Posted on October 3, 2022

Can We Manage to Integrate?

William Voegeli, City Journal, Summer 2022

One lesson from America’s two-decade Afghanistan debacle is that you can’t achieve success if you can’t define it. A political goal is seldom attained if every description of it sounds vague or arbitrary; it cannot be realized by any known policy mechanism; and it draws strong opposition from foes while earning only tepid support from putative constituents. Housing integration is no exception. As a senator, Walter Mondale was a leading congressional sponsor of the Fair Housing Act. After its 1968 enactment, he said that the law’s purpose was to replace ghettos by means of “truly integrated and balanced living patterns.” Fifty-four years later, it remains unclear how to parse or implement that objective.

Not that people have stopped caring. The Imperative of Integration (2010), by philosophy professor Elizabeth Anderson, contends that integration “promotes greater equality and democracy” by enlarging the shared civic realm from “particularistic ethno-racial identities” to “identification with a larger, nationwide community.” Similarly, Richard Rothstein of the Economic Policy Institute argued in The Color of Law: A Forgotten History of How Our Government Segregated America (2017) that federal policies are the main reason we have housing segregation, by which he means that blacks and whites are far less likely to share a neighborhood than random chance would predict. Such segregation has harmed all Americans, he contends, but especially blacks. Further, only countervailing federal policies can end it, which is urgent because “integration will benefit all of us, white and African American.”

At one point, however, after endorsing various government measures to promote integration, Rothstein admits that it’s “appropriate to wonder why we should go to great expense to persuade people to follow a policy that nobody, black or white, seems to want.” One attorney told him: “I am a middle-class African-American professional woman, and I want to live where I can be comfortable, where there are salons that know how to cut my hair, where I can easily get to my church, and where there are supermarkets where I can buy collard greens.” And the evidence for anti-integration sentiment goes beyond anecdotes. Rothstein cites surveys showing that most whites and blacks speak favorably about integration in the abstract. But the data immediately reveal a difficulty: whites consider a neighborhood integrated when the proportion of blacks residing there is around 10 percent, close to the present national total of 12.1 percent. (Rothstein ascribes this preference to whites’ desire to “dominate.”) The same polls show that African-Americans believe that a neighborhood is integrated when blacks account for 20 percent to 50 percent of the inhabitants, two to four times their proportion in the national population.

Is integration still a goal worth pursuing?

That whites and blacks have irreconcilable ideas about what integration means is no small problem. If, as a thought experiment, we subordinate every conflicting political consideration to racial integration, a housing czar could assign people homes in specific locations. By embracing the standard that African-Americans should constitute 12 percent of the residents of each block, he could use his unchecked power to integrate every zip code and census tract. Yet, if the goal is to increase the number of communities where blacks amount to one-fifth or half of the local population, there’s an obvious limit to what he could do, given that they constitute just one-eighth of the national population. Even the most obsessive social engineer would eventually run out of blacks to integrate, leaving some places integrated according to the more expansive definition of the term and many others with few or no African-American residents.

In this scenario, not only would many communities remain predominantly white; no community could be predominantly black. Sociologists Maria Krysan and Reynolds Farley showed in 2002 that the first choice for 20 percent of African-Americans was to live in a neighborhood that was all-black, and another 23 percent preferred one that was more than two-thirds black. {snip}


{snip} One of the most durable and, by its own standards, successful efforts to achieve a stable integrated community can be found in Oak Park, Illinois, a suburb of some 55,000 residents abutting Chicago’s border, eight miles west of the Loop. Oak Park was 99 percent white in 1970, but blacks accounted for 11 percent of its residents in 1980 and 18.5 percent by 1990. Based on the pattern established in many other Chicago neighborhoods and suburbs, as well as in communities across the country, Oak Park should have been poised for “white flight,” as the black population’s growth reached a “tipping point” that saw the slow departure of whites turn into a rush for the exits. Instead, Oak Park’s demographics have changed only slightly. In 2021, the village’s population was 18.4 percent black. (As such, it satisfies Rothstein’s criterion for integration, since African-Americans account for 16.7 percent of metropolitan Chicago’s population.) The modest decline in Oak Park’s white population, from 76.9 percent in 1990 to 66.1 percent in 2021, corresponds to a rising number of Hispanic and Asian residents.

To achieve this degree of integration and then sustain it for decades is as unusual in northeastern Illinois as it is throughout the United States. You won’t find it anywhere in Oak Park’s immediate vicinity, which is made up of other communities that were also nearly all-white for most of the twentieth century. An adjacent village, River Forest, remains 83 percent white and 7 percent black. Cicero and Berwyn, to Oak Park’s south, are now predominantly Hispanic, with small minorities of non-Hispanic whites and even smaller ones of non-Hispanic blacks. Just west of Oak Park, Maywood and Bellwood have large African-American majorities, as does Austin, the Chicago neighborhood immediately east of Oak Park, which is 84 percent black and 4 percent white.

Austin’s transformation from middle-class and predominantly white (more than 99 percent white in 1960) to poor and predominantly black (over 86 percent black in 1990) was the proximate cause of Oak Park’s decision to confront and control its demographic change. “Reconsidering the Oak Park Strategy,” an academic paper written in 2002 by Evan McKenzie, a political scientist, and Jay Ruby, an anthropologist, states: “The 1970s witnessed classic block-by-block resegregation in Austin, an event that had enormous psychological impact on Oak Parkers.” As a result, “Austin became a negative example for many Oak Parkers, who were determined to chart a different course.”

That course became “managed integration,” also known as “integration maintenance” or “intentional integration.” The policy was carried out by the village government, advisory boards, civic groups, and, above all, the nonprofit Oak Park Regional Housing Center (OPRHC), created in 1972. The goal was to assist people seeking to move into Oak Park, especially blacks, while reassuring those thinking about leaving Oak Park, especially whites.

Beyond stabilizing Oak Park’s demographic profile to resemble closely that of the Chicago metropolitan area, the managed integration program worked to prevent the emergence of any predominantly black or white neighborhoods within the suburb. As J. Robert Breymaier, executive director of OPRHC from 2006 to 2018, has written, the goal is to encourage as many relocations as possible that will “sustain or improve the integration of a particular building or block.” McKenzie and Ruby observed that 81 percent of Oak Park’s blocks had at least one black family in 2000. This is, they say, “an achievement that few communities have realized.” It is also, however, an effort consistent with writer Steve Sailer’s derisive opinion that managed integration amounts to making sure that there is “one black per block” but as few as possible in excess of that.

Initially, Oak Park’s managed integration effort focused on homeowners, seeking simultaneously to encourage “fair housing”—a nondiscriminatory real-estate market—and discourage white flight. To keep the sight of For Sale signs on lawns from triggering panic selling, as had occurred in Austin and other Chicago neighborhoods, Oak Park prohibited them. A 1977 Supreme Court ruling held that such bans violated the First Amendment, but because no Oak Park real-estate agent has challenged it in court, the prohibition remains in effect as a practical matter.

Oak Park also offered, beginning in 1978, the Equity Assurance Program, an insurance policy providing protection from housing-market changes related to integration. In Chicago neighborhoods that had resegregated, either the fact or fear of demographic change had led many homeowners to sell at a loss. The Equity Assurance Program guaranteed policyholders that they would be compensated if they found themselves selling their home at a price below what they paid for it.

Perhaps the best evidence for the success of Oak Park’s effort to stabilize integration is that no claims have ever been made under this insurance program. Instead, property values rose steadily as Oak Park became one of the most affluent suburbs in western Cook County. {snip}


Its long-term success in stabilizing integration makes Oak Park an exception. But what rule does it prove? It’s clear to Breymaier that, because managed integration has bequeathed “strong and stable property values” and “a foundation for community harmony,” Oak Park has “provided a replicable model for other communities.”

If this is true, why have only a few other places tried the Oak Park strategy, and why has none replicated its success? Presumably, thousands of localities would be pleased to combine strong, stable property values with community harmony. And Oak Park’s achievement is well documented and widely known.


McKenzie and Ruby have the better argument when they contend that Oak Park cannot be an integration template, since its success rests on a unique mix of factors: “proximity to a depressed urban neighborhood, aging housing stock, a high percentage of apartment buildings, and a small, affluent, politically independent liberal community that has the means to be proactive.” They note that Republican presidential nominee George W. Bush won 23 percent of the vote in the 2000 election, losing all 70 precincts in what a Chicago Tribune columnist calls “the People’s Republic of Oak Park.”

The more pressing question, in McKenzie and Ruby’s view, is not whether the Oak Park Strategy can be implemented elsewhere, but how long it can continue in Oak Park itself. In a roundabout way, Breymaier confirms those doubts. If not for OPRHC’s programs, he told the Washington Post in 2015, “Oak Park would probably remain diverse, but it would start segregating very quickly.” {snip}


This circumscribed hospitality, implicit in a managed integration program relying on complexity and euphemism, becomes explicit when every decision about who moves in gets made by a single entity. Starrett City Associates, owner and manager of a 5,800-unit Brooklyn rental apartment complex that opened in 1974, was committed to integration, which it pursued by maintaining fixed percentages of the major demographic groups residing in Starrett City—not just overall, but in each building, and even on each floor. Within its first years of operation, however, managed integration came to mean that black applicants for a Starrett City apartment were placed on a waiting list eight times as long as the one for white applicants.

Lawsuits by private parties and the Justice Department resulted in federal court rulings that these quotas violated the 1968 Fair Housing Act. “Although integration maintenance programs are consistent with the spirit of residential desegregation,” sociologist Douglas S. Massey wrote in American Apartheid: Segregation and the Making of the Underclass (1993), “ultimately they operate by restricting black residential choice and violating the letter of the Fair Housing Act.” When managed integration does not constrain blacks’ housing options directly with quotas, it does so indirectly, says Massey, “through a series of tactics designed to control the rate of black entry.”


Unless we jettison liberty for the sake of equality and fraternity, Americans will always find ways to vote with their feet against imposed integration. That reality should constrain our ingenuity, leading us to reject shoves in favor of nudges. Examples of the latter include Oak Park’s Equity Assurance Program and the Shaker Heights initiative of using private grants to provide mortgage subsidies to people who purchased homes in neighborhoods where most residents were of a different race. The zeal to do more—to transform—leads directly to what author Tanner Colby calls “integration fatigue.” As a black resident said after the Supreme Court put a failed Kansas City school desegregation program out of its misery in 1995, “We’re tired of chasing white people.”