Come On Rice Kinder Houston Area Survey, Houston’s Segregation is the Real Story, Not Our Demographic Diversity
Houston Museum of African American Culture
September 6, 2018
With great fanfare each year, the Rice Kinder Houston Area Survey examines Houston residents’ opinions on the city’s increasing diversity of our racial and ethnic population. But just how impactful is that examination to neighborhoods of color, given the use of diversity as its analytical core? That’s a valid question, and one we ask in this White Paper.
For example, this year’s Survey Conclusion included the statement:
“Hidden beneath the political divides, Houston-area residents are embracing the diversity and are increasingly in favor of policy initiatives to reduce the region's income inequalities, improve the public schools, and strengthen resiliency and urban amenities. They seem more prepared today than at any time in the past 37 years to support the many ongoing efforts by Houston's business and civic leadership to address the new realities and position the Houston region for competitive success in the years ahead."
That statement sounds good, but what does it really mean when it is not tied directly to our city’s challenging segregation. For example, it would be useful for policy makers to know the extent to which the favored initiatives include addressing the exclusion of low-income people of color from well- resourced areas as well as the unequal conditions experienced by people of color living in segregated areas, or both.
Houston gets great public relations branding for being the most diverse city in the country - so great that many think we have no racial problems here - and many people of color are used to officially spread this relatively benign demographic reality. Once you peek behind the Ozian curtain, however, you find a tough segregated town full of racial disparities and income and wealth inequality that private sector philanthropic and business leadership, not just our public officials, should be asked to address in a more meaningful and impactful way.
Point No. 1. Houston is one of the five most economically segregated cities in the country, according to a 2015 Martin Prosperity Institute report.
This alarming fact has a far greater impact on our communities than a demographic brand. Indeed, the lead author of the 2015 study, Richard Florida, also authored a 2014 report that also ranked Houston No. 4 among the most income-segregated metropolitan areas in the nation. The 2015 study is even more definitive as it looks at three types of segregation — economic, educational and occupational — and combines them into a single metric to judge an area's economic landscape. Houston’s prominence on this list has to be of concern and begs the question, “Are we as racially progressive as the Rice Kinder Survey suggests and as we want people to think we are?”.
In 2010, 60.3% of Houston’s population identified as a minority compared with 42.1% in 1990. However, a Smithsonian Institute analysis noted this racial diversity does not bring with it racial integration. While Houston revels in being one of the most diverse metropolitan areas in the country, if represented on a map, the concentration of minority populations does not look like a “melting pot” of race and ethnicity but more like a sharply divided pie.
In short, we are NOT solely the city suggested by our demographic diversity public relations. We are also an extremely racially segregated city, in every way; residentially, economically, educationally and occupationally. Segregation is profoundly more impactful than is demographic diversity on a range of social and economic well-being outcomes such as access to services, how people view one another, and, most important, the average level of poverty in our neighborhoods.
Point No. 2. In Houston we must address BOTH the exclusion of low- income people of color from well-resourced areas AND the unequal conditions people of color living in segregated areas experience.
Our low-income neighborhoods deserve great schools and jobs and access to grocery stores just as much as rich and middle class neighborhoods do. The problem is we don’t offer these things now. And without real buy-in from progressive city elites, current policy seems likely to be as unsuccessful as past failed initiatives. On racial matters, if history is our guide, it seems such buy-in and investment is unlikely.
This is a major problem for our city’s most optimistically imagined future, and especially for the future of Houston’s people of color. Research shows that “high opportunity” neighborhoods result from consistent and dedicated investment by the private sector into them. Such neighborhoods are characterized by safer streets, good schools, greater levels of civic involvement and access to better jobs. These factors act to alleviate income and wealth inequality and help halt the cycle of poverty. In addition to attractive tax incentives to promote private investment into the “Opportunity Zones” that define these neighborhoods, some investment must come from investors who see them as part of a common future shared by them and the community residents.
In our city, a conversation on shared futures is best held by city philanthropic and business elites and experienced of color assets in our communities. But such of color assets are traditionally weak despite their effective community impact due to a lack of funding support and respect for them from our philanthropic and business communities.
At HMAAC we have made the argument that African American cultural assets build meaningful and impactful cultural capital that helps transform communities by reducing income and wealth inequality and poverty. We have also made the argument that strengthening the financial support of African American assets, especially cultural ones, to allow them to gain the operational and management experience that comes from more extensive community engagement, will, in the medium to long term, positively impact the problems associated with unequal conditions experienced by people of color living in segregated areas.
By making segregation the analytical core for evaluating Houstonians attitudes about “diversity,” light can be shed on the extent of trust our philanthropic and business elites have in African American and of color assets as a significant and impactful partner for change in our neighborhoods, and the extent to which such change is a shared goal.
While we noted the huge lack of trust and funding in a previous White Paper, “Call for Equity in Houston Cultural Funding,” as evidenced by the less than 1% funding of of color cultural assets by Houston’s major philanthropic foundations, it would be a nice barometer of our progress if that trust is measured annually in the Survey by responses from foundation officials to questions about of color assets.
Point No. 3. It’s time this African American generation emphasizes acquiring assets.
Data from the Brookings Institute indicates that, despite all current progress to bridge income inequality, Houston’s richest residents still make 11.8 times the average income of the poorest residents ($220,582 to $18,759), which is significantly higher than the national average (9.6 times). While the Rice Kinder Survey indicates favorable feelings about reducing income inequality, by not correlating such inequality to economic segregation, it seems to leave us with a high degree of uncertainty about what those favorable feelings actually mean.
Whether or not we make a dent in this horrendous income disparity in the
next few generations, Houston’s African Americans can move collectively to change the wealth disparity, in order to give our kids, our future, a vision of economic success that seems achievable and not remote. Despite the lack of inclusion in the city’s economy, African American ownership of assets and wealth building can make a slow, but steady difference in addressing the unequal conditions in our communities. Such ownership of assets is part of the additional private investment suggested earlier that is required to make Opportunity Zones truly effective.
At the recent HMAAC forum The Gathering, one of the featured speakers, an African American born to little wealth, told the participants of how twelve years earlier he began to acquire assets with the purchase of a $100 vending machine, and how he measured his return on investment “quarter by quarter.” Five years and numerous machines later, he was buying dilapidated houses near the low-income Sunnyside neighborhood where he grew up. His quality control: his sisters had lived in Section 8 housing and any house he restored had to meet a standard of comfort he would want for his sisters. Not only has this investor been a good community minded samaritan, but he also gained wealth, telling his audience that if he quit his day job tomorrow, he would not lose any of his lifestyle.
Such an asset acquisition strategy, one that HMAAC started at The Gathering, is certainly worth the effort, especially given the failure of public sector policies to have any significant impact in offsetting the debilitating effect of Houston’s stark segregation. Bottom line: while The Gathering’s highlighted speaker’s experience did not reduce the income gap, it has helped reduced the wealth gap.
As the Houston Museum of African American Culture (HMAAC) has indicated over and over again on social media YOU/WE HAVE A CHOICE. What are you/we going to do? There is a lot of talk constantly by and about our low income and of color communities. But there is little effective action that meets HMAAC’s goal to actually disrupt intergenerational poverty, to change the picture that is now prevalent and put forth throughout this White Paper.
A good start is to take the Rice Kinder Houston Area Survey for what it really is, a relatively benign comment, when it comes to race, on our population diversity, rather than an indication of attitudes on ending the overwhelming residential, education, occupational and economic segregation that continues to act as a barrier to progress for African Americans and Latinos in our city.
Perhaps if our city’s stark segregation was the analytical core of the Rice Kinder Area Survey, we could more transparently gauge our city’s philanthropic and business elites propensity to invest in of color cultural and other assets, and in their recognition of such assets’ critical importance in creating an inclusive and not simply a statistically diverse city.
Perhaps if we measured our progress through the prism of our segregation and make our goal our integration - economically, educationally and occupationally - we might make some substantial progress as a city toward meeting that goal as well as the reduction of residential segregation, and, in the process, become the national example of a preferred future we so desperately want and claim to be.
Perhaps if Houston’s African Americans begin to focus on wealth through asset acquisition despite continued unacceptable income disparities, a slow and historically elusive revitalization of our neighborhoods might finally begin to take hold. That would be real impact, real change, real progress.
John Guess, Jr.
CEO, Houston Museum of African American Culture