I recently returned from a trip to Germany with a couple of friends. It is a downright awesome place in many respects, be it the epic cathedrals or the titanic Alps, the pulsating nightlife or the gracious citizens. But it is a country, like so many others, with certain shadows in its past.
It was on an excursion to the historic town of Bamberg that I ran into my first “Judenstrasse”—literally “Jews street.” Apparently, many of the major towns and cities in Europe have such perturbing avenues. These streets are the relics of Jewish segregation across the continent, a subtle reminder of centuries of discrimination. Of course, many Jews who resided on these streets preferred to live close to their synagogues and the local mikvah. And many of these areas, like in Odessa and Krakow, remain vibrant centers of Jewish culture even today. Nevertheless, Christian authorities would formally institute these zones, and such burgeoning quarters often grew out of the mandated sectors in which Jews were legally forced to reside.
As I pondered the town’s Judenstrasse over some of Bamberg’s traditional rauchbier, the following question occurred to me: what’s worse, a street disturbingly titled “Jews street” but which is today absent of real segregation, or residential areas defined by implicit but not nominal segregation? More specifically, I was thinking about black and, to a lesser extent, other minority neighborhoods, urban quarters which are all but officially segregated.
Though it has dropped since its peak circa 1960, racial segregation in the American housing market “is a phenomenon that is dragging on and on,” according to Brown University demographer John Logan. Meanwhile, wealthier whites are increasingly ensconced in gated communities throughout the country. “Between 2001 and 2009, the United States saw a 53 percent growth in occupied housing units nestled in gated communities,” notes journalist Rich Benjamin. According to Census Bureau data he cites from 2009, approximately 1 in 10 American households reside in such fortified communities.
The result is de facto segregation.
Such segregated neighborhoods are not only offensive on their face; they confer significant disadvantages on their minority residents. Take local schools, for instance. “The percentage of black children who now go to integrated public schools is at its lowest level since 1968,” noted writer and educator Jonathan Kozol back in 2005. And from a glance at Newsweek’s more recent ranking of “America’s Best High Schools 2012,” it looks like a lot of children living in the inner city just got left behind.
On the more theoretical side, consider what these trends say about the fabric of American democracy. In his 1916 treatise Democracy and Education, philosopher John Dewey argued that democracy is not merely a political system, but a social way of life. A democratic society is “primarily a mode of associated living,” he writes, one that negates the social spaces separating citizens. In this way, democracy helps identify common interests and exchange experiences between formerly disparate groups, and society as a whole ultimately flourishes.
Dewey thought the school could be the locus of this more communal experience. Absent such unpopular measures as cross-district busing between racially disparate areas, though, segregation would seem to foreclose this democratic ideal. Germany, I believe, can leave the antiquated Judenstrasse signs in place and still have a healthy democracy; it’s the real albeit unofficial segregation in America that is deeply undemocratic.
But no one’s forcing these people to live in these de facto ghettos—the residents chose to live there. When did the Archduke of Chicago, the most segregated city in the country, draft an edict banishing blacks to the South Side?
Actually, it is peoples’ incomes that increasingly “choose” where they live. And incomes are uncomfortably correlated with race. Gentrification, “white flight”—in the end these are all socioeconomic phenomena, concrete illustrations of the long-standing and complex nexus of race and class. In my own view, the problems related to both, and thus their eventual solutions, appear frustratingly intertwined.
Now, I’m not trying to argue here that the discrimination faced by the European Jews of yesteryear and American minorities of today are somehow identical. There are certainly parallels: remember where the word “ghetto” comes from? (Hint: not New York City.) But I would say the explicit, yet now anachronistic oppression of the Judenstrasse, as well as its link to a history fraught with anti-Semitism—all this requires somber reflection. Germans already seem to have realized this imperative with their poignant “Solpersteine,” or “stumbling stones,” for example.
Abolishing the tacit yet pervasive segregation of racial areas in America, on the other hand, will first require recognition. We need to acknowledge that de facto segregation—of schools, of neighborhoods—is still segregation. And we need to think about how many gated communities it takes to equal one vast ghetto wall.
Photo Credit: Simon de Carvalho; XosÃ© Castro