WASHINGTON — Washington. -- Prejudice and exclusion: They're as American as apple pie. Just take a look at how this nation has allowed blacks, Hispanics and poor whites to be segregated into our center cities -- even while we wink at affluent whites retreating into lily-white suburbs and putting up one barrier after another against low- or moderate-income housing.
Now come the first hints we're paying a heavy economic price for the new American apartheid:
The National League of Cities has released statistics showing that the regions with the greatest income differential between center cities and suburbs have suffered the most in the recession.
Using employment growth as its measure, the study (by Larry Ledebur of Wayne State University and William Barnes of the league staff) pinpointed the regions in which center city residents earn 43 percent, or less, per capita than their suburban neighbors. Those regions lost 3 percent, on average, of their overall employment between 1988 and 1991.
By contrast, in the regions where center city people did relatively well, earning 78 percent or more of the suburban income average, there was job growth of 6 percent.
The averages march right up the scale: The better center city income compares to the suburbs, the better the regional performance; the worse the economic condition of center city residents, the worse the regional job picture.
They're some startling exceptions to the picture: Chicago and Memphis have massive economic segregation but did fairly well on the job front; Atlanta and Nashville have relatively less income segregation but did poorly.
But overall the picture is alarming. Such cities as Baltimore, Newark, Cleveland, Boston, San Jose, Philadelphia and Detroit registered economic segregation (and usually high racial segregation). And they suffered the worst in terms of employment.
By contrast, cities with the least city-suburb income differentials -- Minneapolis-St. Paul, Seattle, Tulsa, Salt Lake City, Charlotte -- registered strong employment growth.
All this makes a difference for America as a whole. The more metropolitan areas we have that are plagued by massive income differentials, the slower we're likely to recover from the recession.
Our metropolitan regional economies in aggregate are the economy of the United States. We talk about America as an aggregation of 50 states. But in economic terms, it's an aggregation of 284 metropolitan areas.
For each region, and the nation as a whole, poverty takes a heavy toll. Poor people not only earn less, they pay less taxes. Their welfare and criminal justice costs drag down state and local economies. Usually less educated, they're less employable. That makes the region and nation all the less attractive for industrial firms that need skilled job candidates.
Now comes David Rusk, former mayor of Albuquerque, N.M., with a survey identifying ten ''cities without suburbs.'' They include his own Albuquerque, plus Jacksonville, Fla.; Colorado Springs, Colo.; Lincoln, Neb.; Lexington, Ky.; Anchorage, Alaska; Lubbock, Texas; Columbus, Ga.; Huntsville, Ala. and Amarillo, Texas.
These cities, notes Mr. Rusk, have systematically annexed new growth areas, or merged with their surrounding counties. Their per-capita income on average is 16 percent higher than their outlying areas. They keep their wealth so the center city doesn't get stuck with dramatically higher taxes. Subsidized housing gets spread around a whole, expanded city. School opportunities are equalized. Middle-class families haven't fled.
Mr. Rusk says that ''the more an area is organized on a metropolitan-wide basis, the smaller the socioeconomic gaps between black, Hispanic and Anglo-Americans. In other works, integration works!''
There's no ''instant panacea,'' he acknowledges, in city-county consolidation. Area-wide housing strategies or shared area-wide education and training strategies are all politically very tough to effect.
But tolerating our vast disparities, he argues, can be deadly: ''Our society deludes itself in thinking that turning America's central cities into the sociological equivalent of giant public housing projects is the path to anything but a garrison state.''
You can argue this research needs more refining. But it surely runs straight in the face of the attitudes and assumptions that have fed segregation and may now be immobilizing us economically.
The birth of the global economy makes it sheer folly to think part of a metropolitan region can continue to prosper while other parts suffer, says the University of Pennsylvania's Ted Hershberg.
In the past, argues Mr. Hershberg, an industry might be able to get along with a mediocre work force, or weak local transportation, poor air or water because its distant competitors had their own problems. But today, industries are in head-to-head competition, worldwide. Only the best will survive. That makes it foolhardy to think a region can succeed if one-quarter of its population is ill-trained or living in poverty.
Getting Americans to rethink their hundreds of municipal boundaries -- social ''fire walls'' in many people's minds -- is never easy. It touches our deep-seated fears about race and economic class. It ties into our economic anxieties about ''other'' kinds of neighbors depressing the value of our homes.
But the new research suggests we may be paying a far higher price for our prejudices than we ever dreamed.
Neal R. Peirce writes a column on state and urban affairs.