Desegregating America isn’t rocket science
It’s 1,000 times more complicated than that
In America, race-based segregation is like mayonnaise: something that white people consume blithely without noticing how much everyone else hates it. The Supreme Court’s ruling in Brown v. Board of Education, which was all about desegregation, happened in 1954: it’s old enough to be collecting Social Security. And yet the numbers say that our schools and neighborhoods are still segregated. And segregation is at the root of the problems with policing and how the police see African Americans.
Richard Rothstein’s The Color of Law lays out the details of how race-based segregation became woven into the development of America’s suburbs in the post-World War II era. Integration was opposed — often violently — not just in the south but in northern cities like Chicago. And both segregation and disinvestment were built into the federal government’s housing policy, as well as that of federally insured banks.
As Rothstein convincingly argues, there are excellent reasons to believe that today’s low-income, African American neighborhood is where it is because the grandparents and great-grandparents of the people living there today had no other place to live. Those neighborhoods may once have been near good manufacturing jobs, but over time employment in most metropolitan regions has shifted into far-flung suburban office buildings and industrial parks, leaving large numbers of poor inner-city residents without a clear path to a middle-class income.
Policymakers, academics, and urban planners have been trying to undo patterns of racial segregation for decades, with very little to show for it. The problems that astrophysicists confront in rocket science seem much simpler by comparison. For starters, they can usually agree that there is a problem — for example, gravity preventing a rocket from going “up”. In America, a huge proportion of people want to begin the discussion by insisting that if segregation exists, it’s no one’s fault and does not represent a crisis.
Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts boiled that perspective down to a single pithy, very misleading statement in a 2007 ruling on whether or not schools in Seattle could use race as a factor when allocating students to specific schools. Roberts’ statement that “The way to stop discrimination on the basis of race is to stop discriminating on the basis of race” is as succinct a summary as you will find of how most conservatives want to talk about all issues related to race. While it sounds a lot like Roberts is saying “let’s end discrimination everybody!”, what he’s really saying is “let’s not give anyone a leg up based on race.”
Conservatives have glommed onto this sentiment because they want to skip over context, skip over centuries of exclusion, and skip over the discrimination that racial and ethnic minorities face in North America today, right now. They want to jump straight to an individual’s work ethic, earnings, and ability to achieve on standardized tests as key measures of who should get what. This approach is simply easier: it means no one has to actually change how they behave or think about other people.
And it’s a superb way to make sure nothing changes, which, after all, is what the label “conservative” implies. Like a lot of the knottier problems our society faces, segregation is a problem because it is a political problem — it is not going to be solved through the development of a new polymer or a superconductor. And it is not something that Democrats and Republicans are currently able to unite behind.
But it wasn’t always this way. Consider the fact that these words: “Equal opportunity for all Americans in education and housing is essential if we are going to keep our nation from being torn apart” come from inside the Nixon administration!
George Romney, the father of Mitt, was Secretary of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) in the Nixon administration and tried to use his power to end housing discrimination by keeping HUD money out of communities that had policies that fostered segregation. Naturally, Richard Nixon took the kind of moral, principled stand you would expect and had this policy squashed. But imagine what could happen if there was a bloc of Republicans in Congress today who had George Romney’s conscience!
Ending race-based segregation should become the moonshot of our time. Obviously, it is in competition with a few other similarly massive goals, such as ending carbon dependence (and preventing runaway global warming), and eliminating plastic waste. But not addressing racial injustice is like making a mistake early on in a math problem: it messes up everything else you do, forcing you to go back and figure out where you went wrong.
Talking about real racial integration in America means touching a political third rail that barely ever gets mentioned: making the suburbs less “white”. This can — and in many states definitely does — involve more than just city politics. It takes what is easy to characterize as a “city problem” and moves it into suburban municipal discussions, where Not In My Backyard (NIMBY) forces can be mobilized against something as benign as a daycare center if you can convince enough people that it might, maybe, someday increase the number of cars going down a street. Negotiations over siting affordable housing are about as carefree and breezy as a hostage crisis.
It all comes down to who cares more and, so far, in most suburbs, white people who want their neighborhoods to continue to be predominantly white have demonstrated their enthusiasm for their position.
For the rest of us, the time is now to start paying attention to the boring stuff: local politics, local affordable housing policies and proposals. Who opposes them and why? Which local politicians support meaningful change in who gets to live where? And how can you support those voices? Read your paper, track your local elected officials, ask questions, and organize. It’s not rocket science, it’s just being a citizen.