The Urbanist Musings of Pete Saunders

Misunderstanding Residential Segregation

Measures of African-American residential segregation levels by MSA.  Source:

There’s an interesting piece at CityLab today.  Using Chicago as a framing for a discussion on segregation, CityLab published a story about the enduring nature of residential segregation, and highlighted a new study by the Migration Policy Institute that explores policies in Europe and America designed to reduce residential segregation among their most segregated groups.  I have a number of problems with both pieces, and they both illustrate why I think our nation is still not prepared to deal with our segregationist legacy.

First, let’s address the way Chicago is brought into the discussion.  Here’s how the CityLab story starts:

Chatham, a historically working-class, majority African-American neighborhood on Chicago’s South Side, has had its share of post-recession struggles. Joyce Sallie has lived there for a year and a half, and says the area has declined in several ways. In the time she’s lived there, she has witnessed three shootings.

“People be shocked that I still live where I live because it’s so bad … gang-infested, germ-infested, dirty,” says the 25-year-old Boston Market employee. “I wouldn’t wish my neighborhood on my worst enemy.”

In my mind this is a case of journalistic malfeasance.  Chatham is an historically middle-class community with pockets of working-class and impoverished residents, but, despite the protestations of the resident quoted here, has never approached the depths of poverty and criminality that a few other South Side neighborhoods have reached.   To clump Chatham with a broader “scary” South Side is just crazy.

The piece then goes on to make a point I do agree with:

There’s nothing inherently bad about segregation, says John Iceland, sociology professor at Penn State and author of the report. It’s natural that people want their neighbors to share their experiences and cultureBut in practice, residential segregation is an indicator of social distance between groups. It reproduces and reinforces social inequalities—school quality, joblessness, poverty, and crime—which persist over generations.

“It’s kind of the legacy of these ‘black ghettos’ in these rust belt cities … they don’t go away,” he says.

But quite honestly, the resident quote and the policy prescriptions outlined in the paper explain how residential segregation is viewed by those on the “outside”, and colors their thoughts on the subject.

To be fair, the paper by the Migration Policy Institute is deserving of a more thorough reading by me, and that will come soon.  But as I interpret this now, John Iceland, author of the paper and a sociology professor at Penn State University, views segregation squarely through the prism of isolation — if a group is isolated from others, measures must be taken to connect that group with less-isolated areas.  That leads to the policy prescriptions he details: scattered site development of public housing; housing subsidies and vouchers; housing allocation and diversification programs that create mixed income housing in middle income areas.

But I’ve said all along — isolation does not occur without insulation.  If we don’t address the urge or inclination to insulate, all we’re doing is moving the problem of segregation to a new location.

The policies outlined above will not help reduce residential segregation.  Surely people from the Migration Policy Institute would have to know that what’s kept African-American segregation high in many Rust Belt cities has been the lack of migration following African-American settlement in Rust Belt cities.  Surely they would also have to know that recent back-to-the-city trends show that large city population growth is erasing decades of movement away from cities and represents an opportunity to integrate communities — not by the forced movement of blacks outward, but by the voluntary movement of whites inward.

Of course, this means that the Migration Policy Institute, and the general public, will have to recognize that maybe the desire to insulate one’s self from others has fueled segregation more than the desire to isolate another group from them.

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