Powerful new study reveals the depths of segregation in NC and the need for intentional action to address it
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 wonks 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.
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 it 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.
You can read the executive summary of the report by clicking here .
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 was.
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 strikingly similar. The report puts it this way:
“Many excluded neighborhoods are the result of Jim Crow era segregation. Towns that incorporated during de jure segregation often simply drew municipal boundaries that did not include African American communities. Some excluded communities trace their roots to Reconstruction. Newly emancipated slaves settled on the only land available, often floodplains on the outskirts of towns by rivers or swamp land.”
The report continues:
“Whether during the Reconstruction or Jim Crow eras, the original segregation of these communities began decades of compounding impacts and continuing acts of discrimination. Relegating these communities to flood plains or swamps and denying them water and sewer infrastructure caused health issues from failing sewage systems. A high water table results in soil that does not percolate properly for septic tanks. Lack of access to infrastructure meant that these communities were unable to attract economic development from private companies or the public sector. Numerous decisions by local governments over decades, such as the decision not to place a school in an area lacking paved roads and water service, appear “race neutral,” but in fact solidified the initial segregation, each decision compounding the impacts of exclusion and perpetuating a system of structural racism. These communities, whether consciously or by neglect, have been systematically underdeveloped.”
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.”
Charting the impact
Though perhaps not surprising, the practical results of the exclusion are striking and sobering. The report highlights five areas: environmental justice, education, housing, municipal services/infrastructure and voting rights. In the first three, the researchers found ample statewide data to support a conclusion that excluded communities are suffering. In the latter two data was less abundant, but anecdotal evidence is strong.
Environment – Residents of excluded communities are twice as likely as average North Carolinians to find themselves living close to “solid waste” facilities – i.e. garbage dumps and related facilities. And whereas 24% of North Carolinians live within a mile of a polluter on the Environmental Protection Agency Facility Registry, the number shoots up to 41% and 44%, respectively, for excluded Latino and African-American population “clusters.”
Education – Despite constitutional guarantees and the aggressive efforts of some school districts like Wake County, children living in excluded communities are also much more likely to attend less desirable public schools. The researchers found that residents of the segregated clusters are much more likely to live close to “racially identifiable” schools (especially in wealthier counties), “failing” schools (schools in which less than 50% of elementary students receive passing grades on standardized tests) and “high-poverty” schools (schools in which higher-than average percentages of children qualify for free and reduced price school lunches).
Housing – Statewide, less than one-third of North Carolinians live in rental housing. In the excluded population clusters, the number is greater than 50%. While, the report notes that this is not necessarily an indicator of substandard conditions, it also points out that home ownership is “a crucial indicator of wealth.”
Services/infrastructure – Despite limited statewide data, the researchers also report that many excluded communities are much less likely to have essential public services like municipal water and sewer systems, streetlights, sidewalks, storm drains and paved roads.
Voting rights – The report also noted the existence of significant shortages of elected officials from excluded population clusters. This is evidenced both by the simple fact that excluded areas are generally not included in the municipal elections for the cities that they abut and by the gaps that exist in many counties between the percentage of their populations of color and the percentage of elected county commissioners.
The need for intentional public action
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 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, 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.
Image: UNC’s “The State of Exclusion”