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Growing up, I never knew that my neighborhood was profoundly unusual. My parents and I are white, but many of our neighbors were black. If you zoomed out to the municipal level, our town was majority–black American for most of my childhood. But it retained a significant white minority as well. In 1980s America, that wasn’t normal at all.
Throughout the 20th century, neighborhood demographic change occurred in a depressingly predictable fashion. As black families started moving to an area, white families fled with grim efficiency. Neighborhoods across the country flipped from nearly all-white to nearly all-black in the span of a decade. Mixed-race communities were rare.
The year I turned 5, Mount Rainier, Maryland, a small D.C. suburb in inner-ring Prince George’s County, officially became majority-black. At the time I didn’t notice the transition, but many years later I grew fascinated by the neighborhood’s demographics as I learned about the pervasive phenomenon of white flight in history class. I’d never realized I had grown up in an aberration, a majority-black neighborhood that retained a significant white population over time.
Today, segregation in America looks different than it did a generation ago. A multitude of studies show that neighborhood-level diversity is increasingly common and, correspondingly, that all-white neighborhoods aren’t as prevalent. Diverse neighborhoods with fairly stable racial mixes like Mount Rainier are becoming less rare as Latino and Asian populations grow. (By the 2000 census, Mount Rainier had a large Hispanic minority, too.)
This change is a great thing, but we should be realistic about the limits of what it means. The word integration can conjure up images of racial harmony, interracial friendships, and classrooms as diverse as the neighborhood. But the reality is usually closer to what sociologist Derek Hyra calls “diversity segregation,” or microsegregation. Even in diverse neighborhoods, divisions of race and class still exert their power, and most studies of diverse neighborhoods, both long-established and currently gentrifying, show that cross-race relationships are often disappointingly limited.
Hyra writes that his work in the Shaw/U Street area of Washington, D.C., shows “most social institutions, churches, recreations centers, restaurants, barber shops and hair shops, schools, and civic associations remain segregated.” (He recently published a well-received book about the neighborhood.) This is especially true if class boundaries must be crossed as well: The most successful integrated neighborhoods, like Philadelphia’s Mount Airy, are upper-middle-class in character.
So why, in uniquely integrated places, does microsegregation persist?
“There are so few data points, because there are so few racially integrated communities in the United States,” says Tom Sugrue, professor of history at New York University and author of Sweet Land of Liberty: The Forgotten Struggle for Civil Rights in the North. “Given the deeply entrenched nature of racial segregation, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that even in the most racially mixed communities you’d find patterns of microsegregation.”
That certainly accords with my experience growing up.
When my family moved to the town in the early 1980s, Mount Rainier still retained a large number of working-class white families, many of Appalachian extraction. But it also housed a vibrant minority of committed white progressives. When black residents started moving in during the 1970s, the whites who remained were often Catholic leftists, hippies, Quakers, Mennonites, artists, or some combination thereof. My parents were just young professionals—Dad’s days of collegiate Marxism and Jewfros were behind him—and their chief priority was finding a cheap house that wasn’t actively decomposing.
That’s who most of the whites are in the 2000 census—issued the year I entered high school—which shows 62 percent of Mount Rainier’s population as black, 20 percent white, and 18 percent Latino.
Although my neighborhood was majority-black for much of my life, most of my friends were white. The same held for most of my parents’ friends. The kids I played with on my block were white. Diversity segregation of this kind manifested in other ways too. Mount Rainier is divided between single-family homes and the WWII-era brick garden apartment complexes that house two-thirds of the population. By the 1990s, these were overwhelmingly populated by people of color, while almost all of the white population lived in the single-family homes.
In education, the divide became even more stark. In the public elementary school, a less than five-minute walk from home, I was in a very small white minority. There weren’t many options when it came to support staff, so my mom fought for me to get placed in a magnet school across the county. The program was still racially diverse, probably even moreso, because now there were a lot of Latino and Asian kids in my classes, too. In 2000, I began attending a private high school, an option that wasn’t open to many of the kids in my neighborhood and one that sharpened the social divides between us. (My sister would attend Prince George’s County Public Schools for every grade.)
Despite the complexity of these dynamics, I’m very grateful my parents didn’t move to Bethesda, Chevy Chase, or some other D.C. suburb where the public schools were gold-plated and the neighbors almost entirely white. Given our nation’s stark history of racial separation, fear, hatred, and oppression, pretty much any degree of interaction seems like a step in the right direction.
But as an April Washington Post article on Mount Rainier’s mayoral election makes clear, the neighborhood’s history of diversity does not immunize it from racial tension. In recent months, the very character of the neighborhood was the subject of a very competitive race in which a younger white councilman named Jesse Christopherson challenged longtime mayor Malinda Miles, who is black. Miles won with a 70-vote advantage out of 900 cast.
I spoke with Miles back in December, before the mayoral race had heated up, to discuss the long-term racial dynamics of Mount Rainier. She moved to the town in 1968, one of the first black residents to move across the D.C. border. She loved it even though the community didn’t always seem to love her being there. At one point, her daughter lost her front teeth to a white bully who attacked her with fists and racial epithets. Neighbors told her she wasn’t living on a farm so her garden wasn’t allowed. The principal at Mount Rainier Elementary School hit her son.
Things began to change in the 1980s as the old guard started to die off or move away. Miles got involved in activism in the local parent-teacher group and ran for the county school board in 1980. She won a city council seat in 1987 and the mayoralty in 2005. “We never had race fighting or kids calling each other names during the transition,” said Miles in reference to Mount Rainier’s shift from majority-white to majority-black. “The most racist part of the population were the old ones. Even the social skills of the young kids did not have the patterns of the older kids. Yes, they socialized, they went to events together. It was a mix.”
Today Miles looks around and she sees an old guard in the neighborhood that mostly looks like her, while the young people moving into the single-family houses are mostly white. Sometime around the beginning of this decade, the American Community Survey began showing Mount Rainier’s white population growing for the first time in decades. Meanwhile, most of the younger residents in the garden apartments are Latino.
“On paper we are so diverse, but we really are not integrated,” Christopherson, Miles’ opponent in the mayor’s race, told me in the spring. “Just because you are exposed to people from the West Indies or El Salvador, or African Americans and whites, that has only a little benefit. But what if you were also coming together in a city committee or city events?”
Miles struck a very similar note when we spoke, despite the fierce competition of the mayoral contest. “Mount Rainier prides itself on its diversity now, but our diversity is pretty much lip service compared to reality,” she said. “In my view of the world there are still the groupings. Young whites pretty much hang with young whites, although there’s a couple of blacks in there and an Asian or a Hispanic, but the larger population [isn’t there].”
At present, Mount Rainier is still majority-black, and there are plenty of Hispanic and black homeowners. But consider the most extreme scenario, in which the single-family housing stock largely becomes the preserve of white professionals while working-class people of color remain in the apartments. In that case, Mount Rainier would experience a dispiritingly familiar form of segregation, where urban design and geography separate races. The two housing stocks in town do not share the same commercial corridors. The residents of the apartments are often transitory, and they do not vote as often. They tend to not identify with the commercial corridor near U.S. 1, which contains the Glut Food Co-op and harbors much of the civic infrastructure. Instead, the residents of the brick, multifamily housing do their shopping on the high-speed autocentric Queen’s Chapel Road commercial corridor.
But there is a place where people could come together across race and class: the public schools.
“The important thing is consistent exposure over a long period of time,” says Camille Z. Charles, professor of sociology at the University of Pennsylvania and director of its Center for Africana Studies. “We are often friendlier with people we actually interact with. We do find there is lasting benefit to that, which is why we think it is important to have [diversity] in schools because kids spend so much time in classrooms and on school campuses.”
The research of academics, like Amy Stuart Wells of Columbia Teachers College, very much supports this contention. Although she finds that kids in mixed-race schools tend to hang out and sit with other children of their race, they usually also develop at least one—and often two or more—good friends of a different race. She concludes that an integrated experience, however complex its realities, is pretty much always far more positive for future race relations than its opposite.
When I was a kid, many middle-class parents, both black and white, sought alternatives to the neighborhood schools. Will the young professionals moving into my old neighborhood do the same?
According to some longtime local activists I spoke with, a different dynamic seems to be developing. Today there is more of a sense that the middle-class families are going to try to make the public schools work for them, especially the under-enrolled Mount Rainier Elementary. That may be because there are more of them. Only 11.7 percent of households enjoyed a median income over $75,000 in 2000, but in 2010 the number—adjusted for inflation—had more than doubled.
The Parent Teacher Organization for Mount Rainier Elementary, which drew Miles toward political engagement in the 1970s, is invigorated, too. Christopherson is the PTO president at the town’s other elementary school, Thomas Stone. These days both schools are majority-Latino, with large black minorities, and 24 white students each.
“I believe in public education for itself and as a driver of community,” says Christopherson, who has one kid at Thomas Stone and another entering kindergarten. “I believe in promoting policies that bring marginalized groups into the same public squares so community can grow.”
Many of the new white families do not yet have kids of public school age, although they are already getting involved in the PTOs. There is a nascent camaraderie among the young professional parents as they raise money for the schools and aggressively court new families moving to the area to sell them on the benefits of the local public schools.
Similar dynamics are unfolding in other historically troubled school districts, where a mix of gentrification and immigration have bolstered public school attendance. And the more that these types of social goods are shared, the more the highest-value aspects of integration can be realized. The complexities and imperfections of microsegregation are better than the unrelenting residential segregation that scarred the American 20th century and still holds sway in many neighborhoods today. Born in the late 1940s, Miles grew up in Screven, Georgia, a small rural town in the southeast corner of the state. She laughs when asked how Mount Rainier compared to her hometown.
“There was no mixing of the races in Screven, they pretty much stayed in their communities, divided by some imaginary border that didn’t really exist,” says Miles. “I’ve had more white neighbors, friends, and interactions in Mount Rainier than I did anywhere else I’ve lived. I was born in the 1940s, raised in the ’50s, and grew up in the ’60s. Segregation was real in my world.”
If towns like Mount Rainier can remain, or become, racially diverse in both neighborhood and schools perhaps the answers will be a little easier for subsequent generations. And segregation could become a little less real.