Is Your Neighborhood Secretly Racist as Hell?

I had the good fortune to read two fantastic articles on neighborhood revitalization and race relations this morning from The Atlantic Cities and I thought you guys should know about these. The neighborhoods in question are a suburb south of Chicago and the Capitol Hill neighborhood of Washington D.C., both recently gentrified but in very different ways, and the results of that gentrification speak a lot to lingering forms of subtle racism (or sometimes not so subtle) that still exist in our neighborhoods today.

First lets define some terms: gentrification is when the gentry, a.k.a. wealthy people, move into a neighborhood that used to be full of poor people, and within a short time, the neighborhood is suddenly full of wealthy people and all the poor people are gone. Poverty solved, right? Well, no. Poverty moved slightly down the road, and likely got even more concentrated in another area with affordable housing. One thing we know about poverty – concentrating it in one area is just about the worst thing you can do if you actually want to help people (see: every housing project ever). Mixed income, mixed race neighborhoods are the holy grail of urban planning because they benefit everybody, but they’re really, really hard to plan for. Second term we need to know is “red lining”, which refers to an actual practice of drawing a red line on a map around certain neighborhoods in real estate and only showing minority families homes within those red-lined minority neighborhoods. This is an extremely racist practice and has been largely weeded out of most industries, but stille exists subtly in many. The third term that’s important to know in talking about gentrification is “white flight”, which is the nickname for the phenomenon showing that most white people, historically, will begin leaving neighborhoods once they become over 20% minority.

So, is this racism? Well, yes and no. Issues of race in this country have long been tied up intimately with issues of class, because for a very long time, you could use “the poor” and “minority” interchangeably and really not be likely to be wrong. So, if a bunch of poor people of any color could suddenly move into your neighborhood, that might have indicated that other things were going wrong that were depressing housing values, so you decided it was time to move, so…yeah maybe not racism but probably still racism. The point is, while that fact has unfortunately remained true in many parts of the country (the whole minority=poor debacle, I mean), things are starting to change, and we can see it very clearly in the Olympia Fields neighborhood just south of Chicago. You can read the full article here and get some great info, but the basic gist is that this area five years ago had nearly no black families, and today is about 75% black, and also has an average income of $77,000 per year, which is well above the average for the entire county. So, this area was gentrified by wealthy black families – what’s the problem? Well, the problem is that there are still no high end retail stores, high end restaurants, or high end anything in the area. That’s right – it’s retail red lining. Despite Olympia Fields being a high income suburban area and the highest income area in the county, high end retail and dining companies are not moving into the area, and many theorize this is simply because Olympia Fields is a black neighborhood. I should note that it’s really, really hard to study why people make decisions involving race, so studies that have been done on this are inconclusive, but to my mind it’s pretty damn suspicious.

Second, I want to look at the Capitol Hill neighborhood in D.C. Two things, quickly for the record; one, yes this is THE Capitol Hill, the neighborhood immediately behind “that” part of D.C. where there are the big fancy buildings and, you guessed it, The Capitol Building (that’s the congress one with the dome roof). Two, I have spent a little bit of time walking this neighborhood because I have two friends that live there currently, so I’ve seen this stuff first hand. Capitol Hill is experiencing the beginning of a wave of gentrification (the wealthy white people kind) right now, and parents in the area are worried about maintaining diversity in the schools. Turns out, that thing I said about concentrating poverty in neighborhoods is equally bad when we concentrate poverty in schools. Nationally, the average white student in the U.S. attends a school where  about 77% of the student body is white, whereas if you’re a poor minority student, you’re likely in a school full of poor minority students. Residents of Capitol Hill and other neighborhoods experiencing similar change right now have a unique opportunity for mixed race, mixed income schools, but are worried that soon their majority-minority schools will simply just become wealthy white people schools, and if they stay in the neighborhood, their children will just become culturally isolated within their own neighborhood school. Michael Petrelli, executive VP of the Fordham Institute in D.C. says it best quoted in this Atlantic Cities article:

“My big concern that I see in D.C. – and that I see starting to happen in other cities, too – is that we’re going to miss out on this historic opportunity to create diverse schools,” Petrilli says. “We have neighborhoods changing, becoming more diverse as upper-middle-class families move in and they stay. And as a result, these neighborhood schools are becoming more diverse. What I worry is going to happen in some cases, without smart school placement policies, is that as those neighborhoods flip, those neighborhood schools are going to flip, too.”

A black school within five or six years could easily become a white one.

That prospect suggests that cities and school districts have a narrow window to figure out how to leverage the arrival of affluent families willing to bet on public schools before this newfound diversity in their classrooms disappears. The challenge requires, as Petrilli puts it, smart school placement policies (and the input of urban planners seldom included in school district decisions). Most cities haven’t yet figured out what those policies might look like, or are currently trying to sort that out. The school districts in Seattle, San Francisco, Louisville, Raleigh, New York City and Boston have all been working on this question lately, rethinking how they assign children to schools and what “school choice” should mean.

tl;dr racism may not be out there and talked about, but the effects of racial segregation are very, very real still today.



  1. Pingback: Is Your Neighborhood Secretly Racist as Hell? | Hot Pink, High Heels, & Explosions

  2. This is a really great post, thanks for sharing! I think the idea that “cities and school districts have a narrow window to figure out how to leverage the arrival of affluent families willing to bet on public schools before this newfound diversity in their classrooms disappears,” is crucial. Planners argue often about how to harness the resources of an influx of affluence into a low-income community of color without displacement, but so much of the time the conversation about schools is entirely missing. And the concept of retail redlining is definitely something I’d like to explore further.

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