The Enduring False Narratives of Segregation

Two generations after the civil rights era, many urban Americans are actually more segregated than ever.

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The September issue of The Atlantic, now available online, includes a "Chartist" feature that graphically synthesizes some of the research we've covered at Cities on the changing shape of segregation in America since the 1960s, its consequences and its costs for everyone.

Several people helped me pull together some of the data points mentioned in the magazine, notably the University of California Berkeley's Rucker Johnson, who has done extensive work on the life outcomes of children who attend segregated schools, and Robert Bullard, who has amassed a frightening collection of research on the health hazards of living in minority communities.

I wanted to share a few more findings that we couldn't squeeze onto the page in the magazine and then throw out some broader questions about why all of these trends persist. First, a few more data points on what segregation means today, even for middle-class minority families:

  • On average, affluent blacks and Hispanics live in neighborhoods with fewer resources than poor whites do.
  • Census data from 2000, for example, showed that the average black household making more than $60,000 lived in a neighborhood with a higher poverty rate than the average white household earning less than $20,000.
  • A longitudinal study run from 1968-2005 found that the average black child spent one-quarter of his or her childhood living in a high-poverty neighborhood. For the average white child, that number is 3 percent.
  • The black child poverty rate in 1968 was 35 percent; it is the same today.
  • Minorities make up 56 percent of the population living in neighborhoods within two miles of the nation's commercial hazardous waste facilities.
  • Middle-income blacks (with household incomes between $50,000-$60,000) live in neighborhoods that are on average more polluted than the average neighborhood where white households making less than $10,000 live.

Segregation still matters because segregated neighborhoods are associated with worse outcomes for health, educational attainment, imprisonment, access to jobs and more. In the magazine, we tried to walk through some of these consequences in terms of the economic growth of whole metropolitan areas.

But one issue we did not get into is why such stark segregation persists, now two full generations after the civil rights era. NYU sociologist Patrick Sharkey discussed this question recently with Richard Florida, drawing on the findings of his recent book, Stuck in Place.

We often blame poor people for their own poverty, and blame whole neighborhoods for the fact that government has systematically failed to invest in them – as the comments on this story recently reminded me. This narrative suggests that everyone would leave segregated, high-poverty, polluted neighborhoods if they just had the money to move out, and that people who don't live in such places arrived where they are through their own hard work and responsibility.

That story, which focuses on the faults and skills of individual people, ignores the fact that we've arrived at this picture of segregation for a lot of complicated, long-running, systemic reasons that are so much bigger than individual families (and whether they have dads or not). For decades, policies around who is eligible for home loans, where we pave highways, and what kinds of houses can be built in some communities have encouraged middle-class whites to leave the city and move into the suburbs. At the same time, ill-fated government ideas about public housing clustered low-income blacks in high-rise housing projects. Mass incarceration further weakened minority communities.

And as Sharkey points out, in the midst of all this, the changing economy also decimated the very same good industrial jobs that drew many blacks to northern cities during the Great Migration in the first place.

All of which is to say that the responsibility for lessening the consequences of segregation does not solely fall on the people who experience it.

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.