Integration Now, Integration Forever
If you had pulled somebody aside in the mid 1970s and asked him to predict how racially integrated America would be in 2018, he would probably have said: pretty integrated. American schools were integrating very quickly back then. The subject of racial integration was on everybody’s tongue. Young people seemed to be growing up in a very different racial environment, and the rising tide of immigration was making America a more diverse place.
Unfortunately, the mid-70s were, by some measures, a kind of a high-water mark. School integration peaked then, and American schools have been resegregating since. Measured by Google Ngram, the phrase “racial integration” was used most frequently then; people have been using the phrase less and less ever since.
By the late 1990s, passion for the cause had been lost. As Tamar Jacoby wrote in her 1998 book “Someone Else’s House”: “If integration is still most Americans’ idea of the goal, few of us talk about it any more. The word has a quaint ring today — like ‘gramophone’ or ‘nylons.’ ”
Now we seem to have entered a phase of trepidation, or even passive segregation. Race is on everybody’s mind, but are there enough efforts to create intimate bonds across racial lines? Jacoby emphasizes that there are two kinds of integration, objective and subjective. The former is about putting people of different races in the same classroom, office and neighborhood. The latter is about emotional bonds of connection, combining a positive sense of pride in group with an overall sense that we are a “we.”
Three-quarters of American whites have no close nonwhite friends. A study from the Public Religion Research Institute found that if you looked at the average white person’s 100 closest friends, you would find that 91 would be white. If you looked at the average black person’s 100 closest friends, 83 of them would be black.
Many people support racial integration in the abstract but don’t want to do the things integration would require. Some see integration as a sentimental notion not connected to immediate concerns. Others have accepted the idea that birds of a feather flock together and always will.
The big problem with this complacency is that you end up in a racially divided nation with millions of people left in areas of concentrated poverty, falling further behind. Racism is America’s great sin, and if there isn’t continual progress to combat it, the nation becomes ugly to itself.
Moreover, you wind up with the depressing results reported in The Times last week, that even when African-American families do manage to rise to affluence, their boys can’t stay there because of systemic racism and the lack of fathers/role models in their neighborhoods.
In retrospect, trying to integrate the country through the schools may have been a mistake. Racial integration in schools does produce better student outcomes, which last throughout a lifespan. But parents are super-paranoid about their children. It doesn’t matter how supposedly enlightened a white neighborhood is; if the government brings poor black kids into the school, many parents react with fury, or with moving vans.
If might have been better to lead with residential integration. If American parents are unwarrantedly fearful and race-minded about their kids’ environment, they seem to be less so about their own. As William Frey of the Brookings Institution has shown, American neighborhoods have become steadily more integrated. Northern and Midwestern cities like Milwaukee and New York are still very segregated, but Southern and Western cities like Atlanta; Louisville, Ky.; Dallas; and Las Vegas have made strides.
Intermarriage rates are also rising. In 1967, 3 percent of Americans married outside their race or ethnicity. Now 17 percent do. Twenty-four percent of black men marry a woman outside their race, as do 12 percent of black women.
Even churches are integrating. Martin Luther King Jr. observed that Sunday morning was the most segregated hour in America, but today one in five churchgoers worship in a congregation where no single ethnic or racial group predominates.
If we’re going to kick-start another push toward racial integration — which is more or less a moral necessity — maybe the place to start is in the neighborhoods. As the work of the Stanford economist Raj Chetty has emphasized, poverty is very place-oriented. It is the granular conditions of each specific neighborhood that influence whether the residents have a high or low chance of rising and succeeding.
A renewed integration agenda would mean building public housing in low poverty areas, eliminating exclusionary zoning laws, and yes, accepting gentrification (a recent U.C.L.A. study finds that gentrification is increasing diversity in District of Columbia public schools). Then schools could be integrated through the back door by using socioeconomic status as a factor in student assignment.
The big shift, of course, has to be psychological. Everybody laments how divided America is, but how many of us are part of an organization that lets us meet once a week with others who are very different from ourselves? Integration doesn’t mean losing the essence of what makes each group special; it just means connecting fervently with a fellow American.
Roots down/walls down/bridges out.