Should We Force Integration on Those Who Don’t Want It?, and Other Commonplace Questions about Race Relations

Last week, Stuart Butler and Jonathan Grabinsky of the Brookings Institution published a web-memorandum describing “Segregation and Concentrated Poverty in the Nation’s Capital.” It showed that racial segregation has not diminished in Washington, D.C. over the last 20 years and that few blacks in the city live in low-poverty neighborhoods, while most whites in the city do so. It noted that such segregation blocks economic mobility for African Americans.

I write here not so much to discuss their memorandum as the comments that followed it on the memo’s web page. One asked,

“Who is forcing this segregation? Could it just maybe be a voluntary choice of the individuals involved? Could it be basic human nature to be with those more like yourself??? Do you think we should force integration on all Americans regardless of what they want???… Why is it the business of government to decide who lives where??”

Another observed that African Americans in the Washington metropolitan area are

“…moving to segregated areas of Maryland which does not help the situation. Even though mandating a move [to integrated neighborhoods] might be a good social engineering experiment I’m sure it will be quickly looked on as gerrymandering.”

And another said that it is obvious that

“there are negative consequences to a person’s decision NOT to invest in their own human capital, to develop marketable skills or to become educated… [L]et’s not get fooled by the notion that “segregation” is a cause. We are all self-educated! It’s just that some of us decided not to participate in that effort. … I don’t have a whole lot of sympathy for anybody that decides to follow that path – nor do I think the rest of us should have to pay for it!”

These are very commonplace reactions to discussions of racial segregation, by those who are relatively well-informed and those who are not, and by liberals and conservatives alike. These issues deserve to be aired, explored, and resolved.

The first commenter asks, reasonably, “Why is it the business of government to decide who lives where?” Perhaps it is not, but the commenter fails to realize that it was government that decided that blacks should live in ghettos. We should think of efforts to desegregate as only a demand that government undo the enduring effects of its previous unconstitutional decisions about who should live where. The second commenter is partly correct that desegregation policy would be “social engineering.” What she fails to realize is that it would only be reverse social engineering, attempting to undo the harm previously committed by government’s successful and multi-faceted efforts to engineer segregation.

I—and others on whose research I rely—have written extensively about this. In “The Making of Ferguson,” for example, I described how the St. Louis metropolitan area was segregated by explicit government policy, systematic nationwide. One such policy: from the 1930s through the 1950s, the Federal Housing Administration guaranteed bank loans for mass production builders to create subdivisions with the explicit federal requirement that no homes in these subdivisions be sold to blacks, including returning war veterans. The federal government even provided builders with model language they could attach to deeds prohibiting re-sale to blacks. As a result, white working-class families moved to all-white suburbs with federal subsidy, while otherwise economically similar black working class families were left behind in central cities. When jobs also relocated to suburbs that were inaccessible because metropolitan areas lacked good public transportation systems, the urban population became more impoverished. And when black ghettos became overcrowded because a growing population was barred from living in most other places, we labeled those ghettos “slums.” The slums were then cleared and former residents were given vouchers (commonly known as “Section 8” vouchers) to rent private housing. But the government’s voucher system permitted (and still permits) landlords in most communities to refuse to accept the vouchers. Only in a few places with white residents (like Ferguson) were the vouchers accepted, and these places soon became mostly black. This also happened (and is continuing to happen) nationwide.

The two largest federal programs to support housing opportunity today for low and moderate income families are the Section 8 program for tenants and the Low-Income Housing Tax Credit (LIHTC) for developers of low and moderate income rental units. In neither case does the federal government prohibit landlords or entire communities from refusing to accept the beneficiaries of these programs. Indeed, the government takes some steps to encourage builders of LIHTC projects to locate in low-income neighborhoods. When the commenter observes that African American families who leave Washington, D.C. move to segregated neighborhoods in Maryland, this is one of the reasons. Another is that many suburban communities have adopted zoning rules that prohibit the construction of low or even moderate income housing. As I illustrate in “The Making of Ferguson,” the racial motivation of these ordinances was sometimes open and explicit.  This, too, was commonplace nationwide.

These are not the only reasons that African Americans remain in segregated neighborhoods, or move from one segregated neighborhood to another. Legitimate personal preference may play a role. But such personal preferences develop in response to real conditions. Throughout most of the 20th century, when African American families attempted to move to white neighborhoods, their homes were firebombed or destroyed. In some cases, local police evicted them. There were hundreds of incidents of violence against African Americans trying to escape overcrowded ghetto conditions by moving to white neighborhoods in Chicago, Detroit, and virtually every other metropolitan area. Police sometime abetted the arsonists and while the arsonists were frequently well-known, prosecutors rarely charged them and juries never convicted them. In one well-documented case, however, the white homeowner who sold his home to an African American was tried and convicted of sedition. When Mallie Robinson moved to a white neighborhood in Pasadena, California, daily police patrols ensured that her sons Jack (the baseball legend) and Mack (the Olympic track star) didn’t leave the family property to play with other children in the neighborhood.

Even in the late 20th century, and today, when violence against black residents of predominantly white neighborhoods has mostly ceased, African Americans find themselves followed, sometimes stopped and questioned, by police in their own communities, on suspicion of being someplace they have no right to be.

I don’t know how you can determine the extent to which black families’ “basic human nature to be with those more like yourself,” as the commenter puts it, can be distinguished from a ‘basic human nature’ to live where you are not met with hostility, or worse. We can only find out if a time comes when African Americans are welcomed in predominantly white communities, and the memory of violence and hostility dims so that is no longer a part of African Americans’ collective (cultural) memory. We can then see how strong is the genuine desire only to live in segregated neighborhoods.

And then there is the commenter’s claim that African Americans trapped in low-income ghettos have not chosen to “develop marketable skills or to become educated.” This has some truth. But it should be considered along with other truths. Consider the Federal Housing Administration policy I described earlier. Subdivisions were built in all major metropolitan areas with a federal requirement they be white-only. A well-known example is Westlake in Daly City, California, the subject of the Malvina Reynolds song (popularized by Pete Seeger) about ‘little boxes on the hillside made of ticky-tacky.’ Another is Levittown on Long Island, New York.

In the late 1940s, Levittown homes were sold to working class whites (many were returning World War II veterans) for about $7,500, about 2 ½ times national median income, or about $125,000 in today’s terms. Today, those same homes sell for around $500,000, over 7 times national median income, unaffordable to working class families, black or white. The white families whom the government subsidized to purchase in Levittown have gained, over the last six decades, some $350,000 in equity appreciation. They have used that wealth to send their children to college, and their highly educated children transmitted familiarity with educational values to their own children, who come to school from literate homes much more ready to learn than children whose parents are poorly educated.

Today, median black family income is about 60 percent of white median family income, but black median household wealth is only about 5 percent of white median household wealth. This disparity is almost entirely attributable to government’s social engineering whose purpose was to exclude African Americans from the 20th century suburban homeownership dream.

In 1968, we passed the national Fair Housing Act, telling African American families they were now free to buy homes if they wished in places like Levittown or Daly City. A few have. But those homes are mostly unaffordable to black working class families, whose grandparents could have bought them during the suburban boom, were they permitted to do so. And if they had, those grandparents, too, could have easily sent their children to college and those children, too, could then have instilled greater educational motivation in their own children.

The commenter is certainly correct that residents of low-income black neighborhoods should take more personal responsibility for increasing their own educational attainment and achievement. Everyone, white or black, rich or poor, should take such responsibility. But is lack of responsibility the only reason, is it even the main reason that the educational achievement of black ghetto youth lags behind that of whites? Of course not. We’ll not have standing to lack a “whole lot of sympathy for anybody” who is poorly educated until we’ve engaged in the reverse social engineering that could make it more likely that—not inevitable that, but more likely that—the average African American child can, with similar personal responsibility, be as educationally successful as the average white child.