“If it’s not good enough for my child, then why are we putting any children in those schools?”

If you not already heard it, this Fresh Air interview with New York Times reporter Nikole Hannah-Jones about public school segregation is essential listening. A taste:

The original mission of public schools … is this understanding that no matter where you come from, you will go into the doors of a school and every child will receive the same education.

And no, my daughter is not going to get an education that she would get if I paid $40,000 a year in private-school tuition, but that’s kind of the whole point of public schools.

And I say this — and it always feels weird when I say it as a parent, because a lot of other parents look at you a little like you’re maybe not as good of a parent — I don’t think she’s deserving of more than other kids. I just don’t. I think that we can’t say “This school is not good enough for my child” and then sustain that system. I think that that’s just morally wrong. If it’s not good enough for my child, then why are we putting any children in those schools?

One more:

When I started what I kind of call the segregation beat about five years ago … I think we had stopped talking about this as a problem. If you look at No Child Left Behind, which comes out of the Bush administration, that was all about giving up on integration in schools and just saying, “We’re going to make these poor black and Latino schools equal to white schools by testing and accountability.”

So no one was discussing integration anymore. I think it’s because … we never really wanted this. … It’s always had to be forced, and as soon as … our elected officials and our courts lost the will to force it, most white Americans were just fine with that. …

One of the things that I really try to do with my work is show how racial segregation and racial inequality was intentionally created with a ton of resources. From the federal government, to the state, to city governments, to private citizens, we put so much effort into creating this segregation and inequality, and we’re willing to put almost no effort in fixing it, and that’s the problem.

“In Chicago, homicide rates correspond with segregation”

Whether exacerbated by gangs or guns, though, Chicago’s killings are happening on familiar turf: Its poor, extremely segregated neighborhoods on the South and West Sides. And many say that is Chicago’s real violence issue.

“Where do gangs come from? They tend to take root in the very same neighborhoods that drive these other problems,” said Robert J. Sampson, a professor at Harvard and the author of “Great American City: Chicago and the Enduring Neighborhood Effect.” “You can’t divorce the gang problem from the problem of deep concentrations of poverty.”

“What predicts violent crime rates is concentrated poverty and neighborhood disadvantage, and what determines concentrated poverty is high levels of black segregation combined with high levels of black poverty,” said Douglas S. Massey, a sociology professor at Princeton University.

In Chicago, homicide rates correspond with segregation. While many areas have few or no killings, the South and West Sides are on par with the world’s most dangerous countries, like Brazil and Venezuela, and have been for many years.

The linkage of segregation, poverty and crime exists in New York City as well. Homicides occur at higher rates in parts of Brooklyn, the Bronx and Harlem, and many other neighborhoods are virtually free of killings.

But segregation in New York is nothing like in Chicago: The perfectly isolated neighborhood – where every man, woman and child is the same race – is rare in New York. Less than one percent of the population lives in such areas, and most of them are white. In Chicago, 12 percent of the black population is in a census block group that is 100 percent black.

Racially segregated minority neighborhoods have a long history of multiple adversities, such as poverty, joblessness, environmental toxins and inadequate housing, Professor Sampson said. In these places, people tend to be more cynical about the law and distrust police, “heightening the risk that conflictual encounters will erupt in violence.”

“The major underlying causes of crime are similar across cities, but the intensity of the connection between social ills and violence seems to be more persistent in Chicago,” Professor Sampson said. “You don’t get that kind of extensive social and economic segregation in many other cities.”

– From a recent Times article, “Chicago’s Murder Problem.” 

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.

White People Get Cold Too

Credit: Chicago Daily News, 1911.
Credit: Chicago Daily News, 1911.

“I thought white people didn’t get cold.” The young elementary school student directed his observation to his bemused principal while looking skeptically at my down jacket. I assured him that I definitely get cold and that I needed a warm jacket just like he did to stay warm through Chicago’s cold winters. I was smiling as I drove away from his school, tickled by his innocent assumption that my lighter skin color somehow kept me warmer than did his darker hue. The student’s school and neighborhood are predominately black and while I don’t know the origins of his hypothesis it also wasn’t that surprising. I could imagine my younger self saying something similar.

My son had joined me for this school visit so my first thought as we drove home was about him- how thankful I am for the diverse community to which he belongs. His church, school, neighborhood, and friendships make it hard to hold blind assumptions about others, no matter how innocent the assumptions might be. He will, I pray, grow up within environments that make plain the gifts of cultural uniqueness and the countless commonalities shared between individuals.

A second thought followed and it wasn’t nearly as hopeful.

The isolating cultural dynamics that caused the student to wrongly assume that my race kept me warm are at work elsewhere with much costlier effects. A 2013 Associated Press poll found that racial prejudice had increased during the previous two years. The poll showed that 56% of Americans hold implicit anti-black attitudes while 57% hold anti-hispanic attitudes. Political polarization and implicit segregation contribute to a culture where, contrary to what many believe, prejudice and stereotypes are gaining ground. And unlike the harmless assumption about my insulating skin color, the biases toward black and brown people have devastating implications. One’s likelihood of being stopped by law enforcement, imprisoned, turned away from available housing, denied promotion, or sold shoddy financial instruments are all tied to one’s race. Not my race, by the way. In all of the previous examples my race (and gender) make it unlikely that I will experience any of this ugliness. (See the Ta-Nehisi Coates article I recently linked to for links to many of these examples and check out the This American Life story about housing discrimination.)

The student’s social location led him to assume wrongly, but harmlessly, that white people don’t get cold. The social location of many other people – older and more influential – can lead to equally wrong but far more harmful assumptions about brown and black people. Assumptions that work their way into media norms, policing policy, and a nation’s collective subconscious.

Diversity is no panacea nor is it a guarantor against injustice. However, those of us with the choice to live in relative segregation must acknowledge that our decisions are about more than preference or comfort. A child’s assumption about my light skin’s protective properties is one thing. Colluding with forces that malign and marginalize is something else entirely.