Desegregation -- an unsung success story

  • Article by: EDWARD GLAESER , Bloomberg News
  • Updated: January 31, 2012 - 6:11 PM
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Even as two-thirds of Americans now say that there are strong conflicts between rich and poor, another great American division is slowly healing.

As National African-American History Month begins Wednesday, we should celebrate the decline of racial segregation in America for the fourth consecutive decade.

While there are far too many children — of all races — who are raised in the midst of poverty and desperation, the lessening of segregation reminds us that our nation continues to have a great ability to fight even its worst problems.

From 1890 to 1960, as blacks fled Southern farms seeking a freer and more prosperous life in urban areas, our cities became increasingly segregated. Across cities and metropolitan areas from 1910 to 1970, the growth in segregation was larger where there was a more rapidly growing black population.

Whites often bitterly opposed the influx of blacks into their communities, sometimes violently, as with the Chicago Race Riot of 1919, which started with "the drowning of an African- American teenager who had crossed an invisible line at 29th Street separating customarily segregated 'white' and 'black' beaches."

For many blacks, segregation was the only way to find safety from white gangs and violence.

During the first half of the 20th century, segregation was also enforced with legal tools. Some cities, such as Baltimore and Louisville, Ky., passed explicit racial zoning ordinances, formally restricting the areas where blacks could live.

In my book, "Triumph of the City," I relate the battle against racial zoning in Baltimore, led by two pioneering black lawyers, W. Ashbie Hawkins and George W.F. McMechen, which resulted in Buchanan v. Warly, the 1917 Supreme Court ruling against explicit racial zoning.

Cities couldn't zone by race, but developers could still insert restrictive covenants into new subdivisions that prevented units from being sold to minorities. Helen C. Monchow's 1928 study of deed restrictions found that these racial caveats were widespread in subdivision units built after World War I.

Only after World War II did Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall and the NAACP knock the teeth out of restrictive covenants in the landmark case — Shelley v. Kraemer — which is a wonderful fusion of civil rights and libertarianism.

The case didn't ban restrictive covenants as such — private persons could still write whatever they wanted — but it banned the use of governmental resources, such as police and courts, to enforce racial restrictions on resale. Without public enforcement, the covenants became irrelevant.

In 1957, a New York coalition of blacks, Jewish groups and labor unions helped create the nation's first fair housing ordinance, which made it illegal to refuse to sell or rent on the basis of "race, color, religion, national origin or ancestry." A decade of civil-rights activism led to the federal Fair Housing Act of 1968, which made racial discrimination in housing illegal nationwide.

These political and legal victories didn't magically erase racism or change America overnight. They didn't automatically integrate neighborhoods, but they set America on the road toward a more integrated society.

My past work with David Cutler and Jacob Vigdor found that in 1960, blacks made up less than 1 percent of the population in 56 percent of city census tracts (tracts are census-defined units with about 5,000 inhabitants).

Almost one in five tracts had no black Americans. By 1990, only about 7 percent of city tracts were 100 percent white.

As of 1970, almost 80 percent of either whites or blacks would have had to move neighborhoods in order to achieve an even distribution of whites and blacks within the average metropolitan area. By 1990, that dissimilarity measure had dropped to 66 percent; it is 54 percent today.

We are very far from living in a perfectly integrated society, but our nation is far more integrated than it was 40 years ago.

The general decline in segregation has also been accompanied by a change in its nature. Before 1968, segregation is best understood as the result of hard, if often informal, barriers against black mobility.

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