do – unless safe-guarded, which rarely happens – is to drive up the prices for housing in the area so high that the former residents can no longer afford to rent or pay property taxes there any longer. This displaces them from their community and further breaks down the support that impoverished families and individuals need in order to survive and/or thrive. So gentrification has the opposite effect of the intentions of desegregation: black families are exploited for financial gain (usually given directly and in-proportionately to developers), and are driven out of the neighborhoods even as many have tried to stabilize the area. This often puts those same displaced families into other segregated, high-intensity low-income neighborhoods, but without the stability that they have been working on for decades at their last decade.

Another bad reason to de-segregate is a patronizing idea – as my friend pointed out above. Whites, and particularly White Christians, can view their work within minority communities as if they were missionaries going to a strange and savage place. And the gospel that they present is one of middle class Euro-American norms. “If I can live in this area, and the neighbors see me getting into my car every morning to go to work, perhaps they can learn from my industriousness…” The underlying notion, of course, is that black families are inherently lazy and unproductive. The reality, however - thanks to the shortage of jobs in the black community – is that much of the economy runs underground – ranging from hair-dressers to boutiques to drug dealers to retailers to day care centers. Hustlers, in fact, are among the highest regarded males among the youth I’ve worked with. But because of the lack of stable, living-wage jobs offered to African-Americans, the underground economy needs to stay intact, which means that the community that affords that economy needs to more-or-less stay intact.

My contention with segregation, however, is that the African-American community is largely out-of-sight – ignored by the blind and deaf White community which has had centuries of practice in institutionally and psychologically dehumanizing those of a darker skin tone. Most of us don’t know that we are doing it (and we’ll counter and scream that we’re not racist, blah, blah, blah), but we are. It’s practically a part of our DNA – which is why it’s not as noticeable.

De-segregation, however, would mean that we are forced to take the institutional problems of the Black class seriously as those problems would be staring White families down in their children’s schools, and on their blocks. It would mean that the police would need to respond quicker to a 911 call on violence. It would mean that school systems would think twice before they labeled a school as failing and sent the children across town - and through hostile territories - for their basic education. It would mean that certain areas of town aren't dilapidated or ignored, and that public transportation would be readily available in all sections of the city. It would mean that if pieces of the school were falling down on the students, somebody would be paying hell.

Not because the African American community isn't capable of organizing, writing letters, making meetings. But because they are largely ignored.

Which brings me to an area I hadn't really thought about in terms of integration until I compared it to how women are treated in a male-dominated society (ie, everywhere). Most males live with, grew up with, and are surrounded by women. Most of us went to schools that comprised a majority of women. We all came from a woman. They were in our families, in our homes. Many of us are involved in life-long intimate relationships with women.

But that doesn't stop women from making 75 cents to every dollar a similar male makes. That doesn't end domestic violence against women. That doesn't mean that charges of rape are taken seriously, or that Congress wouldn't try a stunt like narrowly-defining rape. That doesn't mean that half of our jokes aren't about how moody women always are because they don't gleefully submit to our every whim. Or that men don't write them off as being flighty or flirty - something many of them have to do because they wouldn't be heard otherwise. It doesn't mean that women don't have to work twice as hard as their male counterparts just to be respected by them.

So... I really don't have any real, quick solutions. Maybe the biggest problem in Chicago - and elsewhere - isn't segregation. Or even necessarily racism or sexism. Maybe it's that those in power don't like to relinquish that power - even if it's just the power to listen and empathize.



  1. Anonymous1:28 PM

    It will be hard and even 'dubious' at times, but it has to be done legally, morally, and spiritually...every great struggle starts out as a lost cause...

  2. Steve Bogira3:09 PM

    I appreciate the time and thought and intelligence you put into what you've written here. You touch on the crucial points. I've gone back and forth in my own mind on this subject over the years. Your friend who says that segregation has allowed some blacks "to grow strong businesses and network socially, economically and professionally," is right. He's also right to worry that integration could harm black businesses, colleges, and churches. Below is a link to a story I wrote for the Reader years ago, about the integration of major league baseball, and the price blacks paid for it--the lost chance to own and manage and general-manage teams. There's been more of the managing and general-managing since, but it took forever.

    It's a tough issue. On balance, however, I agree with Kevin's comment above. We have to get past this separation sooner or later, and talking about it instead of pretending it doesn't exist or can't be changed is the way to start.


  3. Thanks for your responses, Kevin and Steve.

    I do believe that it is well-past time to talk about these issues, to take the blinders off. Of course, part of that means that we have to be willing to listen to others' viewpoints as well. From the outsider expert to the expert outsider... ;)

  4. Ooh! I just spent 20 minutes writing a well reasoned response to all of this and the stupid internet ate it. I'll get you, internet! I'll get you!!!!!!

    And I'll respond again after I eat. :)

  5. We need to figure out our goal. Do we want all people to fit into a simple stereotype like industrial widgets, or shall we celebrate each individual as a unique mix of heritage and experience? Do we want to fight to protect our own in a violent world, or defend the equal right to respect for all?

    Live for the world you want to see.

  6. Quickie initial thoughts...

    One of the marks of a just society, in my opinion, is freedom of association. In other words, everyone, especially minorities, should in a just society be free to live together or live with others as they choose. And be welcomed and accepted regardless of their choice.

    The problem with legislated integration is that it, in effect, addresses the wrong issue. The problem is not that Black people live together in communities. White people do that all the time. The problem is that they are not fully free to choose where they will live and with whom they will associate. At least not AS FREE as their White counterparts.

    While the goals of integration are noble, I fear it does not address the actual problem. As long as that is the case, I fear a lot of this conversation is peripheral.

  7. Anonymous7:01 PM

    I agree with Steve. It's horrible that Chicago is segregated as it is. However it should not be the forceful integration that should be attempted. It should be changes in society and education that give those minorities the freedom to live wherever they please.

  8. Anonymous9:06 PM

    I will soon stop by an give you my impression on your wonderfully written article.

  9. Random ramble:

    The human heart is the hardest thing to change. It takes a miracle.

    The reality is that most white people do not want black people living with them. While it's true that some white people have had bad experiences, or lack a broader perspective and so react negatively, I really think there is a tendency to be willfully ignorant and just plain mean by virtue of being the majority, helped along by a healthy dose of sinful human nature.

    Since we know not everyone will experience internal transformation, other options must be pursued alongside gospel work that at least give minorities a fighting chance at full participation.

    It has been said that the only things that restrain human sinfulness are law (with its attendant promise of justice for the wrongdoer), conscience (a gift from God that people can sear into numbness), and the Holy Spirit, given to believers and changing their hearts so they love their neighbors.

    While MAKING white people live with black people may or may not eventually improve things, empowering minorities potentially has immediate benefit. Use law to remove as many obstacles to freedom as possible.


Be kind. Rewind.