Move over South Africa, the US has its share of segregation too

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A fenced-in, guarded all-white enclave in South Africa is perhaps the most glaring example of segregation in 2013, but in the supposedly post-racial U.S., segregation persists in less conspicuous forms, and it has troubling links to violence.

While U.S. segregation has been outlawed for decades, multiple studies show that de facto segregation endures in various cities around the country, albeit without the gates and guards of the community in Kleinfontein, South Africa, where residents claim they keep blacks out to protect their culture.

“I think if you’re a kid that grows up in Detroit, it is very possible the only white people you’ll ever come in contact with are people who are superiors,” said Motor City resident Candice Fortman, 32, who grew up in an all-black neighborhood that spanned 20 blocks.

Detroit is America’s most segregated city

According to the March 2011 report “The Persistence of Segregation in the Metropolis: New Findings From the 2010 Census,” Detroit is the country’s most segregated city among the 50 metropolitan areas with the highest black populations. It is followed by, in order from most segregated to least: Milwaukee, Wis.; New York, N.Y.; Newark, N.J.; Chicago, Ill.; Philadelphia, Pa.; Miami, Fla.; Cleveland, Ohio; St. Louis, Mo., and Nassau-Suffolk, N.Y.

“A lot of younger white people are moving into downtown and midtown Detroit because it’s cool and happening, but as far as families, that’s slow to happen,” said Palencia Mobley, a 33-year old engineer who lives and works in Detroit. “Just on an everyday basis, seeing white people in the neighborhood, no, that’s not something you would see.”

The city has long been subject to white flight, but both Fortman and Mobley said black flight is now in full force as middle class blacks head for suburbia.

And they say the mass exodus won’t end unless failing public schools and violence are addressed.

“I know for sure that until we can do something about perceived or actual violence in the city, white folks aren’t coming back,” said Fortman, an events manager at Wayne State University. “They don’t feel safe, and I can’t argue with them as I look at my neighbor’s garage that was just spray painted the other day.”

The dangers of segregation

In what appears to be a troubling trend, the country’s most segregated city is also the most violent. According to a Forbes magazine list of America’s Most Dangerous Cities, Detroit came in at No. 1 with a violent crime rate of 2,137 per 100,000 residents — five times the national average. The city was also named No. 2 on the FBI’s list of top 25 most dangerous cities in America in 2012.

The connection between segregation and violence exists in other cities as well.

St. Louis and Cleveland, for example, both in the Top 10 most segregated cities, also made Forbes’ 10 Most Dangerous Cities in the U.S., ranking at No. 2 and 9, respectively.

Chicago, the fifth-most segregated city in the U.S., has long been plagued by violence.

“I think Chicago is probably the best example in the country,” Fortman said. “There is a whole section of the city where there is no diversity, and that section is literally killing itself right now. And I can’t be convinced that the lack of resources, the lack of opportunity, doesn’t have anything to do with that, because it absolutely does.”

A 41-year-old Chicago resident who asked to be identified as Rashida B. said she avoids the segregated south and west sides of the city “like the plague” because of the problems there, but acknowledges that those areas can’t be forgotten because the violence bleeds beyond the segregated borders.

She also described a host of problems in segregated areas that confirm reports from residents in Detroit: food deserts, subpar transportation that effectively keeps residents trapped within the city, failing public schools and a palpable sense of hopelessness.

Income disparity continues to divide

In Harlem, residents depicted a segregated education system comprised mostly of black students and white teachers, while on the economic front, a number of factors are creating income disparities that further promote segregation, including developers building “luxury” co-ops and condos, new businesses catering to an elite upper class and a lack of affordable housing for the middle-class.

Experts say the issues demand attention.

“We do see the end of the era where certain neighborhoods were all white or all black. We don’t have those places anymore,” said Richard Wright, professor of geography and public affairs at Dartmouth College and author of a 2011 paper titled “The Racially Fragmented City? Neighborhood Racial Segregation and Diversity Jointly Considered,” in a video about the report.

“We do see, also, white suburban tracts becoming much less white. They are increasingly diverse,” he continued. “What we also see in our research, though, is the persistence of segregation of African-Americans, and this should be a cause for concern. It has been shown that segregated communities of African-Americans don’t have the same access to resources that others do in society, and this has been to their detriment. So it is premature to celebrate the end of segregation in the United States. Our research strikes a cautionary note.”

Follow Lauren Carter on Twitter @ByLaurenCarter.