Facing Segregation

In “Facing Segregation: Housing Policy Solutions for a Stronger Society,” Molly Metzger and Hank Webber have compiled a collection of essays that can help form the foundation for understanding our deeply divided landscape. Metzger and Webber speak to both the history and the future of metropolitan areas and, in doing so, satisfy both the intellectual and the pragmatist.

Metzger is an assistant professor at the Brown School of Social Work at Washington University in St. Louis and Webber is the university’s executive vice chancellor. Together, they ground the book in a simple premise: segregation harms everyone (though some in more obvious ways than others). And it is residential segregation, the authors argue, that can be found at the nexus of this country’s current identity and political crisis.

Segregation divvies up opportunity into uneven geographies; it creates cesspools of like-minded political thought and extremism; it exposes entire neighborhoods, primarily black neighborhoods, to premature death by way of their address. For instance, Jason Purnell, also a professor in the Brown School, points to an 18-year gap in average life expectancy between two neighboring zip codes in St. Louis: 85 years in 63015 to 67 years in 63106.

In popular imagination, segregation is understood as an issue of prejudice and individualized racism and/or classism. The authors take aim at this conception, demonstrating that residential segregation is, in truth, the outcome of a massive project undertaken by the federal government for the better part of the 20th century.

Richard Rothstein, author of “The Color of Law,” drives in the nail on this point in the opening chapter, “De Facto Segregation: A National Myth.” He writes, “Black families do not live in segregated conditions by choice, they were herded there by the federal government.” Rothstein argues that the nation’s segregated suburbs were made possible by race-based subsidies through the Federal Housing Administration (FHA), and the interstates those suburban dwellers used to commute to their jobs in the city were created through federal handouts as well. This history, Rothstein notes, “has never been remedied.”

Alongside federal prerogatives, another underreported force has divided us over time: violence. And, Rothstein says, the police, historically have colluded with white vigilantes to forcefully evict black families who move into white neighborhoods. Arson, bombings, bricks, and guns have over many decades been used to push black families out. This is the story from all over and each edge of this country, and the police have allowed, and at times instigated, these mob attacks.

This is often where the conversation ends, in retracing our troubled past. But “Facing Segregation” also draws the reader into current policy and prescriptions for positive change.

Barbara Sard of the Center on Budget Policy and Priorities sifts through the successes and shortcomings of the housing voucher program, formerly known as Section 8. The pace allows for casual readers to enter the labyrinth of housing subsidy politics. In conclusion, Sard says the program has failed thus far to integrate voucher holders into communities with strong educational and employment opportunities.

Sard argues for several changes. She suggests increasing overall federal funding of vouchers to expand the program’s reach to those currently sitting on waitlists around the country; there are over 20,000 in St. Louis city alone. She also suggests requiring the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) to shift its grading scale of local housing authorities to give more weight to the locational outcomes of voucher recipients. Essentially, Sard argues that the success of the housing voucher program should be based, in large part, on helping families move into higher opportunity areas with low rates of poverty.

The book concludes with a compelling call to action for universities by William F. Tate, the Edward Mallinckrodt Distinguished University Professor and dean and vice provost for Graduate Education at Washington University in St. Louis. Tate analyzes segregation through the lens of what he deems competing regimes, with regimes defined as “public-private partnerships organized to achieve a common goal.”

“Brain regimes,” Tate argues, must be created in cities across the country to combat the intergenerational issue of low-academic achievement in the underfunded schools of urban America. Brain regimes must contest the existing segregation regimes that have long controlled St. Louis and most other major metropolitan areas.

Tate argues that urban universities have a responsibility to lead the way. He urges research on segregation’s effect on students, cross-disciplinary studies to bridge methodological divides, and partnerships with local public schools.

Taken together, these essays lay out the reality that segregation is not a periphery problem for cities like St. Louis or for the country. Rather, solving segregation is a cornerstone to progress in every measure of the nation’s health.

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