The Urbanist Musings of Pete Saunders

The Torrent vs. The Vacuum

Source: chicagoreader.com

A couple weeks ago I came across this CityLab article by Daniel Denvir, and this Washington Post article by Emily Badger that both describe how self-segregation is a crucial component in neighborhood composition — and the modern version of American segregation — that often hurts African-Americans, but not in the way most Americans think about it.

Denvir starts by citing an article by the New York Times’ David Leonhardt, which points to a study that suggests that middle-income whites and Asians live in neighborhoods that have much higher incomes than blacks with a similar income.  Leonhardt (and the researchers) jump to what Denvir sees as the wrong conclusion:

“Of course, the neighborhood gap arises in part from voluntary choices. Many Americans, of all races, prefer to live among people who are similar to them, note Mr. Reardon and his colleagues Lindsay Fox and Joseph Townsend. For African-Americans, such a choice often means living in lower-income areas, given the racial disparity in incomes.”

Badger recounts the experience in Oak Park, IL, a suburb just west of Chicago that’s been effectively fighting segregation for 60 years and counting.  The Oak Park Regional Housing Center helps apartment and house seekers find homes in the community, but often fight against the biases that renters and buyers bring to the suburb:

“Every day renters walk into the Oak Park Regional Housing Center certain they don’t want to live on the east side of town. The east side of town, in this small suburb that borders Chicago, is geographic code for uncomfortably close to where the poor blacks live.

“I have people come in and draw a map of where they’re only willing to live,” says Kate Lindberg-Vazquez, a rental housing adviser at the center, which has a walk-in storefront steps from Chicago’s green line where renters — college students, young professionals, modest-income families — can find free help searching for a home. People walk in with mental maps and memories of stories they saw on a blog and rumors they’ve once been told. Don’t live on the east side of Oak Park.

“How there are ‘sides of town’ in a place that’s four square miles baffles me,” Lindberg-Vazquez says.”

Both articles remind me that today’s metro-area-level segregation patterns are not perpetuated by laws with discriminatory intent, although we continue to live in the aftermath of such laws.  Today’s segregation is perpetuated by the desire of white residents to move away from black residents faster than black residents can move next to them.

2009 study by Maria Krysan of the University of Illinois-Chicago and Reynolds Farley and Mick Couper of the University of Michigan uncovered the deep-seated preferences that make the segregation process go.  From the study’s abstract:

“A random sample of adults aged twenty-one and older in the Chicago and Detroit metropolitan areas watched videos embedded in a face-to-face interview. These videos portrayed neighborhoods ranging from lower working class to upper class. All respondents saw the same neighborhoods but were randomly assigned to see either (1) White residents, (2) Black residents, or (3) a mix of both White and Black residents. Respondents then evaluated the neighborhoods in terms of housing cost, property upkeep, safety, trajectory of housing values, and quality of the schools. Results show that Whites who saw White residents rated the neighborhood more positively on four of five dimensions than did Whites who saw the identical neighborhood with Black residents; racially mixed neighborhoods fell in between.”

The study also found that, when questioned about the racial makeup preference of neighborhoods, whites preferred neighborhoods with very clear and overwhelming majorities of whites, with members of other groups (blacks, Hispanics, Asians) mixed in, while blacks preferred neighborhoods with a more equal balance of groups.  White residents viewed black majority neighborhoods more negatively regardless of economic status, fearing lower property values, poorer performing schools, crime and inadequate public services.  Black residents viewed white majority neighborhoods most negatively regardless of economic status as well, citing problems with acceptance in a homogeneous environment.

These kinds of beliefs form the foundation for how our metro areas are constructed.  It’s especially true in metros that have considerable black populations, but it’s even true in metros with negligible ones.  It is a feature of American society.

Since I’m not a white person, I don;t know for sure, but I imagine many whites view the resegregation process as starting with an onslaught or torrent of new residents moving in (in fact, similar to how many other groups feel about gentrification today).  From my experience, however, resegregation doesn’t start with the in-movement of the new group; it starts with the out-movement of the old one.  Instead of a torrent that overruns a community, it is a vacuum that sucks the vitality out of it as people seek to cut perceived losses and establish new roots elsewhere.  Businesses and jobs follow, institutions and infrastructure erode, and former residents of the now-poor community blame the new inhabitants for its demise.

Today;s ghettos do not require racists full of discriminatory intent to flourish.  Withdrawal from a community,physical, economic and social, followed by stigmatization, will do just fine.

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