Modern Segregation: Residential Preferences? Or Something Else?

Many neighborhoods in America today still lack racial and ethnic diversity. In some of these communities, the differences between neighborhoods is so stark, it seems like they are segregated. In addition to the racial/ethnic differences, there often exist dramatic economic disparities. Some neighborhoods feel like completely different parts of the world.

Given how much progress America has made on race issues, some people assume that this type of segregation must exist because people choose to live separately, that segregation is a preference. But research tells a different story.

 racial preference chart

The reality is that even though African-Americans prefer highly integrated neighborhoods, they still end up living in segregated communities, regardless of income[1] or even after moving.[2] In one survey conducted in Long Island, New York, almost 70% of African-Americans surveyed stated they preferred an integrated community.[3] Studies indicate that if given the economic opportunities, African-American families formerly in public housing will move into more integrated areas and live there for years.[4]

Part of the reason behind US segregation comes from the fact that African-Americans still experience pervasive housing discrimination, including but not limited to predatory lending, racial steering, and discrimination based on credit[5]. Racial steering is when a lender or real estate agent specifically shows families housing in different neighborhoods based on their race or ethnicity.

Unfortunately, these patterns of segregation are affecting other ethnic minorities. Latino Americans are, by and large, also concentrated in minority neighborhoods. The most troubling pattern is that often these neighborhoods are suffering from disinvestment and lack important tools for economic growth such as quality public schools. Some may claim African-Americans and Latinos have a tendency to clump near family members, but studies show education and services are both higher priorities. There are opportunities for improving public education by reducing segregated housing patterns. Segregated communities are often not satisfied with the quality of their schools.[6] Other studies indicate how segregated public schools and universities reinforce the idea of racially segregated neighborhoods.[7]

What continues these patterns of residential segregation despite the desire of residents to live in diverse communities? Lack of knowledge about inclusive and diverse neighborhoods, in addition to aversion to integrated areas seems to fuel this residential segregation. There is evidence to suggest that the neighborhood preferences of Caucasian Americans play an important role in their neighborhoods’ racial composition.[8] There is also evidence to show that communities experience racial blind spots. African and Latino Americans are more likely to know about highly segregated and integrated communities but not as much about majority white neighborhoods; Caucasian Americans are not likely to know about integrated communities, even when integrated communities are predominantly white.[9]

As advocates for inclusive and economically vibrant communities, we need to close the ignorance gap regarding mixed income communities. Part of this means addressing misconceptions about affordable housing. Affordable housing can be a scary term, but it simply means having a wide range of housing options for all of the regions residents and work force. Improving the affordability of a community does not dramatically lower the property values of surrounding neighborhoods.

As a nation, we have come a long way in combating discrimination. Unfortunately, the journey is not over, housing discrimination still exists even though market demand tells us that people want to live in inclusive and diverse neighborhoods. A commitment to community integration requires us to address the persistent prejudice, ignorance and mistrust people hold about different racial and ethnic groups. Making this commitment is the first step towards creating the vibrant neighborhoods where we want to live.


[1] Maria Krysan & Reynolds Farley, The Residential Preferences of Blacks: Do They Explain

Persistent Segregation?, 80 SOC. FORCES, 937-80 (2002)

[2] Stefanie DeLuca & Peter Rosenblatt, Walking Away from “The Wire”: Residential Mobility and Opportunity in Baltimore (Johns Hopkins University, Working Paper, 2010).

[3] Housing and Neighborhood Preferences of African Americans on Long Island 2012 Survey Research Report. http://www.eraseracismny.org

[4] Stefanie DeLuca & Peter Rosenblatt, Walking Away from “The Wire”: Residential Mobility and Opportunity in Baltimore (Johns Hopkins University, Working Paper, 2010).

[5] Margery Turner & Stephen Ross, How Racial Discrimination Affects the Search for Housing, in THE GEOGRAPHY OF OPPORTUNITY at 81-100 (Xavier de Souza Briggs ed., 2005)

[6] Housing and Neighborhood Preferences of African Americans on Long Island 2012 Survey Research Report. http://www.eraseracismny.org

[7] Pat Rubio Goldsmith, Learning Apart, Living Apart: How the Racial and Ethnic Segregation of 8 Schools and Colleges Perpetuates Residential Segregation, 112 Tchrs. C. Rec. 1605-1606 (2010).

[8] Keith Ihlanfeldt & Benjamin Scafidi, Whites’ Neighborhood Racial Preferences and Neighborhood Racial Composition in the United States: Evidence from the Multi-City Study of Inequality, 19 HOUSING STUDIES 325, 325-359 (2004).

[9] Maria Krysan, Confronting Racial “Blind Spots” POVERTY &RACE (2008), http://www.prrac.org/full_text.php?text_id=1193&item_id=11275&newsletter_id=101&header=Housing&kc=1.

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