Saturday, August 11, 2012

Segregation growing within United States

Segregation between the rich and poor is growing, while the middle class is diminishing.  The Pew Research Center recently shared a report, The Rise in Residential Segregation by Income, which details this trend.

Why should we be concerned?

First, it benefits us all to live civilly together in a just society.  Back in the 1970s I benefited by becoming a "racial transfer" and attending Minneapolis Central High School, located in the heart of south Minneapolis.  This was an economically and racially diverse school.  In my graduating class I not  only had one of the son's of world famous Transplant surgeon, John Najarian, but also the now famous musician Prince.  There was a rich diversity of students from a wide ranging economic background and a multitude of racial, religious and ethnic backgrounds.  This helped me to develop a level of comfort with others who didn't look like me. I learned that people who looked different from me or came from other countries need not be feared. This benefited me later both professionally and personally.

My diverse high school experience was central to later work that I did with the Kinship mentoring program for children and youth from disadvantaged environments.  On the home front I've also benefited enormously from the experience of a racially diverse marriage and family.

With over 25 years of working in the mentoring field, I've become intensely aware of how neighborhoods that are economically segregated often lack a healthy range of role models for their young people.  While there are neighborhoods where some children are surrounded almost exclusively by white collar professionals, others have an abundance of underemployed or unemployed neighbors, and where many of the children's fathers are living in prisons.  How much more healthy it is for our children to live with a range of neighbors with varying skills and professions.  Having neighbors from a range of professional backgrounds broadens children's horizons as they think about future job prospects.

As we are able to filter our news and information sources via the internet and other media sources we are becoming less aware of the lives of others from differing backgrounds and perspectives.  This distorted perspective is compounded when we live in a enclave with others like ourselves.  I recall hearing how a sheltered corporate HMO executive decided to change his career when he discover the harsh reality of those without medical insurance. He became a more engaged and responsible citizen once he was able to get out of his comfort zone, and learned that not all lived comfortably as those in his exclusive professional and residential circle.

Economically balanced neighborhoods are also essential to balanced and fair school system.  We discovered long ago that "separate but equal" simply did not lead to a fair education for all students. Myron Orfield, director of the University of Minnesota's Institute on Race and Poverty, argues that integrating our neighborhoods and schools is not only a moral imperative, but also critical to regional vitality ("Segregated... Again"). He notes a disturbing trend; over half of the Twin City neighborhoods that were integrated in the 1980's are now segregated.  Schools in those low income neighborhoods tend to lack parental involvement, accountability and adequate funding.  Consider how few of our city and inner ring schools have booster clubs to enrich their student's educational and extra curricular activities, as is common among so many schools in more affluent areas.

Mr. Orfield observes that segregation is "about a fundamental divide in who has access to opportunity - jobs, decent housing, safe streets good schools.  Where you live determines your basic prospects in life. It's hard to overestimate how devastating it is for families and children to be trapped in failing communities and struggling schools. Or how much it undermines the quality of life, competitive edge, and vitality of the entire region."

I remember chuckling when I saw "We value diversity" boldly printed on a gym wall at an elementary school in the wealthy suburb of Edina.  I don't honestly think that that diversity is one of the characteristics that entices people move to upper income neighborhoods.  Quite to the contrary, people often find it comforting to move to areas where there are others that are of a similar financial, ethnic and or racial background.

When we don't have regular interactions with others who are different than us we can easily become fearful.  After graduating from Minneapolis Central I went to Luther College in Decorah, Iowa, a small town in the northeastern part of the state.  I recall coming back for Christmas break and taking a city bus into town for a basketball tournament.  Being one of two white folks on a crowded bus I experienced culture shock and a bit of fear, after having adjusted to a culturally homogenous environment. We tend to fear the unknown and those with whom we don't regularly interact, especially if the media commonly portrays them as dangerous.

With a global marketplace and increasingly diverse work force, the business world recognizes the need for culturally competent employees. They want employees that can understand the wide ranging needs and tastes of their consumers around the country and world.

Finally, political instability occurs when the middle class shrinks.  We can run, and build gated communities, but we will not be able to hide forever.  Should the disparities between the "haves" and "have nots" become too large political unrest is sure to follow. We are rapidly approaching a time when the minority in the United States will become the majority.  For our nation to succeed we need to learned to live and work together. There is no "them and us", there is only "us".

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