On Segregation: Forcing Integration

By Mariano Deheza (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons
In my last post on segregation, we looked into distinguishing race and class when discussing race relations, while acknowledging both can be intertwined, and I also presented why I believe desegregation of white communities is critical.

Some seem to argue that if we can just get people to be less prejudiced, then we’ll become naturally more inclusive. It’s certainly critical to combat conscious and unconscious prejudice, but I also believe that we need mechanisms that “force” integration of some schools, workplaces, and housing to occur. In this post, I will present a few selections from various sources to begin the conversation of this case.

Even Polygons Only Integrate When They Have To

In the Parable of the Polygons by Vi Hart and Nicky Case, a wonderful open source set of interactives on segregation between triangles and squares, one scenario presents a world that is already segregated (as ours is), and when you lower the slider for “bias” . . . well, you’d expect that some squares and triangles would start intermixing. Except . . .

See what doesn’t happen? No change. No mixing back together. In a world where bias ever existed, being unbiased isn’t enough! We’re gonna need active measures. [Bold added]

But what happens when parameters for some level of diversity is set for squares and triangles? Very different scenario:

. . . all it takes is a change in the perception of what an acceptable environment looks like. So, fellow shapes, remember it’s not about triangles vs squares, it’s about deciding what we want the world to look like, and settling for no less. [Bold added]

Teen Cliques Are Tamed By Design, So Why Not Society?

In another article, Why Cliques Form at Some High Schools and Not Others by Derek Thompson on The Atlantic, the argument for deliberately cultivating diversity is also made:

. . . the natural instinct for teenagers to separate themselves into clusters and hierarchies is weakened when schools force kids to partner with peers they wouldn’t otherwise want to be around to see first-hand the benefits of unlikely friendships.

What’s behind the difference between schools, if the instinct to be around similar people is universal? McFarland says it’s not about the students. It’s about the schools, themselves. The way high schools are designed—their size, their level of diversity, and the way they treat students—can either drive students to segregate based on things like household income and race, or force them to build relationships that are more about their high school life than their socioeconomic backgrounds. [Bold added]

Notice that uncomfortable word repeated? Forced. Inclusion, integration, and diverse relationships don’t form organically, and we would be naïve to hope they would.

Anyone who has lived through middle school knows all about cliques. Cliques are the reason schools and certain organizations and communities sometimes suck. They’re the reason I argue for forced integration.

In smaller schools, and in smaller classrooms, you force people to interact, and they are less hierarchical, less cliquish, and less self-segregated.

School size wasn’t the only factor that affected cliques and hierarchies. Schools that grouped students by academics and created other ways to force kids with different backgrounds to cooperate (whether in clubs or on sports teams) were less ruled by segregation and hierarchy.

But By What Mechanisms?

In a report released by Education Pioneers, “From Intention to Action,” some recommendations for achieving diversity in organizations are well worth considering:

1. Customized vision and strategy for diversity and inclusion
2. Leadership and accountability
3. Talent recruitment and staff development practices
4. Intentional and strategic dialogue about diversity

Interviews revealed that these organization-wide conversations are not happening because of rapid growth or competing organizational priorities. Several study participants admitted that conversations about diversity are unsettling or tense, and thus they have avoided them. Diversity conversations rarely make the priority list, and when they do, they often are not implemented successfully.

All of these recommendations go well beyond intent. We must move beyond good intentions to actual mechanisms and strategies put in place and reinforced to create diversity.

Policies and Housing Are Key

Richard Rothstein has a long and good piece up at The Economic Policy Institute diving into the history of segregation that led to modern-day Ferguson, creating the divided sort of environment in which Michael Brown’s killing at the hands of a mostly white police force occurred.

Rothstein does a nice job of laying out the case for why policies, not simply private prejudice, led to this situation.

Many practical programs and regulatory strategies can address problems of Ferguson and similar communities nationwide. One example is to prohibit landlords from refusing to accept tenants whose rent is subsidized – a few states and municipalities currently do prohibit such refusal, but most do not. Another example is to require even outer-ring suburbs to repeal zoning ordinances that prohibit construction of housing that lower- or moderate-income residents – white or black – can afford. Going further, we could require every community to permit development of housing to accommodate a “fair share” of its region’s low-income and minority populations – New Jersey, for example, has taken a very modest step towards this requirement.97

But we won’t consider such remedies if we remain blind to how Ferguson became Ferguson. It is impractical to think that the public and policymakers will support remedies to problems whose causes they don’t understand. We flatter ourselves that the responsibility is only borne by rogue police officers, white flight, and suburbanites’ desire for economic homogeneity. Prosecuting the officer who shot Michael Brown, or investigating and integrating Ferguson’s police department, can’t address the deeper obstacles to racial progress. [Bold added]

There’s so much more to say on this, obviously. But I hope I’ve sparked some thought through this examination. There are folks out there, such as Richard D. Kahlenberg and Halley Potter at The Century Foundation, doing great work in examining and advocating mechanisms for achieving greater integration in schools.

I hope that in 2015, we can push into new frontiers in policy that can bring greater opportunities for inclusion and diversity.


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