In recent months we’ve seen a rash of incidents, often captured on video, of police being called on black people going about normal everyday activities, such as two men sitting in a Philadelphia Starbucks waiting for a business associate or a Yale student falling asleep in the lounge of her dorm. These incidents have come to be characterized as examples of the hazards and frustrations of “living while black” and endemic racism.
Other than a lot of hand-wringing, I haven’t seen much of a public policy response to this issue. But there is one that clearly works: pursuing racial integration as a policy goal. As Elizabeth Anderson, author of the 2010 book The Imperative of Integration, told me, a lot of research suggests that racial prejudice is triggered when blacks are “tokens” -- that is, when whites see blacks in places where they don’t usually see them. It’s pretty much impossible, Anderson says, to exaggerate the extent to which racist behavior is motivated by fear. On the other hand, steady racial contact has positive effects in diminishing the stereotypes that prompt these fears.
Anderson’s argument -- that it’s an illusion that racial justice can be achieved without integration -- makes sense to me, and I am surprised by the absence of any discussion of it when we talk about how to achieve racial equity. Perhaps that is because people see integration as impractical or unworkable.
The residents of Oak Park, Ill., know otherwise. Rob Breymaier, the chief operations officer of the Chicago-area nonprofit Heartland Housing, has worked in Oak Park for years; Anderson refers to him as “the world expert” on how to pull off successful neighborhood integration. Oak Park adopted a strategy of promoting integration in the 1970s. Initially met with acrimonious debate and opposition, it has changed the culture of the community.
Embracing integration, Breymaier says, is not only about building acceptance of diversity and calming racial fears, but also about driving prosperity by supporting a strong housing market, among other economic benefits. That’s particularly important in an era of major demographic change, with people of color making up an increasing percentage of the population. For central cities and inner-ring suburbs like Oak Park, embracing integration is a competitive advantage because African-Americans know they will be well treated and accepted.
There are clear strategies that communities can adopt to promote integration, including educating landlords and training real estate agents to look at the larger community. In marketing itself, Oak Park stresses not only its traditional amenities, such as the quality of its schools and its business climate, but also its standing as one of the most inclusive communities.
In a speech in 1962, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. declared that desegregation was only a means and that “integration is the ultimate goal of our national community.” If we want to do something more than bemoan “living while black” incidents, we need civic leaders to reclaim racial integration as a policy goal.