Did you see the New York Times article the other day about how Tulsa has proposed to divide its school system into several separate, free-standing school districts, each with its own Board of Education and each funded by taxes raised within the district? The proposal was met with immediate and vocal objections from civil rights groups all over the country. They argued that the proposal was nothing more than a thinly disguised attempt to divide the city by race. The mostly white districts would fund themselves separately from the district where most African Americans live.
You missed that article, you say? Of course, you did. It never happened. But if it had happened, would it have been any more offensive to our sensibilities than a community that has intentionally maintained such a system for more than 60 years after Brown v. Board of Education held that “separate but equal” was inherently unequal.
Let’s face it. When people from the Hartford suburbs say they don’t want their town to merge with Hartford, someplace buried and unspoken in the dialogue is the fact, because it is a fact, that with the exception of Bloomfield, most people in each town are white and most people in Hartford aren’t.
Greater Hartford is observably racially segregated by town. Education in greater Hartford is separate and unequal.
There. I’ve said it. I didn’t say anyone is a racist. I didn’t say that racial segregation is anyone’s fault or that anyone is to blame. I’m not accusing anyone of anything, but that doesn’t mean that racial segregation doesn’t exist in our region. We would be foolish to think otherwise.
The state of race relations in the region, as well as in the country generally, is beyond my current understanding. I don’t pretend to be an expert; in fact, I’m barely qualified to be called a novice. But I’m pretty good at math, so I can understand raw data. The raw data is this:
Hartford 35% white
East Hartford 54%
South Windsor 85%
West Hartford 85%
The combined percentage – 59% white – isn’t all that unusual for a mid-sized American city. Columbus is 62%, Nashville is 65%, Tulsa is 63%. Most American cities have neighborhoods that are predominantly black, some that are predominantly white, some mixed — and greater Hartford is no different.
If greater Hartford isn’t racially different from most other similarly sized cities, what is different? Only one thing: We happen to have created boundaries where there’s no need for boundaries. We have boundaries where other cities have none. What’s the difference between Windsor Avenue, Windsor and one block south on Main Street, Hartford? No difference, except for the names we give the towns. What’s the difference between a block east of Prospect Street and a block west of Prospect? No difference, except that we call one place Hartford and the other place West Hartford.
But there is a consequence of having drawn those boundaries, which is the boundaries help keep the towns culturally distinct. The zoning regulations, the school policies, the politics all are to some extent the product of the cultures that predominate in the towns. Those cultures often have a tendency to make others uncomfortable or feel unwelcome. It may not be conscious and it isn’t anyone’s fault, but let’s face it, Newington and Wethersfield and West Hartford: You have neighbors in other towns who don’t feel welcome in your town. And let’s face it, Hartford and Bloomfield, you have neighbors in other towns who don’t feel welcome in your town, either.
This summer, the Hartford Courant reported that the Wethersfield police stop people of color in numbers that make it seem very likely that inappropriate racial profiling is taking place. The numbers are worse in Wethersfield than in any of the other towns surrounding Hartford. Is anyone surprised that the whitest town in the area may have the most racially insensitive approach to policing? Absent other factors, wouldn’t we expect town practices to reflect and protect the predominant culture?
Broader American society has long since decided, and most decent people in greater Hartford agree, that social and cultural mobility is desirable, that people should to a great extent be free to live where they want and to associate with whom they want. We agree that all people should have equal opportunity. Our municipal structure creates artificial but real barriers that keep people apart.
So, what would be so bad about living in a city of 370,000 people, without the borders that currently divide us? What would be so bad about living in a city that looked, demographically, like Columbus or Nashville?
Let’s face it: We all want the same things: safe streets, good schools, opportunity for ourselves and our children. We want it in Windsor, we want it in Hartford, we want it in West Hartford. A line drawn arbitrarily down Prospect Street, a line drawn arbitrarily across Windsor Avenue/Main Street doesn’t change any of that. Those arbitrarily drawn lines divide us, but they don’t protect us.
Protect us? Protect us from what? From each other? Here’s another ugly truth, and we might as well face it: More than a few people in the Hartford suburbs think that the problem with Hartford is that “those people” don’t know how to run “their” city. I’ve heard it. They don’t say what they mean by “those people,” but it’s clear they mean “those people who are different from me, those brown people.” And people in Hartford don’t want “those people” (in the surrounding towns, those white people) telling them what to do with “their” city.
Well guess what? If we merged Hartford and the surrounding towns, we’d no longer have to worry about “those people” and how they run “their” town. It would be all of us, together, deciding how to run “our” city, and that would make all the difference in the world. If you live in Hartford and you think Wethersfield town policing is racially discriminatory, well, in a merged police department that problem would be solved, quickly. If you live in West Hartford and you wouldn’t want Hartford’s current board of education to run your schools, well, in a merged city you and all your neighbors in what are currently the surrounding towns would control the school board. In a merged Hartford, we’d all be in it together, and I firmly believe that all of us together are stronger and better than all of us divided into eight towns.
Our current municipal governance structure impedes our progress toward becoming a functional community that is racially, ethnically, culturally and religiously diverse. Merging Hartford and the surrounding towns won’t alone achieve that objective, but it will remove a significant barrier to that progress.