Separate and unequal: Racial segregation persists in America

A social club in South Carolina recently refusing membership to a respected emergency-room doctor on the basis of his race is shocking, but not surprising. This is an American problem, a malaise found even in most unexpected quarters — including America’s top universities.

The 49-year-old medic, Dr. W. Melvin Brown III., was the only one among 13 others who was denied membership in the Charleston Rifle Club. He was the only black nominee and would have been the first black member of the club that brings together people from different social classes — from celebrities and lawyers to police officers and factory workers.  

The voting process at the club was color-coded. One report reveals that a lucky white marble dropped in your box meant a yes vote, a black one stood for no. Six or more black marbles earned you an outright rejection. Dr. Brown received 11 black marbles.

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Dr. Brown’s former mayor in Charleston, Joe Riley, would have us believe that the club incident was an “aberration” and isolated “slight from these few bigoted people in that club. … They are not representative.”

But research has shown that schools in Dr. Brown’s county are only minimally less segregated in 2018 than they were before the 1954 Supreme Court decision of Brown v. Board of Education, which declared separate but equal schools to be unconstitutional. School desegregation did not begin in South Carolina until 1963, when 11 African American students from Charleston were allowed in a court ruling to be admitted to white schools. 

A study by the Clemson Office of Inclusion and Equity released in August indicates that while about 40 percent of Charleston students are black and 47 percent white, at least 18 out of the county’s 85 schools have student bodies that are 80 percent black and 17 schools have student bodies that are at least 80 percent white. Therefore, the problem at the Charleston Rifle Club is more systemic than politicians would want to acknowledge.  

While the membership incident has received prime news coverage, segregation persists across the U.S. in different guises. It is usually subtle and insidious, sometimes difficult to detect if you’re not its direct victim.

U.S cities and schools from early childhood through higher education are still largely segregated. A recent study by Chris Salviati, a housing economist at the Apartment List, a website devoted to apartment listings, shows that in spite of America being touted as a melting pot of ethnicities, “significant patterns of residential segregation are present today in all of the nation’s large metropolitan areas.”

Overall rates of segregation have fallen over the years and the situation is predicated to improve, but the “nation’s black population is still the most highly segregated minority group,” according to  Salviati’s study.

To be sure, non-integration is not exclusively an American problem. Clear segregation is the bane of my beloved city of Nairobi, Kenya.

Most of the American books I had read back in Kenyan schools were about a racist America, such as Richard Wright's 1940 "Native Son," a novel about the problems a black young man faces growing up in the poor South Side of Chicago in the 1930s. As a teen in the equally poor rural Kenya, I wanted to be a gang member someday when I grew up, like Wright’s African-American protagonist in the novel, Bigger Thomas.

When I came to the U.S. from Kenya in 2004, I was surprised that I didn't find any openly racist white Americans, who embraced apartheid-like racial segregation I had read about in those books. It was comforting to find that I could get along well with almost all the white people I came across in a small campus town in rural Ohio.

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Yet I was shocked to learn about the scope of the problem in academic circles, the much-vaunted citadel of freedom and equity.

In a lecture at the recent 2018 African Studies Association, Jean Allman, president of the ASA and H. Hexter Professor of the Humanities and Professor of History at Washington University, outlined the exclusionist approach to African studies, one of those areas you would least expect apartheid-like ideologies. 

She noted that since the inception in 1957 of African Studies Association at Northwestern University, where I teach, the area of study still largely locks out black intellectuals. Critical of the association’s founders, Allman revealed that most of the African studies books given the associations most prestigious award, the Herskovits Prize, are almost exclusively by white authors.

Half of the times it has been offered since 1965, the prize has gone to male white scholars, 25.7 percent to white women writers and 17.6 percent to African male academics. Only 4.1 percent African American women have won the award.

No African woman has ever received the prize, named for Melville Herskovits (1895–1963), a foundational Africanist who taught at Northwestern University from 1927 to 1963. If it is given to a non-white author, the annual prize is almost always shared with a white counterpart. The endowed chair named in Melville Herskovits’s honor at Northwestern University has also been a preserve of white professors.

Even if you’re likely to find a token black man like me in an elite African studies program in the U.S., all senior African women scholars are relegated to marginal institutions, where they don’t enjoy extensive funding for their projects or opportunities to work with graduate students.

At many American universities, women and black scholars are paid less than white male academics in an environment that pretends to embrace radical progressive ideas and practices.

As a time-tested practice, racism knows how to hide itself from the surface. 

I am not holding my breath that America will overnight dismantle all forms of segregation in white-dominated clubs, such as the Charleston Rifle Club.

But as this practice continues to reveal itself in both covert and overt manner, every institution associating itself with progressive thought — including universities — should work to knock down forced separation of certain minorities from the centers of its power.

Evan Mwangi teaches English, gender studies, and African studies at Northwestern University, where he is a Public Voices Fellow through The OpEd Project.