Residential areas still largely segregated
By WILLIAM M. HARTNETT and MOLLY HENNESSY-FISKE
Palm Beach Post Staff Writers
Lillie Knight and Marcy Proano work at the same school in northwest Fort Pierce.
Knight is black, a media aide at C.A. Moore Elementary.
Proano is white, a speech therapist.
At the end of the day, Knight heads to her nearby home at 18th Street and Avenue O, a part of town where blacks comprise nearly 90 percent of the population.
Home for Proano is Port St. Lucie, a city where four out of five residents are white. She, too, once lived in Fort Pierce, but crime drove her out.
Knight knows the feeling. The 59-year-old Fort Pierce native feels safe enough to have stayed in the area for more than 40 years. But she discouraged her son, an investment consultant, from moving back from Orlando. Instead, she’s considering a move of her own.
“After he’s gone to school, there was nothing for him here,” Knight said.
Knight and Proano, co-workers of different races who live in neighborhoods that mirror the color of their skin, reflect a demographic trend throughout the country and across the Treasure Coast.
While in many ways segregation is considered a social relic, a computer analysis by The Palm Beach Post of census data from the past 20 years indicates that it has been prematurely eulogized. A surprising number of blacks and whites still live largely isolated from each other in neighborhoods that bear little resemblance to one another.
This comes even as the big story of the 2000 Census, rising diversity fueled by a booming Hispanic population, is touted as a sign of our multicultural future. In St. Lucie County, for instance, the Hispanic population has skyrocketed 803 percent since 1980. Martin County’s Hispanic population has grown 356 percent in the same period.
“Those two statements are contradictory, yet true,” said Joe Feagin, a sociology professor at the University of Florida who studies race and discrimination, of continued racial isolation in the face of booming diversity. “In the long run, there’s something explosive there.”
The Post’s analysis found that, like much of the country, Martin and St. Lucie counties are slowly becoming more racially integrated. Still, segregation persists.
Take the area in which Knight lives. This 2-square-mile slice of Fort Pierce north of Orange Avenue and south of Avenue Q, just 0.35 percent of the total area of St. Lucie County, is home to 31 percent of all the black people in the county. Since 1980, the area’s white population has dropped 80 percent and today accounts for just 255 out of 10,224 total residents of that area.
Or take the almost entirely black area known as East Stuart. Bordered by Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard and 10th Street, it is home to nearly 20 percent of all the black people in Martin County. Just a few blocks to the north, along the St. Lucie River, the neighborhoods are almost entirely white.
DISPARITIES HARD TO OVERLOOK
Both Knight and Proano said they have noticed the extremes of residential segregation that characterize housing patterns on the Treasure Coast. Still, Fort Pierce is a city of families, Knight said. And yes, some of them are white.
“I know blacks outnumber them, but I still see them,” Knight said.
Still, the statistics that point to wide racial disparities are hard to ignore.
Sociologists use several methods of evaluating residential segregation. One commonly used index calculates the racial composition of the neighborhood in which a typical member of each race lives.
In Martin and St. Lucie counties, for example, the average white person lives in a neighborhood that is 85.8 percent white but just 6.1 percent black and 6.4 percent Hispanic. The typical black person, on the other hand, lives in a neighborhood that is 46.1 percent black, 41.2 percent white and 11.4 percent Hispanic, according to 2000 census data.
Compared with 1990, when the average white’s neighborhood was 91 percent white and the average’s black’s 59.6 percent black, the Treasure Coast shows signs that minorities are beginning to move out of racially homogenous communities. However, the opposite is true for Hispanics.
As the area’s Hispanic population grows, it is becoming increasingly isolated. Whereas in 1990 the typical Hispanic’s neighborhood was 10.3 percent Hispanic, in 2000 it was 17.4 percent.
“The overall story really is the maintenance of rather high levels of segregation,” said John Logan, director of the Lewis Mumford Center for Comparative Urban and Regional Research at the State University of New York, Albany. Logan and his colleagues conducted a nationwide study of neighborhood integration.
Persistent segregation between blacks and whites in Martin and St. Lucie counties also is revealed using a mathematical formula called the dissimilarity index. Measured on a scale of 0 (total integration) to 100 (total segregation), the index represents the percentage of people of either race who would have to move to new neighborhoods to achieve perfect racial mixing.
Martin County’s index in 2000 of 60.6 is down from 65.3 in 1990, but still remains at a level considered to represent very high, or “hyper,” segregation. The drop in St. Lucie County’s index when comparing blacks and whites has been even sharper, from 76.1 in 1990 to 61.3 last year. But again, the 2000 figure still represents a high level of segregation.
The nationwide dissimilarity index in 2000 was 65.2, down from 69.5 in 1990, according to a study conducted by The Brookings Institution’s Center on Urban and Metropolitan Policy. In the South, the second most integrated region of the country, the 2000 index was 59.1, down from 63.6 in 1990.
The Brookings Institution’s study found that segregation rose every decade between 1890 and 1970. Only since the 1970s has the tide turned.
SEVERAL FACTORS RESPONSIBLE
What’s behind the persistence of such well-defined racial lines? Sociologists and area residents say it’s a combination of economic and social factors, much of it built on a foundation of sometimes subtle, occasionally outright, racism.
Feagin, the University of Florida professor, said the country’s long course of discrimination will take many years to reverse, a process that will occur “like glacial change” over perhaps hundreds of years.
“We had legal segregation of housing until 1969 in the South and across much of the nation,” he said. “We’ve only had a fair housing law for about 32 years. Consider that we had 350 years of slavery and segregation.”
And those fair housing laws are rarely enforced, Feagin said. His research has found that only about one out of every 1,000 cases of illegal housing segregation is brought before a regulatory agency.
“That means that if you discriminate as a white person, you have about one chance in a thousand of getting caught,” said Feagin, who is white. “And the penalty is usually slight. You can discriminate with impunity.”
And what of the perception that Americans simply prefer to live in a neighborhood in which their race is overwhelmingly represented? Feagin said such thinking is generally accurate for white people, but not for blacks and other minorities. Another misconception is that residential segregation is solely a matter of economics.
“The key is looking at working-class white areas, which are highly segregated,” he said. “This is not about money, this is about racism. It’s about whites who don’t want to live with black people.”
NEWER AREAS ARE MORE DIVERSE
Not all the news is dire, of course. In a trend mirrored across the nation, blacks who move into relatively new neighborhoods such as those in Port St. Lucie form a much more widely dispersed minority population than in older cities such as Fort Pierce and Stuart.
The Mumford Center’s Logan said newer communities tend to be more open to a racially mixed population because, unlike older city centers, they have no established racial identity forged during the era of sanctioned segregation.
“Las Vegas is a good example of this,” Logan said. “The black population grew by many hundreds of thousands (in the 1990s), but they moved primarily to residential subdivisions.”
Such racial mixing is evident in the common dialects of children, ways of speaking that develop only in neighborhoods where children live and play together, said Proano, the school speech therapist. Those neighborhoods are increasingly found in Port St. Lucie.
Though blacks make up just 6.8 percent of Port St. Lucie’s population, the city accounted for 81 percent of the county’s 4,948 new black residents in the 1990s. Fort Pierce’s black population, meanwhile, actually fell 1.4 percent.
“When I moved to Port St. Lucie 10 years ago, the few of us who were minorities, we were so few you could count us on your fingers,” said Fontley Corrodus, a sociology professor at Indian River Community College.
Corrodus, who is from Jamaica, said some of the black residents he got to know in northwest Fort Pierce considered Port St. Lucie a distant place where white people lived. They say his neighborhood is next door to the moon.
To change such entrenched perceptions will take not just time, but a concerted effort, Logan said. And government must be part of that effort.
“To address the source of racial segregation, the principal public policy should be the enforcement of laws against discrimination in housing,” Logan said. “There are quite adequate laws on the books at the federal level and in many states, but the level of enforcement is very minimal.”
Feagin also stressed housing integration as key to achieving racial equity in other avenues of society. Other institutions such as schools, however, make easier targets for legal action than the thousands of real estate agents, homeowners and land managers who engage in discriminatory practices, he said.
“We’ve never had aggressive desegregation of housing, but we should,” Feagin said. “When housing is desegregated, schools are desegregated.”
Gilbert Miller, a former deputy superintendent of Martin County schools who has lived in the same house in Hobe Sound for 46 years, has seen firsthand the changes time has wrought on matters of race in the area. He’s confident change will come and that blacks, whites and other races will one day live in harmony and equity. It’s inevitable.
And though he said much of the burden of bringing about positive change must be borne by the citizenry, it still remains up to the government to force reform when reform must be forced.
“There are elected officials who are responsible for the welfare of the people in as much as that is what government is all about, to do for people what they cannot do for themselves,” Miller said. “At such time government and the people responsible really take toll of what they are supposed to be doing for the people, I think things will improve.
“We have come a long way and we still have miles to go.”
Post Database Editor Christine Stapleton contributed to this story.
Copyright 2001 Palm Beach Newspapers, Inc.
Palm Beach Post (Florida)
April 30, 2001 Monday
MARTIN-ST. LUCIE EDITION
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