Sort by

Segregation May be the Hardest Part of Inequality To Solve

David Callahan

If you hang around the inequality debate long enough, wading through the many smart proposals to reduce the income gap, it all starts to seem kind of doable. We could make a real dent in inequality through a bunch of steps ranging from raising the minimum wage to more heavily taxing capitals gains to whacking tax subsidies to affluent Americans to making it easier to form unions to downsizing Wall Street's role in the economy to reducing the role of money in politics and so on. 

To the degree that inequality is an economic or governance problem -- which is how it's often framed these days -- it can be tackled with technocratic solutions. Fiddle with this or that policy and, presto, we have less income going to the top and more going to the bottom; we have less power in hands of wealthy donors and more in the hands of ordinary people. 
Of course, though, inequality is also a deeply embedded social problem, one entwined with class and race in America. In turn, our racial legacy has become entrenched in geographic patterns that structure where people grow up and what opportunities they encounter. Which brings me to the chilling series of articles that ProPublica has been doing on the enduring problem of segregation, in its series "Segregation Now."
The two key take-aways of the series are that a) school and residential segregation is as bad now in many places as it was when Brown v. Board of Education was decided and b) the federal government has given up trying to reduce that segregation in any kind of aggressive way. 
The first point is hardly news and many studies have documented the resurgence of segregation. The new wrinkle is that many of the kids going to school with few or any white kids are Latino, and are growing up in cities or regions which are heavily Latino. I used to live very close to one of these cities, Union City, which is just across the river from Manhattan and is 85 percent Latino. The schools have very few whites. 
The second point of the series is only partly understood: Yes, most people know that the federal government largely gave up on efforts to directly integrate schools with busing and other strategies (as ProPublica shows in its most recent article in the series). What people don't know is that Washington has also pulled back from enforcing housing integration, which is actually the best solution to school segregation, since it's better to foster integrated residential patterns and school districts than to compensate for their absence through busing. 
That pullback from housing integration is the most damning part of the segregation story, and has been the focus of several ProPublica pieces, including one that reported this: "A nationwide survey by HUD reveals, again, that minorities face racism in the housing market. But HUD, again, chooses not to punish the offenders." ProPublica has looked particularly closely at Westchester County in New York, where it found that "minority home seekers still face discrimination in many areas."
On the upside, ProPublica found that the Obama administration has finally been taking a few steps to do better in combating housing discrimination. 
But here's the thing: Even if the government does a much, much better job in cracking down on blatant discrimination against people of color looking for housing in white areas, the fact will remain that many non-white households can't afford to live in these areas anyway. Fining racist landlords in Scarsdale isn't going to make housing in that suburb, with its great schools, any less expensive. 
The more important strategy to integrate places like Scarsdale is to force it to change its zoning rules to allow more multi-family apartment units that are far less expensive than homes. But this is another area where the government has dragged its feet, as ProPublica has also reported. But again, even if the government did everything in its power here, the road to success will be long: Getting affluent white communities all over the country to change their zoning rules is an incredibly heavy lift, particularly since there are a lot of good reasons why these communities don't want more development, growth, and congestion. 
Sorry, folks, but this post doesn't have a hopeful ending. All I can is this: It's great that the core economic and political drivers of inequality are finally getting the attention they deserve. Yet at some point we'll need to refocus attention on the profound racial and geographic realities that also stand in the way of a more equal society.