In the weeks leading up to Black History Month, a report published by the conservative Manhattan Institute proclaimed a major milestone in the struggle for racial equality. The report was boldly titled “The End of the Segregated Century,” and in it professors Edward Glaeser and Jacob Vigdor make two bold assertions: first, that segregation in American cities is at its lowest point since 1910, and second, that “all-white neighborhoods are effectively extinct.” To their credit, they offer one important caveat: “The end of segregation has not caused the end of racial inequality.”
Still, anyone living in America’s most segregated cities would add that strides in desegregation have not brought about the end of segregation itself either. In Chicago, which the report identified as the most segregated metropolis in America, a map of the city is a blueprint for segregation: the South Side and West Side neighborhoods are solidly Black; the “buffer” areas of Humboldt Park and Little Village are predominately Latino; and the North Side communities and Northwest Suburbs remain white bastions. Here, faces and accents tell more about location than street signs.
And, as Myron Orfield, executive director of the Institute on Race and Poverty, points out, “Segregation didn’t happen by accident.”
Indeed. Major waves of Black migration occurred during the war and postwar periods of the early 20th century, as Southern Blacks fleeing Jim Crow sought jobs and the (imaginary) tolerant cities of the North. These migrants quickly discovered that institutionalized racism was just as real in the North as it was in the South. White homeowners and landlords resorted to legal and sometimes extralegal measures to keep their neighborhoods from “going,” such as the practice of “redlining” and restrictive covenants that kept Blacks and Latinos penned in their respective slums. By the 1950s, the height of segregation, cities like Chicago, Detroit and Washington D.C. were neatly color-coded.
But at the same time, American cities began witnessing another phenomenon: “white flight,” which describes how urban whites and companies followed newly-constructed expressways out of the cities and into the suburbs, leading to the rapid divestment of inner-city neighborhoods dominated by minorities. In Chicago’s Lincoln Park neighborhood, home to a thriving Puerto Rican enclave following World War II, Puerto Ricans were forced westward into Humboldt Park as part of the city’s urban renewal (removal) program. The white residents of Humboldt Park, fearing the Spanish-tongued menace, fled further westward and northward, becoming absentee landlords in the communities they left behind.
Since then, little in Chicago has changed. The Black and Latino neighborhoods are still the same ones they were in 1970, and they still struggle with issues tied to poverty – namely crime, violence, poor health and low educational attainment.
Evidently, America’s cities haven’t always been so segregated. Black and Latino neighborhoods aren’t the worst parts of a city by sheer happenstance, and it has nothing to do with ancestry. Segregation and urban decay were always the plan. As Princeton sociologist Douglas Massey stresses in the Chicago Reader article, white people actually prefer to live with their own in segregated cities, while Blacks and Latinos strive for tolerance and integration. It’s a power move, so officials know which areas to invest in and which areas they can safely neglect.
So, no. Segregation is not over. Not by a long shot.