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Jewish World Review June 4, 2002 / 23 Sivan, 5762

Dennis Byrne

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Consumer Reports

Who needs common-sense when we have 'studies'? | A respected journalist once told me, half jokingly, that any story with the word "study" in it should be banned from the newspaper.

But how, I wondered, would the public know about all the threats lurking out there, such as potato chips, suburban lawns and red jujubes. Or of the benefits of stewed spinach.

Studies, it now is a given in this business, are news. It is a brave editor who refuses to cover the release of another. Without studies to guide us through life, we would have to revert to the bad old days of deciding for ourselves, using common sense. Studies are an easy news story--you just take what someone says and plop it into the paper or put it on the air. Who, after all, can challenge the science, the methodology or even the motives behind studies?

But my journalism mentor was right. I'd like to at least see a moratorium, however brief, on stories beginning: "A new study shows...." In some cases, it would spare us from poison--such as the study that regularly comes around documenting the depths of Chicago's segregation.

It showed up again last week, as some Harvard University professors dropped by to inform us that, according to one wire service, "Racial segregation intensifies in Chicago: Study." Said a report in another paper, the white population is running from blacks and Hispanics in a "fruitless effort to escape them." The news that "they" are following us out to the suburbs is supposed to send shivers down our white spines.

The study is based on a long-used methodology: determining the percent of people who would have to pack up and move to make any particular community reflect the racial proportions of the entire region. The higher the percentage, the more segregated we are.

That's arguably an OK statistical device, but, to put it bluntly, it's based on useless assumptions that aren't worth the price of a grant. It tells us nothing about the quality of life, neighborhood and community. If the standard were met, there would be no ethnically distinct neighborhoods--no Taylor Street, no Milwaukee Avenue, no Pilsen, no Little Village. Devon Avenue would simply be a strip of nondescript stores. Chicago would be as bland as the study.

Of course, the authors aren't saying this is the urban ideal. Just that we're guilty of something. And here is where the professor flips his lid, by thinking he can make a conclusion about human motivation by examining census data. "White people, led by upper- and middle-class whites, seem hell-bent on fleeing minorities," said Guy Stuart, a Harvard University lecturer in public policy. He should take his lecturing elsewhere. Instead, he comes all this way to let us have it with both barrels.

"My theory is that white home buyers are not being shown properties in diverse neighborhoods, because Realtors have written them off," he said, slandering an entire profession. Then chimed in Gary Orfield, a Harvard social policy professor, "National studies show that African Americans and Latinos don't want to live in homogeneous communities, but they face greater discrimination in home financing and home showings." Both Orfield and Stuart used to view the Chicago area from their perches at the University of Chicago, but I gather that they now have a better view from Cambridge.

News accounts say that the professors don't try to explain, at least in their studies, why this segregation is happening. Other observers were observed observing that some segregation is the result self-segregation. It's time to stick up for that concept again, instead of automatically assuming something mean is going on when people choose to live in neighborhoods of like people. Freedom of association still is a right, for good purpose.

Call me naive or, more likely, racist, but what we don't need are more theorems, especially from afar, about how divided we are, how we're running from each other, how much we are moved by some mysterious hatred, how we're huddling together against the unlike masses. If we must have studies, then let us examine how we're getting along better together, despite our differences. I'll bet no one is giving grants or writing dissertations on that.

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JWR contributor Dennis Byrne is a Chicago-area writer and public affairs consultant. Comment by clicking here.

05/07/02: Why is 'morality' a dirty word?
05/07/02: Why turn a blind eye to promising alternatives to human cloning?
04/16/02: Callous parents deaf to calls of common sense
02/15/02: When caring becomes sinister
01/25/02: The unreliable crystal balls of analysts
01/17/02: The curse of 'do-something' pols
01/09/02: Political moderation is for the indifferent, uninformed or undecided

© 2002, Dennis Byrne