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Fugitive Moments

Flashpoints in global justice, democratic process, and the history of ideas

The Inequality Debate We Should Be Having

Milwaukee Segregation 

One of the ironies of American political culture is that in such an overwhelmingly urban and increasingly nonwhite society, issues of poverty, segregation, and race rarely figure into presidential races in a meaningful way. Listening to campaign rhetoric, it’s hard to find evidence that America is becoming poorer, more divided, and less integrated than it was a generation ago.     

This was especially true of Tuesday’s town hall debate. Despite pointed questions about issues like crime and economic growth, both candidates chose not to connect them with the persistent poverty and racial division that increasingly define American cities. Instead, Obama got into a lengthy joust with Romney over who supported natural gas drilling more (and coal and fracking). Meanwhile, America’s racial and class makeup continues to change in profound ways.

For one thing, we’re becoming a more segregated society. A recent report by the Pew Research Center finds that income segregation in American cities has increased dramatically since 1980, especially in places like New York and Philadelphia. While middle-income neighborhoods have shrunk over the past 30 years, low-income and high-income areas are more concentrated than they have been in decades—problems only intensified by the recession. Racial segregation is no less prominent. On average, U.S. cities are more racially segregated now than they were in 1940, says the Economic Policy Institute.

Divisions like these are deeply felt in our public schools. A recent study by UCLA’s Civil Rights Project finds that race and income segregation have been rising quickly in American schools, especially since 1991. Today, most students of color attend schools that are overwhelmingly low-income and nonwhite, and one in seven attend what are called apartheid schools, where whites make up less than 2 percent of the student body. In some areas, like the Western U.S., a full 43 percent of Latino student attend such hyper-segregated schools.

And while the Obama administration has touted its support for underprivileged and underachieving schools and students, they haven’t seen much success. In particular, Obama’s support for charter schools, the UCLA report finds, has undermined modest desegregation efforts, as charters remain by far the most segregated branch of public schools. What’s more, issues like these don’t make it very far in the presidential race. “Though segregation is powerfully related to many dimensions of unequal education,” the report concludes, “neither candidate has discussed it in the current presidential race.”

That issues of urban segregation and unequal education are so absent from this year’s election cycle is more than a little ironic, says Richard Rothstein at the American Prospect. When racial segregation became a visible political issue in the late 1960s, even Republican leaders became active in fighting it. One Republican in particular, George Romney, the head of the Department of Housing and Urban Development under Nixon, supported a broad-based policy of residential integration—of the kind unthinkable today.

Not content with approaches like busing that attacked school segregation at the student level, Romney saw integration as an expansive, holistic public issue, says Rothstein. A student’s success in the classroom, he believed, had as much to do with their access to health care, their parents’ employment situation, and the safety of their neighborhood as it did with the racial makeup of their class. Following advice from 1968’s Kerner Commission (which President Johnson flatly ignored), Romney’s plan was to invest heavily in low-income and subsidized housing mostly in white suburbs, and to force suburbanites to reverse racist zoning practices. But the plan, despite having (conservative) supporters in high places, did not see the light of day. Nixon, whose ideas on school and residential integration might today be considered liberal, believed that forcing communities to integrate was the wrong approach. As a result, the principled Romney, who as a presidential candidate had strongly spoken out against segregation in the tumultuous year of 1968, chose to resign.

Needless to say, Mitt hasn’t followed in his father’s footsteps—but then, Obama hasn’t made much noise on poverty or race either. In the first three debates this year, the GOP team has actually mentioned poverty far more than the Dems, says Seth Freed Wessler at Colorlines. At the same time, Obama has spoken “less about race than any other Democratic president since 1961,” writes Ta-Nehisi Coates in The Atlantic.

That’s a shame, because problems of inequality and segregation won’t go away without dialogue and serious action. An Obama presidency may be somewhat better overall than a Romney presidency in terms of race and poverty, but that assumes structural solutions are impossible. To really tackle segregation and inequality, we need a holistic approach—like the kind that might have worked in 1968.

Image of Milwaukee’s racial makeup from 2000 U.S. Census (public domain). Milwaukee is famously the most segregated city in the United States; blue dots represent black residents.