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How Residential Mobility Patterns Perpetuate Segregation

New research explains why racial segregation hasn't gone away on its own.

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The early-adult years are thought to be a critical stage in the life cycle, spanning that period after teenagers leave home for the first time but before they settle down with their own families. Stanford sociologist Michael Rosenfeld has called this "the age of independence." And, in theory, this is when you're most likely to try on new social roles and lifestyles – maybe interracial or same-sex relationships – that are different from the ones you were raised with. This is also the time when you're most likely to make a big geographic change, pulling up roots in one city for a new one.

For all of these reasons, the early-adult years seem like a prime window for disrupting patterns of racial segregation. Much research shows that when people change neighborhoods, they tend to move to a new one that closely mirrors the racial makeup of the neighborhood left behind. In this way, children grow up to live in segregated communities like the ones they grew up in. And segregation itself persists from one generation to the next. But what if young adults at their most experimental phase, particularly those making a major move, could disrupt this cycle?

"We were interested in this idea that this stage of the life-course could be a potentially really important juncture for breaking down these kinds of very long-established patterns of residential segregation and all of the inequalities that go with them," says Marcus Britton, a sociologist at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee who has studied the question. "Unfortunately, our results are not tremendously encouraging on that score."

Britton and Pat Goldsmith, a sociologist at Texas A&M, examined records from the National Education Longitudinal Study of more than 7,000 students who were eighth-graders in 1988. That study followed these students through 2000, when most of them were 26. Britton and Goldsmith, in research published in the journal Urban Studies, compared their home zip codes and other characteristics at various points along this timeline with census data collected in 1990 and 2000 about the racial makeup of those neighborhoods.

Blacks and Hispanics who migrated to new metropolitan areas were, in fact, more likely to live in zip codes with greater exposure to whites, unlike minorities who moved within their own city. But few minorities actually made such long-distance moves. This means that segregation persists in part because many minorities have limited exposure to integrated neighborhoods as children, but also because they have limited mobility as they age to relocate somewhere entirely new.

Britton has conducted other research that suggests that minorities are also much more likely to live at home as young adults than whites are. And given patterns that we've seen more recently during the recession – when young twentysomethings of all races have been stuck at home – these trends bode particularly poorly for integration.

For the most part, when minorities move, they're moving close to home. And so it's unsurprising that their new neighborhoods look a lot like their old ones.

"A lot of the reproduction of segregated neighborhoods is not entirely intentional," Britton says. "It’s just that people aren’t moving very far away because they don’t want to lose touch with relatives, with friends, they want to be close to jobs. That just sort of builds in a certain level of conservatism in terms of the potential for major changes in the way that neighborhoods look over time."

Britton did pull out one promising finding from an otherwise bleak report: Blacks and Hispanics who grew up in integrated neighborhoods later lived as adults in integrated neighborhoods, too, even after moving long-distance. That suggests at least a "bulwark against re-segregation," Britton says. "But," he adds, "it doesn’t point to a lot of reasons for optimism about major declines in residential segregation – particularly between blacks and whites, and even increasingly between Latinos and whites – over the next couple of decades."

There is one other way to interpret these findings: They suggest that fair-housing measures that enable black and Hispanic families to live in more integrated neighborhoods are all the more important because they have such long-term consequences. Those neighborhoods will likely impact not only the minority families living there, but also the types of neighborhoods their children grow up to live in. If there is a bright spot in this research, it is that integration may perpetuate itself in much the same way that segregation does.

Top image: a katz/Shutterstock.com

About the Author

  • Emily Badger is a former staff writer at CityLab. Her work has previously appeared in Pacific StandardGOODThe Christian Science Monitor, and The New York Times. She lives in the Washington, D.C. area.