Rethinking Racial Integration on Martin Luther King Jr. Day


In 1970, a group of African Americans in the small US town of Mount Laurel, New Jersey petitioned township officials to build low-income housing. Led by a young woman named Ethel Lawrence, the group was otherwise forced to live in the crime-ridden metropolitan environment of nearby Camden. The township denied their request. Further, the denial itself—delivered in a small, all-black church—was punctuated with the following advice: “If you people can’t afford to live in our town, then you’ll just have to leave.”

That denial came over 50 years ago and much has changed across the American landscape. Sadly, however, the pattern of black-white segmentation has not. Even though African Americans represent less than 13% of the total population, the average black person lives in a neighborhood that is 45% black. The average white person lives in a metropolitan environment that is 75% white. Nearly 40 years after Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, America still stands as a nation divided, inciting one Civil Rights leader to write: “King’s hope for racial integration has died its hardest death in the area of housing” (Calmore, 1993).

But before we follow the lead of countless others in offering solutions for this problem, we need to ask why segregation is a problem and whether integration is the proper solution. Here, the term “segregation” is meant to imply the pattern of separation between white and black households. For the faith community, segregation should be understood in a larger moral and spiritual context. Ethel Lawrence herself described the fight to bring affordable housing to Mount Laurel in spiritual terms: “There’s poor people in heaven and poor people in hell. God meant for us to live in harmony on earth, or else he’d have made rich and poor communities in the hereafter” (Kirp et al, 1997).

Harmony is an appropriate term. Revelation 7 portrays every nation, tribe, people and language standing before God’s throne in communal worship. Unfortunately, those who challenge segregation do so not because it fails to achieve kingdom harmony, but for more practical reasons. Elizabeth Anderson, among others, has described segregation as the “principal cause of group inequality” (2010). Anderson and others see segregation as an economic problem, but the problem extends far beyond the economic realm.

To be clear, economic considerations matter. Segregated households are restricted to areas with lower educational quality, higher crime, poor local amenities, depleted public resources, job-mismatch, lower housing returns, and greater exposure to health risks. But the economic problem is not just about access. Some segregated areas, such as Ferguson, also experience concentrated poverty. In the late 1980s, William Julius Wilson’s book The Truly Disadvantaged made popular the idea that areas of concentrated disadvantage had an “above and beyond” effect on residents.

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SOURCE: Christianity Today
Kevin Brown and Eric Stoddart