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"Is Integration Possible? Of Course...,"

by Florence Roisman January/February 2000 issue of Poverty & Race

Not only possible, but absolutely essential.

Here are the “top 6” reasons for acknowledging that we cannot do without “racial” integration – and rejecting its opposite, segregation:

1. Racial segregation is inconsistent with civil democracy. The polity to which we aspire is premised on the equal worth of each human being. Putting ourselves or other people into categories based on the color of their skin — or the color of some ancestor’s skin – negates that fundamental principle.

2. Racial segregation is intellectually insupportable. As Audrey Smedley writes in Race in North America: Origin and Evolution of a Worldview: “Biological anthropologists, geneticists, and human biologists ... no longer accept ‘race’ as having any validity in the biological sciences.” The concept of “race” was “fabricated out of social and political realities” to impose “on conquered and enslaved peoples an identity as the lowest status groups in society.” As we reject the goals of conquest and enslavement, we must reject also the tool by which they were achieved – the construction of “racial” identity.

3. Racial segregation is silly. It is ludicrous to consider that one knows anything about another human being when all one knows is the color of someone’s skin — or the color of the skin of an ancestor of that person. As Benjamin Franklin wrote in A Narrative of the Late Massacres, protesting the wholesale killing of friendly Indians: “[S]hould any Man, with a freckled Face and red Hair, kill a Wife or Child of mine, [would] right for me to revenge it, by killing all the freckled red-haired Men, Women and Children, I could afterwards anywhere meet with[?]”

4. Racial segregation is wasteful of human resources. One consequence of racial segregation is that the people who are considered “inferior” are confined to particular geographic areas, where schools, jobs, transportation, recreation, public facilities and other opportunities are degraded. Among those who are so confined, and so deprived of opportunities to develop their full human potential, are people who could discover cures for cancer, compose great symphonies, develop computers that do not crash, and make manifold other immense contributions to human good. By cheating people of those opportunities, we cheat ourselves of what those opportunities could produce.

5. Racial segregation is wasteful of other natural resources. Racial prejudice is a principal cause of the abandonment of the cities and the push ever outward to the suburbs and beyond (see john powell’s article, “Achieving Racial Justice: What’s Sprawl Got To Do With It?” in the September/October P&R). And the race-driven “urban sprawl” imposes immense costs in new highway development, with its destruction of farmland, dangers to biodiversity, increased air pollution (exacerbating respiratory illness and promoting climactic change) and social costs.

6. Racial segregation is dangerous. The likelihood is that dreams deferred will not, in Langston Hughes’ words, “dry up like ... raisin[s] in the sun.” They will explode. The riots of past years will seem tame compared to any of the new millennium. As the Milton S. Eisenhower Foundation recently reminded us, the number of firearms in the United States “has just doubled to nearly 200 million — many of them high-powered, easily concealed models ‘with no other logical function than to kill humans.’” The Foundation’s report notes that violent crime is exacerbated by a “vast and shameful inequality in income, wealth and opportunity....” (See its report “To Establish Justice, to Insure Domestic Tranquility: A 30-Year Update of the National Commission on the Causes and Prevention of Violence.”)

We have no basis for concluding that integration is not possible. The material set out by Steinhorn & Diggs-Brown establishes not that integration is impossible but that it is difficult and time-consuming. No one should have thought otherwise.

The racial and ethnic stereotypes – and the notion of white supremacy – that divide us from one another were created over a long period of time and have been buttressed by powerful societal forces. We did not begin seriously to undermine those societal forces and to root out the stereotypes until the 1960’s, and our efforts have been sporadic since then. We’ve relied on under-funded, inconsistent programs and volunteer efforts to turn around a massive propaganda machine that serves potent institutions.

The foolish thing that many of us did in the 60's was to think that the problems of racism and poverty would be solved in that decade. Many of us now recognize that they may not be solved in our lifetimes. But – for all the inadequacy of the remedies – considerable progress has been made, and more will be made if we determine to do it.

Howard Zinn, interviewed by Susan Stamberg on NPR in early December, said that the idea of the 20th century that will last into the 21st is “the idea of non-violent direct action” – “precisely because it’s been such a century of violence.” In the same spirit, I maintain that the 20th century has demonstrated that racial separation is unacceptable: racial integration is the mandate of the 21st century.

Florence Roisman a former (and founding) PRRAC Board member, is William F. Harvey Professor of Law at the Indiana University Robert H. McKinney School of Law. For many years, she was an attorney with the National Housing Law Project.

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