Douglas Massey went to a University of Chicago trustees’ dinner a while back, and a prominent North Shore woman asked about his work. He explained that he’s a U. of C. sociologist who studies racial and ethnic segregation.

“She said, ‘Oh, there’s no discrimination on the North Shore. Anybody can move up to Wilmette or Glencoe.’

“I said, ‘If it were really open, Wilmette would be about 20 percent black. Would you want that?’ You could see the answer on her face. They want to think that ‘integration’ means they know a black neurosurgeon who lives six blocks away.”

Since that encounter, Massey and his research associate and coauthor Nancy Denton have published American Apartheid: Segregation and the Making of the Underclass. The book doesn’t shout, it just explains the workings of racism so clearly that you’re a little embarrassed you didn’t understand them all along. (WGCI talk-show host and former alderman Cliff Kelley says his audience appreciates Massey’s accumulation of evidence: “They are living it, but he explains it in a way that they can explain it to others.”)

Massey and Denton contend that the old civil rights movement was correct: African Americans will make little or no progress until the ghetto is dismantled. Whites forced blacks into ghettos beginning in the early 1900s–ghettos far more segregated and more difficult to escape than other ethnic neighborhoods. The ghettos remain concentrations of poverty and violence, not power. Although it is commonplace today to blame the deterioration of neighborhoods like Englewood and Grand Boulevard on the exodus of middle-class blacks, Massey and Denton show that segregation by race does not disappear when your income goes up.

These are strong words, and they sound even stronger because we haven’t heard them for a good 20 years. Racial integration has few visible advocates these days. Most nonblack Americans don’t think about segregation at all. And when they do, they imagine that segregation is one of those things like electric typewriters that are disappearing with the passage of time.

African Americans who experience it may imagine they’re paranoid. Aurie Pennick–a native of Englewood who’s now an attorney and head of the Leadership Council for Metropolitan Open Communities–couldn’t get financing for a house in Englewood in the late 1970s, but was able to finance a more expensive home elsewhere. “I thought that it had to do with me. It was a relief to know that this was pattern and practice.”

Surprisingly, social scientists have ignored segregation too. “Massey and Denton have almost single-handedly resurrected this issue,” says University of Wisconsin sociologist Franklin Wilson. The stores are full of serious new books about race and poverty, among them Andrew Hacker’s Two Nations, Studs Terkel’s Race, and Cornel West’s Race Matters. But they gloss over what Massey says is the key point: “Residential segregation is the glue that holds the whole system of racial oppression together.”

For different reasons, conservatives, liberals, blacks, and whites alike have done their best to evade this point even as they spend years discussing what to do about “persistent poverty,” the “underclass,” “inner-city problems,” or whatever tomorrow’s phrase may be. If American Apartheid doesn’t change the world, it may at least make the debate more honest.

Whether or not Chicago is the most segregated city in the U.S. depends on how you measure it, but by any yardstick northeastern Illinois is near the top (or bottom). Massey and Denton distilled five different measures from the sociological literature and applied all of them to the 30 U.S. metropolitan areas with the largest African American populations. Chicago is far more segregated than the national average on every measure.

The higher a city’s score, the more segregated it is. Massey and Denton have given the name “hypersegregated” to any city that scores more than 60 on four of the five yardsticks. In 1980 16 of the 30 U.S. metropolitan areas qualified as hypersegregated: Chicago, Milwaukee, Gary/Hammond/East Chicago, Cleveland, Detroit, Buffalo, Indianapolis, Saint Louis, Kansas City, Los Angeles/Long Beach, New York, Newark, Philadelphia, Atlanta, Baltimore, and Dallas/Fort Worth. Even the least segregated northern cities–Columbus, Pittsburgh, San Francisco/Oakland–were above 60 on three of the five yardsticks. (The 1990 census data show no significant improvement, according to a paper by Denton too recent to get into the book. Atlanta and Dallas dropped off the list, just barely; Birmingham, Cincinnati, Miami, New Orleans, and Washington, D.C., joined it. On four of the five yardsticks Chicago showed a very slight decline.)

“Thus one-third of all African Americans in the United States live under conditions of intense racial segregation,” write Massey and Denton. “Black Americans in these metropolitan areas live within large, contiguous settlements of densely inhabited neighborhoods that are packed tightly around the urban core. Typical inhabitants of one of these ghettos are not only unlikely to come into contact with whites within the particular neighborhood where they live; even if they traveled to the adjacent neighborhood they would still be unlikely to see a white face; and if they went to the next neighborhood beyond that, no whites would be there either. . . . Ironically, within a large, diverse, and highly mobile post-industrial society such as the United States, blacks living in the heart of the ghetto are among the most isolated people on earth.”

And yet even a diligent white observer like WTTW producer Leonard Aronson can refer to segregation in the past tense, as he did in a Tribune magazine article on April 11.

White people, consciously or otherwise, tell themselves three comforting lies about this picture.

Lie number one: “It’s always been that way, and black people prefer it so.” Even in Chicago, segregation was not very bad from the Civil War until about 1900. Then a combination of hard times in the south and a shortage of workers in the north drew ambitious blacks northward in the “great migration.” Only then did the white residents of Chicago and other northern cities begin to force blacks into what became known as the “Black Belt.”

The incentives were not subtle. White rioting between 1900 and 1920–in, among other places, Springfield in 1908, East Saint Louis in 1917, and Chicago in 1919–served notice to black people that they were not safe in integrated or predominantly white areas. “Those living away from recognized ‘black’ neighborhoods had their houses ransacked or burned,” Massey and Denton write. “Those unlucky or unwise enough to be caught trespassing in ‘white’ neighborhoods were beaten, shot, or lynched. Blacks on their way to work were pulled from trolleys and pummelled. Rampaging bands of whites roamed the streets for days, attacking blacks at will.” When crowding forced them to move beyond their ghetto’s edges, they were often met with bombs. By one of Massey and Denton’s five yardsticks, Chicago was seven times more segregated in 1930 than it was in 1900.

Eventually middle-class whites realized that the violence was bad for business, and they took to forming “neighborhood-improvement associations” through which most people in a neighborhood would agree not to permit a black person to own, occupy, or lease their property (a restrictive covenant). The real estate industry also did its part. In 1927 the Chicago Real Estate Board organized a drive encouraging owners in the “better” city neighborhoods to adopt a model covenant. The Federal Housing Administration also recommended restrictive covenants until 1950, two years after the U.S. Supreme Court found them unconstitutional.

I asked Massey if he was surprised by what he found during his research. Not much, he acknowledged. “When you’ve been working in this area as long as I have–15 years, more or less–there’s not much that can surprise you. But the historical literature on the formation of ghettos was impressive even to a jaded person like me. First the violence and the bombings. When they stopped the bombing, the restrictive covenants. When the covenants were stopped, the overt real estate discrimination. When overt discrimination became illegal, the covert real estate discrimination. Level after level, agency after agency, institution after institution–all conspiring to bring about racial segregation.”

Lie number two: “Blacks have their own neighborhoods, just like the Irish and Italians and Polish and Mexicans and Koreans.” They weren’t comparable 60 years ago, and they aren’t now. The most segregated ethnic group ever in any American city (Milwaukee’s Italians in 1910) was segregated to the same extent that the least segregated black neighborhood anywhere, north or south, was in 1970 (in San Francisco).

In 1933 University of Chicago sociologist Ernest Burgess published a map of ethnic neighborhoods that made them look like islands of all-of-a-kind populations. But they weren’t. Analyzing Burgess’s map, Massey and Denton write, “The average number of nationalities per ghetto was twenty-two, ranging from twenty in ostensibly Italian and Czech neighborhoods to twenty-five in areas that were theoretically Irish, German, and Swedish. In none of these ‘ghettos’ did the ghettoized group constitute even a bare majority of the population, with the sole exception of Poles, who comprised 54% of their enclave.” By contrast, blacks made up 82 percent of their ghetto at that time.

Not only were nonblack ethnic neighborhoods more diverse than memory has painted them, but most ethnics didn’t live there. “Burgess’s Irish ghetto contained only 3% of Chicago’s Irish population,” Massey and Denton write. But by 1933 93 percent of blacks lived in the ghetto. Even more telling, many of the ethnic enclaves of 1933, diluted as they were, have thinned out or vanished–but the black ones are still there.

Lie number three: “The problem is class, not race.” Whites find this reassuring, perhaps because it gets us off the hook of racism and implies that the main problem is a lack of prosperity. No such luck.

Segregation indices for other ethnics decline as they work their way out of poverty, or as they become second- and third-generation Americans. But neither wealth nor time does the same for blacks. In Los Angeles the poorest Hispanics are less segregated than the most affluent blacks. In the Chicago area the segregation index for blacks earning less than $2,500 a year is 91.1. For those earning over $50,000 it’s 86.3.

So what? Isn’t it sort of racist to suggest that black people are worse off when they live primarily with other black people? Is segregation, in and of itself, a problem?

Yes, say Massey and Denton. And to demonstrate it they conduct a sociological thought experiment. Take an identifiable minority group that’s poorer than average. The more segregated that group is, the more concentrated its poverty is. Now suppose that the overall economy starts shedding basic blue-collar jobs, driving up the poverty rate in the minority group. Because of segregation–and nothing else–that economic change will affect segregated minority neighborhoods much more than it would if they were integrated.

Massey and Denton imagine four cities. Each has 128,000 people, 75 percent white and 25 percent black. Each has 16 neighborhoods of 8,000 people each. In each city 20 percent of the blacks are poor and 10 percent of the whites are (this roughly reflects reality). The four cities differ only in their degree of racial segregation.

In city number one, where there’s no segregation, each of the 16 neighborhoods is 75 percent white and 25 percent black. The neighborhood poverty rate everywhere in the city averages out to 12.5 percent.

City number two has moderate segregation–four of its neighborhoods are all white. As a result, the neighborhood poverty rate for the average white family is 12.2 percent; the figure is lower because some whites are secluded in the all-white districts, where the poverty rate is only 10 percent. The average black family’s neighborhood poverty rate is 13.3 percent.

It gets worse. In city number three, with a high degree of segregation, blacks are restricted to half of the neighborhoods. As a result, the average black family’s neighborhood now has 15 percent poverty and the average white family’s only 11.7.

In city number four, which is 100 percent segregated, the average white family lives in neighborhoods with 10 percent poverty and the average black family lives in neighborhoods with 20 percent poverty.

In reality, of course, people also sort themselves out by class (income) as well as by race. When Massey and Denton added this factor, the differences created by racial segregation grew. In city number three (which is significantly less segregated than Chicago) the average poor white family’s neighborhood has 25 percent poverty, while the average poor black family’s neighborhood has 35 percent. When bad times hit and black poverty rises from 20 to 30 percent across the city, the poor whites’ neighborhoods go up to 30 percent poor–but the poverty rate in poor blacks’ neighborhoods rises to 45 percent. That’s enough to turn a neighborhood around–in the wrong direction.

Other sociologists, most notably Massey’s U. of C. colleague William Julius Wilson (The Declining Significance of Race, The Truly Disadvantaged), have sought to explain concentrated poverty in part by the departure of middle-class blacks from the ghetto. (Wilson was not available for comment.) Massey and Denton’s point is that, all by itself, segregation can turn a citywide recession into a depression in black neighborhoods. Residential segregation alone “guarantees that blacks will be exposed to a social and economic environment that is far harsher than anything experienced by any other racial or ethnic group.”

Is integration to blame for the sad state of many African American neighborhoods today, because it allowed middle-class blacks to escape? Massey and Denton’s numbers show otherwise: “Although the degree of class segregation between rich and poor blacks increased slightly during the 1970s, it is still considerably lower than that observed among other racial and ethnic groups.” Translation: they may have left the poorer neighborhoods, but they didn’t get far. Middle-class people in every group seek to put distance between themselves and the poor, observes Massey; the black bourgeoisie has simply had less success at doing so than its white and Latino counterparts.

Driving the point home, they contrast the African American neighborhood of North Lawndale (2 percent nonblack) with the adjacent Mexican American neighborhood of Little Village (25 percent non-Latino). “Because of this disparity in the degree of segregation, the economic dislocations of the 1970s brought an acute [loss] of income from North Lawndale, pushing it well beyond the threshold of stability into disinvestment, abandonment, and commercial decline; but the same economic troubles brought only a moderate concentration of poverty in Little Village, leaving it well shy of the tipping point.”

Segregation does offer the appearance of political power. Because they are concentrated in safe districts, African Americans can elect their own to city, state, and federal legislatures. But for exactly the same reason, these representatives find it difficult to build legislative coalitions with their colleagues.

“Given the degree of ethnic mixing within [other] neighborhoods, political patronage provided to one group yielded substantial benefits for others as well,” write Massey and Denton. “Building a new subway stop in an ‘Italian’ neighborhood, for example, also provided benefits to Jews, Poles, and Lithuanians who shared the area; and allocating municipal jobs to Poles not only benefited merchants in ‘Polish’ communities but generated extra business for nearby shopkeepers who were Hungarian, Italian, or Czech.” But the isolation of segregation removes these coalition-building possibilities. Closing a segregated black neighborhood’s school or firehouse often has little direct impact on its white or Latino neighbors.

Worse yet, black politicians elected from safe segregated districts have little reason to dilute their power base by encouraging any kind of integration. Thus segregation starts to perpetuate itself. (“This is a frank and open challenge to [these politicians] that I have not seen written, especially by a non-African American” in a clearly antiracist context, says Aurie Pennick of the Leadership Council. “But it had to be said. Otherwise people could say that forced segregation is OK because it leads to empowerment.”)

Massey recalls that 1950s black political boss William Dawson opposed Robert Taylor’s efforts to build public housing in neighborhoods all around the city. “Segregation is great,” Massey says sarcastically, “if you’re one of the black political class governing these Bantustans.”

Of course as generations grow up isolated in the ghetto, knowing little else, the ghetto culture moves farther from that of the rest of society. You need not be a white racist or an uncritical promoter of modern American capitalism to worry when peer pressure discourages ghetto kids from doing well in school (which is seen as “acting white”) or when black and white dialects of spoken English grow farther apart. “By confining large numbers of black people to an environment within which failure is endemic, negative role models abound, and adherence to conventional values is nearly impossible, segregation has helped to create a nihilistic and violent counterculture sharply at odds with the basic values and goals of a democratic society.”

Here again–in culture as well as in politics–the process of segregation begins to feed on itself, reinforcing the white racism that created the ghetto in the first place. Massey may be jaded, but this still makes him angry: “You set up the world so that black neighborhoods are almost guaranteed to go downhill, and when people adapt to the situation and develop unattractive characteristics then you use those very adaptations to justify the segregation that caused them in the first place.”

Public-opinion polls show that whites talk integration better than they did a generation ago. Only 5 percent will admit to pollsters that they endorse segregation. But most whites’ willingness to stay in an integrated neighborhood nose-dives when the percentage of black families rises: 57 percent of whites say they would be uncomfortable in a neighborhood that was 36 percent black, and nearly three-quarters would rather not move into such a neighborhood. Most black people polled also express a preference for integration–but they’d be comfortable in a neighborhood that was 50 percent white. These disparate attitudes would make integration difficult even without historical inertia and continuing discrimination by the real estate and financing industries.

As attitudes have shifted, the federal government has moved away from its mid-century policy of actively enforcing racial segregation–but not very far. In all likelihood Congress would never have passed the 1968 Fair Housing Act without the riots that followed the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. Even so, Illinois’ senator Everett Dirksen insisted that the law be stripped of all meaningful enforcement provisions. Entrenched and institutionalized segregation was left for individuals and voluntary organizations to deal with. Chicago’s Leadership Council for Metropolitan Open Communities has been the country’s most active and successful group in combatting such segregation, yet after a quarter century of legal precedents and victories, Chicago remains a segregationist’s paradise. Nationwide, more than two million incidents of housing discrimination are estimated to occur every year, yet since 1968 just 400 fair-housing cases have been decided. “It’s beyond us,” says the Leadership Council’s Aurie Pennick. “It’s an institutional thing that must somehow be attacked from the top down.”

“The fundamental dilemma of white America,” Massey and Denton conclude, “is that though it truly believes that housing markets should be fair and open, it equally truly does not want to live with black people. Thus the 1968 Fair Housing Act . . . allowed the nation to go on record in support of the ideal of open housing, but it made sure that this goal was in no danger of being realized.”

Massey and Denton recommend that the federal government promote fair housing much more vigorously–by allocating more money to detect and prosecute real estate and lending discrimination, and by aggressively prosecuting hate crimes against those courageous enough to cross the color line. But as they acknowledge, the government can accomplish little if the American people continue to tolerate segregation at the grass roots.

They also argue that a movement against housing segregation ought to unite conservatives and liberals, pointing out that those who aren’t moved by injustice should at least be incensed that any group is being denied access to the glories of the free market. Such a movement does not exist because the conservatives are hypocrites and the liberals are cowards. Conservatives preach the value of free markets but rarely even acknowledge that blacks are still systematically denied access to the larger housing market. A HUD-sponsored survey in 25 urban areas in 1989 found that black home seekers had more than a 50 percent chance of being shown fewer homes than whites, receiving less information, being offered inferior terms, or simply receiving discourteous treatment. Jack Kemp, then HUD secretary and allegedly the least insensitive of right-wingers on this issue, did his best to deep-six the report.

Yet white liberals aren’t anxious to oppose vocal black separatists, even though polls show most blacks still favor integration in principle. The separatists do have a point. In most moves toward integration, black people are the front-line troops. They endure the snubs, the awkwardnesses, the cross burnings, and worse. “There is a lot of resistance to this in the black community,” acknowledges Massey, who says he received “a lot of flak” when he went on a WVON call-in show in March. “People say, ‘Why should we have to live with white people? They don’t want us anyway.'” Massey’s reply: “There is no progress in civil rights without struggle and sacrifice.” Besides, he says, there is just no viable alternative. “If you accommodate to this state of affairs, you guarantee that all other efforts will end in failure. You cannot be segregated in one area and equal in others. It’s hard to imagine a truly equal society that is also segregated. I know of no such example from any time in history.” Segregation is not empowerment, says Massey. It concentrates poverty and all the problems that come with poverty. Segregation makes it easy for white leaders to disrespect and disinvest in African Americans. “Even if you had an equal desire to disinvest in Mexicans, it would be harder to do. Sometimes integration is the best defense.”

Here the sociological bus comes to the end of the line. As sociologists, Massey and Denton can explain the workings of segregation. But they can’t tell us whether change is possible.

Massey confesses only to hope, not optimism. “All the problems the Kerner Commission identified in 1968 have gotten worse. And in 1968 the United States was the world’s largest creditor nation, wealthy enough to live well and run a full-scale war too. That wealth is gone. The political optimism of the civil rights movement is gone. All the problems that inspire white racism have stayed the same or gotten worse.” It’s especially hard to be optimistic if, as Massey’s data persuade him, the problem has more to do with race than with class. Two colleagues who have read the book since its mid-March publication seem to share his mood.

Roberto Fernandez, a sociologist at Northwestern University’s Center for Urban Affairs and Policy Research, has reviewed American Apartheid favorably for Contemporary Sociology. But he finds the book’s prescriptions less persuasive than its diagnosis. If whites won’t live with blacks, then even a perfectly open housing market with no history of discrimination would resegregate in short order. Fernandez says the only solution is to change white people’s tolerance. Massey and Denton don’t address this directly, but it’s certainly no easier to accomplish than what they propose.

Franklin Wilson of the University of Wisconsin says that he doesn’t foresee a change in the vicious cycle of segregation anytime soon. “People on both sides now don’t see [integration] as being in their best interests. The trend I find disturbing is the reemergence of walled cities” in California, Las Vegas, and even on the middle-class west side of Madison, Wisconsin. “It reminds me of third-world countries, where you often find a squatter settlement next-door to a middle-class neighborhood, separated by a ten-foot cement wall with glass shards embedded in it.” (It need not be a wall; between Gary and Hammond, Indiana, a four-lane divided highway serves just as well.) “I see us heading in that direction, and that is scary.”

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/Mike Epstein.