Separate Ways, Separate We(s)

seperate-waysBy Paul Van Auken

The concept of community often serves as a theme or even organizing framework for this column. I don’t consider myself an expert on anything, but community is kind of my thing. I write about it here and in academic work, it is a common thread in a number of my classes at UW Oshkosh, and I try my best to engage in it here in Oshkosh.

I have even come up with my own draft definition by tweaking an established sociological conception of it: An inclusive web of interconnected relationships that develops in a particular place through a process of repeated social interaction (around issues of common interest) in local society, which is shaped by (and shapes) the landscape (built and natural environment) it inhabits.

I have to admit, though, that I really don’t know that much about this somewhat elusive topic, but on the other hand enjoy continually learning more about what it actually is and why it matters. I had two important moments in this regard during the past year.

First, I was fortunate enough to attend the outstanding Ecology of Hope conference in Point Reyes Station, California last March, which featured a variety of discussions exploring the legacy of Aldo Leopold, Wisconsin’s own father of environmental thought. There were a number of interesting speakers, but one touched me the most. Lauret Savoy, co-chair of the Environmental Studies program at Mount Holyoke in Massachusetts, is the co-editor of a book entitled, “The Colors of Nature: Culture, Identity, and the Natural World.” She talked about coming across the acclaimed novel “Alien Land” in a library and finding that this examination of race in mid-20th century America was written by an author named Willard Savoy. Thing was, her father had never even told her about this book, so it blew her mind to stumble across it and then find that it spoke directly to her own experience.

Savoy had grown up a bit of a bookworm and feeling like an outsider. When she discovered Aldo Leopold’s seminal work, “A Sand County Almanac,” as a young teenager, she devoured it. But she was also terrified, she explained, about how the (then already dead) Leopold would answer her burning question if she had the chance to ask it. Her question was, when Leopold wrote about the human-land community and that “we” need to change our thoughts and actions, was she part of this community, did the “we” include her, a mixed-race female? One could hear a pin drop as she stirringly made the point that in the United States, we continue to live apart from other groups and, just as in Leopold’s day, mainstream environmentalism leaves non-white and less affluent people on the margins.

Then, this past fall, after having told my students about Savoy and Leopold, we discussed the connection between the concepts of community and environmental racism/injustice, the reality that non-white and lower-income people are disproportionately stuck living with environmental bads (e.g. polluted air and water, lack of access to parkland and healthy food, etc.), while white and more affluent folks are more likely live in areas blessed with environmental goods (clean air and water, etc.). I had an epiphany as we explored why such a situation persists in a nation as wealthy as ours. You might think, “Yeah, duh, professor,” but it really struck me that the answer is that our “we” is very narrow in this country. We live amongst people who are generally like us, and when we do have meaningful interactions with others, it’s generally with people who look, think, and live basically like we do. Not only does this make it easier to believe and perpetuation stereotypes about other groups, but we can also downplay or disregard problems like poverty, racism, and environmental injustice when they do not affect people from our “communities.”

The United States is becoming more and more racially/ethnically diverse, but income inequality has practically never been higher, and we continue to live apart. As reported in The Wall Street Journal, Brown University sociologist John Logan – one of the nation’s leading scholars of segregation – studied the residential patterns of Americans using the 2010 U.S. Census. Because of the nature of housing dynamics we white folks tend to live around people in the same social class, but the census data revealed that the average white household making less than $40,000 is in a more affluent neighborhood than a black or Hispanic household earning more than $75,000. “White middle-class families have the option to live in a community that matches their own credentials,” Mr. Logan told USA Today. “If you’re African-American and want to live with people like you in social class, you have to live in a community where you are in the minority.” His research indicates that the average black American lives in a neighborhood that is 45 percent black, which is more than three times higher than this group’s percentage of the overall population.

Sadly, according to Business Insider, with an overall score of 68, Milwaukee ranks as the most segregated metropolitan area in the country based on the dissimilarity index (100 indicates total segregation). According to this measure, 68 percent of all residents (and 80 percent of black people) would have to move to other areas in order for Milwaukee’s neighborhoods to have a mix of people reflecting the overall population in the city.

Walnut Way Conservation Corp., a neighborhood organization to which I’ve taken students to visit several times, lies in census tract 1854 on Milwaukee’s north side. There, 97 percent of the residents are black, compared to 41 percent for the city, 13.6 percent in the United States, and 7 percent for Wisconsin. And 42 percent of its residents live in poverty, which is roughly triple the poverty rate for the state and nation, and significantly higher than the already high poverty rate in the city overall (28 percent). This tract lies in a cluster of isolated neighborhoods; residents of 1854 and three surrounding tracts are 95 percent black and 40 percent in poverty on average.

That such hyper segregation and concentrated poverty continues in Wisconsin more than 40 years after the Fair Housing Act and the height of the civil rights era is astounding. Outside of the central city, where most affluent and powerful Americans tend to live, homogeneity and abundance are nearly as stark.

To illustrate, we could take a more extreme example from the Milwaukee metro area, such as River Hills or Chenequa, the two most affluent incorporated places in the state. Instead, let’s go less than four miles northeast of Walnut Way to the village of Shorewood. One its four census tracts is 95 percent white and has a median household income (MHI) of $107,356, more than double the national MHI and more than three times higher than that of tract 1854. With a tract (804) bordering Milwaukee that has a poverty rate of 23 percent, poverty in Shorewood is still well below average (9.6 percent) and the village is 93 percent white. Consistent with Logan’s data, even the lower-income residents of tract 804 live in very white (93 percent) neighborhood.

Though it may be less pronounced, segregation is not confined to large cities like Milwaukee or Detroit. In Oshkosh, we can see a sharp divide in income and diversity between central city and edge city neighborhoods. In four core Oshkosh census tracts (1, 2, 5, and 7), the combined population is 92.7 percent white, has a MHI of $31,291 and poverty rate of 38 percent. Even if we exclude the UW Oshkosh-dominated tract 7, the average poverty rate is still high (28 percent compared to 18 percent in the city overall). In four tracts (18.01, 18.03, 18.04, and 19) that ring Oshkosh on the west and south sides, on the other hand, the combined population is 96.3 percent white, and has a MHI of $68,503 and poverty rate of 7 percent.

Despite living largely amongst people who are like us, we Americans and Oshkoshians nonetheless band together to address problems in our cities and world, including serving people in need that are categorically different than us. I would argue, however, that when we live apart and do not build inclusive community, we’re less likely to see the problems faced by others as our problems, allowing them to persist. My students and I have decided that this will truly change only when more people get I.I.L. with it, living intentionally integrated lives. 

Paul Van Auken is a sociology and environmental studies professor trying to have an I.I.L.-ness.

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