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Stupid White Men and Why Segregation Matters
by Paul Street
August 14, 2004

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The bitter white male comments on my old Bill Cosby essay (“Bill Cosby and White America: Cosby Feeds America's 'Can't Do, Won't do Attitude,” ZNet, June 1, 2004) are STILL coming in -- just amazing, these white guys just can't leave it alone and move on.  Cosby validated their racial prejudices and they're just not going to tolerate somebody pointing out that Emperor Bill has no clothes. 

Here's one dumb white guy message that arrived today, and my response.  Will he read it? Very probably not.  In my experience with these ubiquitous sorts, addicted to the “Wages of Whiteness” (see the excellent book by David Roediger bearing that title...traces the historical development of the “psychological wage” [W.E.B. DoBois's concept] granted to many whites as self-defeating yet intoxicating compensation for their subordinate class status and subjection to the mainly white “elite”), it's just not about reasoned debate or evidence.  It's about hatred, repetition, and, well, racism. In short, when I write about race, as I often do (and its the main subject of my paid employment), I get some of Tim Wise's mail.

Sent: Thursday, August 12, 2004 8:33 PM
To: Paul Street
Subject: if whites are so bad --- why aren't black's better off in all non-white areas?
From: One of Michael Moore's Stupid White Men

If whites are so bad, why aren't black's better off in all non-white areas? Assuming everything you say about them is true... why stay around them?

From: Paul Street
To: Stupid White Man
Subject: Race, Place, and the Geography of Opportunity

You don't specify a publication but you've just got to be responding to the one on Cosby, which I did 2 1/2 months ago and is still driving you guys nuts after all these weeks!  Who said whites are so bad? Not me. I'm all kinds of white people, including myself.  Still, I have pointed out on repeated occasions that too many whites have some very big blind spots and denial issues on race.  As for your main question….why blacks often do better in more integrated areas and worse in all black communities....are you serious? There's this thing called the geography of opportunity and its highly racialized in the US.  Here is a subsection from a project study I'm doing:

Why Place Matters

An outside observer sympathetic to black equality but unfamiliar with the spatial distribution of social and economic opportunity in modern America might well look at the stark numbers on current racial segregation in the US and ask, “so what?”  Contrary to the Supreme Court's reasoning in its famous Brown v Board of Education (1954) decision, racial separation is not inherently racial inequality.  There is no absolute or inviolable law of social and historical development mandating that African-Americans could not thrive while living in essentially separate communities.  We should not assume, moreover, that, in a society free of discrimination, African Americans would necessarily choose to live dispersed among whites or that the only suitable or “proper” residential pattern for blacks is one whereby they are absorbed within a white majority.  According to the great black scholar and activist W.E.B. DuBois 70 years ago, “There [should be] no objection to colored people living beside colored people if the surroundings and treatment involve no discrimination, of the streets are well lighted, if there is waters, sewerage and police protections, and if anybody of any color who wishes, can live n that neighborhood...never in the world should our fight be against association with ourselves because by that very token we give up the whole argument that we are worth associating with.”   In a similar vein, DuBois once noted that black school children “need neither integrated education nor segregated education; what they need is education.” 

In actually existing society, however, crucial social and economic opportunities simply are not distributed evenly across and between space and community and the geography of opportunity is heavily racialized. Nobody has stated the core problem posed by residential segregation of African-Americans more concisely than University of Pennsylvania sociologist Douglas S. Massey, who notes that: 

“Housing markets are especially important because they distribute much more than a place to live; they also distribute any good or resource that is correlated with where one lives.  Housing markets don't just distribute dwellings, they also distribute education, employment, safety, insurance rates, services, and wealth in the form of home equity; they also determine the level of exposure to crime and drugs, and the peer groups that one's children experience. If one group of people is denied full access to urban housing markets because of the color of their skin, then they are systematically denied full access to the full range of benefits in urban society.”

In testimony in defense of the University of Michigan's affirmative action program, historian Thomas Sugrue explained why it is a matter of no small significance for racial equality that “whites and minorities seldom live in the same neighborhoods.  The questions - where do you live? and who are your neighbors?,” Sugrue noted, “are not trivial.  A person's perspectives on the world, his friends, her group of childhood peers, his networks and job opportunities, her wealth or lack of wealthy, his quality of education - all of these are determined to no small extent by where he or she lives.”  Racial segregation, Lawrence Bobo has noted, is the “structural linchpin of American racial inequality.”  This is no small part why Martin Luther King saw such grave “danger” in a pattern of metropolitan development combining largely African-American urban cores with predominantly white suburban peripheries.

It should come as little surprise, then, that, with no special desire for white neighbors per se, African-Americans prefer to live in racially mixed communities and are much less likely than whites to avoid neighborhoods with large numbers of people of races different than their own.  “What seems to matter most to us,” writes Sheryl Cashin, an African-American law professor at Georgetown University, “is not living in a well-integrated neighborhood but having the same access to the good things life as everyone else.”  “My dream,” an African-American prisoner/student recently told a white prisoner/student in a college history class at an Illinois “correctional facility,”  [one of the 20 “downstate” Illinois prisons that house more than 30,000 African-Americans, most from Chicago, in mostly white incarceration-addicted rural communities] “is not to sit at the lunch counter next to you.  It's just to get the same stuff you order at that counter.” 

These sentiments find supporting Leonard Rubinowitz and James Rosenbaum's provocative Crossing the Class and Color Lines: From Public Housing to White Suburbia (Chicago, 2000).  Rosenbaum and Rubinowitz found a unique research source among the roughly 6,000 low-income African-American families that were relocated to non-majority black communities from Chicago public housing during the 1980s and 1990s. The authors found major differences in employment and educational outcomes between families assigned to the suburbs and those assigned to other neighborhoods within the city.  Those who went to the suburbs did significantly better in both areas. 

African-Americans need hold no particular interracial desire to live near whites to see benefits in living in an integrated community. They need only understand from experience that differential access to housing markets tends to generate social stratification by sorting access to educational, commercial, recreational, natural, civic, medical, and labor market opportunity.   

Many of them, no doubt, also understand the perverse interaction that emerges between poverty and segregation in urban America. Beyond harming the interests of individual people and households who face barriers to geographic and residential mobility, moreover, housing segregation has the related and collateral effect of undermining the black community as a whole by concentrating the very black poverty it helps generate at often remarkable levels.  “Concentrated [black] poverty occurs [as a result of segregation] because,” Massey notes, “segregation confines any general increase in black poverty to a small number of spatially distinct neighborhoods.  Rather than being spread uniformly throughout a metropolitan environment, poor families created by an economic downturn are restricted to small number of ...geographically isolate areas.”  And “since individual socioeconomic failings” tend to “follow from prolonged exposure to concentrated poverty,” the community and its members tend to be caught in a vicious circle of collective and individual poverty and “everything that is correlated with poverty: crime, drug abuse, welfare abuse, single parenthoods, and educational difficulties.”

A toxic, mutually reinforcing relationship of dark reciprocity develops between black poverty and black segregation.   Under conditions of no black segregation, Massey points out, increasing the black poverty rate from 10% to 40% would have only “a modest effect on the neighborhood environment that blacks experience.”  In a highly segregated urban area, by contrast, increasing overall black poverty causes a marked terrible impact on that environment.  “This sharp increase in neighborhood poverty has a profound effect on the well-being of individual blacks, even those who have not been pushed into poverty themselves, since segregation forces them to live in neighborhoods with many families who aren't poor.”

Paul Street is an urban social policy researcher in Chicago, Illinois. His book Empire and Inequality: America and the World Since 9/11 ( will be published in September, 2004. He can be reached at:

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