Desegregating America isn’t rocket science

AJ Mastav
4 min readApr 19, 2021

It’s 1,000 times more complicated than that

Photo courtesy of SpaceX

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…

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AJ Mastav

Professional planner, unprofessional writer. Member of the American Institute of Certified Planners. Also, a former Sunday School teacher.