I recently had a revelation about the American approach to racial integration. We’ve been doing it all wrong, and it’s had disastrous effects on African Americans. Our cities are facing another integration challenge today, and we’re in danger of repeating the same mistakes.
Let me present a few provocative counter scenarios to show you what I mean.
What if, when the time came for baseball integration, the major leagues merged with the Negro Leagues? Instead of identifying a handful of early players who had the grit and toughness to deal with the ostracism, perhaps a handful of Negro League teams in the 1940s could have become full MLB teams, and the rest of the Negro League players put into a supplemental draft for all teams. Four Negro League teams from four markets untouched by MLB at the time—the Baltimore Elite Giants, the Newark Eagles, the Indianapolis Clowns, and the Kansas City Monarchs—could have become full-fledged MLB members, and more players would have had a shot at major league play.
What if, in the wake of the U.S. Supreme Court’s Brown v. Board of Education decision in 1954, segregated white schools were required to admit not only Black students, but Black faculty and administrators as well?
When segregated white schools finally addressed integration, they did so by dispersing Black students among several white schools, and generally shutting down the Black schools they came from. Black teachers and principals were often left completely out of the integration process, and black students lost a critical support group during a difficult period.
What if, instead of outlawing housing discrimination by race, religion, national origin, and all other protected classes, the federal government outlawed specific practices (exclusionary zoning, redlining, discriminatory public housing and urban renewal, discriminatory real estate practices like steering or contract buying, among others) and at the same time required all local jurisdictions to provide housing for all persons at all income levels? Mid-century American suburbs would likely have seen an increase in working-class and low-income housing, becoming far more diverse far earlier than it has. Cities would have seen an uptick in high-end construction far earlier as well. On the whole, there would have been greater balance in urban and suburban property values, then and now.
In reality, however, America did something quite different. Brooklyn Dodgers general manager Branch Rickey sought out the talent and personality of Jackie Robinson. The Little Rock NAACP was forced to find the Little Rock Nine to push Little Rock Central High School toward integration. Individual homebuyers or renters were sent into sometimes hostile neighborhoods in the name of integration.
In reality, the burden of integration was always on black people.
This hit me with full force after hearing a podcast by Malcolm Gladwell at Revisionist History. In his story about integration, titled Miss Buchanan’s Period of Adjustment, he talks about the aftermath of the Brown decision—how the Brown family’s intent was misread by so many, including the Supreme Court, and how it led to tragic unintended consequences. One of those consequences: the number of African-American teachers in the South, to this day, has never recovered from its heights during the Jim Crow Era because school systems, administrators, and school parents believed they could deal with Black students in the classroom, but could not abide being taught by Black teachers.
In each of the real scenarios, two systems were (or are) at work, and African Americans were seeking to operate on a level playing field. There were two baseball “systems”—MLB and the Negro Leagues. There were two school “systems”, explicitly so in the South but implicitly so in the North—one for whites and one for blacks. There are two housing “systems” in our metro areas, for blacks and whites.
Here’s the problem. When our nation’s power structure looks at these dual systems, the assumption is that one is superior and the other is inferior, and thus, barriers must be broken so that people can flow to the clearly superior system. In pursuing integration, our society destroyed one system in the name of inferiority, while never fully accommodating the needs of those dependent on another.
But really, were those “inferior” systems really inferior? There are many accounts of Negro League teams playing exhibitions against MLB teams and winning with regularity. What about the Brown family in the Brown v. Board case? They were quite pleased with the quality of education, the excellence of the faculty and staff, at the segregated school their daughter attended; they brought up the case because their daughter was forced to attend a school several miles away, when another school was available just four blocks away. But because of the assumption of inferiority, the power structure sought to be expansive rather than inclusive: meaning that it would expand one system in the hopes that it would accommodate more participants, rather than fully include the other system fully into the mix.
In fact, when it could, the power structure effectively destroyed one system in favor of the other. The Negro Leagues were effectively defunct by the mid-1950s. The expansion of suburban school districts at the time of rapid suburban expansion, accompanied by policies that kept blacks out of suburbs, led to resegregation and negative impacts in urban school districts.
Back to housing, where we have another conflict of systems. Urban revitalization has produced a lot of angst. There are newcomers with lots of anxiety about their imprint on formerly low-income communities. There are longtimers who are fearful about the change coming to a neighborhood they hold near and dear. Increasingly, the newcomer response has been to expand its options. Yes In My Back Yard (YIMBYs) say: build more housing and prices and rents become more affordable, and we can rid ourselves of the displacement angst. Longtimers, in voices that are seemingly heard less and less, call for an inclusive approach to revitalization; something that allows them to stay in place, and benefit from positive change as well.
History suggests it won’t go well for the longtimers.
A version of this post originally appeared on The Corner Side Yard.