Cost of Segregation: Blacks pay harsh price while whites suffer less

Ron French and Oralandar Brand-Williams
The Detroit News

From the archives: This story was originally published on Jan. 21, 2002, as a part of a special project by The Detroit News.

Everyone in Metro Detroit pays for segregation. Blacks and whites, however, pay unequal prices.

For David Robillard, that means working overtime at Ford and moonlighting at a second job to pay for a home in Plymouth, where his mortgage is four times what he'd paid in northwest Detroit.

"You pay for location," admits Robillard, who is white. "It was quite a burden."

Higher mortgage payments, poor water pressure and stultifying commutes are among the prices paid by those living in Metro Detroit's overwhelmingly white suburbs.

The cost is even greater for black Detroiter Shannton Gaston, a day care operator spending her retirement money to send her children to private schools.

"It's different in the suburbs," laments Gaston. "They have the best of both worlds (and) their children have good schools."

Bad schools are among the steep costs of segregation to Metro Detroit blacks, three-quarters of whom live in Detroit. They run a greater risk for heart attacks, low birth-weight babies, homicides, stunted home values and dead-end jobs.

Segregation influences what we know and how we think, such as Nora Bonner having never read a book by a white author after her freshman year at Detroit High School for the Fine and Performing Arts.

It affects where Detroiter Ethel Lee Johnson works and how much she is paid.

It influences the restaurants in which Detroiter Joyce Marshall eats and what cable channels Macomb Township's Tanya Shavers watches.

And it hurts our surroundings in ways that on the surface seem unrelated to race, from trash strewn across Belle Isle to the loss of farmland in Lyon Township.

"People generally don't think about" the consequences of segregation, said University of Michigan sociologist David Harris. "There are certain costs for everyone, and more costs for some."

READ MORE: Cost of Segregation, Part 1: Efforts to integrate 'just an illusion'

Those costs are illustrated in a Detroit News/WDIV poll. The majority of blacks and whites saw little harm in living separately. Yet when that same poll asked residents to name the biggest problems facing their neighborhoods, whites listed traffic and overdevelopment, while blacks listed crime and neighborhood deterioration — different problems for different races, but all rooted firmly in the area's racial polarization.

Forty years after the civil rights movement, segregated housing continues to carry heavy consequences in Metro Detroit, where the racial divide is the widest — and arguably the most costly — in the nation.

Segregation has shaped communities that are separate and unequal, where those who can least afford it pay the heaviest price.

The price is hard to quantify and easy to argue over. It is difficult to separate segregation as a cause of problems from other factors, and many of today's social ills — from inefficient land use in the suburbs to crumbling schools in Detroit — do not have clear price tags.

Yet for those who study it, and for those whose lives are touched by it daily, segregation's tentacles can be felt throughout Metro Detroit.

Life-and-death risks

Blacks in Metro Detroit's depressed urban areas pay the highest price. Inner-city residents of highly segregated metro areas, such as Detroit and Chicago, suffer higher infant mortality, crime and unemployment than inner-city residents of less-segregated cities.

Wayne State Professor George Galster analyzed the segregation level and various quality of life indicators in U.S. cities. Based on the 1990 census, he concluded that if Metro Detroit's segregation level were cut in half, the median income of black families would rise 24 percent; the black homicide rate would fall 30 percent; the black high school dropout rate would fall 75 percent; and the black poverty rate would fall 17 percent.

"I'm not trying to suggest that all black neighborhoods are bad," Galster said. "But for the entire society, the statistics are not debatable: Segregation harms the groups that are segregated."

Nowhere is the difference more apparent than in health care. Numerous studies have found that in highly segregated metro areas, blacks suffer higher rates of homicide, suicide, high blood pressure and heart disease. Whites in highly segregated areas do not face similar increased health risks.

That trend can be seen in Detroit, where, because of Medicaid-Medicare cuts, three Detroit hospitals — Mercy, Sinai and Saratoga — have closed in the last five years. More than 8,000 hospital workers were laid off. Each of the hospitals had a mission to treat poor and uninsured patients, so when the government cut back on reimbursements, they suffered the most.

More significantly, Detroit has lost 50 percent of its primary-care centers in recent years, as doctors seek out patients with better insurance in the suburbs. As general practitioners flee to the suburbs, more poor Detroit residents wait longer to seek medical care, and seek it at hospital emergency rooms, said Lucille Smith, executive director of the Voices of Detroit Initiative, a partnership between the city of Detroit and four health systems designed to help the uninsured.

"Segregated housing, segregated employment, they all have a domino impact," Smith said.

The racial divide between blacks and whites fosters an atmosphere of mistrust in Metro Detroit doctors' offices, said Dr. William Anderson of Detroit. That mistrust leads blacks to go to doctors -- especially the overwhelmingly white specialists -- less often, and to follow the medical advice less strictly. "Blacks as a general rule are less trustful of white physicians," said Anderson, who is black. "The perception is, the reason you're practicing in downtown Detroit is because you couldn't make it in Bloomfield Hills."

The result: "We have more disease, we treat it later and therefore we die earlier," Anderson said.

Detroit has an infant mortality rate eight times that of Livonia (1 percent black); an unemployment rate three times that of Sterling Heights (1 percent black); a violent crime rate more than twice as high as adjacent Warren (2 percent black).

Even in the area's segregated suburbs, infant mortality is higher among blacks than whites. In Oakland County, African-American babies are five times more likely to die before their first birthday than their white neighbors.

Between 1997 and 1999 in Oakland County, 23 black infants died in their first year for every 1,000 live births, a rate substantially higher than Oakland County whites or even Wayne County blacks.

Harvard University psychiatrist Dr. Alvin Poussaint said racial segregation and racial isolation affects blacks more than whites, including social costs that are hard to quantify.

Poussaint said racial isolation leads to a breakdown in black communities; that breakdown often leads to higher crime. "Segregation promotes the devaluation of black life even among blacks, and can lead to self-hatred," he said.

A cause of sprawl

A serious and generally unrecognized symptom of segregation is suburban sprawl, says John Powell, a Detroit native who is the executive director of the Institute on Race and Poverty at the University of Minnesota. The desire of middle-class whites to avoid the perceived problems of integrated neighborhoods has pushed them farther from central cities across America, Powell said.

That claim is backed up by statistics in Metro Detroit, where whites are almost solely responsible for sprawl. Metro Detroit is 24 percent black. Yet of the area's 30 fastest-growing communities in the 1990s, 28 have black populations of 3 percent or less.

Between 1972 and 1997, Metro Detroit's population grew by 5 percent, while developed land grew 29 percent, according to a national study conducted by the Brookings Institution. For every person added to the region, more than an acre of land was developed.

"You started out as a big, dense area, but now you're sprawling like crazy," said William Fulton, one of the authors of the study.

Sprawl spawns a plethora of problems. It gobbles up farmland in a costly and inefficient way, while central cities -- whose most wealthy and best educated residents flee -- crumble because of a falling tax base, Powell says. Taxpayers fork out millions of dollars for road projects to expand roads in fringe suburbs that a few years earlier carried farm equipment. Meanwhile, in Detroit, money is short when the population is in even greater need of services and schools.

Adam Davis couldn't get a decent shower in his Clinton Township home this summer because Metro Detroit's aging water system was not built to serve so many homes spread over such a large area.

Tony Kay leaves his Bloomfield Township home at 6 a.m. to make the 30-mile trek to his downtown Detroit office ahead of the bumper-to-bumper traffic of other suburban commuters.

And Plymouth's Robillard spent less time with his children while they were growing up, working two jobs so he could afford to move from Detroit to the suburbs.

"It hurts people in the suburbs," Robillard said. "The impact of segregation on the city (of Detroit) is going to damage the overall community and society at large. The healthier Detroit is, the healthier the whole area is going to be."

Home values

Even when blacks and whites have the same income, blacks suffer in the housing market.

In Metro Detroit, the homes of whites are worth 43 percent more than the homes of blacks, when both earn the same. For example, if the home of a white Metro Detroiter is worth $250,000, the home of a black Metro Detroiter bringing home the same paycheck would be worth $143,000 on average.

That's the worst housing value gap in the nation, says David Rusk, a nationally known city planner and former mayor of Albuquerque, N.M. As segregation decreases, the home value gap disappears.

The difference, which Rusk calls a "segregation tax," reflects the gap in home values in the the region's majority-white suburbs vs. those in Detroit and its majority-black suburbs. Though homes in majority-black communities have appreciated faster than average in Metro Detroit in the past decade, such homes continue to be worth less than comparable homes in most majority-white communities.

"Racial isolation impacts housing values," said Margaret Simms, vice-president of research for the Joint Center for Economic and Political Studies, a black think tank based in Washington, D.C. "It may contribute to wealth disparity."

Taxpayers pay price

Even residents in the Upper Peninsula pay a price for Metro Detroit's segregation.

The flight of middle- to high-income families and business investment to the suburbs and elsewhere has left behind a city that needs considerable help from state coffers to stay afloat. Each year, Michigan taxpayers shell out millions of dollars to help Detroit pay for city services and schools.

"Detroit has more social problems, more poverty than other cities in Michigan and that certainly imposes costs on the rest of the state," said Edward Glaeser, an economics professor at Harvard University who has extensively studied segregation's effects on cities.

At the same time, more and more resources go into building roads and extending water lines where they wouldn't be needed if not for white flight.

Misconceptions reign

Other costs are harder to quantify. There's the frustration Detroiter Joyce Marshall feels when she must leave a city of nearly 1 million people to shop at a large grocery store after 9 p.m. or eat at a national chain restaurant.

There's the isolation felt by Tanya Shavers, who moved from Detroit to Macomb Township only to find that Comcast doesn't include the black cable network BET. "I have a race-car driving channel and a golf channel," Shavers fumed. "I have 400-some channels here, and I can't get one here for me, a black American."

And there are the stereotypes that white Detroiter Nora Bonner hears repeated by her black friends in her home town, and her white friends from the suburbs.

"There's a lot of ignorance on both sides," said Bonner, 20, now a student at the University of Michigan. "There's a lot of fear there.

"People my age who live in Detroit are afraid to go to the suburbs because they think they'll be pulled over by cops. Friends of mine in the suburbs were kind of fearful for me because I went to an all-black school. They thought I had to face gangs every day."

The more separate blacks and whites live, the less they understand each other, and the harder it becomes to break down racial stereotypes. Even for Bonner, it's difficult.

"As I grew older, I started noticing that all the white kids would hang out with all the white kids, and the black kids with the black kids," she said. "Most of the white families I know have moved out of Detroit.

"There are so many misconceptions people have of each other, because of segregation," Bonner said. "I don't know what the answer is."