A New York Times series is examining the state of race relations in everyday America. Where do U.S. race relations stand in the year 2000? Are there racial issues that need further discussion? Times reporter Dana Canedy, former Times writer and George Mason University professor Roger Wilkins and Dartmouth College professor Mary Childers take your questions.
Innes of Missoula, MT asks:
To what extent does continuing racial separation result from economic and educational inequalities, and to what extent do other factors such as cultural differences drive segregation? Once these other factors have been roughly accounted for, what proportion of segregation can be attributed to bias born of either malice or ignorance?
I certainly don't want to suggest that any of us at The Times have all the answers to these very difficult questions. So I will simply offer my personal point of view. Indeed, educational, class and culture differences factor prominently into segregation, I think. Beyond that, people, for so many reasons seem to be most comfortable surrounding themselves with people like them. Combine that with unfortunate and hurtful stereotypes and uniting the races becomes even more complex.
It is not possible to measure the various elements that drive segregation, but a multi-factored analysis is certainly necessary. The New York Times series helps with this task in part because it features so many different motives for segregation. In the story on the slaughterhouse it is clear that tendencies towards racial separation are exacerbated by job segregation and competition for limited resources. The story on a particular police precinct mentions that many African-Americans spoke as demeaningly about the Dominicans in their neighborhoods as Italians and Jews once spoke of African-Americans who moved into the same neighborhood. Groups who bring poverty and desperate behavior into a neighborhood reduce the quality of life in ways that infuriate and frighten people; too often that disruption is described as a racial rather than a class problem, thus instigating preferences for segregation. Although economic equality increases opportunities for people to respect one another enough to choose to live adjacent to one another, the story about interracial friendships in a New Jersey town reminds us that socioeconomic class inflected with race remains complicated. Students may be deciding to segregate because of the confusing persistence of racial differences independently of class when they are divided into ability groupings by tracking systems. Cultural differences that could be mutually enriching become forms of opposition and insidious comparison when they are connected to other differences that have an impact on life chances. Nonetheless, I would argue that more people can and will flow into and out of various cultural groups with ease if resources are not so appallingly limited in many minority communities.
Despite our history, there are reasons to think that ignorance can be addressed by education and contiguity. Deliberate, malicious racism and enforced segregation are desired by a diminishing number of people. Unfortunately, ignorance keeps us from devoting the resources and good will required to create the appropriate educational challenges to segregation, racism, and racialized misunderstanding. White people have been protected from knowing that they are privileged and that they should express patriotism by criticizing rather than denying racist aspects of American history that are still being manifested. Perhaps interracial marriage and bi-racial children will be a serendipitous way that racial lines are blurred so much that bigotry will not have as firm an anchor. But such incentives for attitudinal change will have limited impact if economic inequality along racial lines persists. The proportions of what factors are most important are hard to determine, so we have to work on changing attitudes, practices, and structures of inequality simultaneously if our goal is a democracy that embraces the multi-cultural and multi-racial pluralism of the people of the United States.
All the factors you've mentioned are too intertwined for one to be able to separate them and to assign values to each. The factors that seem to drive residential segregation are culture, bias and economics. The experience repeated all over the country of whites fleeing neighborhoods when blacks move in appears to result from culture (which in this case includes bias) and economics (the fear of loss of real estate value). Crass commercial bias is also involved when both blockbusting realtors and redlining credit providers make segregation almost inevitable.
When blacks create and flock to a black suburb, as they have in Prince Georges County Maryland, adjacent to Washington, DC, it appears to be more culture than anything else. Many of these suburbanites have enough money to live in integrated suburbs, but choose not to, largely, I think, because they are more comfortable living among other blacks. I've often heard people say something like: "I have to put up with the strain of being around white people all day at work and when I get home, I just want to relax." Cultural differences in the workplace and the real or perceived biases of some of the whites at work produce this reaction.
Finally,(but most importantly, in my view) there is the segregation experienced by the poorest blacks. That isolation is based on economics, biased exploitation of the powerlessness of the poor, the economic discrimination I mentioned above, the inability of the government to create scatter-site low income housing because of bias and fear directed at poor people by more affluent Americans (including quite a sizable number of affluent blacks) and the inability of our society (both private and public sectors) to create economic and educational opportunities that would enable poor people to struggle free of their powerlessness.
Isolation and the continual infliction of damage on poor people create cultural traits that tend to increase the isolation of the poor from the rest of us. Despised people know they are despised and the natural tendency is to despise back. They know that they are impoverished in the most opulent consumerist society that ever existed in the history of the world. They know that they are throwaway people and that engenders rage and contempt which when acted out -- not by everybody locked in segregated poverty, but from enough to be noticed -- to make the vast majority of Americans shun the poorest blacks in the land.
This is one issue the series didn't get to and this is one of the issues (along with the one raised in the next question) that shame the nation and on which we must concentrate in the years to come.