It’s official: the University of Alabama is on the record supporting racial integration – in the year 2014.
Last week Alabama’s Student Senate passed a resolution supporting the complete integration of Greek life at the university. The renewed conversation about race at the historically troubled campus began after a black female
student with a 4.3 GPA was denied by all 16 of the school’s sororities. An earlier resolution supporting racial integration had failed by a wide margin.
Public pressure to respond to racism may be greater now than it was in 1963, when Alabama Governor George Wallace stood in the doorway of the school’s auditorium to prevent two black students from registering for classes. But in a practical sense, self-imposed segregation is still commonplace on college campuses and throughout American life. Malicious or not, it helps contribute to racial economic inequality.
Rutgers University Professor Nancy DiTomaso describes this system of voluntary segregation, which emerged since the 1960s, in “The American Non-Dilemma: Racial Inequality Without Racism.” Although de jure (“by law”) segregation is now illegal, de facto (“in fact”) segregation is still a reality. This is true for Greek organizations, which are often nominally integrated but severely homogenous. But de facto segregation extends to all parts of American life. Entire colleges, grade schools,churches and neighborhoods are separated along racial lines, producing distinct social networks in white communities and in communities of color.
This self-segregation causes inequality to reproduce itself. As DiTomaso has written, access to opportunity depends in part on the color of your skin:
Help is typically reserved for people who are “like me”: the people who live in my neighborhood, those who attend my church or school or those with whom I have worked in the past. It is only natural that when there are jobs to be had, people who know about them will tell the people who are close to them, those with whom they identify, and those who at some point can reciprocate the favor.
This type of discrimination is harder to combat because it is not intentional. When a business owner offers an internship to his neighbor’s son, or sends a job opening to his fraternity’s listserv, it is “bias for, not bias against.” As DiTomaso told me, “It’s not that whites won’t help blacks when given the opportunity to do so. It’s just that they don’t know them.”
This phenomenon has a real impact on the job market. African Americans are more likely to be part of networks with more unemployed people, and as New York University professor Deirdre Royster argues in Race and the Invisible Hand, “the number of people in a typical black social network who are in a position to help is far more limited.”
That could be part of the reason that a white man with a criminal record is more likely to get a low-wage job than a black man with no record. It could also contribute to the fact that in Silicon Valley, African-Americans make up just 3.2 percent of workers in computer and mathematical occupations, and less than 1 percent of venture capital-funded startups.
Self-segregation takes many forms. Americans are increasingly dividing themselves geographically along a number of lines -– college education, political beliefs, level of income and religion. Race is just one of many elements of this “Big Sort”, but it is also compounded by the others. With that in mind, DiTomaso believes that racial integration on college campuses is paramount.
“One of the few places where whites encounter a more diverse group of people is in colleges and universities,” she said. “Often before they go to college and after, they live in segregated communities, so if segregation also takes place in the college experience, it further reinforces the existing patterns of friendship networks and, thus, who is likely to help whom when opportunities become known.”
Ben Wrobel is a Project Manager at Center for American Progress. Follow him on Twitter @BenWrobel.