The Failures of Integration

Purchase “The Failures of Integration”

On May 17, 1954, the Supreme Court declared in its landmark unanimous decision, Brown v. Board of Education, that separate schooling of black and white children was inherently unequal, marking the dawn of the modern civil rights movement. Over the next twenty years, the civil rights revolution put in place laws that attempted to guarantee, essentially for the first time since our nation’s founding, that no one should be restricted in their access to education, jobs, voting, travel, public accommodations, or housing because of race. For most people, this was what integration meant. Blacks, whites, Latinos, Asians, and Native Americans might not share social space, but our public institutions, our workplaces, and our schools were no longer to be divided into separate domains, with access to the best opportunities determined by skin color. The promise of civil rights laws was that only the most private institutions—and the hearts and minds of would-be discriminators—would remain unregulated.

Fifty years after Brown v. Board, we now profess to believe that the United States should be an integrated society and that people of all races are inherently equal and entitled to the full privileges of citizenship. Here is the reality: While we accept these values in the abstract, we are mostly pretending that they are true. At the dawn of the twenty-first century, the ideals of integration and equality of opportunity still elude us, and we are not being honest or forthcoming about it.

There is a national cognitive dissonance when it comes to integration. It shows through in a New York Times poll on racial attitudes: 85 percent of whites said in response to a poll question that they did not care whether they lived in an area where most of their neighbors were white or where most were black; but in response to another question, 85 percent of whites also said they actually live in areas where they have no or few black neighbors. The majority of Americans say they support integration.2 But this is not the reality that the majority of us actually live. Most of us do not share life space with other races or classes. And we do not own up to the often gaping inequality that results from this separation because, being physically removed from those who most suffer the costs of separatism, we cannot acknowledge what we don’t see.

Even as our nation diversifies at a dizzying pace, we are haunted by old paradigms and old ways of thinking. In 1954, about 87 percent of the population was white, 10 percent was black, and the small remainder was composed of Latinos, Asians, and Native Americans. Our national struggle with race relations was rendered starkly in hues of black and white. Fear and animus toward integration of black people into white neighborhoods and white institutions colored how America came to be ordered. The predictable patterns of urban concentration of blacks and the minority poor and suburban concentrations of whites and the affluent emerged through conscious public policies and a great deal of discrimination against black people. In short, America had a “Negro problem.”

Five decades later, our nation is infinitely more diverse; Latinos now outnumber African Americans and we are headed toward a new social order. By the end of the new century, we will be a majority-minority nation with whites composing only 40 percent of the national population. American separatism, however, endures, and its class dimensions seem to be growing. We have not yet figured out how to break out of separatist patterns burnished in less enlightened times, and we rarely, if ever, have any explicit discourse about it.

Ironically, while the nation has not yet moved beyond a fundamental hurdle regarding integration—the discomfort of many with large numbers of black people—some of the most admired and respected national figures in the United States are black. White America embraces Colin Powell, Oprah Winfrey, Tiger Woods. They admire Michael Jordan, Bill Cosby, Condoleezza Rice. There are enough examples of successful middleclass African Americans to make many whites believe that blacks have reached parity with them. The fact that some blacks now lead powerful mainstream institutions offers evidence to whites that racial barriers have been eliminated; the issue now is individual effort. In December 2001, when Richard Parsons, an African American, was named the CEO of AOL Time Warner, then the largest media company in the world, it was not an earth-shattering event. Not much was made of the fact that President George W. Bush chose a black woman, Condoleezza Rice, to head his National Security Council or that Colin Powell was the first black Secretary of State. As a nation we seem to have moved past the era when the “first black” is noted, celebrated, or even explicitly discussed. For many, if not most, whites, words like “segregation” and “inequality” are old, finished business. And words like “integration” and “affirmative action” are beyond the point.

That whites are now tired of black complaints may stem from the fact that they are rather misinformed about how well African Americans are doing. Depending on the question, in response to opinion polls, between 40 and 60 percent of whites say that blacks are faring as well as, if not better than, they are in terms of jobs, incomes, education, and access to health care. No doubt, African Americans have progressed, but the closing of social and economic gaps is mostly in the minds of white Americans. According to a recent survey, half of whites believe that the average black person is as well off as the average white person in terms of employment, even though blacks are about twice as likely as whites to hold lower-paying service jobs and more than twice as likely to be unemployed. Four in ten whites incorrectly believed that the typical black earned as much as or more than the typical white, even though black median household income is about 64 percent that of whites—$29,500 compared to $46,300 for whites. (The disparity in terms of wealth, as opposed to income, is much worse: Black median wealth is about 16 percent that of whites.) There were similar gaps of perception and reality concerning education and health care. The odd black family on the block or the Oprah effect—examples of stratospheric black success—feed these misperceptions, even as relatively few whites live among and interact daily with blacks of their own social standing. We are still quite far from the integrated, equal opportunity nation whites seem to think we have become.

Black people, on the other hand, have become integration weary. Most African Americans do not crave integration, although they support it. What seems to matter most to black people is not living in a well-integrated neighborhood but having the same access to the good things in life as everyone else. There is much evidence of an emerging “post–civil rights” attitude among black folks. We are ambivalent integrationists. In opinion polls, the majority of African Americans say that they would prefer to live in an integrated neighborhood; but for some of us integration now means a majority-black neighborhood— one where you are not overwhelmed by white people and where there are plenty of your own kind around to make you feel comfortable, supported, and welcome. Across America, wherever there is a sizeable black middle-class population, suburban black enclaves have cropped up that attest to the draw of this happy “we” feeling.

This is not separatism in the classic sense. Black people want the benefits of an integrated workplace; we want the public and private institutions that shape opportunity to be integrated. More fundamentally, we want the freedom to chart our course and pursue our dreams. We bang on the doors and sometimes shatter the ceilings of corporate America not because it is largely white but because this is how to “get paid.” We want an integrated commercial sector because we want banks and venture capitalists to lend to us and invest in our business ideas. We want the option of sending our children to any college we desire but for many of us Howard, Morehouse, or any number of historically black colleges are at the top of our list. We want space on the airwaves for our music, preferably aired by black-owned radio stations. We want space in Hollywood and on the big screen for our films. We want to see and celebrate ourselves on television, but we do not particularly care that there was not a black friend on “Friends;” most of us didn’t watch it and didn’t understand its appeal.

Even at the height of the civil rights era, socializing with whites was never a goal in itself for black people, and undoubtedly for many, it is not one today. There are counter examples, but we all know they are fairly rare. For those blacks, like myself, who attended primarily white schools, the dominant pattern of socialization was that blacks hung with blacks. And at most social gatherings that I attended then and those that I attend now, one race overwhelmingly predominates. Even when I attend functions that might be described as well integrated, I often observe the phenomenon of blacks pairing with blacks and whites paring with whites. Obviously there are exceptions. I am necessarily writing about generalities. But these generalities reflect certain truths—typically unspoken ones—about the limits of integration in our nation.

In 2004, then, we face a number of ironies. Despite Brown v. Board and the civil rights laws that followed it in later decades, our schools and neighborhoods are still decidedly segregated. The various races and ethnic groups may come into contact in the world of work and in some diverse public spaces—the streets of large, dense cities come to mind, as do sporting events—but we largely live and recreate apart. Most American children learn apart. Race is still a fault line in America, and class separation is widely accepted as the “natural” order. Americans seem to have come to a tacit, unspoken understanding: State-ordered segregation has rightly been eliminated, but voluntary separation is acceptable, natural, sometimes even preferable.

In this book I argue that our tacit agreement to separate along lines of race and class means that the experience and privileges of American citizenship typically vary greatly, depending on what side of the race or class line you are born on. Sometimes the political, social, and economic dividing lines that separate us are quite stark. It is the difference, say, between Hempstead and Garden City, New York, two cities on Long Island—reportedly America’s most segregated suburb— that share a political boundary but not much else. As recently reported in the NewYork Times:

Garden City is home to many executives. It has a median family income of $120,305, houses that look like pages out of decorator magazines, downtown businesses like Saks and Fidelity Investments and a population that is 92 percent white. The mayor and village and school board members are all white. Hempstead is a working-class community. It has a $46,675 median family income, midrise apartment buildings, generic middle-class homes, a downtown with storefront churches, thrift shops, and Spanish restaurants, and a population that is 51 percent black and 32 percent Hispanic= The mayor is black, as are all but one of the village and school board members.

The differing realities of two families from these neighboring towns illustrate our national conundrum perfectly. The Tomlins, a black family, and the Midwoods, a white family, live on the same street but are separated by a hedge and the political boundary line that identifies Hempstead, where the Tomlins live, and Garden City, where the Midwoods live. The Tomlins’ side of the street is cracked and potholed. Mrs. Tomlin complains to a Times reporter that plows rarely show up after a snowstorm. But on the Garden City side, the pavement is smooth; when a large tree limb falls, village workers arrive within hours to haul it away. The Tomlins want their two daughters to go to college and feel compelled to pay $10,000 a year for private school. Mrs. Tomlin’s frustration is palpable. She knows that if the Garden City marker were moved a short distance to include her house, her property value would jump by as much as $200,000; she would then be able to send her daughters to the high-quality Garden City public schools, save the money spent on private school, and feel confident that her children would be well prepared for college. Of course, the Tomlins could not gain access to these benefits just by moving a city marker. A move to Garden City would require them to pay a steep premium in the form of much higher housing costs, assuming they could afford it, and they would have to be willing to live in an overwhelmingly white city. They would have to be willing to be integration pioneers—a “been there, done that” experience for many black people.

Usually the race and class lines that divide us are not so clearly drawn. But most Americans experience forms and degrees of separation. Racial segregation is still pervasive, and class segregation seems to be an accepted norm. Across America’s metropolitan regions, there are neighborhoods for the rich and neighborhoods for the poor. Such separation is so endemic to American life that we rarely question it—at least not when we benefit from it. In fact, one might argue that our balkanized social structure is a salutary, critical feature of our system of benefits and incentives. Choosing a neighborhood that separates oneself and one’s family from “worse” elements farther down the economic scale has become the critical gateway to upward mobility. Like it or not, this is the established path to better schools, less crime, better services, and stable property values. We seem to understand, if not accept, that the opportunities and amenities available in a neighborhood, as well as the responsiveness of local government to its needs, are often closely calibrated to its racial and economic makeup. We may not agree with this system. We may even decry its unfairness. But when it comes to our personal choices about where to live, our primary motive is to maximize benefits and comfort for ourselves and our families. The white liberal, for example, who chooses a majority-white, affluent enclave, or the middle-income person who chooses the neighborhood with the best public schools she can afford, is taking advantage of a system that creates “desirable” neighborhoods and schools in part by excluding certain populations, usually poor minorities.

As I explain in this book, we are all making choices about where to live in a market system that values racial and economic homogeneity, at least of the white kind, over racial and economic integration. This balkanization comes with very steep, long-term costs, particularly for black and Latino children. Black and brown public school children are now more segregated than at any time in the past thirty years. Typically they are relegated to high-poverty, racially identifiable schools that offer a separate and unequal education. Many poor African Americans live in isolated ghetto neighborhoods that offer violence, weak schools, few jobs, and limited avenues for escape. Of all of our tacit understandings about separation, the supreme, cardinal principle seems to be that poor black people are to be avoided and that society is better off shunting them into their own neighborhoods, far away in particular from sizeable white populations. Indeed, one could argue that the subconscious raison d’être of our separatist system is the bulwarking of white families with children into “safe” havens.

Although we are loathe to admit it, the United States, much more than any other developed Western nation, is premised on the idea of there being winners and losers. Our separatism plays into this. Our acceptance of pervasive racial and increasingly stark class separation creates communities of abundance and communities of need. The 7 percent of the population of large metropolitan areas that live in affluent, job-rich, predominately white suburban enclaves are the biggest winners. They are typically the families of corporate executives and entrepreneurs who are at the top of the income and wealth scale. Everyone else gets a very different deal; the black poor get the worst deal, often being relegated to hypersegregated neighborhoods that are incubators of extreme social distress. Our tortured racial heritage—one that initially was premised on blacks being unworthy of the privileges of full citizenship— masks our winner-take-all system. Middle-income whites cannot appreciate that their daily anxiety about just trying to stay ahead in America has a lot to do with how we have chosen to order ourselves. It is easier for suburban whites in less favored communities to associate themselves with the “winners” than to see that a system premised on separating people based upon their racial and economic status limits opportunities for everyone, including themselves. With the expensive price tag attached to exclusive “winner” neighborhoods, it is increasingly difficult for middle-income whites to afford the trappings of middle-class status, which includes a home in a “safe” neighborhood with “good” schools along with the ability to pay for things like college tuition and health care.

There are multicultural, socioeconomically integrated islands that buck the dominant trend of race and class separation. Neighborhoods such as Adams-Morgan in Washington, D.C., Jackson Heights in Queens, and Fruitvale in Oakland are home to a rich mélange of races, languages, and cultures. But such inclusive neighborhoods are the exception, not the rule, in American real estate markets. Those home buyers who set out to live in an integrated neighborhood are often surprised by the lack of offerings. And frequently in integrated communities, like West Mount Airy in Philadelphia, the schools are becoming more segregated and impoverished. Even among the universe of families that choose to live in integrated neighborhoods, parents with options, especially white and black professionals, often bypass the public schools.

My aim with this book has been to offer a thorough factual account on where we are in upholding the integrationist, egalitarian ideals we claim to believe in. I come to this as a scholar but also as a black woman who values black institutions and communities even as I advocate for race and class integration. These are highly emotional issues. They go to the very core of our social structure. I hope the book makes unassailable points based upon research even as much of what I say may be inconvenient and discomfiting. Ultimately, I argue that unless and until we complete the unfinished business of the civil rights movement, meaningfully integrating our public and private realms in a way that gives all Americans, especially those who have been most marginalized, real choices and opportunities, we will not solve the conundrum of race and class inequality in America. For far too many Americans, race and economic status defines what type of neighborhood they will live in, what type of education they are able to acquire, and ultimately, their life chances. Beyond the inequality that results from our separation, this stratification is contributing to a corrosive politics of selfishness. Communities of abundance compete with communities of need for limited state, federal, and private resources. The communities of abundance are winning, but over the long term, as gulfs of opportunity begin to entrench classes of “haves” and “have nots,” we risk a stark failure of our democracy project.

At the dawn of the twentieth century, W.E.B. DuBois predicted that only a complete transformation of American society would bring about equality for black people. I am arguing that in the twenty-first century we still need a transformation—a jettisoning of the common assumption that separation is acceptable—in order to solve the riddle of inequality and unfairness in America. Our public policy choices must be premised on an integrationist vision if we are to achieve our highest aspiration and the promise that America says it embraces: full and equal opportunity for all. Integration should be viewed as inherent to American citizenship. This is a necessary shift in thinking if we are to harness the beautiful diversity of America and be an example to the world on how to transcend differences of race, class, ethnicity, nationality, and religion.

This book proceeds in three parts. Part I presents the facts about the limits of integration; it explains the extent of our separatism and the reasons for it. Chapter 1 illustrates how and why racial integration of our neighborhoods and our life space still eludes us. Chapter 2 offers a happier portrait, one of integrated, multicultural islands that are hopeful exceptions to the dominant trend of separation; it explores the challenges of creating togetherness among strangers. Chapter 3 explains the extent of race and class separatism in our neighborhoods and demonstrates that it is not inherently natural but the result of conscious public and private policy choices.

Part II examines the costs of our separatism for the whole of society. I contend that we are creating a separate and unequal opportunity system and illustrate this primarily by comparing the life space and residential returns experienced by suburban blacks and whites who live in separate enclaves of their own kind. Chapter 4 tells the story of predominately black middle-class communities in Prince George’s County, Maryland, illustrating the dilemma of the black middle class, who must decide whether the psychic benefits of “we-ness” are worth the costs of racial isolation. Chapter 5 documents the heavy costs of separatism to white America—the often elusive quest for a sane middle-class quality of life. Chapter 6 tells the story of separatism in American public schools, which are rapidly becoming more separate and unequal, underscoring the profound costs to American school children and society. Finally, Chapter 7 examines the cost of the black ghetto, for those who live its cruel reality and for the rest of us, who distance ourselves from that reality but suffer its indirect effects.

Part III examines the current and future implications of our separatism. What does it mean and what should we be doing about it? In Chapter 8, I illustrate how our separated condition is fraying the social contract and altering politics, which now heavily favors the desires of white suburban voters and implies that they need not be a part of or contribute to larger society. In the final chapter of the book I address solutions. Chapter 9 presents my optimistic vision for an America that has made its core ideals true for everyone: a new, integrated reality that might be achieved in the twenty-first century. In positing how we might achieve such a seemingly utopian vision, Chapter 9 examines the grassroots, cross-cultural coalitions that have been forged around issues of equity and sustainable development and suggests revolutionary policy directions for such coalitions to pursue. Ultimately, I conclude that we cannot solve the problem of grave inequality of opportunity or stem our drift toward a “winner-take-all” society without meaningful race and class integration, particularly of the institutions that foster upward mobility, such as schools.

A hopeful shift in public attitudes occurred in the twentieth century. As a nation, we embraced the ideal of equality and came to believe that integration was the best route to this ideal, as well as the best way to ensure domestic tranquility and prosperity. At least that is what the majority of us profess to believe. Our growing diversity presents an opportunity to make this abstract vision much more of a shared cultural value. But this is not where we are headed. The current trend is one of enclave formation and pronounced class separation, leading to separate and unequal realities. A more hopeful destiny will only come about as the result of a conscious effort to change our public policies and culture. We managed a revolutionary shift in national consciousness as a result of the civil rights movement. Lifting the physical and psychic shackles of Jim Crow produced a sea change. My hope for America in the twenty-first century is that she fully completes the transformation.