Since then, the idea that there had ever been a post-racial moment has come to seem naive, even desperately so. Once the embodiment of hope, Obama leaves office publicly regretting his inability to reconcile the country’s polarization. At the same time, Donald Trump focuses the anxieties loosed by white vulnerability—an inchoate, inescapable sense that the social and economic present and future of whites will only get worse—onto the bodies of migrants, Muslims, Blacks, women, and all those others who do not deserve the gift of America. Like climate change, the culture wars seem to have become an enduring feature of our daily lives, the permanent fog of a country that repeats the spectacle of fire in every generation.
Since the 1970s, American neighborhoods have become dramatically segregated by income. A study of metropolitan areas with more than 500,000 people by Sean Reardon and Kendra Bischoff found that, in 1970, 17 percent of Americans lived in the highest-income neighborhoods and 19 percent in the lowest. By 2012, those numbers had almost doubled—30 percent of U.S. families lived in the highest-income neighborhoods and another 30 percent lived in the lowest. The latter number signaled especially troubling declines in opportunity, particularly for children living in the poorest neighborhoods. But Reardon and Bischoff argued that “the rising isolation of the affluent” also harmed the poor. “Segregation of affluence not only concentrates income and wealth in a small number of communities, but also concentrates capital and political power,” they wrote. It also eroded “the social empathy that might lead to support for broader public investment in social programs to help the poor and the middle class.”
Our elementary and secondary schools, the front lines of demographic change, serve as a telling index. Public schools reached peak desegregation in 1989, the year of Spike and Chuck’s fabled summer. But because of growing inequality, residential “preferences,” and anti-desegregation campaigns, school segregation rates have since been surging back toward Brown v. Board of Education levels. Those rates have especially accelerated since the turn of the millennium. From the 2000–01 to the 2013–14 school years, the number of public K-12 schools classified as high poverty and/or predominantly Black or Latino more than doubled. These schools, which account for almost one in six of all schools, offer fewer math, science, and college prep courses, and have higher rates of students being held back, suspended, or expelled. Only 8 percent of white students attend high-poverty schools, while 18 percent of Asians and 48 percent of Black and Latino students do.
And so diversity remains a premonition of racial apocalypse; a photo op and dash; a commodity conveying value; a marker of moral credibility, even fitness in the Darwinian sense; a term of corporate management; an offering of racial innocence and absolution; a refusal of protection to historically negated communities of color; a performance for entertainment or edification or exploitation; another boring lesson in tolerance and civility; a mark of Otherness. But the fact that it appears as all of these things at once is yet another way to map the strangeness of this moment, or, to be more specific, the strangeness of whiteness. Demographic and cultural change has unsettled whites in their privilege. And so diversity presents itself as a lot of confused, contradictory things at once, each indexed to the confused, contradictory states of whites themselves.
Even worse, the plans were built on an irony that Thurgood Marshall himself might have found tragic. The Top Ten plans began with the assumption that high school students were already unequally distributed by race and class. Their success depended completely on school resegregation. The more segregated by race and income the state’s high schools were, the better state universities would be able to create freshman diversity. In 1978, one rightly might have been dismayed by the desperation of such plans. But in three of the most racially diverse states in the country, there were no longer many other legal options to reverse resegregation in higher education.
In We Gon’ Be Alright, I look at some of the ways in which we have slid back toward segregation. To be sure, there has never been a time when we did not live separately. In 2014, more than 300 school districts across the country were still involved in active desegregation orders dating to the civil rights era.9 At the same time, even as we have come to mostly celebrate “diversity,” resegregation is happening all around us: in our neighborhoods and schools, our colleges and universities, even in the culture. The culture wars have obscured and exacerbated these facts. Worse, they have left us without a common understanding or language that might help us to end them. What I hope to show in this book is how inequality and segregation impact us all. Our destinies are interconnected, but not all of us have the best vantage point to see our way out of the fog of the culture wars. Some of us still can’t even see each other fully. But those who suffer the most have the most to teach the entire nation about how to move away from it all, if we choose to listen and act. What today’s activists, organizers, and artists are giving us are new ways to see our past and our present. Even more, they are giving us the directive to address inequality and inequity now—to make it clear that if we do not do so, we will continue to be drawn back into the bad cycle, just as we were after 1965, and after 1992. Right now we have the opportunity to get it right. Our shared future depends upon it.
But the social structures that create premature death do not harm only those individuals who have the misfortune to come into contact with bigots or quick-trigger authorities who have not yet learned how to see. They also prevent people from getting adequate food, shelter, and housing. They limit physical, economic, and social mobility. They refuse to let us all be free. Over time, these structures have proven extraordinarily adaptable. Inequity and injustice are not abstract things. They impact real people and real lives. In terms of poverty, annual income, wealth, health, housing, schooling, and incarceration, persistent gaps separate whites from Black, Latino, Southeast Asian, Pacific Islander, and American Indian populations.2 And in the specific case of premature death—defined by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention as death among persons under the age of seventy-five—the death rate of Blacks is over 50 percent higher than that of whites, and higher than that of all other major ethnic groups, except for some American Indian cohorts.