The racial and social unrest across the United States is permeating the fabric of our homes, schools, workplaces, cities and towns. For many people of color, the highly visible impacts of police brutality and lack of access to safe work and living conditions in COVID-19 are not surprising. The recent unrest has, however, opened the eyes of many white people who consider themselves allies of people of color and want change. For change to happen, the majority must first be aware and then must act.
Segregation at School, Work and Home
One of the biggest obstacles to awareness and learning for even the most well-intentioned white people is perspective. When they are asked how present segregation is in their lives, as Darden Professor Greg Fairchild does in many of his talks, most answers reflect a belief that the world is more integrated than is actually the case. While the country, our cities and towns have become more diverse, they have largely remained segregated — in some cases becoming even more so. Those good intentions and conversations about diversity may lead to what Fairchild terms the “illusion of inclusion”; even if we do not hold bias against each other, our physical and social separation exacerbates existing income, wealth, job and achievement gaps — an issue perhaps bigger than individual biases.
In a recent work, Emerging Domestic Markets: How Financial Entrepreneurs Reach Underserved Communities in the United States, Fairchild provides data and perspective that foster awareness.
Fairchild details shocking statistics shared in the report “Brown at 50: King’s Dream or Plessy’s Nightmare?” by Gary Orfield and Chungmei Lee. This review of school segregation 50 years after the Supreme Court’s Brown vs. Board of Education (1954) decision shows a distinct lack of progress in integrating Black and Latino students; in fact, U.S. schools were found to be increasingly segregated.1
Meanwhile, in the workplace, while many companies have for years striven to build more diverse workforces, they are becoming more segregated, and less inclusive. The American Sociological Review published a paper, “Documenting Desegregation: Segregation in American Workplaces by Race, Ethnicity and Sex, 1966–2003,” that concluded: “Most strikingly, black-white workplace desegregation essentially stops after 1980. … there is also some disturbing evidence of resegregation after 1995 in old economy sectors.”2
Further, Fairchild cites a 1999 paper by leading economists David Cutler, Edward Glaeser and Jacob Vigdor, “The Rise and Decline of the American Ghetto,” analyzing the degree of segregation in the U.S. over the course of a century (1890–1990). These authors offer a conclusion about segregation over the last 100 years many would find surprising: “We find evidence that the mechanism sustaining segregation has changed,” they write. “In the mid-20th century, segregation was a product of collective actions taken by whites to exclude Blacks from their neighborhoods. By 1990, the legal barriers enforcing segregation had been replaced by decentralized racism, where whites pay more than Blacks to live in predominantly white areas.”3
Fairchild highlights the fact that residential segregation continued to characterize our neighborhoods even after the Fair Housing Act of 1968. Citing Douglas Massey and Nancy Denton’s American Apartheid: Segregation and the Making of the Underclass,4 he summarizes the comprehensive, disturbing case that residential segregation was not only durable across the United States, but that it continueed to play a strong role in income, wealth inequality and educational achievement gaps. Massey and Denton shared that American levels of segregation were only comparable to one nation in modern history: South Africa under apartheid. In a 2015 study, Massey and co-author Jonathan Tannen studied hypersegregation — the phenomenon of a group proving highly segregated in four out of five geographic determinates of segregation — in metropolitan areas from 1970 to 2010. Though the number of hypsersegregated areas declined, over the course of those 40 years the degree of segregation barely changed. And as late as 2010, hypersegregated areas held approximately one-third of all Black metropolitan residents.5
Lack of Prejudice Does Not Mean Wealth of Opportunity
Fairchild’s own research quantifies the burden of growing up in residentially segregated neighborhoods, schools and workplaces. His analyses illustrate that even as adults, growing up in a segregated neighborhood tends to be associated with less success in the job market, mostly because of being cut off from the personal referral networks that drive most jobs.
Fairchild explains that for so many years, we have built our discussions and efforts under the assumption that the reduction of individual prejudice would lead to equality of opportunity. Perhaps we forgot about the physical and social space between us?
Here is where white people who consider themselves allies of people of color should take specific note: If persistently high levels of segregation are left unchecked, we should anticipate rising inequality across groups without what we often think of as racial or ethnic prejudice. In overcoming the cycle of segregation and its effects, it is not enough to passively hope for change. Allies may consider questions about their daily lives:
- In the past year, how many people of another race have shared dinner at their homes?
- How many people of another race would they call to pick them up at the airport?
- What would the composition of their children’s schools suggest about the demography of the community? Would there be a discrepancy?
- What is the demography of your workplace, and does it vary dramatically across ranks?
- When you last went out to dinner or the movies, how many people of a different race were present?
There’s an age old social science theory that provided the basis for inspiring Fairchild’s interest in studying these factors: Gordon Allport’s Intergroup Contact Hypothesis, developed and presented in his book The Nature of Prejudice (1954). Allport’s proposition was that an ingroup member’s level of prejudice toward outgroup members is inversely correlated with the degree of contact that someone has with that group (i.e., white people will have lower prejudice if they have more contact with Black people of similar social status). Increased opportunities for interaction would allow individuals to test their stereotypes, and over time they would find their stereotypes hollow. Fairchild saw echoes in the arguments made around that same time (mid-1950s) by the Brown vs. Board of Education plaintiffs regarding educational segregation. Enforced and rigid barriers to intergroup relations, they argued, were demonstrably damaging to Black children. Continued segregation would sustain existing negative prejudices and stall the social progress of Black children. This contributes to what Fairchild terms “inequality without bias.”
So, what can we do about segregation? Studies show that in contemporary America, relatively few would suggest it is a social “good.” In the past, we’ve taken the approach that government policy should address these matters. Perhaps we’ve learned that those efforts are necessary and yet insufficient. How are we willing to address the space between us in our own lives? If we agree that segregation exacerbates stereotypes, creates social distance, and even diminishes the income and life expectancy of others, how can we rectify it? What personal steps can we take to integrate our neighborhoods, schools and workplaces? And yes, even our personal lives? Fairchild argues that without intentional efforts, we cannot expect these conditions to change — and we should anticipate future social unrest.
- 1Gary Orfield and Chungmei Lee, “Brown at 50: King’s Dream or Plessy’s Nightmare?” (report, The Civil Rights Project at Harvard University, 2004).
- 2Donald Tomaskovic-Devey, Catherine Zimmer, Kevin Stainback, Corre Robinson, Tiffany Taylor and Tricia McTague, “Documenting Desegregation: Segregation in American Workplaces by Race, Ethnicity and Sex, 1966–2003,” American Sociological Review 71, No. 4 (2006): 565–588.
- 3D.M. Cutler, E.L. Glaeser and J.L. Vigdor, “The Rise and Decline of the American Ghetto,” Journal of Political Economy 107, No. 3 (1999): 455–506.
- 4D.S. Massey and N.A. Denton, American Apartheid: Segregation and the Making of the Underclass (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1993).
- 5D.S. Massey and J.Tannen, “A Research Note on Trends in Black Hypersegregation,” Demography 52 (2015): 1025 – 1034, https://doi.org/10.1007/s13524-015-0381-6.