The Conservative Case for Doing Nothing About the Wealth Gap

If black/white segregation has declined over the past two decades -- and it has -- can we assume that it will continue to decline on its own?
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I mentioned in the comment thread below that I could see a conservative reading this and thinking "This sounds like a great case against expansive government." On that note, here is something else worth considering -- segregation, which is the root of at the root of the wealth gap, is actually on the decline.


Here are two papers that you should read. The first comes out of The Manhattan Institute and is little too optimistic in proclaiming an "end" to segregation. But the paper is still correct in noting a positive trend away from hypersegregation.  

The other paper is co-authored by Douglass Massey who, for my money, has written the most clarifying book in the poverty canon on the nature of the black ghetto -- American Apartheid: Segregation and the Making of the Underclass. (It contains the best critique I've seen of William Julius Wilson's work.) Massey, whose book was pretty pessimistic, generally concurs that black hypersegregation is declining.

Before we get into this, here is a little math. (Yes, math. From me.) The main tool social scientists use to understand segregation is called the "Dissimilarity Index." (I am going to call it DI here.) What this basically measures is the percent of people in a group who would have to move to a different area (ethnically, racially, economic, whatever you are measuring) to achieve what social scientists call "evenness." Evenness means an "even" distribution of a group across a particular area -- that is to say a population proportionately represented in every micro-area (say census tracts) at the same level they are represented in the macro-area (say, a city). Evenness is measured on a scale of 0 to 1.0. Since black people represent something like 15 percent of the American population, to achieve perfect "evenness" -- or a DI of 0 -- we would have to be 15 percent of every American state. 

Here is another way to think of it: You have a city is which is 40 percent black, and you want to know what  percent of black people would have to move to make every neighborhood in the city 40 percent black, which would be perfect evenness (a DI of 0.) If you needed 30 percent of all black people to move, the dissimilarity index would be .3 and it would be .5 if you needed 50 percent to move, and it would be 0 (again perfect DI) if you needed no one to move.  You can measure dissimilarity through states, cities, and census tracts. Social scientist generally describe any DI above .6 -- on a tract-level -- as high. 

At the dawn of the 20th century the average African-American DI was .6, which is to say it was high -- and then it got much, much worse:

As African Americans increasingly urbanized, however, segregation within cities rose from high to rather extreme levels, with the tract-level dissimilarity between blacks and whites going from an average of .60 in 1900 to .77 in 1970. In many cities levels reached .80 and even .90. No group in the history of the United States has ever experienced such extreme residential segregation, either before or since.

You must remember this paragraph anytime someone tells you that the black ghettos of Chicago are "no different" than other white immigrant ghettos. Such a person is speaking in ignorance of the actual math and should be immediately instructed to put down the hair tonic.  The black ghettos of America are unlike anything that we have ever seen in this country. And, as we have shown over the past few months, they were the direct result of American policy.

The good news is that it appears that tract-level segregation has actually declined again. Black people are less segregated right now than they've been since the dawn of the 20th century. In one sense that should make you happy. In another sense it should scare you. The "good" news means that black people went not from hypersegregated to integrated, but from hypersegregated to very segregated. Progress. Yay. Still, let's live in the good news for just a moment. If black/white segregation has declined over the past two decades -- and it has -- can we not assume that it will continue to decline on its own? 

Massey argues that ultimately segregation is at the root of most of the social ills affecting black people, because it concentrates all of the problems of poverty on the shoulders of one group -- whether everyone in that group is poor or not. To recap, the black poor are not evenly distributed in the way that, say, the daughters or sons will be evenly distributed. Thus black people -- poor or not -- will suffer higher exposure to poverty than white people. 

But this is less true today then it was fifty years ago. Can we extrapolate from that that someday -- if we let things alone -- it won't be true at all? Can we assume that segregation will recede, and racism as a force in politics will recede, and the burdens that come from disproportionate exposure to poverty will recede? And if we assume that, is it just to say to those who are still suffering in highly uneven neighborhoods, "We are sorry, but it will be better for your kids, even better for your grandkids, and truly American for your great-grandkids?" Is this just? And just or not, is it in fact, wise? 

I offer no conclusions or answers. But you should read those two papers. It's all very, very fascinating.

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Ta-Nehisi Coates is a national correspondent at The Atlantic, where he writes about culture, politics, and social issues. He is the author of the memoir The Beautiful Struggle.

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