Away, away, away up north in Dixie

February 05, 1997|By Clarence Page

CHICAGO -- Like many northern-born blacks old enough to remember the days of ''white'' and ''colored'' signs over separate restrooms and water fountains in the South, I used to ridicule the racially segregated South as an unfit place for black folks to live.

Now my southern cousins are smirking. A new report by a northern university professor shows the South, along with the western states, to be less segregated than the North. Reynolds Farley, of the University of Michigan, writes in the February issue of Population Today, that the cities with the most racially segregated neighborhoods are mostly northern, while those with the least segregated housing patterns are almost all in the South.

To calculate the most and least segregated, Mr. Farley looked at cities that showed a black population of at least 20,000 or 3 percent. Then he figured what he calls ''indexes of dissimilarity.'' An index of 100 describes an area where the blocks are all-white or all-black. Mixed areas received a zero.

The most segregated cities turn out to be, in order, Gary, Indiana, Detroit, Chicago, Cleveland and Buffalo. The least segregated were Jacksonville, Florida; Lawton, Oklahoma; Anchorage, Alaska; Fayetteville, North Carolina, and Lawrence, ZTC Kansas. Such findings challenge old, cherished stereotypes of a benighted South and an enlightened North.

Mr. Farley notes in interviews that the least segregated communities tend to be near military bases, have more new construction and have higher levels of educational attainment. Fair enough.

But it also may be true, as my cousins have long argued, that the North was never as enlightened as northerners liked to believe and that the South may have been better equipped in many ways to cope with desegregation.

The distinction

I am reminded of how Dick Gregory described regional racial differences when he was a Chicago-based night-club comic in the early 1960s. In the South, he said, ''they don't care how big you get as long as you don't get too close, while in the North they don't care how close you get, as long as you don't get too big.''

Or maybe it was the other way around. In many ways, southern whites and blacks were closer than their northern counterparts because they shared more history. In the South's agrarian society, people knew each other's families for generations, even if they didn't socialize together.

Even in the turbulent, violent times of the early '60s civil-rights days, some southern activists like Julian Bond predicted that, once desegregation began, southern whites would adjust to it more quickly than whites in the North, simply because they had more shared memories, geography and experiences.

The northern industrial cities had more white immigrants who received preferential treatment over blacks in hiring and union memberships, yet showed few feelings of guilt about it. ''Our family didn't own any slaves,'' is still a popular guilt-cleansing refrain among their descendants.

Malcolm X once remarked that, despite northern ridicule of the South, there was no appreciable difference in the prejudices of the two regions. He said, there was only ''down South and up South.''

From a black point of view, he was largely right. For example, while Chicago may be the third most segregated city in Mr. Farley's study, it used to be worse. Thirty years ago Martin Luther King Jr., declared Chicago to be the most segregated city in America. Who says the city has not made progress?

Problems of economic class have not replaced race as a major problem in America. Class has only made questions of race more vexing and, for many, dispiriting.

Today we have new gilded ghettos -- enclaves of black middle-class homeowners left behind by white flight. We have newly integrated middle-class neighborhoods, but we also have poor segregated neighborhoods left more socially isolated than ever by the exodus of the more fortunate.

It is not surprising that many blacks have grown weary of pursuing integration for its own sake, especially as other social and economic issues appear to be more pressing. As one black woman said while socializing with other black professionals one Friday night in Washington, ''I've been diverse all week. The game is over now.''

The game? Yes, for many Americans, that's all ''diversity'' has become, just another politically correct ticket to be punched on the way up the ladder of modern success, not something to take back to one's home neighborhood.

My cousins were right to say that no region of America has achieved racial utopia. Much work remains to be done. You can see it in the numbers. You can also see it in the neighborhoods.

Clarence Page is a syndicated columnist.

Pub Date: 2/05/97

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