The Corner

Politics & Policy

David Brooks and the Case for (Very Long Term) Racial Optimism

Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial in Washington D.C. (Eric Thayer/Reuters)

New York Times columnist David Brooks says he wanted to write an optimistic column about the future of race relations but ended up having to write a pessimistic one instead. He notes that different statistics say very different things about whether America is making progress on its racial divide. By some measures (e.g., poverty rates) progress has nearly stagnated; by others (e.g., interracial marriage), it has been impressive.

Obviously, how one sees this issue will depend on how much weight one places on each indicator. But I think there’s a strong case for seeing things this way: Racial progress is by and large depressingly slow, but it’s happening. Things are not great now, but they are far better than they were 50 years ago, and they will be much better still in another 50.

I’d especially like to pick some nits regarding the segregation numbers Brooks relies on, because I think integration is a key measure of whether race is becoming less of a dividing line in our society:

American neighborhoods are desegregating slightly, but the situation is worse for children. Black and Hispanic children are more likely to be residentially segregated than minority adults.

Schools are resegregating, too. The percentage of black students who are attending schools that are 90 to 100 percent minority went down in the South in the 1970s and 1980s, but now is shooting up. In the Northeast, the percentage of black students in these schools has been climbing for decades.

I wouldn’t say that neighborhoods are desegregating “slightly”; I’d say they’re desegregating “slowly but steadily.” As I pointed out in a piece for NR’s print edition not too long ago, “To perfectly integrate whites and blacks in 1980, you would have needed to move more than 60 percent of blacks to new neighborhoods, according to work by the Brookings Institution demographer William Frey. By 2000 that figure declined to about 50 percent, and it fell still further by 2010.”

Meanwhile, the link on “Schools are resegregating, too” goes to a Vox piece responding to that very print article of mine, in which I’d also argued that schools are not resegregating. You’ll be surprised to hear that I disagreed with Vox’s piece disagreeing with me.

You can read my response here, but the crux of the issue is this: Vox and other advocates of the “resegregation” claim rely on what’s called “exposure” or “isolation” measures — say, the percentage of black students who go to majority-nonwhite or even 90 percent nonwhite schools. Problem is, these measures automatically increase as the overall population becomes more diverse. (The public-school population in general is now majority-nonwhite, for example, so it’s hardly a shock that more kids are going to majority-nonwhite schools.) Rising diversity certainly may pose some challenges to schools, but referring to diversity as “segregation” is downright Orwellian, and when you use measures that take changing demographics into account (i.e., “dissimilarity indexes”), you find that schools are in fact not becoming more segregated.

Generally, what seems to be happening is that court-ordered desegregation is declining while neighborhoods are integrating, and these two phenomena roughly cancel each other out as far as schools are concerned. Once desegregation orders are left in the past, school segregation should start to actually decline along with neighborhood segregation — so long as “segregation” is measured in a way that deserves the name, and so long as we keep actively working to reduce it.

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