Pattern shows a slow march to diversity

One of the sobering lessons of The Kansas City Star’s suburban comparisons is the relationship between racial diversity and the overall ratings:

The places where the races live closely together tended to be some of the lowest-rated suburbs. And the highest-rated suburbs tended to be homogeneous.

“There’s still a color line in suburbia,” observes Gwen Grant, president of the Urban League of Greater Kansas City.

In “Rating the ’Burbs,” The Star compared suburbs in some two dozen statistical measures. One of them was a sociological gauge of race relations called an exposure index, which calculates the likelihood that whites will see or interact with a minority.

The top four cities in diversity ended up ranking among the bottom 10 cities overall. Meanwhile, the top overall cities generally finished in the bottom 10 in diversity, with the exception of Olathe. No other statistical measure exhibited such an inverse relationship.

That continues a historical pattern. Traditionally around Kansas City, the most popular and prominent suburbs were less than welcoming toward minorities, especially African-Americans.

The federal government’s post-1930 housing loan programs encouraged all-white enclaves in Johnson County. Some parts of that county also were developed with covenants prohibiting sales to minorities and various ethnic groups. And most suburbs eschewed public housing.

Today, Kansas City remains one of the nation’s most segregated metropolitan areas, according to studies. When a poll for The Star asked local suburbanites what was important to their quality of life, racial diversity finished near the bottom. And racial incidents still occur in the suburbs occasionally — last year, the Johnson County president of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People was a victim of slurs.

Public policies “don’t encourage the introduction of minorities in suburban communities,” says Charles Jean-Baptiste, a Johnson Countian who is president of the Kansas NAACP chapter.

Still, suburbs are slowly becoming more diverse. And some cities are accommodating.

“I think conditions are improving across the metropolitan area,” says Prairie Village Mayor Ron Shaffer, also board chairman of the Mid-America Regional Council. “I see diversity being accepted across the board, and I don’t hear anything to the contrary. I feel good about that.”