Book: The Imperative of Integration (2010)

Teal Deer


This book puts forward the hypothesis that systematic racial segregation feeds racial inequality and undermines democracy. I believe it is an essential read for understanding the processes by which racial inequality in the U.S. is perpetuated, and what we can do to combat it.

413dtrlzxll-_sx329_bo1204203200_ The Imperative of Integration (2010) by Elizabeth Anderson

If you don’t read any more of this post, the two essential points to take from this book are:

(1) There are two types of segregation: spatial segregation, which is living in different places, using different facilities, not interacting with people of a different group on a daily basis, etc., and role segregation: when people of a dominant group interact with members of a non-dominant group, but entirely in contexts where the non-dominant group has an inferior role (for example, when almost all interactions with members of a group are with people working service jobs (cashiering, waiting, cleaning, etc.), employees, etc., rather than peers, neighbors, or superiors (bosses, teachers, advisers, managers, etc.). There are plenty of examples of how these play out, for not just race but other social classes. For example, in the antebellum South, black slaves and white owners had frequent close contact, but in a strictly role-segregated manner. In the Jim Crow South, even when black and white people would have otherwise been peers, their interactions were set to a backdrop of institutionalized spatial segregation. This is not limited to the past or to the South — in all of the various states and various cities I’ve lived, both racial spatial and role segregation have been the norm in fact although not in ideology. I think about why these race reversals look so “off”. Nor is it restricted to race. For gender, I think of how a woman told me that when she was younger and worked in a bank in Japan, the tellers were all women, and the people responsible for giving out loans were all men. I think of the gender homogeneity I’ve seen in various social spaces around the internet. For race and gender, when is the last time I saw a hotel cleaner in the U.S. who wasn’t Latina? For class, I think of zoning laws that bar poorer people from moving in, in order to preserve the “look and feel”/”brand” of a neighborhood.

(2) Both types of segregation (spatial and role) cause racial inequality. In fact, the book’s argument is that segregation — not discrimination or other personal attitudes or behaviors — is the primary cause of racial inequality.

The book lays out its argument very systematically and well, and at the same time provides lots of insights on how to think about racial inequality, many of which I haven’t seen elsewhere. I’m going to separate these into two groups: useful concepts for thinking about racism, and the book’s argument for integration.

Tools for thinking about racism:
1. Components of racial inequality
2. How segregation feeds racial inequality
3. How stigma feeds racial inequality

The argument for integration:
4. Integration is necessary for democracy
5. Affirmative action as a desegregation policy
6. Implementing integration

Tools for thinking about racism

1. Components of racial inequality

This book — which is written by a philosopher — takes pains to define various abstract concepts as concretely as possible. In particular, the author strives to break down concepts like “racism” or “white supremacy” (which can refer to many different concepts) into more specific parts. While reading this book, overwhelmed by all the abstract concepts and definitions, I made this diagram, which I hope helps people organize these concepts as well:

Components of racial inequality
The components of racial inequality

All of the concepts here are possible meanings of the concepts of racism / white supremacy. The largest concept (encompassing everything else) is racial inequality — this is the reality that races have significant differences in outcomes: life expectancy, income, health, having basic needs (e.g. food, shelter) met, education levels, etc.

There are three forces that feed into the reality of racial inequality: segregation (the focus of this book), stigmatization (negative images of racial groups — these can manifest cognitively as non-emotional stereotypes (conscious or unconscious) or through feelings like annoyance, disdain, disgust, nervousness/anxiety, etc.), and discrimination (concrete actions people take to shut other people out of services, opportunities, etc.).

These things all contribute to racial inequality and to each other, in self-reinforcing processes: Racial stigmatization is one reason people may choose to discriminate. Discrimination and shutting people out of opportunities creates inequalities. The reality of inequalities creates stereotypes in people’s minds, contributing to racialized stigma.

2. How segregation feeds racial inequality

The author argues (kind of surprisingly) that segregation itself is a cause of important differences in quality of life. It may seem kind of odd that segregation has health impacts, but it apparently does (lack of nutritious food and safe exercise spaces; drugs and tobacco marketed to specific neighborhoods; even air pollution is different by neighborhood). Of course, one of the most severe impacts of segregation is lack of access to public services (impoverished communities that are unable to keep neighborhoods safe/clean/maintained/free from crime, lack of access to good schools and neighborhood amenities).

The book also has an interesting discussion of the benefits of social capital (friends in high places, access to knowledgeable/educated/skilled people, people willing to extend favors, etc.). Such capital allows people to get jobs, save money and time by exchanging favors, and so on. In the U.S. the distribution of social capital between white and black people is incredibly unequal. Integrating social networks acts to redistribute social capital.

This book argues that segregation is a linchpin in perpetuating racial inequality. You cannot get rid of inequality without fighting segregation.

Discrimination (e.g. redlining housing policies) is one way that segregation is exacerbated. Feelings of racial anxiety (stigma) can also cause people to self-segregate. The author argues in the book that pervasive role segregation directly generates stigmatized views of groups, and spatial segregation perpetuates existing negative views and stereotypes of groups by preventing them from being challenged by e.g. befriending members of that group or listening to their perspectives. As argued above, stigma leads to discrimination and inequality. Therefore, you cannot get rid of inequality without fighting segregation — inequality will always reemerge from a segregated world. So this book argues that segregation is a linchpin in perpetuating racial inequality. Fighting racial inequality requires desegregating: not just reducing segregation itself but also breaking the processes (mentioned at the beginning of the paragraph) by which discrimination and stigma regenerate segregation.

3. How stigma feeds racial inequality

The book spends quite some time on stigma, which is a concept I think people should think about more. However, I want to focus on segregation in this post, so I’ll just briefly highlight three lines of research on stigma that the book details that I thought particularly interesting:

(1) Studies regarding unconscious bias, or the idea that simple exposure to, not endorsement of, stereotypes, can bias people’s reaction to black people. For example, people associate dark skin with crime, falsely remembering no-race-specified or white criminals as black, or finding darker criminals more memorable and their crimes more disturbing. Of these references, I thought this one was interesting:

(2) Studies about how stigma shapes reactions to policy. People who believe the U.S. is a post-racial society are more likely to OPPOSE any race-neutral policy that nevertheless disproportionately aids black people (e.g. anti-discrimination laws, welfare programs) and to SUPPORT race-neutral policies that nevertheless disproportionately punish black people (e.g. death penalty, “three strikes” laws):

Whites’ support for the death penalty rises when they are told that it disproportionately punishes blacks. […] Here lies the heart of racial stigma in public policy: when the target of policy is implicitly or explicitly coded black, the policy response is harsh and punitive; when the target is coded white (or perhaps white middle class), the policy response is sympathetic. […] The racial content of such stigmatizing policy responses typically operates beneath the surface. A color-blind story is always available to rationalize the policy. The sharply different reactions people have to policies, depending on the race of the target, are never explicitly juxtaposed, enabling people to continue to regard themselves as color-blind…

Another example of how stigma affects support of policies is welfare: when welfare in the U.S. was first sold to the public, the typical recipients were seen to be widowed white mothers who needed financial assistance in order to fulfill society’s idea of proper parenting (i.e. being caretakers for their children at home); the typical recipients are now seen to be single black mothers who, in order to be proper parents according to society, must work outside the house. As the image of the typical recipient has shifted, so has people’s attitude toward those recipients shifted from sympathetic to antipathetic.

(3) Stigma devalues occupations. Similar to the way female occupations get devalued (i.e. once women become the majority of practitioners of a job, it goes from being a prestige/high-status job to a low-status job), apparently black occupations experience the same thing. I haven’t read the reference, but here it is:

The argument for integration

4. Integration is necessary for democracy

Integration and democracy are tied. For example, segregation causes lawmakers to fail to represent the interests of groups they don’t interact with. As such, segregation impedes the functioning of democracy. By contrast, democratic processes can ameliorate the bad effects of segregation. An example of this is when a group that is cut off from other parts of society due to severe segregation chooses to communicate their grievances using the democratic tactics of protests and demonstrations. In doing so, they are able to educate the wider public about life experiences they are otherwise secluded from (think about the success of Black Lives Matter in awareness-raising).

Additionally, integrated decision-making teams come to more democratic opinions. The author gives two examples of this:

1) Integrated juries — when white people anticipate working on a mixed-race jury, they make fewer mistakes in interpreting evidence. Integration also changes the jury deliberation process: when white jurors on all-white juries bring up a racial issue, it’s quickly dismissed and moved past. When black jurors bring up racial issues, the issue is fully considered and hotly debated (note — debated, not, as people might expect, the white people bowing immediately to the black people in the name of political correctness).

2) There is a well-known phenomenon where white/black people give different opinions in response to questions depending on whether the questioner is white or black.

For both of these the author argues that, while you might think they are examples of timid self-censoring (or another way of describing it: oppressive “political correctness” mentality), she thinks it’s actually a shaping of opinion in the public sphere, where black people are in the group of people one has to be accountable to and justify one’s opinions to, whereas the comfort of an all-white audience allows people to hold comfier opinions. I’m not sure this is true — for example, I would be curious whether the people who hold these opinions themselves conceive of it in the same way the author does (i.e. as having an “accountable opinion”, which is similarly or more authentic than their private unaccountable opinion), or instead think of it as “political correctness gone mad!” (i.e the public opinion is face-saving lying and the private opinion is the authentic one). From my experience, the latter seems to be a much more common subjective conception of what’s going on in these cases, with people in a dominant group feeling like they’re “walking on eggshells” when discussing issues in the presence of people likely to have justice-related grievances. The idea that publicly accountable opinions are in some sense more true or significant is interesting food for thought, though.

5. Affirmative action as a desegregation policy

This book has the most in-depth analysis of affirmative action (AA for short) I’ve seen, devoting two entire chapters to it. It reject ways in which affirmative action policies have been justified, arguing instead for a view of affirmative action as a policy of integration.

The author rejects justifying affirmative action through the lenses of compensation (black people have had wrongs done to them, including discrimination, and so AA functions as compensation) or diversity promotion (institutions valuing diversity in thought should also aim to make their populations racially diverse). She rejects the first because for various reasons, including that it stigmatizes the receiving group as passive receivers of charity rather than deserving. The second she rejects because it conflates race and culture, which risks homogenizing and othering a group of people on the basis of skin color / phenotypic traits.

There is a third lens of justifying affirmative action as a counter-discrimination policy (despite the existence of anti-discrimination laws, it’s hard to be truly non-discriminatory — hence the practice of AA as a small effect intended to counter subtle discriminatory bias that tends in the opposite direction). This lens avoids the pitfalls of the first two, but is limited in scope, unable to justify much change beyond mere tie-breaking.

The author instead argues for justifying affirmative action through the lens of integration (affirmative action is a way to dismantle segregation and thus also its ill effects). It is more proactive than the counter-discrimination model because it can be applied in any situation where choosing black candidates would create a more integrated workforce. Unlike the diversity model, it doesn’t “other” the ways of thinking of the benefiting group. And unlike the compensation model, beneficiaries are active agents of positive change, rather than recipients of generosity or pity.

The goal here is to be able to build teams where black and white people work together as equals and are accountable to each other, rather than a situation where people either don’t socialize with other races, or only socialize with them in situations of unequal power, which creates a strong stigmatizing effect.

The main benefit of the integration model is that it attacks the root cause behind discrimination, stereotypes, and stigmatization — the goal here is to be able to build teams where black and white people work together as equals and are accountable to each other, rather than a situation where people either don’t socialize with other races, or only socialize with them in situations of unequal power, which creates a strong stigmatizing effect. Here, I think institutions practicing AA could do better, especially universities. It’s very easy for segregation to just reproduce itself in a university setting (which is like a small town/community in and of itself), even when there’s a critical mass of minorities accepted — my undergrad university had a sizable black population, but had essentially black dorms, and I don’t think I ever had a black person in my study group.

The author also has interesting counterarguments to the many different arguments that non-race-neutral policies such as AA are bad. For example, there is the argument that AA harms the beneficiaries by placing them in schools where they can’t compete (Justice Scalia’s argument). This derives from studies that show that blacks graduating from less selective colleges actually make more than those graduating from more selective colleges (due to dropout rates at the latter). However, this effect seems to mostly be due to the high performance of historically black colleges (HBCs). Not including those schools (which are of the less selective type), then black students in prestigious schools actually do make more money. There are many more arguments she addresses but I don’t have the space here to talk about them.

6. Implementing integration

Chapter 6, titled “The Imperative of Integration”, contains the meat of the book: studies that indicate the positive effects of integration policies on educational attainment, health and well-being. It also has an overview of the theoretical and empirical benefits of intergroup contact on prejudices and other biases.

Interestingly, bussing black kids to white schools is not seen to be particularly effective academically, at least in the short term, but black kids growing up in white/well-off neighborhoods has long-lasting effects on their academic performance and criminal behavior. It seems like a large part of success is living in a safe neighborhood where you can trust your neighbors and mutually perform favors that make your lives more efficient and easy, and where the community doesn’t apply pressures or incentives to leave school.

Also interesting is that some domains are more successfully integrated (workplaces, especially the military) than others (schools). Schools seem to be peculiar in their ability to resist integration efforts (like using academic tracks to essentially segregate black kids within the school) in ways that do not fly in the workplace.

Due to the importance of integration for the functioning of democracy and fighting racial inequality, the author advocates for integrative policies such as:

Housing vouchers for black people to enter majority-white middle class neighborhoods
Abolition of class-segregative zoning laws
Extension and enforcement of a different kind of Title VII anti-discrimination, one that has differential outcomes as the burden of proof, not conscious, intentional discrimination
Repeal of checks to voluntary integration programs (busing, etc.)
Integrative programs by schools, esp. at the K-12 level
Redrawing district boundaries to create mixed-race constituencies
Selecting racially integrated juries
Affirmative action programs (of the counter-discrimination or integration types) in education, workplaces, and contracting

The book also addresses the question of “Is it okay for black people to self-segregate?” The benefits of this self-segregation is that marginalized groups can get affirmation and support, form an identity, coordinate to identify areas of justice that need to be fixed, and retain their right of free association; and it’s fairer for resources to be distributed to their (segregated) communities rather than marginalized groups be expected to move. The author fully supports the existence of informal social groups that accomplish the first benefit, but rejects extensive segregation for the purpose of the other benefits because they don’t address the key things that feed into racial inequality, so are self-defeating. For example, the author also argues that the development of a communal national “us” identity is important for fulfilling the potential of democracy (although anti-nationalist or multi-cultural leftists may find this distasteful1).


This book has a lot of arguments backed up by sociological data for the thesis that addressing the root causes of racism requires massive desegregation. The abstract concepts can be a bit difficult at times, but I think this is a must-read for anyone seriously thinking about inequality in the U.S.

Buy on Amazon

1 Understandable, given that national identity rhetoric tends to be used by conservative politicians as a way of dog-whistling that “(Real) America” means “straight, white Christian, frontiersman America” and that the “un-American” elements need to be removed. But I guess the author’s point here is that a democracy means that all citizens constitute the American public; to imply that only Certain Kinds of citizens count as American is the kind of anti-democratic attitudes the author believes we need integration to fight.

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