One lesson from America’s two-decade Afghanistan debacle is that you can’t achieve success if you can’t define it. A political goal is seldom attained if every description of it sounds vague or arbitrary; it cannot be realized by any known policy mechanism; and it draws strong opposition from foes while earning only tepid support from putative constituents. Housing integration is no exception. As a senator, Walter Mondale was a leading congressional sponsor of the Fair Housing Act. After its 1968 enactment, he said that the law’s purpose was to replace ghettos by means of “truly integrated and balanced living patterns.” Fifty-four years later, it remains unclear how to parse or implement that objective.

Not that people have stopped caring. The Imperative of Integration (2010), by philosophy professor Elizabeth Anderson, contends that integration “promotes greater equality and democracy” by enlarging the shared civic realm from “particularistic ethno-racial identities” to “identification with a larger, nationwide community.” Similarly, Richard Rothstein of the Economic Policy Institute argued in The Color of Law: A Forgotten History of How Our Government Segregated America (2017) that federal policies are the main reason we have housing segregation, by which he means that blacks and whites are far less likely to share a neighborhood than random chance would predict. Such segregation has harmed all Americans, he contends, but especially blacks. Further, only countervailing federal policies can end it, which is urgent because “integration will benefit all of us, white and African American.”

At one point, however, after endorsing various government measures to promote integration, Rothstein admits that it’s “appropriate to wonder why we should go to great expense to persuade people to follow a policy that nobody, black or white, seems to want.” One attorney told him: “I am a middle-class African-American professional woman, and I want to live where I can be comfortable, where there are salons that know how to cut my hair, where I can easily get to my church, and where there are supermarkets where I can buy collard greens.” And the evidence for anti-integration sentiment goes beyond anecdotes. Rothstein cites surveys showing that most whites and blacks speak favorably about integration in the abstract. But the data immediately reveal a difficulty: whites consider a neighborhood integrated when the proportion of blacks residing there is around 10 percent, close to the present national total of 12.1 percent. (Rothstein ascribes this preference to whites’ desire to “dominate.”) The same polls show that African-Americans believe that a neighborhood is integrated when blacks account for 20 percent to 50 percent of the inhabitants, two to four times their proportion in the national population.

Is integration still a goal worth pursuing?

That whites and blacks have irreconcilable ideas about what integration means is no small problem. If, as a thought experiment, we subordinate every conflicting political consideration to racial integration, a housing czar could assign people homes in specific locations. By embracing the standard that African-Americans should constitute 12 percent of the residents of each block, he could use his unchecked power to integrate every zip code and census tract. Yet, if the goal is to increase the number of communities where blacks amount to one-fifth or half of the local population, there’s an obvious limit to what he could do, given that they constitute just one-eighth of the national population. Even the most obsessive social engineer would eventually run out of blacks to integrate, leaving some places integrated according to the more expansive definition of the term and many others with few or no African-American residents.

In this scenario, not only would many communities remain predominantly white; no community could be predominantly black. Sociologists Maria Krysan and Reynolds Farley showed in 2002 that the first choice for 20 percent of African-Americans was to live in a neighborhood that was all-black, and another 23 percent preferred one that was more than two-thirds black. In 2019, a banker, who could have afforded a home anywhere in Chicago, explained to journalist Carlo Rotella his decision to reside in South Shore, a neighborhood more than 90 percent black: “I value the quality of Afrocentrism, and not just in the political sense. I value being recognized and regarded as normal, not being seen when I walk down the street as different and remarkable.”

Suppose the housing czar accedes to those blacks who want to live in a predominantly black area. If they amount to 43 percent of the U.S. black population, the zero-sum problem becomes even more acute. Few communities will ever be “truly integrated and balanced,” by any definition, if only 57 percent of black Americans—6.9 percent of all Americans—are available for the czar’s integration project.

Step outside this thought experiment, back to the reality where Americans have considerable latitude to move from place to place, and it becomes even harder to spell out what integration means and how we achieve it. Integration in the real world requires public policies, economic incentives, and social pressures that induce some people to relocate and some to stay put. Otherwise, it’s highly likely to meet a Chicago alderman’s cynical, but empirically grounded, definition of integration: the transitional period that commences when the first black family moves into a neighborhood and concludes when the last white family moves out.

Rothstein defines a “stable integrated community” as a suburb with a black population no more than 10 percentage points over, but also no less than 10 under, the proportion of blacks in an entire metropolitan area. In greater New York, where 15 percent of the residents are African-American, the boundaries would be 5 percent and 25 percent, and they’re between 22 percent and 42 percent in metropolitan Atlanta, where the figure is 32 percent.

“Polls show that African-Americans see a community as integrated when blacks are 20–50 percent of inhabitants.”

Rothstein’s proposals for achieving this goal do not lack for audacity. One is for the federal government to purchase, at market rate, houses for sale in suburbs where African-Americans are underrepresented, and then sell them to black buyers at steeply discounted prices. Another calls on Congress to “amend the tax code to deny the mortgage interest deduction” to all homeowners in a suburb where the proportion of black residents falls more than 10 percentage points below the metropolitan average.

He implicitly acknowledges that a Catch-22 will impede such programs. Such sweeping proposals won’t be politically feasible until a widespread “sense of outrage” exists, based on the acceptance of his thesis about housing segregation’s causes and effects. This is the climate of opinion that we might expect in an America where a political party could win congressional majorities by promising to suspend the mortgage interest deduction in insufficiently integrated suburbs. In that country, though, Rothstein’s policy agenda would be redundant. That version of America would already comprise thousands and thousands of predominantly “white communities whose interracial hospitality,” as he terms it, had become “widely known.”

The more promising course, then, may be to heed the advice offered on many Prius bumpers: think globally but act locally. One of the most durable and, by its own standards, successful efforts to achieve a stable integrated community can be found in Oak Park, Illinois, a suburb of some 55,000 residents abutting Chicago’s border, eight miles west of the Loop. Oak Park was 99 percent white in 1970, but blacks accounted for 11 percent of its residents in 1980 and 18.5 percent by 1990. Based on the pattern established in many other Chicago neighborhoods and suburbs, as well as in communities across the country, Oak Park should have been poised for “white flight,” as the black population’s growth reached a “tipping point” that saw the slow departure of whites turn into a rush for the exits. Instead, Oak Park’s demographics have changed only slightly. In 2021, the village’s population was 18.4 percent black. (As such, it satisfies Rothstein’s criterion for integration, since African-Americans account for 16.7 percent of metropolitan Chicago’s population.) The modest decline in Oak Park’s white population, from 76.9 percent in 1990 to 66.1 percent in 2021, corresponds to a rising number of Hispanic and Asian residents.

To achieve this degree of integration and then sustain it for decades is as unusual in northeastern Illinois as it is throughout the United States. You won’t find it anywhere in Oak Park’s immediate vicinity, which is made up of other communities that were also nearly all-white for most of the twentieth century. An adjacent village, River Forest, remains 83 percent white and 7 percent black. Cicero and Berwyn, to Oak Park’s south, are now predominantly Hispanic, with small minorities of non-Hispanic whites and even smaller ones of non-Hispanic blacks. Just west of Oak Park, Maywood and Bellwood have large African-American majorities, as does Austin, the Chicago neighborhood immediately east of Oak Park, which is 84 percent black and 4 percent white.

Austin’s transformation from middle-class and predominantly white (more than 99 percent white in 1960) to poor and predominantly black (over 86 percent black in 1990) was the proximate cause of Oak Park’s decision to confront and control its demographic change. “Reconsidering the Oak Park Strategy,” an academic paper written in 2002 by Evan McKenzie, a political scientist, and Jay Ruby, an anthropologist, states: “The 1970s witnessed classic block-by-block resegregation in Austin, an event that had enormous psychological impact on Oak Parkers.” As a result, “Austin became a negative example for many Oak Parkers, who were determined to chart a different course.”

That course became “managed integration,” also known as “integration maintenance” or “intentional integration.” The policy was carried out by the village government, advisory boards, civic groups, and, above all, the nonprofit Oak Park Regional Housing Center (OPRHC), created in 1972. The goal was to assist people seeking to move into Oak Park, especially blacks, while reassuring those thinking about leaving Oak Park, especially whites.

Beyond stabilizing Oak Park’s demographic profile to resemble closely that of the Chicago metropolitan area, the managed integration program worked to prevent the emergence of any predominantly black or white neighborhoods within the suburb. As J. Robert Breymaier, executive director of OPRHC from 2006 to 2018, has written, the goal is to encourage as many relocations as possible that will “sustain or improve the integration of a particular building or block.” McKenzie and Ruby observed that 81 percent of Oak Park’s blocks had at least one black family in 2000. This is, they say, “an achievement that few communities have realized.” It is also, however, an effort consistent with writer Steve Sailer’s derisive opinion that managed integration amounts to making sure that there is “one black per block” but as few as possible in excess of that.

Initially, Oak Park’s managed integration effort focused on homeowners, seeking simultaneously to encourage “fair housing”—a nondiscriminatory real-estate market—and discourage white flight. To keep the sight of For Sale signs on lawns from triggering panic selling, as had occurred in Austin and other Chicago neighborhoods, Oak Park prohibited them. A 1977 Supreme Court ruling held that such bans violated the First Amendment, but because no Oak Park real-estate agent has challenged it in court, the prohibition remains in effect as a practical matter.

Oak Park also offered, beginning in 1978, the Equity Assurance Program, an insurance policy providing protection from housing-market changes related to integration. In Chicago neighborhoods that had resegregated, either the fact or fear of demographic change had led many homeowners to sell at a loss. The Equity Assurance Program guaranteed policyholders that they would be compensated if they found themselves selling their home at a price below what they paid for it.

Perhaps the best evidence for the success of Oak Park’s effort to stabilize integration is that no claims have ever been made under this insurance program. Instead, property values rose steadily as Oak Park became one of the most affluent suburbs in western Cook County. Breymaier writes that diversity is among Oak Park’s “core values,” central to its “identity and sense of place,” as well as the village’s “brand.” Integration, in this view, is sustained by a virtuous circle: it draws people of all ethnicities who value life in a diverse community, and then gives them a stake in preserving it. The steadily climbing property values, in turn, guarantee that homeowners of any ethnicity are likely to be upper-middle-class professionals with compatible outlooks and concerns.

It’s unclear why, given Oak Park’s prosperity and seeming harmony, integration has been managed for 50 years without becoming self-sustaining, and apparently needs to be managed for decades to come. (TODD BANNOR/ALAMY STOCK PHOTO)
It’s unclear why, given Oak Park’s prosperity and seeming harmony, integration has been managed for 50 years without becoming self-sustaining, and apparently needs to be managed for decades to come. (TODD BANNOR/ALAMY STOCK PHOTO)

By the time McKenzie and Ruby examined Oak Park’s managed integration program, nearly 30 years after its inception, it had “become so complicated that few Oak Parkers fully understand it.” There’s nothing esoteric about a crucial element, however. Oak Park is an older inner-ring suburb, unlike those around the country that saw subdivisions of single-family homes spring up in the years after World War II. As a result, it has fewer homeowners and more renters than most suburbs. Breymaier reports that when the managed integration effort began in the 1970s, half of Oak Park’s residential units were rental properties; 40 percent remain so. Most of these rental units are apartments in small buildings, managed by “mom-and-pop” landlords who own, at most, a handful of additional apartment buildings.

The city government has used sticks, such as building inspections and the threat of fines, and carrots, including loans and other financial benefits, to motivate landlords to use OPRHC as their rental agent. Through the city’s Diversity Assurance Program (DAP), for example, owners of apartment buildings can receive low-interest loans to make upgrades in exchange for a five-year commitment to do business with OPRHC. In addition, McKenzie and Ruby write, DAP “pays the owner rent for leaving apartments empty until a tenant of the proper race can be found—i.e., a white tenant for a predominantly black building, or a black tenant for one that is predominantly white.”

Breymaier estimates that OPRHC brokered 40 percent of the leases signed in Oak Park over the five years from 2010 through 2014. OPRHC, in turn, engages in “affirmative escorting” or “reverse steering” when an apartment-seeker contacts it to inquire about vacancies. A 1988 Chicago Reader article on Bobbie Raymond, OPRHC’s founder, described the goal less clinically: for clients to end up in “appropriate apartments.” That is, “whites are usually given listings on the east side of the village, next to Chicago’s mostly black Austin neighborhood.” Blacks, conversely, “are sent to white neighborhoods in the center and west of Oak Park, or referred to other suburbs with newer housing.” Breymaier calculates that 68 percent of relocations that OPRHC facilitates are “affirmative moves”—ones that increase a block’s or a building’s racial integration. By his estimation, only 25 percent of relocations taking place on the open market, without OPRHC involvement, are affirmative moves.

Managed integration operates in a gray area. As Breymaier carefully stipulates, “Landlords do not have the same legal ability to engage in integration activity that the nonprofit and property-free Housing Center enjoys.” Translated, this means that an Oak Park landlord would invite endless trouble by rejecting an application from a tenant of the “wrong” racial or ethnic group. OPRHC, by contrast, has spent 50 years telling clients, based on their race, that they should consider this neighborhood rather than that one, and has done so without incurring lawsuits or bad publicity. “It is through direct, face-to-face conversation that OPRHC addresses irrational fears, provides missing information, replaces myths and stereotypes with facts, and engages in gentle persuasion to consider new options,” in Breymaier’s account of the coaching process. “This results in a much different housing search than would occur without OPRHC.”

Its long-term success in stabilizing integration makes Oak Park an exception. But what rule does it prove? It’s clear to Breymaier that, because managed integration has bequeathed “strong and stable property values” and “a foundation for community harmony,” Oak Park has “provided a replicable model for other communities.”

If this is true, why have only a few other places tried the Oak Park strategy, and why has none replicated its success? Presumably, thousands of localities would be pleased to combine strong, stable property values with community harmony. And Oak Park’s achievement is well documented and widely known.

Yet even localities that launched versions of managed integration before Oak Park did have scaled back or given up. Like Oak Park, the Cleveland suburb of Shaker Heights regards “healthy race relations” as “a cornerstone of the community’s identity,” according to a 2019 Washington Post story. Yet, in Breymaier’s assessment, Shaker Heights’s programs, which predate Oak Park’s by more than a decade, have abandoned the integration of individual neighborhoods, retreating to stabilization of the city’s aggregate demographic makeup.

At least they’re still at it. Chicago’s South Shore neighborhood also tried to stabilize its demographic mix in the 1960s. The endeavor, studied in sociologist Harvey Molotch’s Managed Integration: Dilemmas of Doing Good in the City (1972), was admirably earnest—and utterly ineffective. “The efforts of the South Shore Commission and the public resources allocated to ‘save’ South Shore were,” Molotch concludes, “wasted.” South Shore went from nearly all-white to nearly all-black over the course of 20 years, just like many other South Side and, later, West Side neighborhoods. If anything, managed integration accelerated resegregation. The commission’s public-relations campaigns about the satisfactions of life in a multiracial neighborhood neither induced whites to move in nor dissuaded them from moving out. Circulars about improved schools and parks did, however, help persuade black people living elsewhere in Chicago to relocate to South Shore.

McKenzie and Ruby have the better argument when they contend that Oak Park cannot be an integration template, since its success rests on a unique mix of factors: “proximity to a depressed urban neighborhood, aging housing stock, a high percentage of apartment buildings, and a small, affluent, politically independent liberal community that has the means to be proactive.” They note that Republican presidential nominee George W. Bush won 23 percent of the vote in the 2000 election, losing all 70 precincts in what a Chicago Tribune columnist calls “the People’s Republic of Oak Park.”

The more pressing question, in McKenzie and Ruby’s view, is not whether the Oak Park Strategy can be implemented elsewhere, but how long it can continue in Oak Park itself. In a roundabout way, Breymaier confirms those doubts. If not for OPRHC’s programs, he told the Washington Post in 2015, “Oak Park would probably remain diverse, but it would start segregating very quickly.” But it’s unclear why, given Oak Park’s prosperity and alleged harmony, integration has been managed for 50 years without becoming self-sustaining, and apparently needs to be managed for decades to come, with no prospect of persisting on its own.

Breymaier’s explanation—managed integration “is not something we can stop doing” because without “an intention to promote integration, segregation often just happens because of the way our society is built”—is too amorphous to resolve this paradox. Better insight begins with Nikole Hannah-Jones, famous for guiding the New York Times’s 1619 Project. In a 2016 article on race and public education in New York City, she wrote disdainfully about the “carefully curated integration” that certain schools practiced in order to reassure whites by enrolling “some students of color, but not too many.”

Such curation appears integral to the Oak Park strategy. OPRHC added the word “Regional” to its name in the 1990s, when it began “expanding choices for its clients throughout the western suburbs,” according to the official history. The change enhanced OPRHC’s capacity to limit the number of blacks in Oak Park by affirmatively escorting black clients to available properties beyond the village borders. For the black proportion of Oak Park’s population to “fluctuate” between 18 percent and 22 percent over a 31-year period is otherwise difficult to explain. Yet candidly acknowledging this consideration would, McKenzie and Ruby say, come “perilously close to saying that there should be a quota for blacks in Oak Park,” thereby implying “that black residents are no longer welcome, which is radically contrary to the village’s historic openness and racial liberalism.”

This circumscribed hospitality, implicit in a managed integration program relying on complexity and euphemism, becomes explicit when every decision about who moves in gets made by a single entity. Starrett City Associates, owner and manager of a 5,800-unit Brooklyn rental apartment complex that opened in 1974, was committed to integration, which it pursued by maintaining fixed percentages of the major demographic groups residing in Starrett City—not just overall, but in each building, and even on each floor. Within its first years of operation, however, managed integration came to mean that black applicants for a Starrett City apartment were placed on a waiting list eight times as long as the one for white applicants.

“Beyond maintaining ethnic ratios, curating a suburb’s population entails screening prospective residents.”

Lawsuits by private parties and the Justice Department resulted in federal court rulings that these quotas violated the 1968 Fair Housing Act. “Although integration maintenance programs are consistent with the spirit of residential desegregation,” sociologist Douglas S. Massey wrote in American Apartheid: Segregation and the Making of the Underclass (1993), “ultimately they operate by restricting black residential choice and violating the letter of the Fair Housing Act.” When managed integration does not constrain blacks’ housing options directly with quotas, it does so indirectly, says Massey, “through a series of tactics designed to control the rate of black entry.”

Beyond maintaining neighborhoods’ ethnic ratios, curating a suburb’s population entails screening prospective residents, managing the sort of people who move in as well as the number. Consider: Oak Park, with some 10,000 African-American residents, averages about one murder every three years. Chicago’s Austin neighborhood, home to about 84,000 African-Americans, had more than 450 homicides from 2001 through 2012, a rate exceeding three per month, evidence that Austin is 100 times as violent as Oak Park. Given this contrast, it’s hard to doubt that Oak Park’s population is very different, socioeconomically, from Austin’s. It’s not much easier to believe that these differences came about spontaneously, or can be explained entirely by Oak Park’s higher housing costs. If, alternatively, Oak Park and Austin residents are not so different, we must believe that the experience of integration is profoundly pacifying, while enduring the trauma of diversity deprivation incubates murderous rage. (And yet, River Forest, as white as Austin is black, has a crime rate lower than Oak Park’s.)

Oak Park became one of the most affluent suburbs in western Cook County—and its steadily climbing property values ensured that homeowners of any ethnicity were likely to be upper-middle-class professionals with compatible concerns. (B.O’KANE/ALAMY STOCK PHOTO)
Oak Park became one of the most affluent suburbs in western Cook County—and its steadily climbing property values ensured that homeowners of any ethnicity were likely to be upper-middle-class professionals with compatible concerns. (B.O’KANE/ALAMY STOCK PHOTO)

Breymaier’s insistence that Oak Park must prop up its integration eternally suggests that there’s less to the village’s openness, liberalism, and harmony than meets the eye. This suspicion is fortified by a ten-part documentary, America to Me, first aired on cable television in 2018. It was directed by Steve James, best known for his 1994 movie Hoop Dreams. James lives in Oak Park, where his children attended Oak Park and River Forest High School, the village’s only public secondary school. It is the setting for America to Me, filmed over the course of the 2015–16 academic year. (River Forest’s population is one-fifth the size of Oak Park’s. A graphic in the first episode says that the high school’s student population is 55 percent white, 27 percent black, 9 percent Latino, 6 percent biracial, and 3 percent Asian.)

Though affecting, the documentary leaves the impression of race relations that are more wary and tense than harmonious. America to Me mentions early on that white students and families were conspicuously reluctant to appear on camera. At one point, an African-American education consultant voices the sort of judgment that such families might well have feared. “What I’ve discovered about white liberal people is that their liberalness goes only as far as when it starts to challenge their situation personally. That’s the Oak Park–River Forest community.”

At another point, in a meeting of parents, teachers, and administrators to discuss black students receiving, on average, lower test scores than kids in other demographic groups, one woman says that her son had graduated from the high school with “a sense of urgency to rediscover his identity.” In other words, “like a lot of other African-American kids who left here, [he] couldn’t get to a historically black college and university fast enough. Because he needed to re-find himself.” It appears that life in integrated Oak Park leaves some black residents with the same aversion as the South Shore banker’s to being seen, with uncomfortable regularity, as different and remarkable.

All told, the Oak Park strategy appears to be that rare phenomenon: a discouraging success. Those who share the cautious temperament prized by philosopher Michael Oakeshott will conclude that Oak Park proves, again, that a consensus that a certain social change should come about does not establish that there must be some way to bring it about. Nor does it guarantee that a policy approach that worked once, somewhere, can work everywhere else, or even anywhere else, without unacceptable costs or collateral damage.

Unless we jettison liberty for the sake of equality and fraternity, Americans will always find ways to vote with their feet against imposed integration. That reality should constrain our ingenuity, leading us to reject shoves in favor of nudges. Examples of the latter include Oak Park’s Equity Assurance Program and the Shaker Heights initiative of using private grants to provide mortgage subsidies to people who purchased homes in neighborhoods where most residents were of a different race. The zeal to do more—to transform—leads directly to what author Tanner Colby calls “integration fatigue.” As a black resident said after the Supreme Court put a failed Kansas City school desegregation program out of its misery in 1995, “We’re tired of chasing white people.”

Top Photo: A view of downtown Chicago from Oak Park’s Metra commuter rail station (TODD BANNOR/ALAMY STOCK PHOTO)


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