Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Always Black and White?

There was a remarkable lead story at Salon today detailing the ten most segregated urban areas in the country, according to the newly released census data. When I got the third item on the list, each of which were accompanied by impressive maps of the demographics, I was strongly reminded of a breaking point for which I’ve been waiting a long time, and am likely to go on waiting.

That third place on the list was Cincinnati, its map showing small enclaves of red depicting areas of black majority surrounded completely by a light, faded blue, indicating areas of slight white majority, with a far more vibrant blue extending out from there in every direction. The moment I looked at it, I had the clear sense that I was looking at a perfect visual representation of the social class distribution in a modern urban area.

I could go on for pages and pages, and respond to several of the academic quotations given in the article, and I may do so if, for instance, nothing else catches my attention tomorrow as this has today. But my main point is simple enough. I think we need to stop talking about segregation and related issues as issues pertaining to white and black. It’s more appropriate and more useful to describe it as a problem of rich and poor.

To talk about this topic in terms of actions and attitudes of black people and white people just reinforces the idea of some separateness of the two groups that applies across the board on the basis of nothing other than skin color. That idea is precisely the underpinning of racism, and even if it’s well intentioned, even if the purpose of speaking in those terms is to criticize the white majority, it gives the impression that race itself is the problem. But if race is the problem, it can’t be fixed. If poverty is the problem, there’s work that can be done.

Even if one hundred percent of the white population in a given region is virulently racist, not all of them contribute to the ongoing segregation of that area. Some of them are just too poor to move, as much as they might want to get away from the blacks that have become their neighbors. And while that racism would have to be addressed on its own terms, there are poor whites who live amongst black majorities, and so cannot be said to be culpable for the segregation of their region. But the discussion of the topic always seems to refer to black ingress and “white flight.”

I strongly disapprove of that term. How did it ever come about that we saw the underpinning of segregation as “white flight” and not “rich flight”? It’s not really racism that causes segregation, so much as it is the divergence of social classes that lays the groundwork for both racism and segregation as collateral effects. Poverty is the problem, and segregation is a symptom. To talk about segregation in terms of black and white only serves to pit the two sides against each other in places where they are actually coexisting, despite segregation. We can beat racism and yet not have the slightest effect on segregation if only all those who are poor now are kept poor, with blacks comprising the majority of the impoverished, incapable, along with their poor, white neighbors, of moving to places of affluence. But we can beat racism, at least among the lower classes if we understand that we’re in this together, that it’s not black against white, but poor against a system that makes poverty practically inescapable.

Buffalo happened to come in at number six on the list, which further makes it clear to me that I have just the right opinion of this place. There is so much racism here, coming from all sides. And I think that realistically the segregation that puts us in this ignoble top ten upholds all the racism more than the other way around. What is needed is for whites to understand that their neighborhood isn’t poor because of all the blacks who live there, but rather all the blacks live there because their neighborhood is poor. And the blacks need to better understand that if any identifiable person is holding them down, the white cashier or plumber isn’t him. If there must be an enemy his color is not white or black, but gold or silver.

It seems that racists and academics must reach roughly the same breaking point, and understand that we’ve been fighting the wrong enemy. We need to properly identify our social class first, and stop thinking of black and white as somehow more different than rich and poor. Much of the academic commentary in the Salon article suggested to me that scholars on the topic have a harmful preconception of segregation as a problem related only to color and not to class, but none more so than this line from Colin Gordon of the University of Iowa, talking about St. Louis: “What we conventionally think of as white flight is now black flight as well. The city itself is just emptying out and the predominant area of African-American settlement is in St. Louis County."

No doubt for Gordon and for most people considering this topic, it’s always black and white, and so it’s just natural to talk about the two groups as separate entities, and it doesn’t occur to them that if there’s black flight and white flight, maybe they’re both following the same impulse, not demonstrating two different behaviors determined by their colors.

If there was no racism, there could still be segregation. If there was no segregation, there could still be segregation. The poor and the rich will always live apart, and people are kept unequal. If we’re going to start addressing that, we need to stop drawing false lines of demarcation among ourselves, which blur the line that should be clearest and most important. I pray for that breaking point.

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