Integration is Just As Important As Immigration

In recent months, our nation has heatedly debated immigration reform, arguing over who can and should become new Americans. But what next? Even if reform succeeds, what happens when immigrants do reach our shores and become citizens? Is our job done? Can we assume that an integrated and tolerant society will naturally follow?

For some, such questions are understandably of secondary importance. With immigration policy still uncertain, debating integration policy may feel like a distraction. On another level, however, this could represent an ideal time to launch a national discussion. With immigration reform, we have a chance to discuss not only who can and should be admitted here, but how all Americans can be integrated successfully into our culture. And following Trayvon Martin, as we frankly confront prejudice both old and new, no question could be more imperative.

Is America integrated today? Almost 60 years after Brown vs. Board of Education, just 14% percent of white students attend multiracial schools. Blacks and Latinos are disproportionately housed in “apartheid schools” that are rife with poverty, limited resources, health challenges, and social strife. In New York City, half of all schools are 90% or more black and Hispanic. Across our nation as a whole, schools are less integrated today than they were in 1968.

In criminal justice, sentencing disparities, policy priorities, and racial profiling create a justice system that many perceive as anything but just. In New York City, 88% of all stops involve a black or Hispanic individual. And while some argue that these percentages simply reflect crime demographics, most stops are for “furtive movement” and other charges that have little relation to ongoing investigations. In Floyd v. City of New York, Judge Shira Scheindlin found that police offers lacked reasons to "establish reasonable suspicion" in more than 170,000 cases.

On economic and geographic variables, this portrait grows still bleaker. Our Senate has a single African American member, though African Americans comprise 12.6% of our population. Hispanics, currently 16.4% of our nation, fare little better with four seats. Among Fortune 500 companies, there are six African American and six Hispanic CEOs. And while residential patterns have shown some improvement, particularly in major cities, many African Americans and recent immigrants remain geographically isolated.

Does this matter? For some, these statistics show a lack of equal opportunity, but not an argument for integration. The problem is that minorities are underrepresented among economic and political elites, not that they are attending different schools or living in segregated communities. If we could equalize school quality and otherwise allow equal opportunity, would geographic and educational segregation still be an issue?  And if so, why? Why should we care about integration per se?

In answering this, I would make four points. Firstly, in a diverse and multicultural economy, integration has economic benefits. Americans of all races will require not only academic and technical competency, but also an ability to complete group projects and interact with individuals who have different backgrounds and beliefs. As one student said in a New York Times interview, segregated education “doesn’t really prepare us for the real world. You see one race, and you’re going to be accustomed to one race.”

Second, diversity has academic and social benefits. Class discussions are richer, pushing students to consider different perspectives and stretch their minds. Taken as a whole, integrated schools outperform segregated counterparts on statistical measures, including standardized tests. Their students develop emotional competencies that may otherwise be lacking, and they become more likely to lead integrated lives.

Third, geographic integration provides a boost to social mobility. Pockets of poverty, physically isolated from surrounding neighborhoods and often correlated with or even driven by race, create roadblocks to economic success. Jobs become harder to access, requiring hours of commuting, and school quality often suffers. Indeed, upward mobility is notably higher in areas (e.g. Boston and Seattle) that have better integration of economic classes.

Fourth, integration may be an essential tool in building trust. Trayvon Martin is a recent and heartbreaking case of unwarranted death, but his story is one chapter in a longer narrative. African Americans, Latinos, Muslim Americans, and others are racially profiled on a daily basis, even when class is dismissed as a relevant factor. How do we combat this? How do we ensure that people are judged freely and fairly, not pigeonholed by preconceived biases? We integrate. We not only mix youth together in schools, extracurricular programs, and elsewhere, but also ensure that they are united by a common purpose. We acknowledge that tolerance and admiration must be taught not abstractly, but experientially. We let personal experience and individual friendships create a lifelong foundation of mutual respect.

In debating immigration, we have an opportunity to consider not only who enters or remains within our borders, but also how these individuals are treated and woven into our culture. On a policy level, we can enact housing reform, rezoning school districts to integrate classrooms. Within schools, we can think critically about special education and discipline systems, asking ourselves if different models might produce better results. We can recognize how academic tracking may replicate existing hierarchies. And as we implement these policies, mixing our schools and extracurricular activities, we can remain mindful that racial mixing and integration are separate entities. Eating in one cafeteria is racial mixing. Eating together is integration. We cannot forget that distinction.

More immediately, we can make this personal. As parents, we can evaluate potential schools not just on academic credentials, but on diversity. We can choose summer camps and extracurricular programs that not only mix different races, but also engage them in a common mission. As individuals, we can ask each other questions and express genuine curiosity about different cultures. Above all, we can evaluate our behaviors on a daily basis. To what degree are we genuinely living without prejudice? Without preconceived biases? As Gandhi said, be the change you wish to see in the world. To build an integrated society, we can begin by integrating ourselves.

How much do you trust the information in this article?

Thea Sebastian

Thea graduated Harvard College in 2008, concentrating in Government, and has a masters degree in Comparative Social Policy. She was a 2011 Teach for America corps member, where she taught special education in the South Bronx, and she will be enrolling at Harvard Law School this fall.

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