Choosing segregation

Apr 11, 2001 at 12:00 am

According to recent analyses of Census 2000, the Detroit metropolitan area is the most segregated metropolitan area in the United States. I guess that’s not something the city ought to wear as a badge of honor, but things could be worse.

Look, sooner or later maybe we’ll face the fact that the idealized version of integration dreamed of by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and many other civil-rights leaders is about as close to being realized as it ever will be. Contrary to what some readers may think, this isn’t a gloomy, pessimistic assessment of race relations in America today. Far from it. All I’m saying is that I think some of us are still getting too caught up in waiting for — or even pushing for — the day when people of all races, creeds and colors will be living as neighbors in happily integrated neighborhoods throughout the land.

Not gonna happen. This doesn’t mean that we can’t get along, because many of us are getting along across racial lines just fine. It just means that many of us are getting along just fine across racial lines despite the fact that we live several ZIP codes apart.

Anyone who has even glanced at a history book would see that things are considerably better than half a century ago. And half a century ago race relations were better than they were half a century before that. There are black mayors, black business owners, black doctors and lawyers, and on and on. Hell, just this past weekend I was eating at a Pizza Hut in Dearborn owned by LaVan Hawkins. Now if that doesn’t tell you things have changed then I don’t know what it’ll take.

But despite all these obvious signs of progress that have occurred over the years, the fact remains, as a study points out, that most blacks live in mostly black neighborhoods, most whites live in mostly white neighborhoods, most Hispanics live in mostly Hispanic neighborhoods, and so on and so forth. You get the idea. During the ’60s and early ’70s when the integration fever was on full boil, the belief was strong that if we could all just learn to live next door to each other and our kids could go to school with one another then we would all learn to get along. If this kind of integration required a bit of government force, then that was OK because in the end we would all be getting along.

Well, let’s just say that didn’t quite work out as planned. White families who were determined, for whatever reason, that their children would not be forced to attend public schools with all those black kids pulled their kids right out of the public schools in the inner cities and moved to the suburbs where they continued to live their lives as they preferred. Or they put their kids in private schools and still lived their lives as they preferred. Short of forcing these parents to keep their kids in urban public schools and/or preventing them from moving away, there wasn’t much that could be done to put the brakes on that trend.

As for black families, they were no more thrilled than whites with the idea of busing their kids halfway across town for the sake of integration when there was a school right down the street. This is not to mention the fact that it was mostly the black kids who were getting bused to white schools, not the other way around. It was true that many of the white schools were in considerably better shape than were the ones attended by the black kids, but that didn’t guarantee that the black kids would always automatically benefit from being in better-maintained schools when the teachers, students, and parents frequently made it known that they didn’t want them there — or at least not in large numbers. Schools that managed to keep the numbers of blacks and other minorities at a relatively low level of enrollment also managed to keep the white kids enrolled. However, the minute the number of minority students crept up too high at a particular school, that school’s enrollment could switch from multiethnic to mono-ethnic almost overnight.

I think back to the school I attended as a child in Denver. When I first enrolled in Steck Elementary School, I was one of two black kids in the whole school. That was in the first grade. Busing kicked in during the second semester of second grade, which brought in lots more black kids. The last time I visited my hometown there were far more black kids than white attending Steck, even though the surrounding neighborhood remains virtually all white.

Speaking of America’s neighborhoods, most of them have remained pretty much segregated. The census analyses highlight that segregation persists in the big cities. Since most minorities live in the big cities it’s pretty safe to say that what’s reflected in the big cities as it pertains to how well the races are living together pretty much spells out the way it’s going across the country. Montana doesn’t have much of a segregation problem and neither does Idaho, which isn’t much of a feat when you consider that there are approximately .000001 African-Americans in both states.

In states like Nebraska, the vast majority of the population is white except when you get to a city such as Omaha, where a relatively sizable black population lives largely on the black side of town. In Atlanta, which is supposedly the cradle of the “New South,” it doesn’t take long to figure out that the city itself is largely black, and happily integrated neighborhoods are in pretty short supply. All you have to do is drive around awhile to figure that one out. And if you want a peek at the Old South, just drive a little ways outside of Atlanta and the Atlanta miracle begins to unravel rather quickly. That’s because you’re not in Atlanta anymore.

So are things in Atlanta better now than they were in King’s day? Hell, yes. But what King dreamed and what eventually came to pass are two separate things.

And what came to pass is this: When given a choice, people still choose to live where they feel most comfortable, and where most folks feel comfortable is usually around other people who share similar backgrounds and experiences. The word “segregation” will always have a negative connotation, and for good reason, but does that negative connotation still apply when the segregation is happening by choice?

Keith A. Owens is a Detroit-area writer and musician. E-mail [email protected]