Role Models


I recently discovered that if you 'like' your role models on Facebook — say Michelle Obama or Amanda Palmer — they will leave messages on your wall just like you're actually friends. So you can imagine my excitement when I signed in this morning to see that Saul Alinsky — the esteemed community organizer himself — had left me a message. He's been dead for over 30 years! Inspired, I grabbed my yellowed copy of Reveille for Radicals on the way out the door, and, after wedging into a seat on the bus, opened to a random page and began reading:

“The fundamental issue that will resolve the fate of democracy is whether or not we really believe in democracy. Democracy as a way of life has been intellectually accepted but emotionally rejected. The democratic way of life is predicated upon faith [in] mankind, yet few leaders of democracy really possess faith in the people. If anything, our democratic way of life is permeated by man’s fear of man."

Those familiar with Saul Alinksy know he catalyzed the formation of numerous People’s Organizations that called for social justice at a time when racial tension in American cities was high. His book made me recall toying with the idea of a blog on segregation — but deciding against it. After all, who wants to hear about segregation from a girl who grew up in white, suburban America? Well, my hometown may have been an integration fail, but I like to believe we had good values, and since Saul would approve, I’m writing this blog anyway.

On Racism, Segregation and Health

Let’s be real here: It’s impossible to talk about the issue of segregation without first acknowledging that racism is as real today as it was in the 1950s. Since I am no expert on the topic, I thought I would share a useful framework developed by social scientist Camara Jones. According to Jones, there are three levels of racism: Institutionalized racism refers to unequal access to power and resources resulting from societal structures. Examples include unjust public policies or being denied a promotion regardless of merit. Personally mediated racism takes the form of prejudice and discrimination, such as being treated with undue suspicion. Finally, internalized racism occurs when people begin to believe the false and devaluing messages directed at them. For instance, a teen believing she is not “good enough” to go to college. Racism has hindered mobility across neighborhoods — in spite of civil rights legislation and housing policy reforms that People’s Organizations fought for.

Racial segregation affects community health through multiple pathways, such as the physical environment and resource availability. Consider that hazardous fixtures such as dumps and freeways are disproportionately located in low-income black and Hispanic communities. Racial minorities living in segregated neighborhoods also tend to have limited educational opportunities. This has an indirect effect on health by denying youth the resources and means of attaining an optimal standard of living in the future.

There is still relatively little known about the direct impact of racism on physical and mental health. This is in part because of the challenge social scientists face in measuring experiences of racial discrimination. No standardized methodology exists for how to go about asking people to report their experiences with racism. Further, self-reported measures rely on subjective evidence, meaning the respondent must “perceive” discrimination — something that may prove difficult given the degree to which racism is internalized.

Segregation Declines, but Disparities Remain

Segregation is viewed by some as a driving force behind many of the racial inequalities that persist today. So it was the talk of the nation when a recent study from the Manhattan Institute described a decline in segregation since its peak in 1970, a trend the authors attribute to federal housing policy reform and changes in racial attitudes.

According to the authors, the decline in segregation is primarily due to African-Americans leaving segregated cities in the north and moving to less segregated cities and suburbs in the Sun Belt — as opposed to gentrification or an influx of immigrants into black neighborhoods. “[For] every prominent example of a black neighborhood undergoing gentrification — in Harlem, Roxbury or Columbia Heights — there are countless more neighborhoods witnessing no such trend," they wrote. "Instead, the dominant trend in predominantly black neighborhoods nationwide has been population loss.” In other words, these neighborhoods are still segregated, but there are fewer people living in them.

The authors measured a decrease from 80 percent (1970) to 55 percent (2010) on the index of dissimilarity, which they used to measure the evenness with which black and white residents were distributed across neighborhoods in the United States. The measure represents the percent of either group who would have to change neighborhoods in order to achieve a balance. What puzzled the authors was that when they measured dissimilarity for individual metropolitan areas, decreases were relatively small — so why the national decline?

This is where the power of maps comes in. It turns out the measures for each metropolitan area failed to capture the effect of residents relocating to other regions. In 1970, only two Sun Belt cities appeared in the top ten list of metropolitan areas with the largest black populations. In 2010, half of the cities on this list were in the Sun Belt. The authors concluded that integration has occurred “partly through the process of neighborhood change but largely by the establishment of new neighborhoods with an inherently integrated character.”

The takeaway here is that racial inequalities persist despite a decline in black/white residential segregation — and if the authors are going to define segregation narrowly in terms of where people live, don't you wonder about the experiences of other minority groups?

I'd like to delve deeper into this subject, but dinner awaits. So instead, I'll leave you with another random quote before putting Alinsky back on the shelf: “Even the best outside organizer, one who has democratic convictions and practices them, who has complete faith in the people and their leadership, cannot build a People’s Organization to a complete structure. He can serve as a stimulus, a catalytic agent, and render invaluable service in the initial stages of organization. He can lead in the laying down of the foundations — but only the people and their own leaders can build a People’s Organization.”

Reveille for Radicals!