Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Segregation of the Poor

Lately I have listened to many commentators discuss how racism is dead and how young people today are no longer inhibited by the bounds of discrimination. While I disagree with this and can pile up mountains of evidence to prove it, I feel that there is a point to be made here on the overall importance of racism in deciding people's fate. I think that, in many ways, we have moved beyond discriminating against the job applicant in our office who is well-spoken, well-dressed, but also African-American and to general dislike and distrust of elements of other cultures' dress, speaking styles, etc, which, although it presents huge challenges to people lumped into those groups and expected to behave in those ways, is in my mind less terrible that dislike of someone based on skin-color alone. I see this as a general trend to more acceptance of difference overall even as we practice intense, personal social segregation.

I believe that we have moved to a point where racism is less about race and more about where racism left your group in society. It is structural now rather than explicit. Because of past racism, people were left in ghettos and given poor schools and education. Because of our rapidly expanding belief in our supposed (though nonexistant as I have explained in previous discussions) meritocracy, those who are in the underclass today are thought of as simply lazy without reason and without the excuse of segregation.

Today, many of the policies overlooked were those that were not, at least explicitly, designed to enforce segregation. Most serious among these were the building of projects which were filled with poor people, families who would then be evicted if their income levels increased beyond a certain point. The legacy of these as well as policies such as redlining, official segregation, etc, is a highly unequal and divided society. We have created a system where success, failure, and overall access of opportunity is based on in what geographical area you were born. That is to say, a wealthy person of African descent can, in my mind, succeed in overcoming the obstacles of still-existant segregation and implicit racism and bias, even though it is more difficult. The person facing the most challenge, however, is that person born into a district already mired in poverty, crime, and bad schools/overall lack of opportunity. My view on community integration today is based on a view that communities should not exist as no-goes. A concerted effort to improve communities by improving the opportunities of their residents is key to achieving equality of all kinds, including ethnic. The past policies that led to income and racial segregation, as I mentioned above, are tough, though no insurmountable. To me, a more damaging problem is that of gentrification--the apparent improvement of a community without real change. Community redevelopment and improvement is often designed to generate higher land values as a major indicator of community redevelopment success. The problem with using this barometer, however, is that it measures location, absent from its residents. The process of gentrification that displaces poor with middle-class, pushing the poor into suburbs or other areas of the city. Often this means pushing them out of their already-weak communities, further lessening the impact of programs targeting them. They are often left in the care of new cities and counties that may lack the city-based infrastructure to deal with challenges that arise. It is for this reason, maintence of an area's original residents should be the goal. Build up, not out. Through a process designed to increase neighborhood vitality (encourage business development, assist social/religious institutions in instituting neighborhood programs, improve the schools, focus, overall, on generating opportunity for the current residents without destroying their community. Strengthen the locality rather than weaken it. Income segregation is a major cause of inequality and areas that have pursued it, such as in Santiago, Chile, have become among the most unequal on earth. On the flip side is the school district in North Carolina (one of the large cities, I do not remember which) which instituted bussing by income, a practice that vastly improved test scores and overall achievement.


  1. interesting cause i hadn't thought of it in terms of community systems of support, though intuitively i agree. i just chafed at the practice and its motivation in general--expediency.

  2. Community is everything. There have been communities that were successful even though they faced income, racial, loan, and other types of discrimination. The truth is, that the War on Poverty has always just been a War on the Poor...never solving it, always moving it to another place where it is less "unsightly."