The problem of the 20th century,” wrote black philosopher W.E.B. Du Bois as the 1900s were just beginning, “is the problem of the color line.” As we draw ever closer to century’s end, the problem of the color line is still very much with us. And nowhere is the divisive, polarizing impact of America’s continuing racial divisions more evident than in our urban areas.
Though mainstream journalists and establishment politicians don’t like to talk about it much, American cities are as racially segregated today as they were before the pioneering civil-rights legislation of the 1950s and 60s. According to Douglas Massey and Nancy Denton’s 1993 book “American Apartheid,” the degree of residential segregation between blacks and whites in the 30 U.S. cities with the largest black populations remained almost unchanged from 1940 to 1980. And though most large cities have become marginally more integrated since the 1970s, two major metropolitan centers — New York and Newark, N.J. — actually grew more segregated.
Today, huge numbers of African-Americans still live in the same racially homogeneous, central-city ghettos their parents, grandparents and great-grandparents spent their lives trying to escape. No other racial or ethnic minority in American history has had to endure anything like the pariah status and physical isolation from mainstream society to which blacks continue to be subjected.
The Twin Cities have long enjoyed the reputation of being something of an exception to the racial balkanization that prevails in rust-belt towns like Chicago and Detroit. Minneapolis in particular has often been held up by civic boosters as an exemplar of racial harmony and integration.
Sadly, if this reputation ever was deserved, it has been dramatically contradicted by recent trends. A report issued in September by the University of Minnesota’s Institute on Race and Poverty revealed that the Twin Cities is among the most segregated and fastest “ghettoizing” metropolitan areas in the United States. The report found that while only 28 percent of the region’s total population lives in the central cities, a full 65 percent of the region’s people of color live there. It also discovered that the disparity in incomes between blacks and whites living in the Twin Cities area is among the largest in the country: Per capita yearly income for whites in 1990 was $17,902 but for people of color it ranged from only $8,190 to $9,142.
“This report demonstrates that the Twin Cities is not exempt from national trends, which show that America’s urban centers continue to remain segregated by race and income,” said john powell, the institute’s director and a law professor at the University, (who prefers to spell his name without capital letters). “In many ways the area’s reputation is one that’s living off the past.”
As powell points out, racially exclusive neighborhoods are hardly confined to mostly white suburbs like Minnetonka or Bloomington. Even in Minneapolis and St. Paul, blacks and whites live predominantly in separate areas. “Not only is there segregation between cities and suburbs,” powell said, “but people of color are also segregated within the cities and suburbs.”
The destructive effects of persistent racial segregation on the lives and economic well-being of people of color are almost impossible to ignore.
“Segregation restricts people of color’s access to the opportunity structure,” powell said. “It segregates them from jobs and schools.”
Thus, blacks who reside in segregated neighborhoods suffer from outrageously high levels of unemployment and poverty. Poor, isolated communities of color lack the capital to invest in local business and lack the property tax base needed to fund decent public services. And, of course, the segregated schools that exist in such communities often lack the teachers, money and facilities to provide their students with a decent education.
The evidence is clear, the institute’s report concludes, that racial segregation erects multiple barriers that prevent people of color from participating as full equals in the economic and social life of our metropolitan areas.
That the continued existence of economically deprived black ghettos unfairly limits the opportunities of the people forced to live there seems fairly obvious (though it is a point that is often overlooked by policy makers and pundits). What is less clear is why our cities are still so racially divided and how, if at all, they can be integrated.
Residential segregation “largely reflects government and business practices. It’s not that black people have chosen to self-segregate. Rather certain communities have effectively shut out people of color,” powell said. As Massey and Denton document in their book, institutional discrimination in the banking and real estate industries combined with widespread private prejudice have consistently stood in the way of progress in integrating housing. Their research showed that real estate agents routinely steer black customers to properties in all-black neighborhoods and avoid showing them available properties in majority-white areas. It was also found that many apartment owners in white neighborhoods flatly refuse to rent to minorities even though such discrimination is illegal.
Though no one has yet discovered a catch-all solution to the problem of persistent segregation in housing and education, the Institute on Race and Poverty has accumulated a wealth of information about which policies in place around the nation work best. To begin with, because there are limits to what a single city can do to encourage integration, it is clear that measures to end segregation have to be regional in scope. “One part of the solution is to make municipal boundaries much more porous,” powell said. “We need coordinated regional housing policies and regional educational policies. If you can make serious entry into either one of these areas, it will have a positive effect on the other.”
Though powell said he thinks there’s a need for stricter enforcement of laws prohibiting discrimination in housing, he stresses that stricter anti-discrimination enforcement alone isn’t enough. “The problem,” he said, “is not just discrimination by the real estate industry. It is also in the production and placement of housing.”
Instead of just telling the real estate industry how to behave, powell said, cities and states should take a pro-active approach that includes building more publicly financed multi-family housing in the suburbs, and giving poor people of color the resources they need to relocate. In addition, more money should be invested to rebuild poor, inner-city communities of color, he said.
Of course, none of these measures by themselves offer a sure-fire method of integrating our schools and neighborhoods. But in combination they could make a difference.
The history of efforts at desegregation over the past few years has been a case of “let’s talk about it so we don’t have to do anything,” he said.
The Institute on Race and Poverty’s report shows that the Twin Cities is not the bastion of racial equality and integration it imagines itself to be. If our metro region doesn’t begin to take concerted and decisive action to end segregation soon, the problem of the color line will plague us well into the 21st century.
Steve Macek’s column appears every Tuesday in the Daily.