Living in a galaxy: segregation outside the Lawrence Bubble

By Oswaldo Gomez

On Nov. 5, a crowd of students, faculty and Appleton residents gathered at the Lawrence Memorial Chapel to listen to the words of Ta-Nehisi Coates, a rising star in journalism. Coates delivered a breathtaking speech that examined racial issues in modern America. From mass incarceration, police brutality and even parenthood, the speech left a resounding sense of truth on campus.

Yet some things were left unsaid. While some racial matters like privilege and historical erasure continue to be digested by the Lawrence body, others remain fairly removed from the discussion table. Segregation, a theme largely introduced in “Between the World and Me,” Coates new best seller, has been absent in the present discourse. It might seem distant and extraneous to us in the Lawrence bubble. But the reality is that segregation continues to be a strain on racial relations.

Dimming our perception of each other, this division makes it impossible to heal the wounds of what Coates called “our painful heritage.” Erasing segregation is our responsibility. Our heritage compels us to ensure that racial equality does not exist only in dreams. Yet to achieve an integrated reality, we must understand our reality of segregation.

Cleverly describing America as a “galaxy,” Coates gives us an insight as to what this practice looks like in modern times. Removed and distant, the citizens of America live in separate worlds. Oblivious to each other’s existence, they fail to comprehend what life is like on the other side of the galaxy. Fear and distress overwhelm those on one side who do not understand those lives foreign to their own. And when these worlds do interact, distress prevails.

Even here at Lawrence, the racial tension can be felt. Recent student protests condemning racism in the Appleton area and a lack of administrative action, have shun light on local racial issues.

But how exactly does segregation manifests outside of our world?

An analysis by Duke University researchers shows the distribution of race across the United States. They plotted the total population recorded in the 2010 census on a map of the U.S. The result is an interactive map showing us the reality of segregation.

If you have not seen it, do it. But I have to tell you, it is not very encouraging.

City after city, one can notice trends of racial separation. Places like Philadelphia, Chicago and Washington, D.C. all show notorious diving lines among their residents. However, segregation is not a remote issue. Milwaukee’s racial distribution paints a shocking picture of separation.

Plotting racial distribution across the country’s map proves the existence of segregation. But how can this outlawed practice remain in place?

Statistical figures show that segregation is not necessarily as much a product of racism, but rather a product of economic discrimination. Minorities today are more likely to be pushed to deprived regions of the galaxy by their wealth and not their color.

Looking at data and analysis by the Pew Research Center one can see this correlation. Areas with monolithic racial make up also have equally distinctive income divisions. For example, Milwaukee ranks as the city with the most segregated low-income population. Such findings suggest, at the very least, a correlation between wealth inequality and racial segregation.

This data might not be so shocking. Years of research show that being of color often means living in disadvantaged and segregated urban areas.

The problem however, is a bit more personal to us small-town folk.

As it turns out, small cities show great levels of income segregation. About 100 miles south of Appleton lies a city with one of the highest levels of income segregation. The Atlantic’s CityLab website recently published a project ranking small-scale cities in terms of income integration, in which case Madison was ranked very poorly.

Madison has not been able to escape racial tensions. Some of us might remember the shooting of unarmed teenager Tony Robinson by a Madison cop.

Madison is not the only small place where income marginalization occurs. As it turns out, places like State College, Pa., Ann Arbor Mich. and New Haven, Conn., ranked among the most income segregated places to live.

What do these places have in common? They are all home to universities. State College is home to Penn State, Ann Arbor to Michigan, and New Haven to Yale.

This new discovery should really trouble us. While Lawrence does not pose a threat to integration in Appleton, many of us will continue on to graduate studies in a college town.

It is undeniable, by observation or data, that segregation still lingers in this country. But it is not the same segregation as before. While Jim Crow has died, new income barriers manage to isolate minorities.

It is important to point out that there are some good news. As it turns out, all-white neighborhoods, a common sight not too long ago, are effectively extinct. Further more, in highly segregated urban areas, ghetto-ized populations are in decline. Overall research shows that integration is taking very slow but effective steps.

Segregation, as any modern racial problem, is complex and difficult to conceptualize. But as more evidence surfaces, we shall begin to address it better. I believe that as a nation, we must aspire to integrate and revamp all marginalized communities. To do so can employ real policy actions.

Such policies can be seen in places like Chicago where integration of poor blacks is proving successful. Through housing equality laws and voucher residence programs, these areas are helping poor minority families. By introducing them into affluent neighborhoods and suburbs, such actions are showing better upward mobility. Young children especially benefit from being exposed to safer neighborhoods and better schools.

Segregation might not seem like a problem to Lawrentians. Perhaps it seems like an old devil that will eventually yield. But it exists. Its remnants can be observed in our great metropolitan areas. Not too far away, it persists in small urban settlements. Most shockingly, it thrives in the learning “Meccas” where intellectuals like Coates studied, and minorities still fear it.

Many of us will soon leave college. Facing real life problems like choosing housing will surely put things into perspective. We might not know it yet, but we are in fact living in a galaxy. One where some of us are still pushed to the farthest and poorest corners. One where those who have lively and sustainable planets will ignore those in decaying ones. One where communication is almost nonexistent. One where understanding of life outside our own is still to be achieved.