Noticing and Naming Segregation in Your City

Sometime in elementary school you probably learned about separate drinking fountains, segregated lunch counters, and the Civil Rights Movement. For many of us, talk of segregation ended there, with Martin Luther King standing triumphant, segregation defeated. Certainly, all enlightened people now know that segregation was wrong, right? Yet the truth is that, across America most cities, towns, neighborhoods and schools are still segregated.

How can that be? Didn’t the Civil Rights act and Brown v. Board of Education make segregation illegal? Not entirely. And since the wealthy and powerful had an interest in maintaining segregation, they found loopholes to do so. Our segregated cities, neighborhoods, and schools are no accident. In Seattle, where I live, segregation was initially enforced through racially restrictive covenants, which prohibited white people from selling or renting property to people of color. When these covenants were made illegal, prejudicial lending practices like redlining made it nearly impossible for people of color to buy homes. And since home ownership is one of the primary ways American families build wealth, these lending practices effectively blocked people of color from climbing out of poverty. The rise of suburbia itself was an attempt to keep neighborhoods white. (Check out this great clip from Adam Ruins Everything for a quick explanation.)

If you live in America, the odds are good that you live in segregation.

*Gulp* Is segregation really that bad?

The short answer is yes. As the supreme court stated in Brown v. Board of Education, “separate educational facilities {are} inherently unequal.” People who live in white neighborhoods have higher quality schools, safer neighborhoods, and more opportunities to access education and climb the ladder. For people of color seeking opportunity, there are many more structural barriers in place than there are for white people, whether it be in education, safety, access to healthcare, or job opportunities.

Nikole Hannah-Jones, a journalist who has dedicated her career to studying school segregation and its effects (and who was recently made a MacArthur Genius Fellow), put it this way in a podcast interview:

“Black Americans have to have ‘diversity’ or integration if they want to actually have access to the full opportunities of any city…if you want to have good schools, you have to have proximity to whiteness to get these things.”

From a social justice level, segregation is very problematic. Compare the leaps and bounds America has made in LGBT rights in the last twenty years versus the stagnation of racism. LGBT people started coming out of the closet in droves, and suddenly a gay person wasn’t some TV caricature, it was your friend, your neighbor, your coworker. LGBT people and straight people were already integrated. The straight majority got to know LGBT people, hear their stories, and develop empathy for them.

The fight against racism has had little progress. In my opinion, this is largely due to segregation. 75% of white people have no non-white friends. Imagine this, you’re a white person who doesn’t have any black friends, or perhaps even any acquaintances. How do form your perceptions about black people? Because race has been deemed by American society as a “taboo” topic, there’s little opportunity for you to ask questions. Most likely, you will form your perceptions about black people from the media. But most media portrayals of black people portray men as scary criminals and black women as one of a few unflattering stereotypes: the angry black woman, the strong black woman, the  “Shaniqua.” If you grow up with only these images of black people, it’s easy to see how you could be susceptible to these harmful stereotypes.

Next time you watch TV, try noticing and naming. How many people of color are on your favorite TV show? Are those characters stereotypes? Try noticing and naming while you walk around your neighborhood or attend your niece’s softball game. How often do you see people the same race as you? How often do you see someone of a different race? Do you think that you and your family could hold harmful stereotypes about different races because of your lack of exposure to them?

Noticing and naming is one way to become more aware of the systemic racism that underpins American society. Talk about it with your friends and family, even with young kids. By calling out our segregation we become more aware of it, and more likely to take action to remedy this noxious problem.

If you are interested in learning more about taking steps to further school integration, check out integratedschools.org . If you want to become part of the Integrated Schools Seattle group, email ali@aliandcedar.com

Katharine Strange