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Michigan Apartheid

Reforming land use policy can help most segregated state

April 17, 2003 | By Keith Schneider
Great Lakes Bulletin News Service

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  Scenes of interracial harmony are terribly rare in Michigan, which has five of the nation’s most segregated cities within its borders.

Because the University of Michigan so ardently defended its race-sensitive admissions policy before the United States Supreme Court earlier this month, it’s easy to excuse those outside our borders who believe Michigan is a paragon of tolerance and equality.

Those of us who live here know better. According to the U.S. Census, Michigan is the most segregated state in the nation. Five of the 25 most racially segregated metropolitan regions in America — Detroit, Saginaw, Flint, Benton Harbor, and Muskegon — are in Michigan. The next closest state is New York, with four. Two more Michigan metropolitan regions — Grand Rapids and Jackson — almost made the top 25.

Census figures also show that Michigan has the most segregated public school systems in the nation. For example, 613,000 students attend public schools in 83 school districts in Wayne, Macomb, and Oakland counties, according to an analysis by the National School Boards Association. Roughly 180,000 of those students are black and 82 percent of black students are enrolled in just three districts — Detroit, Highland Park, and Inkster. Some 90 percent of white students — 540,000 kids — are enrolled in Detroit-region schools where 10 percent or less of the students are black.

The fact is that the University of Michigan is a rare outpost of social equity in a landscape dominated by a racial divide that is much larger today than it was in 1960. Almost all of the state’s black residents — 96 percent of 1.4 million people — live in just 11 metropolitan regions in Michigan. That means that roughly 70 of the state’s 83 counties are overwhelmingly white, many with minority populations of less than 3 percent. Not even Mississippi in the depths of the Jim Crow era was as segregated as Michigan is today.

The question that grows more urgent every month is what steps Michigan’s elected and civic leaders will take to close the racial gap and strengthen economic opportunity for all residents?

Trying to Make It Better
To date, the state’s work to encourage racial harmony has focused to a great extent on making it possible for minorities to excel in the work place, including in corporate and government front offices. The University of Michigan and its courageous presidents, first Lee Bollinger and now Mary Sue Coleman, have done their part to defend that principle, even against a wartime president, by arguing that racial consciousness in admissions is fair and legal under a prior 1978 Supreme Court ruling because it helps establish diversity in elite institutions.

So have our Armed Forces. General Norman Schwartzkopf and other high-ranking retired military officers prepared one of the more than 80 legal briefs filed in support of the university’s position. Not only did these officers assert that Michigan’s affirmative action program is nearly the same as the one used by the Army, Navy, and Air Force academies, they also said the program was essential to America’s ability to defend itself.

That view is strikingly different from the one President Bush articulated in January when he denounced the University of Michigan’s affirmative action policy as “a quota system,” and “fundamentally flawed.” The president’s view is also miles away from the position a long list of Fortune 500 corporations publicly proclaimed in their briefs to the court. Those companies also argued that race-sensitive affirmative action programs have proved vital to their success.

With everyone from military generals to captains of industry working to close the racial divide by opening up opportunities for minorities in the work place, a logical next place to heal our collective racial wounds is in housing. To do that, though, it’s important to first find out why people now live where they do.

Learning to Live Together
Two months ago, Democratic Governor Jennifer Granholm took a vital step to respond to that complex question when she formed the bipartisan Michigan Land Use Leadership Council. Granted, race is not mentioned in the governor’s executive order that established the council. Gov. Granholm charged the 26-member panel with developing new policies to curb sprawling patterns of development and strengthen what Granholm called  “Michigan’s social and economic well-being.”

But race underlies most of the goals that panel members have identified as top priorities, including rebuilding the state’s cities. “We need to focus not just on development and the use of green space,” Republican Senate Majority Leader Ken Sikkema said in his statement that opened the proceedings. “We have to also address why it is that people leave the core urban areas in Michigan. It is the other side of the coin.”

The Land Use Leadership Council doesn’t have to look far to find the answers. Michigan’s racial gulf was fostered in large part by four decades of state investments for roads, sewers, housing, schools, and jobs outside of Michigan’s big cities. Whites followed the money out of town to new subdivisions and office parks on the urban fringe even as poor minorities, most of them black, were marooned in declining cities.

Smart Growth Can Help
Indeed, Oregon, Washington State, Massachusetts, and other states have learned that Smart Growth policies — reversing the flow of public investment and spending tax dollars for infrastructure and economic development in cities instead of outside them — can play a huge role in encouraging integration. Why? Because economic investment brings more jobs and higher income families that strengthen classroom performance and add immeasurably to the quality of life. Economic opportunity encourages whites and minorities to want to be in the same stable, increasingly prosperous neighborhoods.

That’s what has happened in Portland and Seattle, among other cities, where state spending encouraged private investment that yielded a full array of civic equipment vital to a thriving metropolitan region — excellent educational and recreational opportunities, more jobs, housing people could afford, and convenient and safe public transit. Having achieved a superior quality of urban life, both Portland and Seattle have also built a healthier racial balance, a factor in why both are widely considered among the most attractive and prosperous cities on the continent.

The irony is that to some extent the success of the Pacific Northwest’s largest cities came at Michigan’s expense. One of the sobering facts of the 1990s is that while Michigan climbed to the top of the chart in racial segregation it also dived to the bottom — 47th of 50 states — in its ability to retain talented young people. More than 200,000 25 to 34-year-old adults left Michigan from 1990 to 2000, according to the census, to help build the new economies of more vibrant and racially diverse metropolitan regions — like Seattle and Portland.

Keith Schneider, an environmental journalist and a regular contributor to The New York Times, the Detroit Free Press, and Gristmagazine.com, is the deputy director of the Michigan Land Use Institute. Reach him at keith@mlui.org. A version of this article was published in the Detroit Free Press on April 14, 2003.

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