When most people hear the term “segregation,” it immediately evokes images of “white only” signs in front of water fountains, “colored” school buildings and scores of black people forced to sit at the back of the bus eagerly waiting for equality. This was the life my grandparents lived.
Still, we continue to live in a racially divided world.
While segregation is no longer legal thanks to the tireless work of those involved in the Civil Rights Movement, the concept of segregation manifests itself today—community to community, church to church, zip code to zip code.
In the zip code of 73111, there is no grocery store. Over 80% of the population is black. The houses look different. Teachers are constantly in and out of schools. Life expectancy is lower too. All it takes is a 10-minute drive into the city to enter a world completely foreign to our secluded bubble of Edmond, OK.
I traveled to this zip code to visit RestoreOKC, a non-profit organization geared toward making their community safer and encouraging kids to take initiative by teaching them entrepreneurial skills. With its location in the center of a food desert, the organization has a community garden and a new market.
I had the privilege to visit this organization as a part of Alden Bass’s course, Introduction to Biblical Justice, where I was assigned to research the topic of residential segregation.
I always notice the racial disparity in geographically different communities. Growing up in the Dallas area, my suburban-saturated hometown of Murphy looked much different than Oak Cliff, where my mom grew up. Still, I had never attributed this fact to systemic injustice.
Many times society paints the concept of racism as a collection of offensive remarks and petty situations aimed toward suppressing a minority group. While instances such as these fuels a prejudiced culture, racism is a complex institutional and systemic problem, fortified by current or past legislation.
In “Fresh Air,” an NPR podcast, journalist Terry Gross interviewed Richard Rothstein, redlining expert and author of “The Color of Law,” about how the U.S. government segregated America. Federally, Rothstein said most segregation policies began with the New Deal during Roosevelt’s presidency.
In 1933, the government built the first civilian public housing following the Great Depression intended for white middle-class families. In 1934, the Federal Housing Administration subsidized builders specifically not to sell their homes to African Americans.
As Rothstein noted in the interview, “without federal policy and without racial explicit intent to segregate every metropolitan area in this country, private factors would not have been able to successfully segregate their communities.” Oklahoma County reflects the effects of this nationwide political structure.
In looking at redlining maps from the New Deal, provided by the federal government’s Home Owners’ Loan Corporation, one can easily see the racial divide in Oklahoma County. The map is categorized into four parts describing the quality of life in different areas of the city: best, still desirable, definitely declining and hazardous. Over 80 years later, minorities continue to occupy what was once considered a “hazardous” place to live.
Residential segregation was structurally built all over this country with the clear intention to keep races separated for decades. It worked. We are still segregated today, but this time it is by choice.
The subliminal racial narrative of “living in the bad part of town” or wanting children to attend a better school district does not have racial implications on its face, but in delving through history, one can see the clear bias involved in making these decisions.
If politicians and American citizens fail to recognize the reality of residential segregation, I suspect nothing will change. The poor will stay poor, black communities will stay black and white communities will stay white. However, it does not have to be this way. Simply recognizing the issue is the first step in creating a homogeneous society.