New study reveals depths of segregation in state

Sep. 20, 2013 @ 01:00 PM

Sometimes, it’s hard to say what divides North Carolinians more: race or what to do about race. A new and powerful report by some data experts at the University of North Carolina helps to shine a light on both of these divisions.

The report is entitled “The State of Exclusion: An Empirical Analysis of the Legacy of Segregated Communities in North Carolina” and the portrait it paints is not an especially encouraging one. (You can read it at
A team led by researcher Peter Gilbert examined hundreds of “census blocks” and population “clusters” throughout the state in an attempt to explore and explain some of the key aspects of North Carolina’s readily evident residential segregation by race: Where does is exist? Why does it exist? What are its impacts?
What they found shouldn’t surprise us, but it should serve as a wake-up call to all North Carolinians of good will.
The three-pronged message: 1) Despite decades of important progress, North Carolina remains intensely segregated in many, many areas. 2) This segregation produces significant and measurable negative consequences. 3) Ignoring the problem won’t make it go away.
At the heart of the study’s findings is this disturbing but undeniable fact: Residential segregation in our state has not happened by accident. It may not always have been the result of malevolent intent, but as a practical matter, the results are essentially the same as if it were.
In locality after locality around the state, Gilbert and his team discovered “communities of exclusion” – that is, neighborhoods with large black and brown populations that have been systematically denied inclusion into nearby, wealthier and whiter communities. And while no two communities were exactly identical, the historical patterns at the root of their exclusion were often
In other words, even though the noxious origins of the exclusion may have been forgotten, the impact persists – even through several cycles of supposedly “neutral” and well-intentioned decisions in the decades since.
As a result, in scores of communities, impoverished and underdeveloped minority neighborhoods stand immediately adjacent to affluent majority ones – a phenomenon the report refers to as “municipal underbounding.”
Though perhaps not surprising, the practical results of the exclusion are striking and sobering. The report highlights five areas in which the excluded communities suffer mightily: environmental justice, education, housing, municipal services/infrastructure and voting rights. Put simply, minority communities must endure more garbage dumps, poorer schools, poorer housing, fewer essential services and less representation in government.
While the study offers no specific policy solutions (and, indeed, calls for more study to more thoroughly document the situation), common sense tells us that such a massive problem so long in the making is not going to abate in short order or on its own.
As Rev. William Barber of the North Carolina NAACP documented so well in last year’s Truth and Hope Poverty Tour, those in control of the state’s levers of power can talk as much as they want about making the state “color blind” and combating poverty by “unleashing the private sector,” but the fact remains that neither mere deregulation or tax cuts (nor simple benign neglect) are not going to bring economic development and prosperity to impoverished and polluted communities with poor schools and lousy public services. And neither is a rising tide of prosperity in adjoining communities. If that were true, past boom times would have long ago lifted these areas out of their torpor.     
Like it or not, the simple truth is that entrenched exclusion of this kind can only be addressed through the sustained application of intentional and forceful public action. This means elected state and local officials must enact public policies that break down the walls – by annexing and integrating excluded neighborhoods and extending municipal services, desegregating schools, enforcing fair housing laws, constructing affordable housing in affluent neighborhoods, and enforcing laws to protect voting rights.   
Let’s hope the new study begins to awaken more and more North Carolinians with open minds and good will to this hard but undeniable truth.

Rob Schofield is director of research and policy development at NC Policy Watch.