Integration or Bust!

I heard a news report today about a study published in JAMA Internal Medicine. They studied African Americans who moved from segregated neighborhoods (including Minneapolis) to more integrated neighborhoods, beginning in the mid 1980s.

African-Americans experience a significant drop in their blood pressure after they move out of highly segregated neighborhoods and into more integrated neighborhoods, researchers report Monday. A study involving more than 2,000 African-Americans found that those who moved from the most-segregated neighborhoods to less-segregated neighborhoods later experienced lower systolic blood pressure, a factor in heart attacks and strokes.”

The researchers didn’t figure out ‘how’ moving to less segregated neighborhoods could affect blood pressure, but speculated that it’s probably because of multiple factors including less stress from being exposed to less violence.

Here’s what we know. When you live in a neighborhood with less stress and exposure to less violence you are healthier. We also know that when you have access to clean air and healthy food you are healthier as well. And we know that we have disinvested in communities or color for decades so that their communities are less healthy than white communities. I suppose then there are two ways to connect folks to healthier communities, right? Move you to a different neighborhood or improve the one you live in now.

It could be easy to read this research and presume that we should pursue integration as the better strategy. Fine. That’s ok. I’m all for de-segregation. But my fear is we create a false choice, that says the only way I can improve your health outcomes is by moving you to an already healthy community versus helping to make the community you live in right now healthier.

Let’s break down quick the difference between the segregated and integrated communities studied in this research.

  1. Segregation is defined as communities with high percentages of people of color (e.g. all white communities are not considered segregated).
  2. The segregated neighborhoods the participants moved from have been disinvested in for decades due to institutional and structural racism and white supremacy.
  3. The integrated (whiter) neighborhoods that the participants moved into received persistent and durable investments over the same period.

Given these realities does it surprise you that people’s health improved upon movement?

No, it should not.

Does it mean we should pursue integration as a singular attempt to improve health outcomes for residents of segregated neighborhoods?

No, it should not.

Separate has never been equal in our country. I get that. And I am all for integration as an outcome of a fair and just society, I just don’t think it’s the only vehicle we should use to achieve a fair and just society. In fact, I might argue the opposite. That if we pursued a more fair and justice society, a natural outcome would be greater levels of racial and economic integration.

It’s a sort of chicken or egg conversation I guess. Which comes first? Fairness and justice or integration?

At the end of the day, research like this should make us committed to a both/and approach to strengthening communities. The problem is not segregation, the problem is the way in which we treat concentrations of people of color differently than the ways we treat concentrations of white people.  Just like there is no penalty for White people who choose to live in a segregated (mostly white) community, there should not be a penalty for African Americans living in a segregated (mostly black and brown) community.

We should increase mobility for folks who want to live in more integrated neighborhoods and at the same time we need to undo 100 years of disinvestment by investing in the places where people live now, improving the places they call home today.





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