Residential segregation exacerbates many national problems. In education, a black-white achievement gap persists largely because the poorest pupils are concentrated in racially homogenous schools where instruction is overwhelmed by children’s out-of-school challenges; these schools are segregated because their neighborhoods are segregated.
Growing inequality partly reflects a racial wealth gap. Middle-class white Americans are more likely to live in neighborhoods with rising home values (and thus, family equity) while their middle-class black counterparts are more likely to rent, or live in neighborhoods with stagnant values.
Hostile, sometimes fatal confrontations between police and African-American youth might be rarer if the poorest young people were not concentrated in neighborhoods lacking well-resourced schools, good jobs and transportation to better opportunities. In integrated neighborhoods with substantial middle class populations, police perform as public servants, not as an occupying force.
We’ve done little to desegregate neighborhoods, believing their racial homogeneity is “de facto,” from private prejudice, personal choices, realtor discrimination or income differences that make middle-class suburbs unaffordable to most African Americans. Under our constitutional system, if neighborhoods are segregated by private activity, we can do little about it. Only if neighborhoods are segregated “de jure,” by explicit government policy, is remedial action permitted. Indeed, the constitution requires remedies for de jure segregation.
In truth, de facto segregation is largely a myth. As my new book, The Color of Law, recounts, racially explicit government policy in the mid-twentieth century separated the races in every metropolitan area, with effects that endure today.
Richard Rothstein is a Research Associate at the Economic Policy Institute and a Senior Fellow at The Thurgood Marshall Institute of LDF.
Read the full op-ed here.