Shifting the landscape of segregation

By Michelle Chen Mar 06, 2009

Many of us grew up in cities where racial segregation was embedded in the landscape. A study by the Urban Institute traces how this came to be the status quo in American communities, and the way race relations, government policies, and economic trends shade in the urban grid. The journey of communities from de facto to de jure segregation traces how geographies of class and color become institutionalized and self-perpetuating over time:

[D]ecades of discrimination and disinvestment deprived high-poverty black neighborhoods of essential services and resources, allowing them to be overwhelmed by crime and violence… More recently, although federal housing policies have shifted and private-sector discrimination has subsided, patterns of residential racial segregation have proven stubbornly persistent. Today, neighborhoods that are predominantly white or predominantly minority tend to stay that way not because minorities are explicitly excluded from white neighborhoods but by the interaction of barriers, fears, and preferences. One factor is the disparity between whites and minorities in incomes and wealth. But economic differences do not account for most of today’s residential segregation; if households were distributed across neighborhoods based entirely on income rather than race or ethnicity, levels of segregation would be dramatically lower…. And although individual preferences (to live near those of the same race or ethnicity) play some role, most whites and minorities would prefer to live in considerably more diverse neighborhoods than they do.

When segregation goes beyond “preference” and becomes an outright barrier to opportunity, the consequences are far-reaching and cross-generational. Since “the problem of concentrated poverty and neighborhood distress would not exist in the absence of segregation,” the impacts include substandard schools, poor employment opportunities, and impacts on safety and health. The report argues:

Public policies can address locational disparities in two very different ways. They can try to eliminate or compensate for the deficits of poor and minority neighborhoods by investing in place-based services and assets, or they can help low-income working families move to better neighborhoods by offering housing search and relocation assistance, and directly addressing barriers of discrimination or housing affordability…. both investing in poor and minority communities and opening up a wider range of mobility options are important policy objectives, worth pursuing in tandem.

The above point is key for communities of color now being pummeled by the recession and foreclosures. Neighborhoods are disintegrating due to depopulation, blight and the erosion of wealth. Eventually, people will restabilize; communities will reconfigure themselves. And the demographics of those changes could bring a dramatic redistribution of resources, institutions and services. Policymakers and activists will then face the challenge of turning the economic chaos into an opportunity for communities to rebuild toward equity, not retrench into old divides.