The most important civil rights accomplishment of the 20th century was the dismemberment of the legal architecture of Jim Crow. Reversing the lasting societal impact of inequity from Jim Crow, redlining and related racist policies that still shape the segregation we see across America today is the work that still needs to be done.
We remain a segregated nation. Recent analysis by the Weldon Cooper Center for Public Service at the University of Virginia suggests that despite some modest gains in recent years, black people still live largely in black neighborhoods and white people still live in largely white neighborhoods. So while the segregationists may have lost the legal battle, it’s impossible to argue that they have also lost the war.
And, it is not simply that we are segregated. Several generations of mostly mal-intended public policy and private actions have successfully concentrated poverty into a handful of racially segregated, highly-distressed neighborhoods in our urban cores. These neighborhoods are the geographic legacy of Jim Crow. If the work of the 20th century civil rights movement is to be completed, these neighborhoods will be ground zero for that work.
“We have a dual society. This dualism runs in the economic market. In every city, we have two economies. In every city, we have two housing markets. In every city, we have two school systems. This duality has brought about a great deal of injustice.”
—Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
In 1968, ten days before his death, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. attended the annual convention of the Rabbinical Assembly where he was asked about his ability to work with separatists in the Black Power movement. As part of his response, he said, “We have a dual society. This dualism runs in the economic market. In every city, we have two economies. In every city, we have two housing markets. In every city, we have two school systems. This duality has brought about a great deal of injustice.”
King’s solution was empowerment and integration: “We should gradually move to disperse the ghetto and immediately move to improve conditions within the ghetto, which in the final analysis will make it possible to disperse it at a greater rate a few years from now.” Most tellingly, he added, “We don’t want to be integrated out of power; we want to be integrated into power.”
Nearly half a century later, Dr. King’s formula for achieving racial equity remains largely unimplemented. We have not invested in these segregated minority communities. In fact, in the decades since Dr. King spoke these words, these neighborhoods have become even more distressed. The outcomes we most worry about — failing schools, poor health, high crime — are concentrated almost exclusively in these geographies.
To many, these problems appear to be intractable. A permanent, durable solution has to have at its center the revitalization of these neighborhoods. Without revitalization, they will continue to be the sources of the problems that concern us all.
I have the privilege of leading an organization that is trying to implement a solution by tackling the geographic dimension of segregation and intergenerational poverty one neighborhood at a time. Our mission is to break the cycle of intergenerational poverty and create healthy urban neighborhoods focused on the needs of the lowest income residents with broad, deep channels out of poverty. The Purpose Built Communities Model disrupts systems of structural and institutional racism in urban areas by working with local leaders and residents to revitalize communities through substantial new investments in mixed-income housing, education and community wellness. Our goal is to reverse decades of isolation and disinvestment by changing the trajectory of these communities. This can only be achieved, however, by fundamentally changing the conditions within these neighborhoods.
The Purpose Built Communities Model emerged out of the revitalization of the East Lake neighborhood of Atlanta. Since that effort began 20 years ago, the neighborhood has been transformed from one of the most distressed neighborhoods in the city into one of the healthiest:
- 82 percent reduction in total crime and 96% reduction in violent crime;
- Elementary school went from the lowest performing school in the public school system to a consistently-ranked top 10 school while serving primarily low-income students;
- Achievement test scores for students who receive Free and Reduced Lunch (FRL) exceed those of non-FRL students in the city and state;
- 100 percent of 8th grade African-American boys read on grade level;
- Employment rate among eligible public housing residents increased from 15 percent to ~100 percent;
- Attracted over $400 million in private investment, including a grocery store and neighborhood-serving retail. This after decades of near-zero private investment.
There are currently 16 Purpose Built Communities initiatives being implemented across the United States today and another 30 in development. We are working in cities as diverse as Oakland, Houston, Spartanburg and Orlando. While every neighborhood is different and requires a unique set of strategies, what all of these initiatives have in common is a commitment to create healthy neighborhoods where families and children of all incomes can prosper and thrive.
Sociologists are paying increasing attention to what they call the Neighborhood-Level Effect, where the neighborhood people live in predicts how lives unfold. Dr. Jack Shonkoff at the Center on the Developing Child at Harvard University has documented the “toxic stress” common in distressed neighborhoods directly inhibits the healthy neural and physical development of children. We know that in distressed neighborhoods environmental factors such as the prevalence of lead in paint and water supplies leads to high infant mortality rates and shorter life spans.
While the geographic dimension of poverty is obvious to those of us who work in these neighborhoods, the vast majority of public and private funding continues to ignore this reality. With a few notable exceptions – such as the Choice Neighborhood and Promise Neighborhood programs – we continue to treat poverty as an individual and family issue,and dedicate resources to poverty relief rather than poverty eradication.
As Dr. King advised, if we are to “disperse the ghetto,” we need to first invest in it. We have a model for doing exactly that. By our estimation, there are 825 neighborhoods of urban concentrated poverty in this country. If we can agree that these neighborhoods are the last bastions of Jim Crow and a legacy of intentionally racist policies, perhaps we can agree to focus our resources on transformative strategies in these communities and fully realize the vision put forth by Dr. King half a century ago.