Don't Use the Tragic Roof Slayings to Castigate the South Alone for Structural Racism -- It's Widespread Across the US

The terrorist attack in Charleston followed by the controversy over the state of South Carolina's posting of the Confederate battle flag has shined a light on the persistence of hate and allure of white supremacy.


The nine people murdered at the African Methodist Episcopal Church by the suspect Dylann Roof are a reminder that hate persists in the region. Roof's idolization of the Confederate flag has set off a justifiable call for the end of state sponsorship of the flag; already that movement has compelled Alabama's governor to remove the flag flying at that state capitol, and others including Mississippi and South Carolina themselves are likely to be next.

There has been an outpouring of activism in Charleston following the tragedy there, with the local community coming together to heal its wounds and address lingering racism.

In contrast, the response from much of the rest of the country has been to identify individuals such as Roof as emblematic of a certain breed of hate that is unique and persistent in the American South. The narrative being portrayed is that racism is both endemic and especially severe in the southern part of the country.

For example, take this tweet by Vox's David Roberts:


The Onion decided to use the fact an extreme minority of southerners choose to personally fly the Confederate battle flag as a way to mock the region's poverty, with a headline reading: “South Carolina Refuses To Remove Confederate Flag From Capitol Trailer.”

The facts do not align with this narrative that the South is unique among regions of the country in suffering from racism.

Since the reforms of the Civil Rights Era, southern schools and neighborhoods in the most populated areas are more well-integrated than their neighbors in the north. The harsh segregation throughout metropolitan areas in the midwest and northeast is relatively absent in large southern cities. By focusing exclusively on the South's very real lingering racism but ignoring the country's problems as  whole, we risk overlooking some of America's most pressing racial justice problems.

The Southern Success That Wasn't Replicated In The North

The portrait of Southern schools prior to the Civil Rights Era was ugly: virtual apartheid existed between well-funded and well-organized schools for whites and dilapidated and resource-starved black schools. It was clear to any dispassionate observer that “separate but equal” was a fairytale.

The Supreme Court ruled that this desegregation was unconstitutional in the landmark Brown v. Board of Education case, but the court ruling itself did not succeed in desegregating southern school districts that chose to resist the order. A 1966 report by the Southern Regional Council estimated that in the 1964-1965 school year, only two percent of black children in the South attended schools that were desegregated.

But the court order was eventually supplanted by a robust set of civil rights laws, including the 1964 Civil Rights Act, and the use of federal power to compel school districts to integrate.

There are numerous ways researchers measure segregation, but one of the most common is to measure the percentage of black students who are in schools that are majority white. The victories of the 60's led to a rapid desegregation process. In 1954, 0 percent of black students were in majority white schools. By 1970, 33 percent were. By 1988, the number reached 43 percent.

Another way to measure segregation is to look at what some call intense segregation – the percentage of black students who are in schools that are 90 to 100 percent composed of racial minorities. In 1968, 77.8 percent of black students were in intensely segregated school. By 1988, this fell to 24 percent.

By any measure, this desegregation process was one of the most rapidly effective government policies ever enacted. It is rightly viewed by most Americans as a necessary and just achievement.

What is less well-known is that during this entire period, the Northeast was steadily increasing the segregation in its own schools. The Civil Rights Project at UCLA demonstrates this by tracking intense segregation:

In fact, the last year Northern schools were more integrated than Southern schools was 1982.

One state that has been consistently among the most segregated is New York, with diverse New York City being among the worst of major cities. The city's charter schools have it particularly bad, with “less than 1% white enrollment at 73% of charters.” Although the city has been ground zero for all sorts of so-called education reforms – such as intense testing, school choice, and longer school days – one thing it has never done is fully integrate its schools through the use of busing and other strict measures.

In a 2014 report, education researcher Gary Orfield explained what he thought was behind the resistance from New Yorkers towards integration:

Sometimes I think New Yorkers are so afraid of doing anything about segregation, and so convinced that integration has been a failure, because they have never experienced it. When the South made major changes in the civil rights era, whites in most areas were strongly opposed initially, but often changed their views once they learned that their fears were largely groundless. One of the most interesting facts about the busing controversy was that the group most opposed were people with no children in school who had no actual contact with integrated education. [...] most white parents whose children were actually bused for desegregation said that it was a beneficial experience. Many New Yorkers cannot imagine the positive experiences that took place in Southern metropolitan areas.

It should be noted that there has been a noticeable and worrying increase in school segregation in every region of the country except the Midwest. This increase comes from a variety of factors, including conservative courts lifting mandatory desegregation plans and the proliferation of school choice. One of the most important factors is increasing residential segregation – as communities who are higher income and lower income mix less, so do their children in school; in the United States, this is often a distinction associated at least partly by race. We'll discuss more about residential segregation in the next section.

Some would argue that this shows the mandatory integration schemes such as busing in the 20th century failed – but the data that includes an initial dramatic reduction of segregation before it started to tick back up seems to show that if anything removing these integration programs and allowing other forms of inequality to spike are the biggest culprits.

Segregated Communities Flourish Outside The South

Researchers use what is called a dissimilarity index in order to study residential segregation. The idea is to look at the evenness of the distribution of groups across a geographic area.

In 2011, Philadelphia journalist Daniel Denvir took a look at this index for metropolitan communities of over 500,000 people to locate the top ten most segregated metro areas. This was the list he came up with, from least to most segregated.

10. Los Angeles

9. Philadelphia

8. Cincinnati

7. St. Louis

6. Buffalo

5. Cleveland

4. Detroit

3. Chicago

2. New York City

1. Milwaukee

The cities have many differences, but the thing they all have in common is that none of them are in the American South.

Denvir's article provoked a variety of responses, leading him to do a follow up where he explained some of the factors that would lead to less segregation in the South versus the North. “There are two main reasons that residential segregation between blacks and whites tends to be less prevalent in the South. The first is the vigorous federal enforcement of civil rights laws,” he wrote. “The second factor is the lack of political fragmentation in the South, where government tends to operate at the county — and not city — level. A major source of segregation in the North is the ability of white people to live within overwhelmingly white political jurisdictions — this is less possible in much of the South.”

The impact of this segregation isn't only social. Racial segregation has been found to be directly associated with educational outcomes – where there is more integration of communities, there is a smaller test gap between white and black students.

Researchers at the the Population Reference Bureau examined the least segregated metro areas (looking exclusively at black-white segregation) in the U.S. They found Tuscon, Arizona to be the most integrated location under this measure. Las Vegas, Nevada was second; Colorado Springs, Colorado was third; Charleston, South Carolina was fourth.

The Neighborhood Wealth Gap Is Widest In The Northeast

This month, three Stanford researchers released a study looking at the sort of neighborhoods people of different races but similar incomes live in. The researchers found that a white family with the same income as a black family tends to live in a neighborhood with an overall much higher income – a sort of neighorhood gap.

The New York Times, summarizing the research, noted that this gap was more extreme in the northeast and that major southern cities actually were an exception:

The gaps are largest across much of the Northeast and Midwest. The two metropolitan areas where black and white children of similar family incomes grow up in the most economically different neighborhoods are Milwaukee and Newark. In both, a typical white family with $50,000 in annual income lives in a neighborhood with a median income 1.8 times larger than a typical black family making $50,000.

Not far behind those two areas are: Gary, Ind.; Bridgeport and Hartford, Conn.; Buffalo; Albany; Chicago; and Philadelphia. Among the 100 largest metro areas, the 25 with the largest gaps also include Cleveland, Detroit, Boston, New York and Baltimore.

Generally, the neighborhood gap tends to be biggest in metro areas with large black populations, though that’s not an ironclad relationship. Birmingham, Ala., Atlanta and Memphis, which have very large black populations, have neighborhood gaps not so different from average.

The Continued Fight For Desegregation

With thecontext presented above, it is possible to re-examine the case of Dylann Storm Roof in a different light than has been portrayed by the South-bashing that has dominated the media narrative. Perhaps Roof is actually not representative of the modern South – perhaps he was acting out against the more progressive place it has become. In his manifesto posted online, he complained that “we have no skinheads, no real KKK, no one doing anything but talking on the Internet.” To Roof, the integrated South appeared to be the enemy, not a source of pride.

The utility of laying out these facts is not so much to excuse the continued racism that does exist in the South or to shame the North or other parts of the country. It is to admit the extent of the problem of racial segregation in the United States – and to admit that we have made tremendous progress in the South through the use of aggressive action by federal judges and Congress.

Yet both the South and other parts of the country are experiencing a sort of re-segregation. The proliferation of school choice, rising economic inequality that cuts deeper along racial lines, and more conservative courts are taking their toll on the nation's racial progress, threatening to re-segregate both schools and residential communities.

There are efforts to counter this wave of re-segregation, and some of them involve looking beyond race to other social factors. When Wake County, North Carolina's race-based integration program was undermined by courts, the county instead created a scheme based on economically integrating students. By doing so, it retained high levels of racial diversity – racial groups tend to be polarized by income – while also guaranteeing that students interacted with peers from various income groups.

With smart thinking and political will like that, it's possible to stop the backsliding we're experiencing, and if the residents of the Northeast and Midwest are willing to be honest, may prove a path for them to truly desegregate for the first time.

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