Checking Out The Failures of Integration

I just finished Sheryll Cashin’s book The Failures of Integration: How Race and Class are Undermining the American Dream. Although I won’t attempt a proper book review I will offer a few thoughts. A longtime resident of Washington, D.C. (Cashin clerked for U.S. Supreme Court justice Thurgood Marshall, served in the Clinton White House, and now works as a law professor at Georgetown University) she makes extensive use of the Washington, D.C. area for examples as she makes her argument about patterns of economic and racial segregation in housing and public schools. A reluctant intergrationist, Cashin argues after taking a hard look at census data she has concluded that not only is the country’s neighborhoods and schools quickly becoming re-segregated, the new separatist order only serves the interests of few.

Evaluating black suburbanization she argues that black suburbanites cannot make the same assumptions as their white counterparts about the neighborhoods they move to. Evaluating the experience based on five assumptions that whites expect and generally receive, ranging from an assumption they can escape poverty to the availability of good public schools, low crime, reasonable property taxes, good government services, and convenient options for shopping and dining out. Assessing well known black suburbs including Washington, D.C.’s Prince George’s County, she concludes that although majority-minority suburbs can provide a physiological salve in a world where blacks may face hostile work environments, ultimately the choice comes with heavy costs and cannot measure up to white, middle class suburbs.

She also describes white families’ scramble to buy their way into the privileged communities arguing whites must pay upwards of $300,000 above market prices to find housing in desirable communities. She also repeats arguments made elsewhere by the polarizing impact of residential segregation on political debate, and how the isolation of both communities feeds distrust and public policy choices based on racialized stereotypes. She ultimately concludes “everyone’s quality of life is degraded by separatism. Worse, through separation and segregation we are institutionalizing and perpetuating inequality, to our national detriment,” (p. 298) arguing “The idea that society would be ordered so as to benefit the lucky few rather than the diverse masses, and the missed opportunity of a rich mixing of people from various cultures and classes, could seem just as backward to future generations as slavery does to us today.” (p. 304)

In the course of her argument she pays close attention to the handful of communities which have bucked the national trend of increasing residential segregation observing the communities that have been most successful are either vibrant commercial districts (Such as some parts of Portland, Oregon or Adams Morgan in Washington, D.C.) or instead communities where residents deliberately sought to bridge divides and preserve a racial mix.

Interestingly, Cashin identifies one census tract from Washington’s 2000 census “that came close to bring a true melding of the races.” The tract, number 50, includes the “rapidly gentrifying Logan Circle neighborhood” was 26 percent white, 36 percent black, and 29.5 percent Latino. It turns out my house where I rent now is located in Census tract 49.01, is about 12% white, 78% black, and 5% Hispanic.

By comparison, when I lived in the Glover Park neighborhood I lived in Tract 3 was 89% white, 3% black, and 7% Asian. Cashin herself has chosen to live in Shepherd Park, a middle class majority-black neighborhood in Northwest she was “surprised” to discover was 72 percent black and 21 percent white (she had thought it was closer to 60-40).

She also profiles extensively people who she calls “accidental” or “ardent” integrationists who either intentionally or unintentionally find themselves straddling social divides but decide to make the best of it, going against the grain of American society. After describing in sweeping terms the collective costs of separatism, what is her proscription for change? What visionary ideas are contained in her penultimate chapter, titled simply “What to Do About It” Community coalitions.

Say what?

Yes, she calls for grassroots coalition building “based on actual self-interest is the only possible path to a truly inclusive society” to build a constituency for “revolutionary” change in our laws and society. As someone who walks a fine line between pessimism and optimism I found her prescription a bit hard to swallow, however found I warmed up to the argument when I was again reminded of the limited successes of metropolitan regions who have begun to address problems of housing, education, and quality of life from a metropolitan perspective. Her thinking here is influenced by Myron Orfield whose innovative scholarship has focused on how aging, inner-ring suburbs can create political majorities if they align themselves with the city instead of the urban fringes.

Revealing herself to be not too far removed from the eminently inspirational yet pragmatic Bill Clinton (for whom she reserves plenty or criticism elsewhere in the book) her analysis contains elements of two strands of thinking I have seen elsewhere and find useful. The first is a decidedly geographic orientation to analyzing society. Such an orientation can quickly dissolve the mythology of meritocracy. How can we believe if hard data shows most jobs are way out in the lilly-white suburbs like Fairfax where poor blacks are concentrated in ghetto conditions? This precise fact is why I think many ideologically adrift modern-day liberals find themselves drawn to metropolitan thinking and the discipline of urban planning, and why citizen organizations (precisely of the type she calls for) have sprung up across the country advocating for “smart growth,” inclusionary zoning, better public transit, and other policies which would address geographic logic which fails to serve the needs of both the working class and also the affluent, who find their aggressive pursuit of suburban purity has priced out many of the people they depend on to teach their kids, pump their gas, and work in the stores they like to visit.

Second, Cashin discusses potential solutions from the perspective of increased choices for all people. Although she is a good deal more pragmatic in her analysis of school vouchers (they really aren’t sound public policy if they provide opportunity for a few at the expense of all) she does embrace the broader ideology of school choice, so long as it provides opportunity for all. This type of thinking can be extremely useful when paired against an analysis that says the current approach provides little opportunities for the majority of people except the most wealthy.

Will Cashin’s book spark the sort of sea change in our society she so strongly desires, or contain any revolutionary public policy proscriptions? Probably not. However, I think the book plays a key role in the evolving public debate about how metropolitan regions should approach persistent inequality and segregation. I also strongly recommend it to anyone who wants to better understand the Washington, D.C. metropolitan region from the perspective of someone who isn’t afraid to ask hard questions and delve deep into the logic of the area’s white and black residents.

> Listen to an NPR story about Cashin’s book
> Read Sheryll Cashin’s Op-Ed “A Tale of Two Schools” on AlterNet
> The Failures Of Integration: How Race and Class are Undermining the American Dream

Author: Rob Goodspeed


  1. This I find interesting, and although i can’t judge its accuracy since I haven’t read it, you’ve essentially done a book review that gives insight into the piece. Quite unlike your last post.

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