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Examining Policy Responses to Residential Segregation in the United States

Less than a decade after the conclusion of the U.S. Civil War and the promise of the Reconstruction period, reactionary organizations led violent campaigns to entrench white supremacy and racial segregation. Explicit racial zoning ordinances and Jim Crow laws mandating segregation of public accommodations and excluding African Americans from educational and labor institutions worked in conjunction with mob violence to create an increasingly segregated urban landscape. At the same time, real estate developers’ and landscape architects’ early popularization of planned, suburban living advertised restrictive covenants prohibiting residence by nonwhites from Baltimore to Chicago, Kansas City to Los Angeles. As a result, by 1950 both white and black Americans were increasingly unlikely to have a neighbor of another race compared to the turn of the century. Institutional racism within public and private institutions compounded segregation through the post-World War II period of massive suburbanization and urban renewal. Today, levels of residential segregation by race remain high, and the resources in neighborhoods remain unequal.

In their new book, The Dream Revisited (Columbia University Press, 2019), Justin Steil, Class of 1942 Career Development Assistant Professor of Law and Urban Planning at MIT, and Ingrid Gould Ellen, Paulette Goddard Professor of Urban Policy and Planning at New York University, gather a diverse range of experts – including leading scholars and practitioners, civil rights advocates, affordable housing developers, elected officials, and fair housing lawyers – to discuss and debate the causes and consequences of the nation’s separate and unequal living patterns and how we might craft effective policy responses to residential segregation.

Q1. Why has racial segregation been such a persistent element of our nation’s history?

Steil: The causes of continuing segregation by race and increasing segregation by income today are more complex than they were 50 or 100 years ago. In the 1976 General Social Survey, nearly two out of every three white respondents nationwide favored a hypothetical local law allowing homeowners to discriminate on the basis of race when selling their home. By 2016, that share had fallen dramatically, but still included more than one out of every seven white respondents. Most agree that the history of institutional racism continues to play some role in shaping today’s residential patterns, but households today have significantly more freedom to choose what metropolitan areas and neighborhoods they live in than they did a half-century ago. Several contributors to The Dream Revisited emphasize that many white households continue to avoid predominantly black or Latino neighborhoods because of their assumptions about their quality of life and associated impacts to their future trajectory. These race-based, neighborhood stereotypes are stubborn and persistent.

Gould Ellen: The causes of continued segregation continue to be analyzed, updated, and debated, as discussions in the book show. Most agree that one significant factor contributing to segregation today is the municipal political boundaries within most metropolitan areas. The United States has a dramatically fragmented structure of local government, with more than 90,000 local governments and an average of over one hundred municipalities per metropolitan area. Some, such as the late economist Charles Tiebout, argue that this proliferation of local governments is efficient -- in that it allows residents to sort into municipalities by selecting the one that best meets their preferred set of amenities and their desire (or ability) to pay for those amenities through taxes. But these municipal governments are also invested with significant power, especially over local land use. Local governments frequently use this power to restrict the type and number of housing units within their borders, leading local government boundaries to serve often as boundaries between different socio-economic or racial groups.

Any simple dichotomy of cities and suburbs, however, cannot capture the reality of segregation in metropolitan regions in the United States. Metropolitan areas are now home to an increasingly multiethnic population as well as significant middle-class communities of color, spread across a range of urban and suburban communities. Public concern about segregation in recent years has focused less on suburban exclusion and more on urban gentrification – as well as the changing racial and income composition of many central city neighborhoods. Despite the transformation of our population and our geographies, residential segregation based on race nevertheless continues to characterize both our schools and our living environments.

Steil: Whatever the causes, the architecture of metropolitan segregation has proven durable. A particularly vivid example of this durability is how rapidly the residential patterns of the growing Latino population have become part of the structure of spatial stratification long experienced by African-Americans. The structures established over generations to maintain segregation by race have also arguably contributed to exacerbating segregation by income, which has increased over the past three decades in both neighborhoods and schools. There is growing evidence that, contrary to the cherished U.S. ideal of social mobility, disparities in wealth are ever more difficult to overcome. There is also evidence that aspects of our metropolitan areas, including segregation by race and by income, play a significant role in transmitting inequality from one generation to the next.

Q2. How does the physical location of one’s residence impact one’s access to social and economic opportunities?

Gould Ellen: Residential segregation by race and by income in U.S. cities has resulted in large disparities in the resources and services available in the neighborhoods. In terms of schools, the average white person in 2010 lived in a census tract where the nearest elementary school within the district ranked at the 58th percentile of proficiency scores in the metropolitan area. In contrast, the average black person lived in a tract where the nearest elementary school scored at only the 37th percentile, creating a 21-percentage point racial gap in proficiency ranking. The white-Latino gap is only a bit smaller, at 16 percentage points, while the white-Asian gap is only 2 percentage points. These gaps are more pronounced in more segregated metropolitan areas. The same pattern holds when looking at exposure to a number of other measures of neighborhood characteristics, such as college educated neighbors, neighborhood resources, such as public amenities like parks, and also hazards, such as environmental pollutants.

Steil: In short, residential segregation is creating separate and unequal communities. And research shows that these disparities matter. Growing evidence demonstrates that neighborhoods shape the long-run outcomes of children. The discussions in the book highlight research that suggests that residence in segregated metropolitan areas undermines the health, employment, and educational outcomes of both African American and Latino residents. Yet the exact mechanisms that connect residential segregation to negative individual outcomes continue to be researched and debated, as detailed in many of the discussions in our book.

Q3. Given continuing debate regarding the reasons why segregation is associated with negative individual outcomes, as we consider policy responses to segregation, where is there common ground and where is there continuing disagreement?

Gould Ellen: There is agreement that over the last few decades, black-white segregation has fallen slightly in the United States, while Latino-white and Asian-white segregation have remained relatively constant, and economic segregation has risen. Both poor and wealthy households are living in more economically homogenous communities than twenty or thirty years ago. There is also consensus that rising income segregation is driven in part by the growth in income and wealth inequality that has occurred over the last few decades. As the gap between the poor and the rich has grown, their ability to pay for housing has widened as well, leading neighborhoods to become more stratified at both ends of the income distribution.

Steil: Most fundamentally, there is debate among some of the contributors about the extent to which governments should actively intervene in the market to encourage integration rather than simply policing anti-discrimination laws. Even among those who agree that there are grounds for government intervention, there is disagreement about the appropriate goals—should the aim be to equalize public resources across neighborhoods or to integrate neighborhoods themselves? Further, there is disagreement about the best means to achieve either of those ends.

For instance, the sociologist Mary Pattillo argues that a focus on integration “stigmatizes Black people and Black space and valorizes Whiteness.” Drawing on his analyses of public policy in Sweden, the geographer Roger Andersson, however, points out that even programs designed to invest in particular neighborhoods without promoting integration can similarly “further stigmatize the targeted area” and often “turn out either to displace problems somewhere else or to be simply ineffective.” What then to do? Sherrilyn Ifill, director of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, contends that racial integration has value as a goal in and of itself and promises benefits for all that do not rest on stigmatizing blackness: namely, the promise of a truly equal, inclusive, multiracial society characterized by greater cross-racial understanding and civic engagement, as well as a more equitable allocation of public services. The historian Richard Rothstein argues that racial integration is essentially a constitutional imperative, to redress centuries of public policy enforcing an apartheid state. Others, such as the sociologist Patrick Sharkey, argue that regardless of the value placed on integration as a goal, segregation reproduces inequality and integrative moves are therefore at least one worthwhile path towards greater racial equality.

Gould Ellen: As examples Justin provides suggest, there is much to learn from pinpointing where exactly people disagree. Some of these disagreements are rooted in normative judgments, while others concern facts and thus lay out an important agenda for future research. For example, we need more research to understand the pathways through which segregation may undermine the opportunities of children of color and children who are poor. Given limited resources, what types of neighborhood improvements should we prioritize? Should the focus be on public safety, schools, or access to transportation and jobs? Or should the focus be fostering a mixing of incomes? We also need more experimentation and research to understand the types of policy reforms that can break down barriers and afford households a broader array of residential choices.

Finally, and most fundamentally, these discussions highlight the value of debate in itself. They show how much we can learn in conversation with people with different backgrounds and viewpoints. The contributors model the dialogue and disagreement that is essential to academic learning as well as civic discourse. The Dream Revisited includes twelve debates between scholars and practitioners about how different policies may either ameliorate or exacerbate segregation, ranging from changing how rent subsidies are calculated for housing choice voucher holders to giving preferences to local residents to move into new subsidized housing developments.

Image credits and note:
Williams, Aaron and Armand Emamdjomeh, Dan Keating, Ted Mellnik, Laris Karklis. 'America is more diverse than ever -- but still segregated.' Washington Post, May 10, 2018, https://www.washingtonpost.com/graphics/2018/national/segregation-us-cities/?utm_term=.5b27f27af476  
The Dream Revisited, Columbia University Press, 2019.
Margaret Bourke, 'Flood Victims in Kentucky,1937,' Wikimedia Commons.

Image of data visualization of racial segregation in the United States used with permission from authors, who retain all rights, privileges, and copyrights.