A Shared Future: Fostering Communities of Inclusion in an Era of Inequality

Edited by Christopher Herbert, Jonathan Spader, Jennifer Molinsky, and Shannon Rieger. Joint Center for Housing Studies of Harvard University, 2018. 455 pages. $15.80/paperback; free PDF download available at jchs.harvard.edu/research/books.

“We like to think of American history as a continuous march of progress toward greater freedom, greater equality, and greater justice. But sometimes we move backward, dramatically so. Residential integration declined steadily from 1880 to the mid-twentieth century, and it has mostly stalled since then.” —Richard Rothstein in The Color of Law: A Forgotten History of How Our Government Segregated America (2017)

A Shared Future is a compendium of papers given at a symposium hosted by Harvard’s Joint Center for Housing Studies in April 2017. Its foreword, written by Xavier de Souza Briggs of the Ford Foundation, lays out the issues that intertwine racial and economic housing segregation (sometimes very different things), the consequences of housing segregation, and the barriers to the inclusive society most Friends claim we want. More detailed discussions of each are provided in the book’s essays. “These are some of the reasons that we, as a country, ‘rediscover’ segregation and its enormous human costs every decade or so, only to conclude that it is too intractable or questionable to tackle with serious resolve.”

The essays are in large part divided into what Briggs describes as “the four enduring debates about segregation: the ‘what’ (the descriptive patterns or shape of the problem), the ‘why’ (causes), the ‘so what’ (consequences), and the ‘now what’ (solutions).”

Essays of varying quality briefly explore the history of housing segregation. (See The Color of Law for detailed history and ramifications.) They discuss the patterns and causes of continued discrimination and the case for change. There is a section on possible solutions, which include rental vouchers to end the downward spiral of those in marginal rental housing. The final essays discuss the interlinking of school integration—still not complete—with neighborhood integration.

One of the newer patterns they discuss is “inner cities”—once a euphemism for slums—transforming into “urban centers,” the domain of affluent millennials who live there in the name of reduced carbon footprint. The people forced out (predominantly people of color) then go to impoverished outer areas where getting to city services becomes nearly impossible. White flight has given way to gentrification.

Some essays note the downside to the idea that predominantly minority communities can be considered places of upward opportunity as part of a “free” market. They note that minority communities are not always large enough to create educational and economic opportunities, and that access to neighborhoods where there is already a high level of opportunity (i.e., affluent predominantly White neighborhoods) needs to be part of the goal without undermining actual vibrant minority communities. Further, they refute the concept that the free market will resolve these problems: lack of access to opportunity is often a deciding factor in a “free” market.

One article that caught my eye was written by William Fulton of Rice University (my alma mater) about the effects of zoning, or lack thereof, on fair housing issues in Houston, Tex.

When I was growing up in Houston in the late ’50s and early ’60s in a fairly progressive family, it appeared to me that the main emphasis was on racial integration of schools rather than housing. My elementary school was completely Anglo-American, but my high school in the late 1960s was significantly Mexican American, Asian, and, to a lesser degree, African American. I knew at least three African American girls who were bussed in, but since the school drew from a large area, most of the students came from the neighborhood: well really, neighborhoods in the plural. My neighborhood was still all Anglo. On the other hand, there were poor as well as relatively affluent neighbors living side by side in their own homes. When I visited that neighborhood on the outer edges of downtown Houston 50 years after my high school graduation, the neighborhood was almost exclusively Mexican American and predominantly rental.

Fulton’s essay discusses the effects of Houston’s lack of zoning, including the fact that zoning makes it easier to discriminate without being explicitly racist by placing low income housing near industry and pollution, with more expensive, single-family housing being placed near amenities. In addition, he discusses the fact that a “free” market is little help since it heavily relies on opportunities that often do not exist in low income areas.

On the other hand, Fulton’s essay is also a prime example of what I find most frustrating about this book. His essay, like others in the book, is replete with charts and maps, but they are all in black and white and often virtually unintelligible. The good news is that the PDF versions of the original papers are in full color and therefore much easier to understand.

A Shared Future is full of information and would be a valuable read to policy wonks and organizers for data and ideas. It is a disturbing read for people who believe that we have made great progress in this area.

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