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American Segregation: As Strong As Ever

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Has anything changed in the last half-century in the reality of American segregation. Not really. It’s just de facto instead of de jure. After all, Connor and Maddie really do deserve the best schools….

Aziz Rana has a good long essay at Dissent on the reality of segregation in America today.

Today, the United States is no longer segregated as a matter of explicit law. But throughout the country—in cities and rural areas, blue states and red ones—racial separation remains a common feature of collective life. Alongside real improvements since the high tide of Jim Crow, recent decades have brought profound backsliding, and many communities and institutions are more segregated now than they were thirty years ago. The consequences are significant for left political organizing aimed at building a multiracial working-class majority. Segregation has long undermined the left’s transformative ambitions, and it remains a direct threat today.

The neighborhood of the average metro-area white resident remains more than 70 percent white, despite the white population share of cities decreasing in recent years to just over half. And although middle-class minority families are moving into suburbs, the overall effect of this shift has often been greater separation, with many white families passively rejecting integration by moving to more distant exurbs. As Bell observes, “while between-neighborhood separation within cities has declined since 1970, between-jurisdiction (city versus suburb) separation has increased since 1990.” For all the improvements in cities, many towns have become more racially segregated and more politically isolated from one another. One sees similar trends in schools, where the end of legally enforced desegregation has undermined earlier achievements. Today, average public school segregation levels are higher than they were in the late 1980s. The story with respect to churches is better. Between 1998 and 2019, the percentage of American congregants attending houses of worship in which at least eight in ten members are of one race or ethnicity went down from 87 percent to 76 percent. But despite those improvements, the overall numbers suggest churches often persist as spaces of racial and cultural separation.

Finally, although immigrant labor does not always receive much attention in discussions about segregation, undocumented migrants tend to live in more segregated neighborhoods than those with legal status. As for immigrants who find themselves caught in the prison system, noncitizens, regardless of legal status, are often housed in all-foreign jails. As legal scholar Emma Kaufman has highlighted, a majority of noncitizens in federal prison—nearly all of whom are Latinx—are incarcerated in institutions “segregated by citizenship.” Despite the persistence of racial separation, there are two major institutions that do increasingly mirror national demographics: the military and the university system. Although the highest-ranking officers are almost exclusively white, officers in general match the racial demographics of society at large, and only 57 percent of active-duty service members are white.

Universities, just like every other major American institution, have a long way to go, as is underscored by persistent concerns about the lack of diverse hiring. Still, they have become settings where white students often engage with minority faculty members and other minority professionals with institutional authority, as well as with nonwhite classmates. In 1968, the average white student attended a college that was only 2.3 percent Black. By 2011, white students on average went to colleges that were more than 10.2 percent Black. And large increases in minority enrollment mean that the current college student population is almost half nonwhite. For many white college students—who may never have had sustained cross-racial relationships before coming to campus—the university can be a racially transformative experience. 

That the military, a deeply conservative institution, leads the nation in integration is really telling about the limitations of liberals to actually do anything. I agree with the importance of universities as well, but of course that’s why the Opus Dei Court is going to rule affirmative action unconstitutional in 2023.

The rest of the essay is about the importance of grappling with these issues around leftist organizing, and that’s very interesting too. But I think this essay is extremely important in broader terms, including the choices we make for our children’s schools.

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