Integration Exhaustion, Race Fatigue and the American Dream

By Chester Hartman and Gregory D. Squires

When the federal Fair Housing Act of 1968 was being debated, Senator Walter Mondale famously stated that “the reach of the proposed law was to replace the ghettos with truly integrated and balanced living patterns.” But the nation has had a long, uneasy relationship with the concept of integration. Several legal mandates, social science research reports and advocacy positions have endorsed the pursuit of integration, but segregation remains a dominant reality in virtually all U.S. cities and their surrounding areas. In recent years, the value of integration appears to be losing its hold. “Integration exhaustion” on the part of non-whites and “race fatigue” on the part of whites have deflated some of the pressure for integration. Many suggest that today we live in a “post-civil rights world,” and so perhaps the need for integration, like the civil rights movement itself, has faded.

This would be an unfortunate vision on which to base public policy or private practice when it comes to issues of race, and particularly racial inequality, in the United States today. Certainly there has been substantial progress in recent years. Racial minorities now occupy positions in business, entertainment, politics and virtually all fields in larger numbers than ever before, with the election of Barack Obama being the most significant, but hardly the only, breakthrough of recent years. At the same time, racial inequality and racial segregation stubbornly persist, and at great cost to both the victims and society as a whole. If many barriers have been broken, significant gaps remain. If recent efforts to desegregate the nation’s neighborhoods have disappointed, new and better approaches are required. If integration does not “work,” as some critics claim, it may well be because it has never really been tried, as most fair housing advocates assert. Separate-but-equal has been tried and clearly found wanting to all but the most diehard racists. The challenge, for all, remains the dismantling of remaining vestiges of discrimination and the realization of “truly integrated and balanced living patterns.”

Integration Exhaustion? Race Fatigue?

As Sheryll Cashin and many other scholars observe, for many non-whites, particularly African-American families, integration is not the goal that it was a generation ago. In her 2004 book The Failures of Integration, Cashin quotes one black resident of a middle-class Atlanta neighborhood: “When I have to work around them all day, by the time I come home I don’t want to have to deal with white people anymore.” A young African-American journalist wrote on the editorial page of the June 17, 2001 Washington Post:

In the small act of choosing to buy our home where we did, I believe that we became part of a growing group of African Americans who are picking up where the civil rights movement left off. From our perspective, integration is overrated. It’s time to reverse an earlier generation’s hopeful migration into white communities and attend to some unfinished business in the hood.

And as Cashin herself recounted:

But in conversation after conversation with black friends, acquaintances and strangers, integration is simply not a priority in the way that getting ahead is. What black people now seem most ardent about is equality of opportunity. As one black acquaintance once put it, rather than wanting to integrate with whites, black people now seem more interested in having what whites have.

Joe R. Feagin and Melvin P. Sikes, in their 1994 book Living With Racism: The Black Middle-Class Experience, interviewed middle-class blacks who expressed similar attitudes, many of whom report experiences of being a “pioneer” and question if it has been worth it all, clearly expressing integration exhaustion. One corporate executive described the maltreatment he received because of his race and concluded: “The only place it probably doesn’t affect me, I guess, is in my home…but outside one’s home it always affects me.” The recently published memoir The Black Girl Next Door, by Yale historian Jennifer Baszile, describes the emotional struggle of being the “pioneering” black family in suburban Palos Verdes Estates in California.

If many blacks are tired of the struggle for racial integration, many whites believe American society has done enough. Race fatigue has set in for many, according to Thomas and Mary Edsall in their 1991 book Chain Reaction: The Impact of Race, Rights and Taxes on American Politics, which describes the antipathy many whites have to paying taxes they believe go to support programs that are no longer needed. A 2008 New York Times poll found that 48 percent of whites oppose programs to help minorities get ahead, with 26 percent believing that they themselves are now victims of racial discrimination. Cashin reported that approximately half of all whites believe blacks and whites have equal access to jobs, education and health care, even though black family income persists at about two-thirds the white median, with similar gaps in health, education and other areas of life.

In a more fundamental redefinition of the situation, some scholars, white and non-white (Abigail and Stephan Thernstrom, Thomas Sowell, Shelby Steele, John McWhorter), believe the key battles of the civil rights movement were fought and won in the 1960s, and that any remaining racial gaps can be explained largely by cultural failures on the part of non-whites, particularly blacks, themselves. Pointing to the “cult of victimology” (how many blacks see themselves only as victims), “separatism” (the belief that they do not have to play by conventional rules because of their victimization) and “anti-intellectualism” (going to school means acting white and identifying with the oppressor), McWhorter, in his 2000 book Losing the Race: Self-Sabotage in Black America, concludes: “The black community today is the main obstacle to achieving the full integration our civil rights leaders sought.”

The Continuing Costs of Segregation

But racial segregation persists, and the social costs are compounded by increasing economic segregation. If nationwide statistical measures of segregation have declined somewhat for African Americans, segregation from whites of Hispanics and Asians has increased slightly. And in those major metropolitan areas where the black population is concentrated—cities like Chicago, Detroit and Milwaukee—black/white segregation persists at traditionally hypersegregated levels. And racial isolation has been exacerbated by the dramatically increasing concentration of poverty.

If some middle-class professional minorities are residing in neighborhoods previously closed to them, poor people—particularly poor people of color—are increasingly falling down and dropping out. The number of high-poverty census tracts (those where 40 percent or more of residents live on incomes below the official poverty line) surged from 1,177 in 1970 to 2,510 in 2000, with the number of residents in those neighborhoods growing from 4.1 million to 7.9 million. Preliminary research by urbanist Paul Jargowsky reveals that these numbers have continued shooting upwards since 2000. These patterns are not race-neutral. Whereas just 5 percent of poor whites lived in high-poverty areas in 1990, 30 percent of poor blacks did. In perhaps a more revealing sign of the times, the share of middle-income census tracts declined from 58 percent to 41 percent between 1970 and 2000 while the share of poor people living in middle-income areas also declined from just over half to 37 percent, and the share of poor people living in low-income areas grew from 36 percent to 48 percent.

The combination of persistent racial segregation and rising concentration of poverty has had serious, often deadly, consequences for many who are in fact victims. A wealth of social science research has documented that residents of predominantly non-white, segregated neighborhoods experience a wide range of disamenities. Such families are far more likely to:

  • be victims of crime, while being underserviced and overpoliced by a criminal justice system in which incarceration rates have skyrocketed in recent years;
  • attend inferior schools, which leads to inferior job opportunities and less opportunity to move into more stable (and more integrated) communities;
  • receive fewer and inferior public services and private amenities (access to retail stores, entertainment, convenient transportation);
  • be exposed to polluted air and water, toxic waste facilities and other environmental hazards;
  • have less access to health care;
  • be exposed to predatory lenders and other fringe bankers (e.g., payday lenders, check-cashers, pawn shops) and have less access to conventional banking services; and
  • have difficulty learning about job opportunities and getting to those jobs that are available.

In sum, as sociologist Douglas Massey concludes: “Any process that concentrates poverty within racially isolated neighborhoods will simultaneously increase the odds of socio-economic failure within the segregated group.”

Integration Initiatives and Emerging Controversies

Several public policy initiatives have been launched in recent years in an effort to replace at least some ghettos with more balanced living patterns. Gautreaux, Moving to Opportunity (MTO) and HOPE VI are just a few of the better-known buzzwords in housing circles that have generated some new housing opportunities, a growing body of social science research and intensive controversy.

Many families who participated in these programs were able to move to safer, healthier communities where their children are more likely to graduate from high school and go on to college and less likely to have encounters with the police. The benefits are clearest in the Gautreaux program, where many more poor black families made long-distance moves from predominantly poor black to predominantly white suburbs than in the MTO program, where most moves were from poor to non-poor neighborhoods, but often in nearby communities, frequently within the same school district. And the HOPE VI findings are even more ambiguous and problematic because, unlike Gautreaux and MTO participants, who volunteered to move, HOPE VI families were involuntarily moved.

But these initiatives have not been universally hailed. Even among some long-standing civil rights advocates, they have come under harsh scrutiny. Some claim these mobility initiatives have met with less success than their proponents and some researchers suggest; that the primary objective and outcome is to displace poor people and provide unjustifiable subsidies to well-connected developers who profit by the gentrification that ensues; that they constitute another version of urban renewal that undervalues the social capital of even poor communities, destroying the lives of many vulnerable families in the process; and that the entire discussion of concentrated poverty unfairly stigmatizes poor people and particularly poor people of color.

These critiques also invoke related long-standing debates over strategies for replacing ghettos with balanced living patterns. For example: Is there a right to stay put with the expectation that adequate public services and private amenities will be available? To what extent should public policy and private practice emphasize gilding the ghetto (community reinvestment and development) versus deconcentration (helping people move out)? Should we eliminate, expand or modify current mobility programs? Clearly there is a role for fair housing law enforcement, but should that authority remain at HUD or be moved to an independent agency, and to what extent can law enforcement lead to more integrated neighborhoods? These are some of the emerging controversies explored in our 2009 edited book, The Integration Debate: Competing Futures for American Cities.

This book provides a harsh reminder of the grave costs of segregation. But it also identifies some of the perhaps unintended consequences that have been encountered in at least preliminary efforts to realize more integrated living patterns. It offers all of us an opportunity to revisit and perhaps challenge long-standing assumptions and beliefs. Hopefully, that exploration will lead to more effective policies to realize truly integrated living.

Despite the controversies that prevail, even among long-standing proponents of equality, few would dispute that racial segregation and concentrated poverty are ongoing challenges, if not life-and-death struggles, for a great many in the nation’s metropolitan regions. Most observers would concur that more balanced, equitable development to replace the ghettos and patterns of uneven development is a desirable, if not essential, objective. The Integration Debate explores many of the pitfalls of prior efforts and provides guidance on how public policy and private action can move in the direction Walter Mondale pointed to in 1968.

Historian Stephen Grant Meyer’s 2000 book As Long As They Don’t Move Next Door (copying the words from Phil Ochs’ 1965 song “Love Me, I’m a Liberal”) serves as a reminder that discrimination and segregation remain severe nationwide problems. If the nation should choose to respond, The Integration Debate, with its compendium of thoughtful input by committed activists and thinkers, can provide valuable guidance.

Chester Hartman is director of research for the Washington, DC-based Poverty & Race Research Action Council. Gregory D. Squires is a professor of sociology and public policy and public administration at George Washington UniversityThis is a shortened and edited version of the editors’ introduction to The Integration Debate: Competing Futures for American Cities, a collection of the papers presented at a conference of the same title(To order, call 800.634.7064 or visit A full table of contents is available at Reprinted by permission.

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