By Dawn Turner Trice

February 14, 2012


Morgan Davis, 26, who’s black, grew up in west suburban Oak Park, a community long praised for its work on behalf of maintaining racial diversity.


Patricia Fron, 27, who’s white, grew up in southwest suburban Alsip, a predominantly white, working-class suburb, where integration happened more organically. She said that when she was about 10, black families began to move into the community.


“I would hear subtle things, whispers from adults who didn’t want that type of change,” said Fron, who works for the Chicago Area Fair Housing Alliance. “Integration for us was definitely a rockier path.”


Davis and Fron said they understand that they’re millennials, members of a generation often cast as being “post-racial.” But their experiences have taught them that racial integration in housing is fragile and still requires hard work and commitment.


That’s why they co-authored a response last week to a recently released study that examined American neighborhoods and heralded the decline in racial segregation.


Among the findings in the Manhattan Institute think tank’s “The End of the Segregated Century: Racial Separation in America’s Neighborhoods, 1890-2010” are:


•American cities are more integrated now than they have been since 1910.


•All-white neighborhoods are, for the most part, extinct. Black residents can be found in 199 out of every 200 neighborhoods nationwide.


•Ghettos persist but are on the decline.


Davis and Fron said they believe that the study “overstates and oversimplifies” the gains made in integration over the last century and since the passage of the Fair Housing Act in 1968. They said much work remains across the Chicago area and the nation.


“Although the notion that (Americans) may be embarking on an era of race neutrality seems inspiring,” they write, “it does not reflect the complexities of racial segregation, particularly in housing, that arise out of multifaceted forces including public policies, private sector investment and public perceptions about race.” (Read more at


Davis told me that for evidence we need only look around the Chicago area, at the North Shore suburbs, which are overwhelmingly white with a few exceptions, and the city’s South Side, which is overwhelmingly black with a few exceptions.


“The moment we stop being aggressive with policies and holding local governments and communities accountable, resegregation can happen and has happened,” said Davis, the fair-housing policy analyst for the Oak Park Regional Housing Center.”There are still places on the South Side where people are isolated, and it’s harder for them to access resources, basic services and even opportunities that people in other communities take for granted.”


Fron said that in her job as a public policy fellow, she travels around the city and has face-to-face contact with her clients. She said she has seen how poor communities that are predominantly black and Hispanic have been devastated by, for example, the foreclosure crisis.


“The mortgage report by the Woodstock Institute (a Chicago-based think tank that focuses on economic issues) showed that African-Americans and Latinos were given subprime mortgages at a rate disproportionately higher than whites,” she said. “There’s still racism in terms of where some people can live, and where they do live they often have fewer opportunities. In some neighborhoods, there are higher levels of pollutants and more schools that are subpar and far too much crime.”


Fron said nobody wants to live under those conditions, and people who can leave depressed communities often do. She said that when she was young, it was black middle-class residents who were moving into her working-class community.


“As I got older, I realized that if there was more freedom of choice regarding where they could live, they wouldn’t have chosen to live in my neighborhood. They would have been able to live somewhere else,” said Fron, who now lives in McKinley Park, a predominantly Hispanic neighborhood on the South Side.


Today, according to the2010 U.S. Census, Alsip is about 58 percent white, 18 percent black and 20 percent Hispanic. Oak Park is about 64 percent white, 21 percent black and 7 percent Hispanic.


Davis said it wasn’t until she went to a small predominantly white college in western Michigan that she realized her experiences in Oak Park hadn’t insulated her from racism.


“Even though I was raised around a lot of white people, the people in Michigan didn’t view me in the same way that my Oak Park neighbors and classmates did,” Davis said. “The (university) brought out my social justice side, and I was very vocal there because you just can’t sit quiet about racism.”


Davis now lives in the predominantly black Lawndale neighborhood, where she said she moved to help make a difference.


Fron said her college experience also was a bit of culture shock.


“In my neighborhood, I sought out a multiracial group of kids. But when I went to college, I saw this population of students who didn’t feel comfortable being with people who weren’t from the same racial group or socioeconomic background,” she said.


“I think that makes it difficult for people to grow and understand the world. If all you know of a certain group of people is what you see in the media, then you have a very limited view.”


Davis and Fron agree that the country is becoming more multiracial and multicultural, and it increasingly will be difficult to find racially homogenous neighborhoods. But they said a truly integrated community isn’t just a predominantly white community with a few people of color.


“True integration means people are more involved in each other’s lives,” Davis said. “It’s more relationship-based. It’s people trying to understand one another, and when I think of that (Manhattan Institute) study, that’s what’s so difficult to achieve.”


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