Cost of Segregation: Efforts to integrate in Metro Detroit are 'just an illusion'

By Jodi Upton and Gordon Trowbridge

From the archives: This story was originally published on Jan. 14, 2002, as a part of a special project by The Detroit News.

James Kiner first watched his Detroit neighborhood and now his Southfield neighborhood become predominantly black. "It doesn't bother me," said Kiner, 67, who is black. "It just happens."

Downriver in Flat Rock, Jim Gill feels the same way, and is comfortable with his mostly white neighborhood. "It doesn't bother me one way or another" that neighborhoods are segregated, said Gill, 82, who is white.

Kiner and Gill represent the faces of segregation in Metro Detroit, where more than half of both blacks and whites say they sometimes favor neighborhood segregation, a policy many social researchers say carries significant costs.

The results of a Detroit News/WDIV poll shows local support for segregation, a sentiment that runs contrary to national support for neighborhood diversity.

In the same poll, residents also acknowledged pressing neighborhood problems -- deteriorating housing for blacks and urban sprawl for whites -- that experts said would improve with more integration.

They are just part of the price Metro Detroiters pay for being the most segregated region in the country, experts say.

They also list high infant mortality among blacks, inflated suburban housing prices and long commutes among the costs of living apart.

READ MORE: Cost of Segregation, Part 2: Blacks pay harsh price; whites suffer less

The poll, conducted in August and repeated in a shortened form last week, also shows residents have softened in their attitudes toward other races since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. Yet, only 4 percent said their feelings about blacks and whites have changed, leaving frustrations with the extent of racial division.

"We're still dealing with stuff we were dealing with during the civil rights time," said Detroit teacher Julia Tolliver, who was among the more than 850 people surveyed. "We haven't moved forward it's just an illusion."

Integration has been considered a laudable goal since the civil rights movement 40 years ago and it continues to win national support. In a Pew Research Center survey in April, 71 percent nationally said separate neighborhoods are a bad idea.

But in Metro Detroit, 55 percent of whites and 52 percent of blacks said segregation is sometimes, usually or always a very good idea -- sentiments in which social scientists found signs of hope and dismay. More whites favor integration than did 30 years ago. Yet, after decades of little progress, more blacks appear to be giving up on the concept.

"There used to be an ideology that the sure road to a black middle class was through white neighborhoods," said Reynolds Farley, a researcher at the University of Michigan's Institute For Social Research. "Now there's much more questioning of that among blacks."

The poll also revealed some clear racial differences: Whites are less likely to move into an integrated neighborhood and are quicker to leave than blacks.

Whites are more likely to fear softening property values and poor schools, whereas blacks are more likely to fear discrimination and harassment.

Blacks more comfortable

Blacks make up 24 percent of the area's population, with their numbers highly concentrated in Detroit and a small number of cities such as Southfield, Pontiac, Inkster and Highland Park. Whites are 70 percent of the population but live almost exclusively in the rest of suburban Detroit -- where concentrations often exceed 90 percent.

The News/WDIV poll and research has focused on black-white issues because the races account for 19 out of every 20 Metro Detroiters and are concentrated in different communities.

The poll suggests the reasons for such polarity.

Blacks say they are more comfortable moving into a neighborhood that consists mostly of another race, and are more comfortable staying in a neighborhood where whites are moving in, according to the poll.

For example, blacks are three times more willing than whites to move into a neighborhood where up to half the residents are of a different race. At the same time, blacks are five times more likely than whites to say they will stay in such a neighborhood, according to the August poll.

For Detroiters like Sean Baldwin, it's all about where you can afford to move -- and whether you would be happy once you got there.

"Most people stay where they feel comfortable," said Baldwin, 28, a security officer at Harper Hospital.

"If an African American has millions and wants to live in Birmingham, they probably feel comfortable out there. If you ... got money like Donald Trump, they'll (whites) be glad you're there."

Like Baldwin, 17 percent of those surveyed said economics were the main reason for the area's segregation. It was by far the top response, but a point that researchers who study living patterns say plays only a small role.

Stereotypes often prevail

Still, the reasons for living separately are similar, regardless of who you ask.

Blacks tend to fear crime and falling property values in mixed-race neighborhoods, though the intensity of that opinion dropped somewhat in last week's poll.

"You'll never get an even break as far as blacks and whites," said William Bean, 65, a retired Chrysler worker from Detroit who has no interest in living near whites.

"It's the way they are trained, and it hasn't changed since slavery times. They think they deserve everything. Black folks aren't ever, not in my lifetime, gonna get an equal piece of the pie."

Whites are also concerned about property values and crime, but add school quality to this list. Those fears were also less pronounced after Sept. 11.

Lorraine McArthur, 67, moved out of Detroit about six years ago, when her failing eyesight made it dangerous for her to wait for the bus.

"Things had gotten pretty bad there," said McArthur, who still attends her former, mostly black church in Detroit, Christ the King. "But I still visit friends there when I can."

Experts say that while problems with crime and schools in predominantly black areas are real, those problems also are more socially acceptable to cite as reasons to live separately. Citing fears of school quality, for instance, doesn't have the taint of racism that comes with admitting to not wanting to live near blacks.

"Those are code words meaning they are really apprehensive about having more than one or two black neighbors," Farley said. "That's especially true among older whites."

As a result, true prejudice is often hard to root out from euphemisms. It also thwarts honest discussions, experts say.

Neighbors less accepting

As evidence that real prejudices sometimes go deeper than people admit, experts point to the large difference between what people say they would do and what they think their neighbors would do -- among both blacks and whites.

For example, 4 percent of blacks said they would leave a neighborhood if up to half of the people moving in were of another race, according to the poll. But 16 percent -- four times more -- said their neighbors would leave when up to half the neighborhood was another race.

Among whites, 21 percent said they would leave the neighborhood under those circumstances, but 44 percent -- twice as many -- said their neighbors would leave if half the neighborhood changed. For both races, age and income made little difference in attitude.

"People of all races tend to see themselves as being more tolerant than people in general," said Jacob Vigdor, professor of economics and public policy at Duke University. He also is co-author of a Brookings Institution report on national segregation numbers from the 2000 Census.

But when they mention property values and other reasons, "they're basically saying other people won't be willing to pay to live in these areas," he said.

Many of those polled were uncomfortable talking about their feelings about race many refused to give their names. And some privately admit to being two-faced about how they view race.

"My friends have said to me, 'Your neighborhood is turning dark. When are you going to move?' " said Michael from Madison Heights, who works as a purchaser. He said he answered the poll questions more truthfully than he'd admit publicly.

"I've built up a lot of trust with my co-workers and if they knew what I really think I'd lose my job. But I wish there were more white people in my neighborhood."

He has bitter memories of feeling unwelcome in his neighborhood in the mid-1960s. The neighborhood where he grew up changed from mostly white to nearly all black in less then two years, he said. And he remembers a time about 100 black kids waited behind the high school to beat up the few remaining white kids.

"It was a war," he said. "In the back of the minds of people like myself it hasn't changed, yet you live and work with people who are good and you try not to generalize. If I see the trend happening again, I'm outta here."

Work is a mixing ground

While Metro Detroiters still live in separate neighborhoods, there is one place where their paths are likely to cross: work.

About half of both races said they met their friends of another race at work -- one of the few signs of thawing segregation trends.

It is also symbolic, some argue, of the increasing need for children to become more comfortable with people of different races and cultures well before they enter the work place.

"Even education doesn't do as much as working with other people does -- in a formal or informal sense," said Becky Warfel. As a white, Jewish woman, Warfel has lived in Birmingham, Southfield and Detroit, but is most comfortable in Hazel Park, which she says has a good mix of races, culture and even wealth.

"But we're all part of this itty-bitty planet and we need to get our act together."

Blacks and whites remain split, however, on ways to make improvements.

People of both races approved of enforcing laws banning housing discrimination. But blacks were twice as likely as whites to approve of busing or low-cost loans to minorities as fixes.

"What that means is ... the status quo is preferable to the remedy," said Joe Darden, professor of urban affairs at Michigan State University. "And that means the status of these issues isn't likely to change."

Joseph Adams, who moved from Detroit to Southfield two years ago, agrees.

"When you segregate people based on color (even by choice) you create an atmosphere of distrust," the 59-year-old said.

"When you create distrust there is going to be violence, negative thinking and an uncomfortable place to live. The best living areas are places where you're comfortable regardless of color. Unless we get to that point, we're always going to have problems in the Detroit area."