Segregation's Lingering Legacy
Did you attend a segregated high school?
If, like me, you went to public school after the landmark 1954 Brown v. Board of Education ruling, your answer should be no…but is it?
The reason I ask is that I just attended my high school reunion. I never would have thought of my school as segregated when I was growing up. But while everyone ate dinner, I took pictures of all of the tables and found that nearly every one was segregated by race.
Looking back, I did not observe any overt racism at my high school. This does not mean that none existed, but it would have been shocking for anyone to use the “n” word or to exclude anyone based on their race. Of course, as a white person, I might not have been as attuned to racism as my classmates of color were.
Yet there we were, years later, grouped by race, much like we were in the school cafeteria, come to think of it. Just as in high school, no one had an assigned seat; we could sit wherever we wanted. So why did race seem to predict where one might sit?
It would be tempting to think that segregation is simply a matter of choice, that people feel more comfortable with those that have similar backgrounds and look more like them. But this would be a superficial answer, and a very incomplete explanation.
I grew up in an upper-middle-class suburb just outside of Cleveland, Ohio. Everyone, regardless of race, could afford the relatively high price of housing and property tax that came with the zip code. Nobody was bussed in from another area, and many, if not most, of our parents had managerial-level positions or owned their own businesses.
My hometown is a great example of the persistence of institutional racism, a form of racism that is so deeply embedded into the structure of society that it is nearly impossible to see unless you look for it. This form of racism requires no individual bigots; and it can exist even in a community of people who hold very egalitarian ideas about race, as I’d like to imagine my classmates do.
We often form friendships with people who live closest to us. In spite of post- Civil Rights Era laws that forbid overt discrimination in housing, Americans are still very likely to live near people of their same racial or ethnic group. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, housing segregation increased for both Latinos and Asian Americans/Pacific Islanders between 1980 and 2000. While it decreased nationwide for African Americans during this time, they are still more likely be clustered within homogeneous neighborhoods in our nation’s cities. This is especially true for Mid-western industrial cities like the one I grew up in.
Before the 1968 Fair Housing Act, residential segregation was legal in the United States, and it continues after the rules were supposed to have changed. In my hometown, many African American families lived within a particular subdivision. A major thoroughfare divided their homes from the rest of the community.
But residential segregation like this didn’t come about simply because people preferred to live near those of their race, a frequent assumption. “Redlining” was a policy in the postwar era deemed that neighborhoods with significant numbers of African American residents were unfit for economic investment. In order to obtain loans, whites often moved outside of these designated areas, and racial ethnic minorities found few options but to remain in these segregated communities.
Racial steering—the practice of selling properties in “white” communities to whites only—all but assured that segregation would remain, even after the 1968 Fair Housing Act outlawed the practice. Recent studies featuring similarly matched pairs posing as homebuyers found that the practice still persists in spite of the fact that it is illegal.
It is likely that when my classmates’ families purchased their homes in the 1960s and 1970s, they were steered into a particular neighborhood. I observed this happening myself recently, when a family member was house shopping. The realtor actually noted that she could lose her license for saying so, but said she wouldn’t recommend a particular neighborhood that had been “changing” in recent years.
Realtors are not the only ones that helped maintain segregation. Racial covenants, property titles that forbade the sale of land to African Americans (and often to people of Mexican or Asian decent as well) were legally abolished in 1948. But as recently as 1990, nearly forty percent of whites reported in a nationally representative survey that they should have the legal right not to sell their property to blacks if they didn’t want to.
Overall, the most segregated regions in the U.S. today are the Northeast and the Midwest. African Americans in particular are most likely to be segregated in Detroit, Milwaukee, and New York. But in spite of its reputation for tolerance, San Francisco remains America’s most segregated city. In the nineteenth century it was among the first U.S. cities to introduce an ethnic zoning ordinance aimed and curbing where Chinese immigrants could locate their laundry businesses.
Housing segregation creates a ripple effect wherever it exists. People in highly homogeneous areas are less likely to have regular interactions with those in other racial-ethnic groups. A 2000 study found that in Los Angeles, a white person had only a six percent chance of interacting with an African American person in their neighborhood; whites had a fifteen percent chance of interacting with a Latino person in their neighborhood. Kids then have less of an opportunity to play with kids from other racial ethnic groups in their neighborhoods.
And segregation is not simply the result of economic inequality, as my hometown example demonstrates. A 1993-1994 study found that in Los Angeles average rent payments for whites and African Americans were only 49 dollars apart, and more recent research continues to find that income has a surprisingly limited influence on housing patterns and race.
Segregation takes a higher toll for African Americans and Latinos, who are more likely to attend failing schools and have more obstacles to overcome to achieve economic success. When a 2001 Gallup Poll asked whether respondents believed that Americans all have equal job opportunities, 53 percent of whites agreed, while only eighteen percent of African Americans and 46 percent of Latinos agreed.
Although some of the biggest gains of the Civil Rights Movement involved the freedom to attend neighborhood schools, many of America’s schools remain highly segregated. After courts began enforcing desegregation orders, many white children began attending private schools, effectively resegregating many public schools. The recent U.S. Supreme Court decision makes it harder for schools to try and create more racial diversity. This will means that America’s schools will likely continue de facto segregation. While different from de jure segregation, which the law imposes, de facto segregation often has a similar effect.
Schools with the highest percentage of low-income kids of color are more likely to be severely overcrowded and have buildings in need of significant repair. These schools also tend to have the highest turnover of teachers, who may have only emergency teaching credentials. American schools have a long pattern of investing less in the education of children of color, a trend that could worsen after this year’s Supreme Court decision.
But sometimes the outcome is more subtle. Students may attend the same high-quality public schools as white children do, but may not be afforded the same opportunities, even when they have similar abilities as white students.
These are just some of the hidden elements of institutional racism that may impede some peoples’ life chances, or simply perpetuate racial divisions in the United States. My reunion is an example of housing discrimination’s ripple effects, even though it became illegal almost forty years ago. Its effects may be subtle or even look like personal preferences, but institutional racism can be even more pernicious than a bigot’s taunt. At least we can identify a bigot when we see one.
Photos courtesy of the U.S. Census Bureau