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Jewish Journal

One Serious Problem Gone

by  David A. Lehrer

February 1, 2012 | 4:41 pm

Over the past few days, the press reported a welcomed reminder of how America has been transforming itself over recent decades. Not in the depressing trajectory that is often the subject of the blather of 24/7 news outlets and their self-proclaimed “pundits.” Rather, by virtue of some startling data that has been reported, it appears that one of the goals of the civil rights community for half century is near attainment—-the desegregation of housing in America’s major cities.

It wasn’t all that long ago that “Fair Housing Councils” proliferated across the country to give voice to the goal of eliminating, or at least reducing, the isolation of minorities in cities and towns. Today, the Councils and others can take pride in the fact that the residential racial isolation that marked so much of the twentieth century in the United States is at the lowest level in nearly a century.

Two researchers at the Manhattan Institute, Edward Glaeser and Jacob Vigdor, analyzed the data from the last thirteen censuses (going back over 100 years) and discovered some astounding trends. Namely:

  • The most standard measure of segregation reveals that American cities are more integrated today than at any time since 1910—-before the mid-century black migration to our largest cities. 
  • “All-white” neighborhoods are effectively extinct. Fifty years ago 20% of all urban neighborhoods had no blacks residing in them. Today virtually every neighborhood (199 out of 200) has African American residents.
  • Gentrification and immigration are part of the story, but a major cause of the transformation is the suburbanization of America’s blacks.
  • Ghetto neighborhoods persist, but most are in decline.

In a short but fascinating study, Glaeser and Vigdor point out what a complex process the desegregation of American cities has been. It isn’t attributable just to the suburbanization of blacks or the immigration of Latinos or the gentrification of inner city neighborhoods or the ending of malevolent government policies (e.g. the denial of mortgage credit to residents in mixed race neighborhoods or the enforcement of restrictive covenants) or the removal of enormous public housing projects that concentrated poor and minority residents (e.g. Pruitt-Igoe). It is all these and more and the change is enormous.

According to one of the indices used in the study,

Los Angeles has become the least racially isolated large city in America

with an “isolation index” of 22—compared to New York’s 42.4 and Chicago’s 57.5. This index measures the tendency for residents of one group to live in neighborhoods where their share of the population is above the citywide average (the lower the number the less isolated the residents).

The authors remind their readers that in the 1960’s there were those who argued that curing housing segregation would be the key to transforming America; “once the races mixed more readily, all would be well.” It turns out, of course, that there are no silver bullets. Housing segregation is only one part of a very complex and inter-connected series of problems.

There are those who will attempt to find fault with the study to avoid even the hint of good news on the inter-group front. There will also be those who will suggest that few problems remain if we are living side by side. In fact, leave it to John McWhorter in an essay in The Root for a sober analysis of the report’s implications:

This report is not designed to shut people up about injustice. Its final words are “While the decline in segregation remains good news, far too many Americans lack the opportunity to achieve meaningful success.”

However, there is a crucial implication of this and the report. As the authors put it, “The persistence of inequality, even as segregation has receded, suggests that inequality is a far more complex phenomenon.” That is, while black America does suffer from overall socioeconomic inequality with the mainstream, addressing that will not be a matter of worrying about whether black people live in neighborhoods with too many other black people in them.

We should welcome this news. It means that we no longer have to put up with smart people telling us that when too many black people live in one place, you have to expect all hell to break loose. It is rather striking how this insult to black dignity is so warmly received as kindly wisdom.

In any case, the upshot is simple. Black residential segregation is at its lowest in more than 90 years. It’s good someone decided to find that out. We should keep it in mind the next time someone tells us that blackness is a pathology—be it Newt Gingrich or a social science professor who says he or she is doing the right thing by warning black people about the pitfalls of poor black people hanging out only with other poor black people.

The Glaeser/Vigdor study is indeed welcome news—-while one problem has dramatically receded, it is clear that other profound challenges remain.

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