Residential Segregation and Race

We’ve had a couple of posts on Science on Google+ about racial segregation in neighbourhoods. To a non-social scientist this looks like people of different backgrounds don’t like mixing with other groups. Some people might see this as people being racist or others might think this is simply about people wanting to be closer to their “own kind.” The social scientific empirical research shows that residential concentration is the outcome of historical processes and institutional racism. I will provide some definitions to put institutional racism into context before discussing key findings on how institutions and economic mobility affects residential concentration of racial groups.

Understanding Racism as a Societal Process

Philomena Essed argues there are three ways to study racism: individual, institutional and everyday. 1) Individual racism refers to common sense understandings of racism. These generally revolve around stereotypes and making assumptions and judgements based on appearance. Focusing on interpersonal exchanges makes it seem as if racism is a problem of individual people’s ignorance. This can be difficult to put into broader context.

2) Institutional racism relates to formal mechanisms through which discrimination eventuates. This can happen through the law, the economy, the media, the education system and so on. Racism rests on power dynamics between groups and social structures. Simply put, some groups benefit from the way in which society is organised and others are disadvantaged. It may not feel like it, particularly after the World Financial Crisis, where the middle class seems to be shrinking and many people are worse off than before.

Institutional racism describes the enduring effects of historical relations. Societal processes ensure that some groups that have been better off remain relatively privileged, regardless of their individual talents, motivations or aspirations.

3) Everyday racism. This is a combination of both individual and institutional racism. It refers to the the way in which history and social institutions perpetuate racism through our habits, sayings, ways of thinking and life choices. People who belong to a dominant majority are not often aware of their social privileges. We all go about our lives making decisions and reacting to situations without giving much thought to social relations of power. The reality is that we all have the agency to resist certain institutional processes, but the degree to which we can transcend these altogether depends upon our social location (our socio-economics, geography, social networks, resources and so on). This is where racial segregation comes into play.

Social Institutions and Racial Segregation

People who are born into predominantly White middle class neighbourhoods are more socially mobile and they are more likely to move into new areas. Minorities and disadvantaged groups are less socially mobile. They are unable to relocate as there is little financial resources to do so. Tak Wing Chan and Vikki Boliver show this through generational data from a large representative study of around 17,000 people in the UK. Children with grandparents who were well off will be able to move upwards, even if their parents experienced a downturn in their class position. Children whose grandparents were in working class occupations will remain working class from one generation to the next. The researchers note that social mobility “may be aided by durable social institutions such as generation-skipping trusts, residential segregation and other demographic processes” [my emphasis].

Lauren Krivo and Robert Kaufman show that even when controlling for life-cycle, family, mortgage history and other characteristics, Black and Hispanic people are less likely to be given housing equity in comparison to White people. This severely impacts on the ability of non-whites to buy a house in a better location.

The researchers show that “housing wealth” has various consequences. Having equity means more protection from inflation, greater resilience against catastrophes, better access to improve education outcomes for children (being closer to good schools in safer neighbourhoods), better access to quality healthcare, greater insurance for aged care in the future and so on.

People do not stay in poor neighbourhoods because they do not want access to these resources. They are simply unable to move because banks won’t give them a chance. Jacob Rugha and Douglas Massey show that racial segregation had a big impact on the foreclosure crisis in America. Their review finds that Black and Hispanic home-owners were “significantly more likely than whites to receive loans with unfavourable terms such as prepayment penalties.”

Similarly, using life cycle data, Thomas Hirschl and Mark Rank find that young non-White people may eventually get home loan, but it will take them longer, it will not be equitable, and they may not be able to pay it off.

Demographer John Paul DeWitt has mapped racial segregation in the USA using Bureau of Census data. The data show that Milwaukee, New York and Chicago have the greatest geographic and economic polarisation in the USA (see images attached). DeWitt provides an historical and socio-economic analysis for the top ten cities with the greatest segregation (refer to Daniel Denvir’s article below).

So you see racial concentrations are not as simple as wanting to stick close to people who are the same as our selves. Other forces are at play, even if we don’t see them. These have little to do with individuals. Institutional racism makes it possible to deny access to fair loans, ensuring that poverty and racial segregation remain entrenched.

Structural Patterns

On my original post of this, I was asked by Yonatan Zunger on whether there were other issues beyond the banking sector affecting racial minorities’ geographic mobility. Here’s my response.

I might have given more examples from other areas. As I noted, the studies I cite control for social and economic markers, such as mortgage history and other dynamics. So all things being equal, banks most definitely discriminate against minorities, which in effect keeps minorities locked into poor areas.

Yet social science also examines other intersecting issues affecting racial segregation. I mentioned social institutions; other examples of institutional agents are social policies and lobby groups. For example, in the USA, the Governor of Milwaukee blocked moves to improve public transportation as the city started expanding. This made it harder for Black people (making up 90% of urban residents) to travel to suburban areas. This entrenches segregation as it makes it harder to move closer to better areas and better jobs. Historian Tom Sugrue has chronicled how White developers went so far as to put up a cement wall to physically segregate Black and White areas in Detroit, while White mobs would physically intimate Black migrants in the city’s early history. This effectively forced Black Americans to segregate in areas where residthey were safe from White violence, but where poverty was entrenched. There are other examples, but you get the picture: historical patterns of institutional racism set up segregation and institutions reinforce this through other means in the present day.

Looking at other patterns in Australia, Canada, the USA, UK and elsewhere, migrants of non-English-speaking backgrounds tend to live in poor, dilapidated working class suburbs because they need to be close to social services and facilities that they are unable to access elsewhere. Interest groups and politicians have been known to block building permits for such facilities. For example, places of religious worship, most notably for Muslims. While groups make attempts to spread out to other areas, they remain living where they first settled after migration because this is where mosques, community clubs, language centres and so on are already set up. (Though in Australia we don’t have the same high concentration levels of one racial or ethnic group, other than White Christians.)

There are many other examples which have been empirically tested, showing that institutional racism in other areas has flow on effects for racial segregation. This includes active discrimination by job recruitment agents (if you can’t get a good job, you can’t move); the education system (teachers give up on minority kids and don’t offer them the same support as White kids, which affects their life outcomes and later, home ownership); the media (moral panics about minorities that make them unwelcome in new residential areas).

In summary, while people may prefer to move, the logistics of setting up new services and accessing resources are blocked (home loans, permits, so on).

The Way Forward

Continuing to view segregation and racism as the problem and choices of individuals is part of the problem. Looking around, we tend to see people who seem to be in a similar position to ourselves. We presume that their motivations, struggles and actions are just as good/bad as the situations we face. This is not the case. Being more aware of social processes, and viewing them in a broader institutional light, is an important step in social progress and change.

H/T to Sander Timmer for inspiring this analysis through his post on Big Data and the USA



Essed, Understanding Everyday Racism.

Chan and Boliver, The Grandparents Effect in Social Mobility.

Krivo and Kaufman, Housing and Wealth Inequality.

Rough and Massey, Racial Segregation and the American Foreclosure Crisis.

Hirschl and Rank, Homeownership Across the American Life Course.

Denvir, The 10 most segregated urban areas in America.

Image credits: Denvir (above), for Salon.

First published on Science on Google+