This morning we looked at a demographics paper by the Institute on Metropolitan Opportunity that looked at the phenomenon of suburban diversity, and found that while they tended to have tons of advantages over segregated communities (political balance, integrated schools, economic opportunity, increased cultural tolerance), they were also the least stable in terms of demographics. The data strongly suggested that while racially diverse communities were more likely to resegregate than segregated communities were to integrate, this was not a bidirectional phenomenon: it suggests that people of colour (PoCs) move in to white communities, while white people move out of integrated communities.
The relevant question is why is this happening? Is this truly an example of white people being horrible xenophobes who hate brown people? Is it simple in-group preference wherein people simply prefer to live with people who look like them and/or share a culture? Perhaps it’s a cohort effect whereby white people in suburbs have been there longer as a group, and have therefore had more time to accumulate wealth – wealth they use to afford to live in ‘nicer’ neighbourhoods that PoCs simply can’t afford yet?
Any self-respecting skeptic will likely recognize that it could be (and probably is) some combination of all of these things. The relative strength of each of these forces is going to vary widely due to factors geographic, historical, socioeconomic, academic – there’s a lot of moving parts to the equation. However, the authors point explicitly to a few mechanisms by which racial discrimination (systemic and otherwise) plays a major role in resegregating communities. Get ready to rage.
1. Housing Discrimination
Remember when I talked about the ‘push’ and the ‘pull’ that moved whites into the suburbs?
The ‘pull’ was the increased affordability of housing thanks in a large part to the GI Bill, as well as massive federal investments in transportation infrastructure and electricification*. The ‘push’ was multifaceted – cities were crowded, dangerous, and dirty – but it would be naive to assume that racial dynamics did not play a major role.
Well it turns out that in the absence of a federal program providing affirmative action opportunities to white people, the private sector has stepped up and begun engaging in a practice known as “racial steering”. This is when real estate agents guide white families looking to buy property into predominantly white (or unstably integrated) areas, while similarly diverting PoCs into non-white areas. In some cases cited by the authors, schools that were described as “good” to homebuyers of colour were described as sub-standard to white homebuyers. This occurred regardless of the credit history, income, and non-racial background.
We’ve talked about the ‘predatory lending’ practices of major financial institutions that contributed to disproportionate harm to families of colour when the real estate market went pear-shaped*. Well it turns out that above and beyond that, middle- and upper-income black families are approximately 1.5-2.5 times more likely to be denied any kind of mortgage than white families with similar financial credentials. The authors also note that home loans are more likely to be approved in white-segregated neighbourhoods than in PoC-segregated neighbourhoods – integrated neighbourhoods fall somewhere in the middle.
2. Exclusionary zoning
White-segregated communities are far less likely, through the use of zoning laws and agreements with developers, to have affordable housing (high-rises, apartments, high-density structures) built in their back yards, so to speak. Since housing affordability is predominantly a PoC issue, it is not difficult to see the racialized effect this will have, pushing poor PoC into PoC-segregated or integrated communities (and correspondingly driving white people out). Again, this is one of those things that have multi-generational effects that last well beyond the discontinuation of a given practice.
3. Discriminatory Local School Attendance Policies
Playing into the myth perpetuated by the real estate agents in point #1, white parents agitate to see their children sent to ‘whiter’ schools. This, despite the fact that the evidence strongly suggests that white children might do better in integrated schools, and at least will do no worse than if they attended an all-white school. As this practice continues, schools become ‘darker’, and thus easier to neglect and underfund (especially if it’s the rich kids leaving for whiter schools). The authors call attention to a study that found that if school boundaries were drawn to reflect school capacity and neighbourhood proximity, American schools would be more integrated by a factor of fifteen percent.
4. Discriminatory Placement of Low-Income Housing
This point is roughly a re-statement of #2, except dealing with poor people who need financial assistance rather than would-be home buyers who can only afford to live in PoC neighbourhoods.
5. White Prejudice and Preference
The authors note that while surveys state that both white people and PoCs express a desire to live in integrated neighbourhoods, the ‘tolerable proportion’ of integration is much lower for white folks than it is for PoCs. So yes, there does appear to be a role for good old-fashioned “I don’t like brown people” racism – at least we can rely on some things in this crazy world.
If you’re not at peak rage levels yet, I should point out (as the authors do) that #1-#4 are all specifically prohibited by federal law, and yet are simply not investigated or enforced. Greta Christina talked about the reasons why atheists still have to fight despite the law being on their (our) side. The case is no different for people of colour facing white supremacist discrimination at a systemic level. It is all well and good to pass laws, but without proper enforcement we will continue to see this kind of discrimination rage on unfettered. The sad thing is that nobody’s life is made better by segregating these communities, and a lot of people’s lives are made measurably worse. That’s not even a zero-sum game, that’s just a big-time loss.
The silver lining in all of this is that by identifying the problems, we can work on targeted solutions. The authors close their paper with a few success stories, and finish with this chart:
This is a problem – a serious one. But it has a solution, so long as we have the courage and resolve to act.
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*One might argue that, in light of what we know about the economic stability of integrated communities, racial steering and predatory lending may have caused the housing collapse. They most certainly made it worse.