Sunday, August 21, 2016

Race, Segregation, and Stories About Faceless Institutions, Families with Faces AND Evidence

I just finished reading this article in the Times today about a "broad yet little explored fact of American segregation.  I like that:  the FACT of segregation.  And the story of how even "affluent black families, freed from the restrictions of low income, often end up living in poor and segregated communities anyway."  I liked it a lot.  I learned something new about how laws and courts and the best of intentions of lots of people are simply not enough to change behaviors -- complex behaviors of almost ALL of us -- that perpetuate decades of segregation that disproportionately disadvantage another generation of Black Americans.  Sadly it IS still about race:  not class, not culture, not resources, but RACE.  The evidence is pretty clear.

I reflected for a minute and learned something else:  it is possible to tell a good story about complex systems and evidence that is also about individuals.

Framing communications using individual stories can make complex social problems more compelling; however, if you're not careful, the systems -- social, cultural and political institutions -- can just disappear.  A disadvantaged individual who triumphs over adversity proves only that success against all odds is possible while it frames individuals who fail as individual failures.  So many stories drawn from individual narratives are true, of course, they just don't tell the WHOLE story:  in fact, the emotional frame drawn around the individual actually hides the many ways that structural disadvantages "stack the deck" against them.

But this story works.  In the same way that The Wire by David Simon succeeds so brilliantly, Affluent and Black by Eligon and Gebeloff manages to draw compelling individual portraits of individuals and their families and also link personal decisions to broad patterns of behavior substantiated by just a few pieces of evidence and some really great graphics.

But how do they do it?

The title is awesome, first of all:  "Affluent and Black, and Still Trapped by Segregation" is a challenge to the reader.

"How exactly are they trapped?" I wanted to know.  The answer came in the very first paragraphs with a real-life example.  I read it, looked at the picture of an interesting looking, vital, and happy family.  They are not trapped by laws or courts or resources.  They have choices.  They CHOOSE to live in predominantly Black neighborhoods for reasons we can all understand.  They are 'trapped' because, in fact, it's still better for them to live where they do despite the poor schools, the violence, and other disadvantages, even when they DO have choices.

Then I noticed the rest of the title:  "Why well-off black families end up living in poorer areas
than white families with similar or even lower incomes."  They are 'trapped' by institutions that continue to make it less attractive to integrate and more attractive to remain in largely segregated neighborhoods.

My questions were, "How common is this, exactly?"  And, "Is this part of a trend?"  Or perhaps it's not news at all.  I skipped to the graphic.  Check it out:
OK.  Then I was hooked.  There were other examples, other families who tried living in affluent areas and, for a host of reasons, moved back to old neighborhoods.  I read it carefully.  It's all about how social, cultural and institutional forces continue to encourage segregation and discourage integration even though it's been decades since overt discrimination has been illegal.

It's also a complicated story.  While it's hard to find villains, it's easy to see how even affluent Blacks with real choices continue to be disadvantaged by their race.

Here's a map of Milwaukee from the US Census, 2010 I presume, not 1950.
And I'll bet that Boston looks pretty much the same way...

It turns out that it's common, pervasive and persistent.  In fact, it's NOT EVEN NEWS.  And that's just another thing that extraordinary about this piece.  How do you tell a story that's NOT new in a way that gives us pause and makes us challenge our beliefs and consider new ways of looking at reality?  Well, you can tell a story that describes individual people, specific events in their lives, as long as you also tie the difficult choices they make to broader patterns in our society, revealing real and deep forces that perpetuate segregation, discourage integration and impoverish us all.

Note:  I admire of how they deliberately did NOT also try to measure the effects of continuing segregation OR discuss strategies to resist or even reverse these trends.  The reader may ask themselves whether or not this is a bad thing or what can be done about it and not find the answer in this piece.  It's a perfectly valid and productive editorial choice in my view.  They did a super job framing the questions.  Look elsewhere for these and many more answers.

1 comment:

Stephen Quatrano said...

I just noticed that the annotated map of Milwaukee actually has macro-demographic trends AND the neighborhoods where individual families covered in the story live. Excellent.