Segregation, Poverty, and White Amnesia

Racial segregation devastates Black communities. Who’s responsible?

The forgetful quality of whiteness is evident in the way that people who live far enough from Chicago’s violence feel no responsibility for the men and women who are killed here every day. 2016 has thus far been the most violent year in Chicago “for at least 16 years,” but because the victims and their neighborhoods are Black and Brown, white people think and feel very little about these lost lives. We feel no shame. For all kinds of reasons – moral, historical, and sociological – this lack of responsibility and accountability is completely wrong.

Recent studies by the Chicago Urban League and American University show the extent to which Chicago remains a segregated city. Though the dramatic white flight of previous generations is now rare, the American University study demonstrates some of the subtler ways that segregation is perpetuated by white people. For example,

The mechanism that creates gradual racial succession, we believe, is whites’ avoidance of neighborhoods with more than a few minorities. Whites’ tolerance of integration that occurs when minorities move to their neighborhoods does not extend to a desire for integrated neighborhoods. Whites know less about and are resistant to considering neighborhoods with more than a token number of minorities.

The segregation that is created by white people’s intolerance has destructive implications far beyond the demographic makeup of a particular neighborhood. As a 2011 article in The Chicago Reader stated:

Because of historical—and some continuing—discrimination, blacks are more likely to be poor. When this is combined with segregation, it means blacks are far more likely than any other group to live in concentrated poverty. It’s hard to be poor; it’s much harder to be poor and surrounded by poverty and all the harmful cultural norms and behavior, such as crime, that accompany it. It’s a kind of poverty whites rarely experience, and one tough to escape.

It shouldn’t be a surprise that this concentrated poverty – fostered by what the Urban League calls “racial residential segregation” – undermines the quality of life among the residents of those neighborhoods. Compared to children in higher socioeconomic neighborhoods, the children who reside in segregated neighborhoods are more likely to have poorer math and literacy achievement, lower test scores, higher dropout rates, and lower graduation rates. These children will also struggle more with mental health, have higher rates of acting out in school, are more likely to be unemployed, and have higher rates of teen pregnancy. Adults are also impacted, with higher reported cases of obesity and diabetes, more cases of mental illness, less food security, and higher rates of unemployment.

These “racially concentrated area[s] of poverty,” as the Urban League report calls Chicago’s segregated neighborhoods, are the result of many historic and systemic realities. Any hope of holistically addressing segregation will take these complicated factors seriously. But the entrenched and complex nature of segregation should never distract from its simplest cause: White people choose not to live near Black people.

Because segregation disproportionately impacts poor, urban, African American communities, it’s easy for white people to remain ignorant. The Reader article pointed this out: “For most whites, concentrated poverty and its many ills are an abstraction—something they read about but rarely see, since it exists in parts of town they don’t live in or work in or visit.” This ignorance is yet another of segregation’s bitter fruits: Those who bear the greatest responsibility for segregation are the least likely to know that such places even exist.

There is a lot of work to be done to address the evils of segregation and its devastations. But before action comes repentance. And before repentance comes remembering. And this, for white people, might be the hardest work of all.

Header photo: Brandon Harvey.

Author: David Swanson

Pastor of New Community Covenant Church in Bronzeville. Collecting signs of life.

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