Why are we still so divided by race?
By john a. powell
March 23, 2003
A few months ago, America and its politicians were shocked to hear Senate majority leader Trent Lott express his support for a Dixiecrat philosophy that favored racial segregation. But what is perhaps even more shocking is that, even as leader after leader condemned the senator's statements, there was no recognition of the fact that we continue to live in a deeply segregated society.
Given the success of the civil rights movement, why are we still so divided by race, and why does this segregation go largely unnoticed? Perhaps it's because segregation today no longer exists in our laws, but it persists in our places and spaces. Especially in the North, communities have been purposely engineered to exclude people of color.
A recent report by the US Census Bureau, "Racial and Ethnic Residential Segregations in the United States: 1980-2000," found American housing still largely segregated, with the worst segregation in the Northeast and Midwest. The most segregated metropolitan areas, according to the report, were not Atlanta or Birmingham, but the northern cities of Detroit, Milwaukee, New York, Newark, and Chicago.
Cardinal Francis George of the Catholic Archdiocese of Chicago calls this new practice spatial racism, where we allow municipal boundaries to structurally do the work of Jim Crow.
The civil rights movement and the rapid urbanization of people of color occurred at about the same time, during and after World War II. Even as pressures were exerted to end racial hierarchy and change the exclusionary practices that supported it, cities and towns were adopting laws that undermined any real progress.
Black migration, white flight
Government, at all levels, responded to demands to protect the status quo -- white privilege -- by creating "safe" areas outside of the central city. The public purse supported the rise of modern suburbs by investing in roads and infrastructure even as it grossly underserved the transit needs of racial minorities and other city residents. As a result, cities and suburbs -- especially in the booming North -- increasingly became separate and unequal.
After the war, new lending regulations allowed more Americans to afford a home. Through government programs, the down payment for homes was reduced from 40 or 50 percent to 5 or 10 percent. And the length of time to pay a mortgage was extended from five years to 30 years.
But here, too, laws favored whites. In order to benefit from these government insurance programs, homes had to be appraised. Homes in the least desirable neighborhoods (where there were blacks), were circled on the map with a red line. There was also a preference for new construction over existing homes. People of color and central cities (where older buildings dominated) were systematically denied coverage.
Excluded from the suburbs
As a result of these federal loan regulations, "white flight," or sprawl, became commonplace. This practice redistributed people, as well as opportunity, amassing it in white suburbs and robbing it from racially diverse inner cities. Blacks were especially impacted because red lining was targeted at keeping blacks contained in urban ghettos. Why did these changes affect the North so drastically? The South is more likely to be organized on a county level, which encompasses the central cities and suburbs. The Northeast and Midwest, on the other hand, are more likely to have fragmented, separate jurisdictions in their suburbs, and they have driven this new segregation.
As recently as 1950, 60 percent of Americans living in metropolitan areas lived in the central city. By 1990, 70 percent of Americans living in metropolitan areas lived in the suburbs. When people of color tried to follow opportunity out to the suburbs, exclusionary zoning, steering, and racial violence were used to keep them out. Today, thousands of small jurisdictions -- primarily northern and midwestern suburbs -- represent the most racially and economically segregated regions in the country.
When desegregation became the law of the land, it was not allowed to effectively cross these jurisdictional boundaries. For example, in Detroit in 1976, black parents won a school desegregation case against the state of Michigan. But the US Supreme Court blocked their children from crossing into suburban schools, limiting the remedy to Detroit proper. The parents complained that the state facilitated the creation of these boundaries, since school districts are creatures of the state. Moreover, the segregated housing market made desegregation within the city nearly impossible. The court did not budge, however. It defended local control and claimed that it had no idea why the housing market in the Detroit area was so segregated. Justice Thurgood Marshall, in his dissent, warned that the court was telling white parents that, if they could get to the suburbs, they would be safe from having to send their children to school with blacks. Approximately 600,000 whites left Detroit for the suburbs following this decision. As a result, Detroit schools are more segregated today by race and class than ever before. This unwillingness to desegregate across jurisdictional boundaries has been repeated all over the country. Recently, the Harvard Civil Rights Project documented the rapid racial and economic resegregation of schools by race and class. But it is hardly necessary to read a study to realize that we are segregated. One only need visit any large urban school district and its suburban counterpart.
While we certainly have made progress in the last half-century, it is not enough. We must be willing to challenge how we live, not just how we speak.
john A. powell holds the Williams Chair in Civil Rights & Civil Liberties at Ohio State University Moritz College of Law and is the director of the Kirwan Institute of Race and Ethnicity.
© Copyright 2003 Globe Newspaper Company.