Segregation: The Problem that Won’t Go Away – (My Takeaways from the book American Apartheid)

The Souls of Black FolkHerein lie buried many things which if read with patience may show the strange meaning of being black here at the dawning of the Twentieth Century. This meaning is not without interest to you, Gentle Reader; for the problem of the Twentieth Century is the problem of the color line.
W. E. B. (William Edward Burghardt) Du Bois:  The Souls of Black Folk


So, you think a problem is solved when a law is passed.  Let’s simply call this a “wishful thinking” fantasy, or maybe, a “let’s make this go away by passing a law to make it go away” fantasy.

We may have made segregation against the law in the United States.  We fought long and hard to make it illegal.  But the problem of segregation — the reality of segregation — segregation itself – well, it has not gone away.  And the lingering effects are very harmful to the poorest among us.  Because the poorest among us are overrepresented among black Americans (and Puerto Ricans – the Puerto Ricans of African descent.  That color line that Mr. Du Bois wrote about).  In other words, the darker the skin, the more likely that the person lives in a segregated, closer-to-all-black neighborhood, where poverty is a multi-generational way-of-life trap.

American ApartheidThese are the findings of a “social justice classic” book American Apartheid:  Segregation and the Making of the Underclass by Douglas S. Massey and Nancy A. Denton (Harvard University Press; 1993).  I presented my synopsis of this book at yesterday’s Urban Engagement Book Club in Dallas, sponsored by CitySquare.  The authors wrote an academically sound, well-researched treatment of segregation as the problem that had not gone away by 1993, the year the book was published.  And if you pay any attention to current “city” realities, the problem has persisted.

(Here are two articles,to help you realize that the problem has not gone away, and is probably not going away anytime soon:

Census data show ‘surprising’ segregation

21 Maps Of Highly Segregated Cities In America

And here is a site with illustrative maps of the racial make-up and divides for most major U. S. cities, including Dallas).

So, American Apartheid, though now 21 years old, is still worth a careful look. Here are some excerpts from the book (I’ve bolded a few key lines):

This extreme racial isolation did not just happen:  it was manufactured by whites through a series of self-conscious actions and purposeful institutional arrangements that continue today.   

If policymakers, scholars, and the public have been reluctant to acknowledge segregation’s persistence, they have likewise been blind to its consequences for American blacks.  Residential segregation is not a neutral fact; it systematically undermines the social and economic well-being of blacks in the United States. 

The effect of segregation on black well-being is structural, not individual.  Residential segregation lies beyond the ability of any individual to change; it constrains black life chances irrespective of personal traits, individual motivations, or private achievements.  For the past twenty years this fundamental fact has been swept under the rug by policymakers, scholars, and theorists of the urban underclass.  Segregation is the missing link in prior attempts to understand the plight of the urban poor.  As long as blacks continue to be segregated in American cities, the United States cannot be called a race-blind society.

Our fundamental argument is that racial segregation – and its characteristic institutional form, the black ghetto – are the key structural factors responsible for the perpetuation of black poverty in the United States.

Here’s how I summarized the book (on my synopsis handout):

The poverty in the United States persists.  The group that suffers the most is black Americans.  The persistence of segregation feeds, nurtures, and exacerbates the poverty among black Americans.  It is not an “individual” challenge, but a systemic, societal challenge.  And until segregation is truly dismantled, there is little chance of a wide-spread escape from a perpetuating, multi-generational cycle of poverty for many, many black Americans.

And, here are my takeaways from the book:

1)  Policy initiatives, fully passed, do not “solve” the problems where there is little (no) societal buy-in, or political will that leads to societal buy-in  (in the business world, this is called alignment)

2)  The American apartheid (segregation) is real, and persists – the problem is one of “space”…

3)  Environment “exposes” to practices adopted by all in the environment.  Thus… ghetto “speech,” ghetto aspirations,” do not help individuals rise above their poverty…

4)  “Peer Pressure” could help (among the whites); but it takes a lot of peers…

5)  The need is twofold – active actions, and widespread passive acceptance of such actions (rather than little-to-no action, and little acceptance)

6)  Segregation really is a very, very long-long-term problem.  We should re-introduce the word segregation, regularly, everywhere we can.

The book chronicles, with devastating data backing up the conclusion, that blacks and Puerto Ricans are disproportionately poor, and “trapped’ in segregated neighborhoods that keep them that way.  From the book:

However one defines the underclass, it is clear that African Americans are overrepresented within it.  People who trace their ancestry to Africa are at greater risk that others of falling into poverty, remaining there for a long time, and residing in very poor neighborhoods.  On almost any measure of social and economic well-being, blacks and Puerto Ricans come out near the bottom. 

Why?  My phrasebecause…  racism really is a real thing!  (back to that “color line”).

I think we ought to reintroduce the word “segregation” back into our vocabulary in public discourse.  It is the problem that has not gone away, and until it does, the evidence is now pretty inescapable:  progress will remain painfully slow — practically  non-existent — for way too many black Americans.


A personal note:  I regularly present synopses of business books at the First Friday Book Synopsis and within companies and organizations, and also books on social justice and poverty for CitySquare (and other nonprofit venues).  If you live in Dallas, I hope you will consider checking out the Urban Engagement Book Club.  Consider adding it to your schedule.  It will help you think about some “societal issues,” that, I think, every citizen should save a little bandwidth for.


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