Nearly 40 years after the Fair Housing Act, diverse communities are still rare and fragile places, especially in the Midwest. The Chicago area is highly segregated, ranking as the fifth most segregated region in the nation. Only a handful of the region’s 318 communities approach regional diversity averages. Among them, only Oak Park is internally integrated. Many wonder why segregation continues to persist and if the dream of integration is attainable.
Recent research, conducted by Tyrone Foreman and Maria Krysan from the University of Illinois at Chicago, shows how segregation perpetuates. The study found that whites were less likely to move to diverse communities, especially to communities with a majority of people of color. However, blacks and Latinos searched more often for housing in diverse communities, regardless of their majority or minority status in those communities.
Just as important, the study examined how a lack of information about communities where one is not in the majority plays an important role in perpetuating segregation. Oak Park was the only community of 41 scientifically chosen communities where whites, blacks, and Latinos commonly searched for housing. In most cases, participants were unaware of or intentionally avoided communities where their race was in the minority.
It is no wonder. In 2004, when I still worked for the Leadership Council, we published two reports on the rarity and fragility of diverse communities. The first, “Empty Promises,” illustrated the absence of affirmative marketing to promote diversity in suburbs around Chicago. Of the 271 suburbs we surveyed, only Oak Park, Evanston, and a few southern Cook County communities actively promoted themselves as open and inclusive communities. Many even ignored their own decades-old ordinances requiring affirmative promotion of the community.
Shortly thereafter, “The Segregation of Opportunities” described the regional correlation between opportunity and race. The report found that nearly all predominantly black and Latino communities ranked in the lower two quintiles in providing opportunity for self-improvement. Meanwhile, predominantly white communities usually ranked in the two highest quintiles. The factors measured included school quality, job opportunities, access to transportation, quality of life, and fiscal capacity of the community. The only diverse community to rank in the top quintile was Oak Park.
These findings tell us a lot about the challenge of sustaining diversity in Oak Park, which is, far and away, the best known of the handful of open and inclusive communities. It is also the only diverse community in the highest opportunity category. Since people of color are more attracted than are whites to diverse communities, proportional demand for Oak Park from people of color is much higher than from whites. Part of this is attitudinal. But some of the explanation is that whites report that they can choose from dozens of communities with similar amenities. Meanwhile, people of color report that they fear discrimination and harassment in many of those same communities.
Oak Parkers are justifiably proud of our multicultural community where people of all colors feel included. In addition to improving our own lives, we provide a model that our region and our country need dearly. Oak Park is proof that diverse communities can provide opportunity. It is proof that people want and will seek out integrated and multicultural communities if they are aware of them. That is certainly something worth fighting for-that someday, diversity and integration become the rule and not the exception.