Commentary on Political Economy

Friday 2 July 2021


The Only Thing Integrating America

Cities with a large military presence are some of the most diverse places in the country.

Artwork depicting the military and a suburban house
Archive Photos / Getty; Joe Raedle / Getty; Space Frontiers / Getty; Library of Congress; Valerie Chiang

Stephen Menendian, a researcher at UC Berkeley, has long worried that Americans don’t understand how pervasive housing segregation is. They couldn’t, he reasoned: Much of the research on it has failed to fully capture its scope. The dominant tool that scholars have used to assess the problem, known as the dissimilarity index, measures how racially mixed a given area is. According to the dissimilarity index alone, America is more integrated now than at any point in the 20th century. But the index, although useful, can understate the issue, missing neighborhoods that are intensely segregated within a larger, more diverse area.

Menendian knew that picture was incomplete. So he and his team at Berkeley’s Othering and Belonging Institute looked at data using what is known as the divergence index, which provides a more granular view of how segregated a given community is compared with the region around it. And what they found is that racial segregation has dramatically intensified in recent decades.

According to their new report, 81 percent of metropolitan regions in the United States with more than 200,000 residents were more segregated in 2019 than they were in 1990. Rust Belt cities—Detroit, Cleveland, Milwaukee—made up a majority of the top 10 most segregated cities. And of the communities that were systematically redlined in the 1930s through federal housing policy, 83 percent remain highly segregated. Housing segregation continues to influence school segregation, disparities in policing, health care, and the racial wealth gap. “Racial residential segregation is the glue that holds all these forms of systemic racism together,” Menendian told me. “You can’t solve extreme racial inequality in a segregated society.”

Does anything seem to work to encourage integration? I asked him. One trend from the project, in particular, stood out to Menendian. The two most integrated cities they found in the study were Colorado Springs, Colorado, and Port St. Lucie, Florida: two cities with large military presences. The military has long been one of the most integrated institutions in American society. “In those cities—it’s not whether they’re Republican or Democrats, blue or red—it just has to do with the fact that there is a deliberate force that creates integration in those communities that breaks down these historical patterns.”

That finding is consistent with decades of scholarly research. The sociologist Reynolds Farley first identified it in the 1980s, using census data, and it has been replicated several times since, Doug Massey, a sociologist at Princeton University and a co-author, with Nancy Denton, of the landmark 1993 book American Apartheid, told me. In 1948, President Harry Truman signed Executive Order 9981 banning segregation in the military. Though integration in the military was not seamless—and the upper echelons of the ranks are predominantly white and male—the service has a command structure that can carry out even unpopular policies. “You need a strong command structure to enforce integration and overcome segregation, and race still permeates a lot of the private housing markets in this country,” Massey told me.

Further, there’s a lot of inertia preserving segregation. People have made homes in the segregated communities they spent their childhood in, Gregory Squires, a professor at George Washington University, told me. Military service members and their families, by contrast, move frequently. “Military families move so often that they aren’t necessarily locked into a particular type of community, as many other people are, so they’re accustomed to being in places they’re not all that familiar with,” Squires continued. “They’re often looking for housing in neighborhoods that they don’t know.”

The private market does not have much in the way of either carrots or sticks to encourage integration. The major federal laws aimed at equity in housing policy—the Fair Housing Act, the Equal Credit Opportunity Act, and the Community Reinvestment Act—do not have effective mechanisms to hold those who would discriminate accountable, Massey told me. When the Fair Housing Act was originally written by Senators Walter Mondale and Edward Brooke, the first Black senator elected since Reconstruction, it did have robust penalties attached, but it was watered down in the compromise brokered by Senator Everett Dirksen to get the bill passed. The act was last updated in 1988.

Toward the end of the Obama administration, the Department of Housing and Urban Development moved to implement the affirmative mandate of the Fair Housing Act, which would require areas that receive federal funding to come up with an integration plan, but the effort was scuttled by the Trump administration. Now the Biden administration is seeking to redo the work that President Barack Obama began. But Massey argues that aggressive enforcement components, legislated in Congress, are necessary—and Democrats in Congress don’t have much time to do it. America has already seen how easily bureaucratic regulatory reform can be undone. Massey also has experience with how quickly a window for reform can close.

In 1993, shortly after President Bill Clinton entered the White House and appointed Henry Cisneros to be the secretary of housing and urban development, Cisneros called Massey and Denton. The secretary had read American Apartheid and wanted the researchers to help him design more effective desegregation policies. For two years, the researchers toiled away, writing and rewriting. But as plans began to be implemented, Republicans won control of the Senate and began cutting funding for the programs. “That was kind of the end of that,” Massey said. And, as Menendian’s report shows, segregation hasn’t budged much since.

Adam Harris is a staff writer at The Atlantic and the author of the forthcoming book The State Must Provide.

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