How Do We Come Together If We Live So Apart?

By Stephen Tucker and Rhianna C. Rogers

Buffalo is the sixth-most segregated city in the country. While racial segregation has declined slightly over the years, disparities in health, education, income, and quality of life are getting worse. East Buffalo—which is 85% African American—is a well-documented food desert and residents suffer from a lack of basic resources like access to medicine, quality housing, education, and jobs that pay family-sustaining wages.

Long before the mass shooting at Tops Supermarket highlighted Buffalo’s struggles with racial inequity, the segregation throughout communities in Western New York (WNY) was creating the conditions that allow hate to fester, grow, and, ultimately, boil over into violence. One way to measure these conditions is something called a dissimilarity index, which compares one racial group to another by showing how the first racial group would need to relocate to be distributed across a metro area in a way similar to the second. A value of “0%” reflects absolute integration; a value of “100%” reflects absolute segregation. In the case of Buffalo’s Black community, the dissimilarity index shows how much it would have to relocate to be more fully integrated across WNY. In 2010, Buffalo-Niagara had a Black-White dissimilarity index of 73.2%, which makes it the sixth most segregated Black population in the nation.

This is not, however, a problem exclusive to the Black community. Segregation affects all. And, indeed, the dissimilarity index shows that White isolation in WNY is even higher—about 88%, meaning that the average White resident in the region lives in a census tract in which nearly 90% of all residents are also White. When we have two communities living so separately, it’s no wonder we struggle, especially when basic resources for one community are so fraught. It’s simply too easy for the White community to remain mostly unaware of the struggles of their Black neighbors. 

So how might we begin to integrate? How can we ensure that these two separate and unequal communities come together? You can’t force people to move, just as you can’t force more interaction and understanding. You can, however, support an increase in interaction and understanding in the two spaces where folks of all kinds meet: in schools, and in workplaces. 

In 2016, mayor Byron Brown recommended that schools in Buffalo begin adopting “cross-cultural awareness” activities and curriculums to celebrate the city’s diverse populace. Out of this recommendation, projects, studies, and surveys arose (we were involved in several) and out of these came an idea of “deliberative conversations” as a way for schools to give students space to discuss their thoughts in order to create a safe space for developing and expanding cross-cultural learning. Without these sort of spaces, and this sort of learning, research indicates that some students—particularly underrepresented populations and students of color—participate less in school overall, and are less likely to succeed in their studies. This is not merely an issue of supporting the academic success of our diverse population, it is ultimately about the success of our schools and society as a whole. 

In the workplace, the issue is often that potential employers are simply passing over a talented pool of potential employees due to implicit biases against that population. One of us runs an industry-driven, public-private partnership between employers, educational institutions, community and faith-based organizations, and state and local governments that trains and maintains a skilled and diverse workforce to meet the needs of the advanced manufacturing and energy sectors in WNY. These careers provide gainful employment, career advancement opportunity, and economic sustainability for Western New Yorkers. Yet we are surprised, again and again, at how often potential employers say they or their employees harbor “serious concerns” about the ability of our trainees to fill open, entry-level roles. It often becomes apparent, on further questioning, that their reservations have everything to do with their implicit biases and negative perceptions towards inner city youth and young people of color, and nothing to do with our trainees’ skills, which are quite high.

These obstacles—to keeping kids in school; to finding good steady employment—are far from impossible to overcome. And they are meaningful steps to begin undoing the segregation that plagues our society. If we support these spaces in society where we can come together, then we might save ourselves from tearing one other apart.  

Stephen Tucker is the President & CEO of Northland Workforce Training Center, located in East Buffalo. Rhianna C. Rogers is the director of the RAND Center to Advance Racial Equity Policy at the nonprofit, nonpartisan RAND Corporation. 

map image Source: U-Va. Cooper Center analysis of 2010 Census data