Recent events are a grim reminder to many Americans that what we like to believe is in the past is still very much alive in the present. In 2017, the news looks a lot like how it did in the twentieth century – minus the president’s tweets, of course. The public KKK rallies of the 1920s, the (sometimes violent) anti-fascist protests of the 1980s and 90s, and the peaceful anti-racism protests of the 1960s, have all returned. As we are being forced to face the truth of how the problems of yesterday are still very much the problems of today, it is important to take a look at another piece of American “history:” segregation.
The history books of school children teach young Americans that in 1954, segregation in America ended thanks to the monumental court case, Brown v. Board of Education. But let’s be clear: segregation did not end then, nor is segregation something that is confined to schools or water fountains. Segregation was built into American cities the same way sanitation systems are built into apartments—intentionally, subtly, and meant to last. Thanks to redlining and other racist housing policies, African-Americans and minorities were systematically caged in or pushed out of American cities, leaving wealthier white neighbourhoods wealthy and white. So, even after schools and public institutions were forced to desegregate in the 1950s, the geographic separation of the races left many cities far from integrated. Today, much of America remains segregated, both racially and economically—and it is costing us.
In March 2017, the Urban Institute issued a report titled “The Cost of Segregation,” which outlined the research findings of a study on segregation in many U.S. metropolitan areas, with a more extensive study of Chicago. Their findings not only reveal the enduring segregation of many cities, but show the damage it does for all parties. They found that higher levels of racial and economic segregation are associated with lower median and per capita income for blacks. Their findings showed that the Chicago region (the 10th most segregated metro area in the U.S.) lost $4.4 billion in annual income because of segregation. Marisa Novara from the Metropolitan Planning counsel explained in a webcast that if Chicago reduced their segregation to the median level of the 100 biggest cities, African American per capita income would increase by 2.7%, resulting in a collective gain of $772 million annually. Higher levels of segregation are also associated with higher homicide rates, so much so that if Chicago reduced segregation to the median level of the 100 biggest cities, their homicide rate would be 30% lower—230 lives would have been saved in 2016. This finding confirms other studies which found that black isolation is directly related to higher homicide and robbery rates. The Urban Institute’s report also found that Latino-white segregation reduced life expectancy for everyone in the area, not just Latinos. Finally, the report showed that black-white segregation depresses academic achievement for everyone but especially white Americans; again, using Chicago, they demonstrated that due to the high level of black-white segregation, the city lost 83,000 bachelor degrees, 78% of which were from white residents.
The Urban Institute’s comprehensive report shed light on the harmful effects of segregation, but not just for the minorities isolated. The benefits of a less-segregated society are far more expansive than a blending of cultures and an environment of understanding and inclusion; they are tangible in gained income, education, and lives. Desegregation would not only benefit individuals, entire cities, the entire country. A less segregated society would mean more bright minds solving the problems of our world, it would mean less income inequality, less violence, and longer lives. So, what’s stopping us?
Well, beyond the racists and white supremacists that we have heard so much about recently, desegregation is a tricky task. The recent trend of gentrification, for example, has made many previously almost all minorities areas more diverse; good, right? It’s not that simple. An increased population of white people often means the displacement of longtime minority residents, particularly blacks. It means higher property values and increased investment in the neighbourhood, which drives up rent prices and makes the place unaffordable for other residents. Perhaps this wouldn’t be a problem if those black residents relocated in the predominately white neighbourhoods from which the white newcomers came from, and both neighbourhoods slowly evened out, creating a diverse and inclusive place to live. That, of course, is rarely if ever the case; minority residents are pushed out to even less describable, more segregated neighbourhoods, and the line that segregates races is simply pushed back or moved.
Nor can we solve segregation by forcing families to relocate, by designating every other house on a block for non-white families, by artificially creating a perfectly balanced block. The process of desegregation will be slow and nuanced and difficult; it will not take place overnight and it will not be solved simply by rearranging demographics. To tackle the issue of segregation, we must first tackle the many racial gaps in our society that prevent blacks and Latinos from making the same money, achieving the same education, living the same life, as white Americans. The first step, though, is to recognize that segregation is still a very real part of our cities and towns, not just in the south—Milwaukee, WI claims the title of the number 1 most black-white segregated city in the US, Reading, PA has the highest levels of Latino-white segregation, and New York City is the most economically segregated. Segregation, like many other racist remnants of our past, is something we can no longer ignore, but instead must acknowledge as unacceptable and un-American.
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