Segregation is discrimination

On February 11, I was called to speak before the Advisory Board of the President's Initiative on Race at a public meeting held in San Jose, Calif. I was asked to address one fundamental question: What is the relationship between race and poverty in the United States?

As I am known for my studies of residential segregation in American cities, I assumed that my role was to outline the high degree of black segregation in U.S. urban areas and to trace out the implications of this fact for the well-being of African Americans.

Whether in South Africa, the South Bronx or the South Side of Chicago, people of African origin continue to be very highly segregated. Indeed, no group in the history of the United States has ever experienced the kind of segregation that urban blacks have known for more than 100 years -- not Poles, Jews or Italians in the past, and not Latinos or Asians today.

Black residential segregation has little to do with income: the most affluent black families are just as segregated as the poorest families. The poorest Latinos and Asians are less segregated than the most affluent blacks, and in some 20 U.S. urban areas, black segregation is so intense that it has been labeled "hypersegregation."

The high degree of black segregation is explained largely by the persistence of racial prejudice and discrimination. From recent surveys, we know that whites still display a limited acceptance of racial mixing within neighborhoods. Although they accept open housing in principle, in practice they still have strong reservations about living near more than a few black neighbors. We also know that black home seekers continue to experience high rates of discrimination in urban real estate markets, and that black mortgage applicants are rejected far more often than comparably qualified whites. Neighborhoods containing blacks likewise do not receive the share of bank loans that one would expect from market indicators alone.

Black respondents to social surveys continue to express strong support for residential desegregation in principle and practice, leading to the conclusion that high levels of black segregation are mostly involuntary.

If true, segregation imposes a very high cost on African Americans, because housing markets don't simply distribute a place to live; they also distribute anything that is correlated with where one lives. So housing markets distribute education, health, safety, wealth, peer groups and insurance rates as well as houses. If people do not have full access to housing markets, they do not have complete access to the full range of opportunities and resources available in American society.

Over the past two decades, black residential segregation has also interacted with transformations of the urban economy to yield unparalleled concentrations of poverty in black neighborhoods. As manufacturing collapsed and high wage jobs disappeared, rates of black poverty rose, and because blacks remain segregated, the added poverty was absorbed by a small number of tightly packed, densely settled, racially isolated neighborhoods. To a far greater extent than other groups, therefore, African Americans not only suffer the disadvantages of growing up poor; they also suffer the additional handicap of living in a poor neighborhood.

The message that I sought to communicate to the President's Initiative and the public was that a segregated society cannot be a race-blind society, and that a segregated society is necessarily one where the life chances of African Americans are decisively undermined. It is not a popular or happy message, and some in the audience, both black and white, were uncomfortable with it. But more than two decades of research convinces me that it is true.

Douglas Massy is the Dorothy S. Thomas Professor of Sociology in the Population Studies Center and chairman of the Department of Sociology.

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Originally published on February 26, 1998