An Aug. 1 Outlook article incorrectly suggested that the District's Hillcrest neighborhood is in Ward 8. It is in Ward 7. (Published 8/17/04)
After writing a book about the limits of race and class integration in America, I recently had the odd experience of being labeled a "fervent" champion of integration by one reviewer (David Garrow, writing for the Chicago Tribune) and an "ambivalent integrationist" suffering from "integration exhaustion" by another (Samuel Freedman, writing for the New York Times Book Review). How could two reviewers of the same book come to such diametrically opposed conclusions? I suspect perceptions of my ambivalence stem from my brutal honesty about the challenges at hand, and my view of integration as a means to an end, rather than an end in itself.
Like most African Americans, I am most ardent about equality of opportunity, not integration per se. But after several years of exhaustive research about the costs and consequences of segregation -- particularly in urban and suburban neighborhoods -- I came to the conclusion that it is impossible to afford broad, let alone equal, opportunity in a system where race and class separation is the accepted norm. I decided to have the courage of my convictions and make the case in my book that we can't complete the civil rights revolution without making the integrationist values of that movement a real part of people's daily lives.
No doubt this is hard work. Most Americans are both integrationists and separatists to some degree. To the extent that we do experience race and class diversity on an everyday basis, it is usually in public spaces or the workplace. Most of us return to largely homogenous neighborhoods at the end of the day. We may accept, even desire, racially and economically integrated workplaces and public spheres. But when it comes to our private lives, more visceral needs of personal comfort or security seem to take precedence -- especially for families with children.
Discussions about race and class in America are more commonplace than ever, from Sen. John Edwards's signature speech about "two Americas" to Illinois Senate candidate Barack Obama's ringing pronouncement at last week's Democratic National Convention that "there's not a black America and white America and Latino America and Asian America, there's the United States of America." Obama was speaking, of course, about America the ideal; in my research, I found the neighborhoods of America are still far too segregated to call them united.
My own first foray into homeownership is telling. When I was deciding where to buy a house in the early 1990s, I chose Shepherd Park, an integrated, albeit majority-black, upper-middle-class neighborhood in Northwest Washington, east of Rock Creek Park. As a black woman with a strong racial identity, I found the overwhelmingly white neighborhoods west of the park inherently unattractive. I wanted to be among more than just a smattering of black people. Still, my ideal was an integrated environment, and Shepherd Park was one of the few neighborhoods in the District where both blacks and whites had lived for decades.
I had no illusions about achieving economic integration. As a renter I had lived in the Hillcrest area of Ward 8, the District's poorest ward, and in rapidly gentrifying LeDroit Park near Howard University. But in deciding where to buy, I found that the bourgeois, leafy streets of the "Gold Coast" felt safer and more familiar, closer to my roots as a southerner who had grown up in middle-class neighborhoods of detached houses and big lawns.
My thought process in buying a home was not that different from those of most Americans who have choices. I was willing, even eager, to live in a diverse environment as long as people of my own race were well represented. I was not willing to buy in a neighborhood that might be overwhelmed by poverty -- because I feared crime and wanted to protect my investment. But the real estate markets offered me precious few alternatives to racial and economic separation.
The only difference between my thinking and that of homebuyers of other races may be their distaste for predominantly black neighborhoods. In research surveys, all non-black groups consistently display a pronounced antipathy toward integrating with sizable numbers of black people. In the 1990s, rates of residential integration increased impressively in metropolitan areas such as Portland, Ore., and Salt Lake City, where the black population is small. Residential integration also seems to fare better in neighborhoods where a third group, typically Latinos, has been introduced into the historically tortured black-white dynamic of American race relations. Yet something mystical seems to happen when the black population reaches a threshold of about 20 percent of a metropolitan area. In those large urban areas, where the majority of blacks still live, racial segregation patterns remain stark and stubborn, especially in the Midwest and Northeast. America still has a "Negro problem," even as it flocks to summer movie blockbusters featuring African Americans such as Will Smith and Halle Berry as action heroes.
Realistically, when searching for a neighborhood to live in, most black people generally have one of two choices: an almost all-black neighborhood or one where blacks are few. It is hardly surprising that many blacks consider an overwhelmingly black neighborhood more attractive than an overwhelmingly white one; they are frustrated by the failed promises of integration and weary of racial hostility. Consequently, many African Americans seem to have adopted a "post-integrationist" mindset, and now most value living among themselves, even as they exhibit a high tolerance for living among other groups. Constantly carrying the assimilator's burden at work can be offset nicely by the spirit-reviving effect of living in a neighborhood that engenders a happy "we" feeling. Black people seem to want the benefits of integrated workplaces and markets not so they can assimilate into white realms, but to gain economic advancement.
Most whites are no less ambivalent about residential integration. They are simply not free to express their doubts. The risk of being labeled a racist is too great. In my numerous dialogues with predominantly white audiences, I have encountered a range of attitudes: from the rare, ardent integrationist who believes I should be exhorting whites to put an end to residential segregation, to the guilt-ridden commentary about how integrated neighborhoods don't offer quality schools, to a seemingly resigned acceptance of the fact of our separation, to . . . silence.
I take heart in those individuals who go against our collective, separatist grain. We have a lot to learn from them. A woman I know who lives in Brookland, in Northeast Washington, near Catholic University, is someone I would call a committed integrator. She and her husband, both white, have ensconced their brood of five children in a heavily black area that has an average income of about $41,000. She says she has "found the quality" and the "things that work" in D.C. public schools, including a public Montessori school and an arts magnet school, and is pleased with the results.
It is not lost on me that she can afford to work part-time and devote so much energy to her children's lives precisely because her family has chosen to live in a neighborhood with housing prices that are a fraction of those in majority-white bastions. "I don't want to protect my kids from the world," she says. Lamenting the private school prestige chase that pervades upper-income Washington, she argues that instead of giving kids an "artificial perfection" and an "over-elevated success standard," parents should be giving their kids the tools to negotiate the real world.
Another parent, a well-educated black professional, tells me that she feels she has no choice but to be "ruthless" in seeking out the best possible educational opportunities she can afford for her daughter. That means she may be taking her child out of a neighborhood elementary school that she claims has been attracting too many out-of- boundary poor kids, and placing her in a less diverse but also less impoverished private school.
While many of us may harbor separatist inclinations, our racially and economically segregated real estate markets are not inherently natural. They are the result of a host of intentional public and private interventions that created homogeneity even where the existing tendency was toward race or class inclusion. Beginning in the 1930s, the Federal Housing Administration, which underwrote one-third of all mortgages in its first three decades, instructed all private lenders who offered FHA-backed loans that it was "necessary that properties continue to be occupied by the same social and racial classes." Our neighborhoods still suffer from the consequences of that form of segregation.
Current interventions also steer us apart. From local zoning codes that prevent mixed-income or affordable housing, to private marketing data bases that skew public funding and private development toward affluent, heavily white neighborhoods, to still-pervasive racial steering of black and Latino home buyers to "appropriate" areas, our public and private institutional policy choices result in communities of great abundance and communities of great need.
This separatist system comes with palpable costs, especially for black and Latino schoolchildren who, on average, attend majority-minority, heavily poor schools with many fewer advantages than the majority-white, middle-class schools that most white students attend. But whites also bear the costs of American separatism. In a society that sets up "winner" and "loser" communities and schools based upon race and class, everyone has to work harder to get in the "winner" column. Many whites struggle to afford homes in neighborhoods with schools they consider acceptable or struggle with long commutes and a withering quality of life.
With different policy choices, such as inclusionary zoning that requires a diverse housing mix, we could cultivate more stable, economically and racially mixed neighborhoods and schools that offer more choices and more opportunity for everyone. In a more inclusive society, the willing, privileged integrationist would be able to live in a diverse society without fear and confidently participate in its public institutions, especially schools. The marginalized and excluded, especially the black poor, would have more access to the levers of upward mobility.
So yes, I am a champion of a transformative integration of the races and classes because I have become convinced that it is the only route to closing the egregious gaps of inequality that weaken our nation. I can acknowledge the benefits of a minority enclave and still hope to see the day when there will be less need for such a psychic haven. I dare to believe that America could be a society premised upon brotherly love and inclusion, rather than fear and exclusion.