A man walks past a banner of civil rights leader Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., while walking through the Mechanicsville neighborhood in Atlanta. AP Photo/David Goldman

The idea that many Americans “voluntarily” choose to self-segregate by race is highly misleading.

In today’s New York Times, David Leonhardt discusses a new study showing that middle-income white and Asian Americans tend to live in middle-class neighborhoods, while middle-income black Americans tend to live in poorer ones. The article was published just as the U.S. Supreme Court narrowly upheld the federal government’s power to fight housing discrimination, and is a reminder that racial segregation remains a powerful force in shaping the American metropolis.

But Leonhardt also repeats one unfounded and damaging canard to explain segregation’s origins.

“Of course, the neighborhood gap arises in part from voluntary choices,” Leonhardt writes. “Many Americans, of all races, prefer to live among people who are similar to them … For African-Americans, such a choice often means living in lower-income areas, given the racial disparity in incomes.”

This notion is a popular one: that people like to live among their own. But it’s highly misleading, because research has shown that it is far more true for white Americans than for black Americans. Here’s what a 2009 study by the University of Illinois at Chicago sociologist Maria Krysan and other scholars, published in the American Journal of Sociology, found: Given a choice of all-white, 60 percent white and 40 percent black, or all-black, “whites said the all-white neighborhoods were most desirable. The independent effect of racial composition was smaller among blacks and blacks identified the racially mixed neighborhood as most desirable,”along with all-black neighborhoods.

And it isn’t so much that whites want to live among “people who are similar to them,” Krysan and her co-authors write, but rather that “anti-black feelings [are] driving whites’ residential preferences.”

Other studies, the authors note, have found that whites are not comfortable with more than 20 percent of their neighbors being black, while blacks prefer a 50-50 split and don’t particularly prefer either all-white or all-black neighborhoods. Importantly, black people’s aversion to all-white neighborhoods is rooted not in a desire to live exclusively among blacks, but rather derives from the fear of discrimination in all-white neighborhoods.

“It is misleading, I think, to use the word ‘voluntary choices’ given what underlies the preferences of African Americans in particular to not be the ‘pioneer’ or one of just a few blacks in a neighborhood/community,” emails Krysan. “A number of different studies (my own and others)… demonstrate that the desire for more diverse neighborhoods is driven importantly by concerns about discrimination in neighborhoods that are overwhelmingly white. I would not call that a truly ‘voluntary’ choice, given that it is inextricably tied up with past and present circumstances of racial violence and discrimination towards blacks who move into neighborhoods that are all or very predominately white.”

Of course, individual white people’s preferences are just part of the story: in so many ways, racism is baked into modern public and private U.S. housing policy.

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