How Segregation Informs Present-day Politics In The Industrial Midwest

(Tony Ganzer / ideastream)
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Today ideastream kicks off Divided by Design, a series looking into how historic practices, policies, and prejudices contributed to segregation, and inform issues we’re still dealing with today.

Our region has changed immensely in the last half-century, but the last year’s election showed persisting divisions. That’s the view put forth in a new piece by John Austin, a senior non-resident fellow at the Brookings Institution:

AUSTIN: “You have this irony that while people look to the South as the problem with racism and segregation, the most segregated big city regions are the industrial cities of the North and the industrial Midwest where the Great Migration of African-Americans brought lots of African-Americans to these cities.  The influx of immigrants from around the world also created and added to racial divides and tensions. And it’s just a feature of the region that complicates our politics, and our ability to kind of work together in our communities.”

GANZER: “One of the facts that stuck out to me: 15 of the country’s 25 major metro areas with the sharpest black-white segregation are in the ‘Rust Belt’ or industrial Midwest. What did that say to you, or what can you tease out of that fact, as we saw how the election carried out?”

AUSTIN: “There’s great speculation really: why did these people respond to Trump? Was it economic anxiety about their future, which is understandable in places where the pathway to a good life and job is just not there or uncertain, and Trump promised to get those jobs back in some way? Or was it anxiety about a changing world, and blaming Latinos, Muslims, and black and brown people for the woes of what white working-class people have been experiencing? And both things are true. We have more people in communities who are anxious and not experiencing the economic opportunities that their parents had, or that they remember. And it’s also true that we have a very newly diverse set of communities. You know the first wave were white immigrants.  Now today’s immigrants are more likely to be from Asia, or from the Middle East, or from Central and South America. So you throw a reality that 37% of the population growth in the Midwest has come from immigrants.  Cincinnati: 65% increase of immigrants in the last decade. Akron: 27% increase. These immigrants are likely to be People of Color, and it makes it very easy to fan fears based on race, or to suggest that these folks are somehow taking jobs versus making jobs. On balance the immigrants that we’re getting are better-educated than the folks who grew up here; are more likely to be the doctors, and engineers, and computer technicians that we desperately need to start new businesses and play key roles in our economy.”

GANZER: “I wanted you to help me understand better something you wrote in the piece about segregation.  You wrote: ‘’ When we look at historic segregation, especially with African-Americans, we see redlining, denial of financial services, the list goes on, how is that manifesting, do you think, or extending nowadays to new immigrants and new in-flows of people to the region?”

AUSTIN: “Those of us who have lived and worked in our communities—my Austin family is from Shaker Heights—you see the divides between the suburbs and East Cleveland, and Cleveland-proper, black and white. You look at the Detroit-area where you have the largest African-American metropolis next to some of the whitest suburbs in the country.  For years we have seen—we haven’t understood the drivers of the black-white divide fully, or done much about it—but now you see with this influx of immigrants of color, from Mexico, from Pakistan, from Iraq, to our communities, you have what has always happened there’s immigrant enclaves, there’s a harder path to assimilation, and it’s doubly hard when you see folks who are purposefully fanning fears, or laying blame, at immigrants for economic woes of the working class, largely white, population that has been here for a few generations. It’s just not true. Immigrants are desperately needed here.”

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