To the editors:

Douglas Massey is right on the mark in his conclusions that Chicago and other large cities remain highly segregated and that segregated black communities tend to self-destruct [“Apartheid American-Style”]. But his message is marred by oversimplification, exaggeration, and unpersuasive evidence.

An example of all three flaws assaults the reader in the third paragraph of your cover story (May 7) when Massey reports confounding a North Shore matron with the opinion that “Wilmette would be about 20 percent black” in the absence of housing bias. For anyone who has ever driven through Wilmette, this is a patently ridiculous idea.

The very high cost of housing, not burning crosses, is what keeps most blacks, and whites for that matter, out of North Shore suburbs. According to the 1990 Census, the average home value for Wilmette’s 8,350 houses was $314,000. That same year, only 728 black households in the entire eight-county area lived in a house valued over $300,000. Thus, most of the area’s affluent blacks would have to move to Wilmette to fill Massey’s 20 percent black quota.

In a hypothetical color-blind housing market, a random redistribution of blacks in the eight-county area, adjusting only for black housing budgets and local home prices and rents, would place enough blacks to make up 3.4 percent, instead of an actual 0.5 percent of Wilmette’s population. Thus, the high cost of its housing explains about 85 percent of black underrepresentation in Wilmette (the actual 0.5 percent versus Massey’s expected 20 percent).

Massey dismisses self-segregation as a major explanation of black segregation. Yet one might argue that more affluent blacks don’t live in the North Shore because they can buy for $150,000 in Hyde Park, South Shore, or Chatham just as nice a house as the typical $314,000 house in Wilmette. Why indeed should blacks pay a color tax of $150,000 to live apart from other blacks?

A less blatant example of exaggeration is Massey’s 1980 dissimilarity index of 86 for black households earning over $50,000. Because blacks made up that year only about 8 percent of area households in that income group, the index allocated into the overrepresented category affluent blacks living in the stable integrated neighborhoods of Hyde Park, South Kenwood, Sandburg Village, and Ranch Triangle in Lincoln Park.

In any case, this 13-year-old statistic is out of date. As I reported in “Shifts in the Geography of Wealth and Poverty in Chicago” last January, blacks in 1990 made up between 2 percent and 20 percent of residents in the city’s most affluent neighborhoods.

American Apartheid is a catchy title for Massey and Nancy Denton’s new book. But it is also a misnomer. It implies the government’s imposition and enforcement of residential segregation. The Supreme Court struck down apartheid-style municipal segregation ordinances in Buchanan in 1917. The court outlawed public enforcement of private restrictive covenants in Shelley in 1948.

For the last 25 years, most kinds of provable housing bias by public and private parties are prohibited by the Equal Protection Clause, the Brown, Shannon, Otero, and Geautraux decisions of the Supreme Court, and by the Fair Housing Act of 1968. Courts have not always vigorously enforced these laws partly because the great majority of whites and blacks apparently prefer to live apart, and their leaders know it.

Massey chooses to absolve individual household decisions, preferences, and prejudice, and to blame institutional racism instead, falling back on the unproven conspiracy theory of segregation: “Institution after institution–all conspiring to bring about racial segregation,” he says.

Massey confirms the findings of other researchers before him that blacks and the taxpaying public pay a heavy price for inner-city ghettos that self-destruct after 20 to 30 years. But it will take more than Massey’s convoluted and out-of-date statistical constructs to convince blacks that integration into a white society that shuns them is the only way to go.

Pierre deVise

W. Henderson