Friday, June 29, 2007


Sam Smith

1. It would have been much easier if, at the time the country was fighting over school integration, it hadn't segregated its cities with hardly any debate.

2. It would have been much easier if zip code had been included as well as ethnicity.

Even today, the issues of segregation by neighborhood and by class hardly ever make it to the fore. Thus it never occurs to people that the reason kids had to take a bus to find integration in school was because there wasn't any at home.

If you go back to older cities - even segregated ones - people of different ethnicities and classes once lived much closer to one another. After all, the very point of segregation was a malevolent system to deal with the perceived danger of otherwise presumed regular contact between ethnicities. In the modern American city, segregation by geography has taken the place of segregation by law. You don't have to enforce it; it just is.

And the segregation is heavily based on class as well as ethnicity, but that's something we don't like to talk about, either. As a result, affirmative action has lost a major weapon. Class diversity would have achieved much the same ends without as much political and social conflict. After all, the idea of aiding the poor is widely accepted in American culture while aiding someone because of their gender or ethnicity is not.

I have long supported affirmative action by zip code, arguing that it would result in either better integrated schools or better integrated neighborhoods. A bit simplistic perhaps, but the serious point remains: we have refused to deal with the geographic or class factors in affirmative action. And you can add to that public transportation. In fact, one of the most segregated public institutions is the bus, the very vehicle that advocates of school integration once thought would solve all our problems.

Using schools to even out problems we don't want to face hasn't worked all that well. The Supreme Court may have actually have done us a strange sort of favor: forced our attention elsewhere. It worth noting that just a few blocks from the Court's building, lower income blacks are being steadily moved out through gentrification, removal of public housing and other means. Nobody calls it segregation, of course. The correct term of the day is economic development. We have city plans and zoning laws to back it up and nobody sues to stop them.

One of the effects of this urban removal will, of course, be a greater distance for the children involved to travel to get to an integrated school. We will argue, sue, and write about it, and few will remember how it all started.