Thursday, February 2, 2012

The end of segregation?

Posted By on 02.02.12 at 09:48 AM

Headlines in the San Antonio Express and the Tampa Bay Times this week declared the nation's cities to be "almost free of segregation." USA Today reported that blacks were "less segregated than ever before." The Sun-Times noted that while Chicago remained the nation's segregation capital, the city "has experienced some of the sharpest declines" in the nation in big-city segregation in the last ten years.

These rosy revelations stem from a new study, brightly titled "The End of the Segregated Century," funded by the conservative Manhattan Institute. Many of the conclusions reporters have drawn from the study are exaggerated, and some are simply wrong.

First, regarding Chicago: here in the Reader we showed almost exactly a year ago that most of the city's African-Americans still live in racial ghettos. Two-thirds live in neighborhoods that are at least 80 percent black; more than half live in areas that are virtually all black. These hypersegregated neighborhoods tend to have distressed schools and high rates of infant mortality, unemployment, foreclosures, disease, and crime.

Our story relied on census estimates from 2005 through 2009. The Manhattan Institute study uses 2010 census figures—but it focuses on metropolitan areas, not central cities. Journalists across the country have misunderstood this, reporting the findings as if they describe segregation levels in central cities—a misunderstanding spurred by the study's authors, who often use "city" interchangeably with metro area.

In a column Monday in Bloomberg View, one of the two authors of the study, Harvard economist Edward Glaeser, observed that while Chicago remains one of the "most segregated places" in America, "the Windy City has experienced a particularly dramatic decline in segregation since 2000."

But the "Windy City" in Glaeser's study is the Chicago-Joliet-Naperville metropolitan statistical area, Glaeser acknowledged in an e-mail to me. That includes all of Cook County, eight other Illinois counties, four counties in Indiana, and a county in Wisconsin—an area with a population of ten million. (Chicago's population is 2.7 million.) It is in this much broader area that the study found a significant drop in segregation.

Has segregation declined in Chicago proper during the last ten years? I would guess it has—but by how much is hard to say. Most of our notorious public housing projects came crashing down during the 2000s. Virtually all of their residents were black, so even though the vast majority resettled in black neighborhoods—mainly in Chicago and the south suburbs—a modest decrease in segregation was inevitable. The razing of the projects brought development and gentrification on the edges of ghettos—until the housing market itself crashed late in the decade. African-Americans who could afford to trickled out of the city's ghettos, as they have for years (concentrating the poverty of those unable to escape). And as the Manhattan Institute study correctly observes, whites no longer have the legal and quasi-legal means to keep these blacks out of their neighborhoods.

There is less overt racial prejudice as well. In Chicago, this prejudice ran high between 1910 and 1970, when blacks were streaming into the city from Mississippi and a few other southern states. When the job market tightened in Chicago around 1970, the flow of southern immigrants waned, whites worried less about their neighborhoods being engulfed, and their hostility toward blacks diminished.

It was a similar story in other northern cities. So the Manhattan Institute's finding that segregation in America has declined significantly since its extraordinary 1970 levels is no surprise. And the decline has been a welcome development. But is desegregation the "unsung U.S. success story" that Glaeser's Bloomberg column proclaims it? His study found that despite segregation's ebbing to its lowest level in a century, it is still thriving in many metro areas, with metro Chicago leading the pack. Should the decline in segregation remind us, as Glaeser thinks it should, "that our nation continues to have a great ability to fight even its worst problems"?

Not everyone agrees on the extent of progress. “In terms of trends in black-white segregation, we really see two trends," Princeton sociologist Douglas Massey told the New York Times, in appraising the new study. Massey is one of the nation's leading students of segregation. "In metro areas with small black populations, we indeed observed sharp decreases in segregation; but in those with large black populations, the declines are much slower and at times nonexistent."

The chief demographer at the Brookings Institution, William H. Frey, worried that the new report "sends a potentially harmful message that black-white residential separation is no longer a priority issue in this country." Frey observed in the NYT that black segregation levels are higher for children, "signaling the continued separation of black and white families across communities, with different levels of resources available for schools and other services important for nurturing the next generation.”

I happened to be in West Englewood Sunday morning to do an interview. The 43-year-old African-American man I spoke with, a car mechanic, is a lifelong resident of the neighborhood. A few Latinos live in the area, he told me, but he hasn't had any white neighbors since he was a child, when the area was changing from white to black.

His home, near 55th and Ashland, is 112 years old, and dilapidated. He warms it with space heaters, and flushes the toilet by pouring water into it. He wants to rehab the building but lacks the money. It sits amid numerous vacant lots. There have been several murders nearby in the last month. While we were talking, a man knocked on the front door—he was selling garbage bags door-to-door.

You will find similar circumstances at 59th and Ashland, and 63rd and State, and 71st and Halsted, and up and down the south side—places that have yet to experience the unsung success story of desegregation. Hundreds of thousands of black Chicagoans still live in them.

There is no simple solution to this problem. Whites—and middle-class blacks—are not about to move back into dangerous, debilitated neighborhoods, nor should they be expected to. But the problem is no less real because it is difficult. And acknowledging the continuing misery we are causing with segregation, and dedicating ourselves to addressing it, seems more important than boasting about the minimal attainments we have backed into.

The Manhattan Institute report concludes by noting that despite the increases in desegregation "there has been only limited progress in closing achievement and employment gaps between blacks and whites." The authors assert that in the 1960s "the fight against housing segregation seemed to offer the possibility that once the races mixed more readily, all would be well....We now know that eliminating segregation was not a magic bullet."

We might know that if segregation had indeed been eliminated. But even still, those who pressed for desegregation never claimed it was a magic bullet. They saw it only as an essential first step. And in Chicago and many other big northern cities, that step has yet to be taken.

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