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Report on Segregation Is at Odds with Reality

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February 9, 2012

Coming at a time when any discussion of integration seems like a quaint relic from the past, the Manhattan Institute’s recently released report, The End of the Segregated Century, seemed like welcome news. Neither political party has raised it as a question or concern during this election year. And apart from the often unheard voices of fair housing and civil rights organizations, there has been virtually no discussion about the merits or need for integration in America.

Given there has been such relative silence on the issue, it’s disappointing that the report fails to take advantage of this opportunity to fully explore the fact that segregation is still very much a part of America today. It’s not that the authors misstated facts. Critics agree that there have been improvement in some respects. The problem is that the report suggests the battle against residential segregation is largely over. That conclusion is sadly at odds with reality. Segregation persists in this country, and in some cases has worsened.

The report makes clear the enormous complexity of residential segregation and the need to take a nuanced look at the issue. Studies show that integration is important not only because it addresses discrimination and promotes understanding, but because where you live is important. It determines access to education, transportation, employment, health care and access to a clean and healthy environment. These studies demonstrate that people of color not only tend to live in more racially and economically segregated areas but that they also live in communities that lag far behind white communities when it comes to access to all of these positive things. Any meaningful study of segregation will have to include questions of access to opportunity.

Questions of opportunity and access in education are instructive. As demonstrated by Gary Orfield at UCLA, segregation in schools is increasing once again after a relatively short time of improvement. In Sheff v. O’Neill, for example, a twenty-three year old education case, the ACLU and other groups have been fighting to enforce a 1996 order that Connecticut reduce the racial and ethnic isolation caused in large part by residential segregation patterns. With racial and economic segregation come concentrations of poverty, lack of access to educational resources, lower educational outcomes, greater numbers of dropouts, less likelihood of access to meaningful employment and greater chances of involvement with the criminal justice system. Similar long-term consequences result from lack of equal access to employment, health care and other opportunity deprivations that communities of color are subject to them. Taken separately, these deprivations are serious, combined they are devastating and nearly insurmountable.

The Manhattan Institute report ultimately raises more questions than it answers. It raises questions of what the numbers mean and, perhaps more importantly, what the numbers do not tell us. Does the “integration” being celebrated mean greater and more equal access for all people? Does the reduction of segregation in certain neighborhoods signal a period of access to better schools, more jobs, better medical access, greater availability of healthier foods or is it just the displacement of low-income populations to areas of lesser opportunity? The best outcome of the Manhattan Institute study would be the opening of a meaningful discussion of these and other questions.

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