The Difficulty of Housing Integration

The Difficulty of Housing Integration

In our update today, we have a thought-provoking piece from Tanner Colby about why integration failed. In one striking passage, he explains a major reason why busing didn't work:

Middle-class white kids were never going to get on buses and go and "integrate" black schools because middle-class white people are already integrated, in the middle class. Their immigrant parents or grandparents likely started the process of assimilation for them, overcoming social and cultural barriers to give their kids the tools to move further up the ladder. Why would those families turn around and send the next generation in the opposite direction? White people weren't going to let that happen. And since white people are integrated, with power, into every level of American life, they had the leverage to make sure that it never did. The day the U.S. government put the first white kid on a bus to a black school? This experiment was over.

In his conclusion, he offers this:

So far, nobody seems to have a solution that works, but a good start would be an honest assessment of what went wrong the first time and why. It would also be useful to go back to Brown and recall what the Supreme Court actually instructed schools to do. Its directive was clear: eliminate the last vestiges of state-sponsored segregation "root and branch." In that formulation, segregated schools are really just the branches, growing out of racially homogenous neighborhoods and towns. If we want any kind of long-term solution to this problem, we have to look at housing, zoning, mass transit, property taxes. That’s where the roots of our racially balkanized and economically stratified cities lie.

This reminded me of an argument presented in Richard Thompson Ford's The Race Card. I don't doubt that we can do better on the margins, but it turns out that it's very, very hard to get whites and blacks to live together.

If you ask people whether they'd like to live in an integrated neighborhood, they'll respond, "Of course! What are we, racist or something?" But when you press for details, a big problem emerges: When whites talk about integration, they're talking about white neighborhoods with a black family here and there; when blacks talk about integration, they're talking about neighborhoods that are 50/50. Of course, there's variation here -- some people would happily be the only person of their race around -- but this trend is strong enough that integration doesn't happen naturally. Once a tipping point is hit, a neighborhood quickly flips from one race to another -- "gentrification" or "white flight," depending on which way it's going.

One solution is to engineer the racial composition of neighborhoods with strict quotas -- aim for somewhere in between whites' and blacks' overall preferences, and draw in the most tolerant members of both groups. Someone tried this with a housing development once; blacks had to wait ten times longer than whites for apartments, the NAACP filed the first lawsuit, and about ten years later a court ended the program.

Robert VerBruggen is editor of RealClearPolicy. Twitter: @RAVerBruggen

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