Why does racial segregation matter?


We have a magazine here called the Chicago Reporter, and I often find their articles stimulating. They recently published an article asking, “Why does Chicago’s entrenched segregation matter?”  This question matters to me of course, as this is one of the historical challenges our church is trying to address. But there is value to asking this question on a much broader level than just my personal interest.  In a society that is evolving and struggling to grasp racial realities in the past, present, and moving into the future, this is an important one.

I am not going to add my own opinions in this piece – I just want to include a few quotes from this article that I found really helpful:

…if someone asked you, “Why does segregation matter?”–what would you say? Other than the fact that you know it seems bad, why should we care if we’re the most segregated city in the nation?…

…My mentor, David McClendon, who passed away last year, challenged me on that once. As my editor, he liked to push me to think beyond the pat answers I had picked up in my liberal arts education.

He went to an entirely black high school, he said. It was a high school where children got a good education, mostly went to college and got good jobs. Does being against segregation mean you think students of color can’t succeed without white children around?

I had to hang up the phone and think about that one for awhile.

If segregation was just segregation–just people of different skin colors choosing to live among others that looked like them–then maybe it wouldn’t be a big deal.

But it’s not, and it never has been. Researchers at Harvard’s Civil Rights Project Gary Orfield and Chungmei Lee tackled this problem and found the answer.

“If skin color were not systematically linked to other forms of inequality, it would, of course,
be of little significance … Unfortunately that is not and never has been the nature of our society,” they wrote.

Segregation matters because the color of your skin in America usually means a lot more about you than just how you look. If you’re Hispanic or black in America, you have a much greater chance of living in poverty. Of growing up in a neighborhood with serious pollution. Of going hungry sometimes. Of attending a school where almost no one reads or writes at grade level. Of living with the daily terror of gun violence.

The best answer I ever got about why segregation–both racial and economic matters–came from a housing activists, Leah Levinger, at the Chicago Housing Initiative.

“So we live separately,” I asked her. “Why should we care?”

“It’s all about shared interests,” she said.

Levinger told me when we live in communities that are integrated, what happens to “other” people happens to us too. If the local school is bad, it’s everyone’s school. If crime is a problem, no one is immune. Even corporations, she said, where the guys at the bottom of the ladder feel like the growth of the company directly impacts them, for better for for worse, show more profits.

When we live in communities that are integrated, violence and poverty become all our problems. Right now, violence and poverty are overwhelmingly a black and Hispanic problem. We white people may shake our heads when we hear about a shooting on the news, but it doesn’t impact us directly, and so we have no real interest in finding a solution to it.

Ultimately, she said, segregated neighborhoods make for a weak city–one where people can’t work together to solve problems because they have no interest in doing so.

Isn’t that something we can all agree needs to change?

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One thought on “Why does racial segregation matter?

  1. I have lived in Chicago my whole life and have never seen an integrated neighborhood in my life. On face, there are those that seem integrated, but upon further investigation, you may find that the neighborhood is gentrifying or going through a demographic shift that, in a matter of years, will once again be segregated. I would submit that we can only intentionally integrate a block at a time. To me, this small scale revolt of the entrenched status quo in Chicago is the most manageable form of integration. Agreeing on shared interests is difficult even at this level, but more manageable. Short of revolution or the government forcing people to integrate, all we can do is intentionally integrate and make change building upon the shared common interests of those racially and economically different from you, those that live to the north, south, east, or west of your home.

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