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‘Where you live determines everything’: why segregation is growing in the US

‘Where you live determines everything’: why segregation is growing in the US

As the US has become more diverse, it has also become more racially segregated, a new study finds. Its lead author, Stephen Menendian, speaks about America’s failure to integrate

As the United States has become more diverse, it has also become more racially segregated, according to a new nationwide analysis from researchers at the University of California, Berkeley.

More than 80% of America’s large metropolitan areas were more racially segregated in 2019 than they were in 1990, the researchers found, even though explicit racial discrimination in housing has been outlawed for half a century. The levels of residential segregation appeared highest not in the American south, but in parts of the north-east and midwest: the most segregated metropolitan area in the US according to the study is New York City, followed by Chicago, Milwaukee and Detroit.

Stephen Menendian, the lead author of the new report, spoke to the Guardian about America’s decades-long failure to integrate, and the evidence of segregation’s damage to individual people – and to democracy.

Your report argues that racial residential segregation is the “the deep root cause” of systemic racial inequality in the US. Why is that?

It’s not a mystery: where you live determines everything. Your proximity to jobs. The quality of your environment. Where you go to school, whether you’re surveilled and harassed by the police.

The racial wealth gap is primarily based on differences in home appreciation values: Black families historically had homes that did not appreciate and often went down in value. Segregated housing creates segregated schools: 75% of students in primary and secondary schools are assigned based on where they live. The racial impacts of the criminal justice system are rooted in racial segregation. With Covid, the neighborhoods that were hardest hit in the first wave of the pandemic were typically Black segregated neighborhoods. In California, the neighborhoods that were hardest hit last summer were Hispanic communities with had a lot of multigenerational households and frontline workers.

How harmful is racial segregation for non-white residents?

Home values are twice as high in highly segregated white neighborhoods as in segregated neighborhoods of color. Poverty rates are three times greater in highly segregated neighborhoods of color. Life expectancy is starkly different. Every outcome that matters in life is shaped by environment. That’s what we mean by structural racism. It’s not about racial prejudice. It’s about the system and environment in which we live.

You measured segregation across the US looking not just at Black-white segregation, but also at the segregation of Latinos, Asian American and Native residents. How much does the picture of America’s segregation change if you take it out of a Black-white binary?

If you just use the Black-white dissimiliarity index, the US looks like it made significant progress in integration from 1970 to 1980, and relatively modest progress ever since. You have to look at it from a broader perspective. Let’s say you have a city that has a Black neighborhood and a white neighborhood. If a bunch of Latinos move into the Black neighborhood, the Black-white dissimilarity will go down. Our neighborhoods have diversified, but white people and the average Black person are still highly segregated. We’re incredibly diverse, but we’re incredibly balkanized. You can find racially identifiable neighborhoods everywhere. In Oakland, Fruitvale has lots of Latino families. Deeper East Oakland is Black. The while hills of Oakland are extremely white.

How did American neighborhoods become racially segregated in the first place?

There’s basically three phases. In the first few decades of the 20th century, in northern and western cities, real estate agents began developing an ideology of segregation as African Americans, as part of the great migration, moved out of the south. They had this notion that keeping racially homogeneous neighborhoods was important for the maintenance of property values. You had the widespread adoption of racially restrictive covenants. In the 1930s, the federal government got involved with the housing market for the first time, during the New Deal, and essentially extended and deepened the previous 20 to 30 years of local segregation. In the third phase, racially restrictive covenants were made illegal in 1948, and explicit housing discrimination as of 1970, when the Fair Housing Act goes into effect. But municipalities maintained segregation through superficially race-neutral mechanisms: through blocking development, environmental regulations, zoning authorities and discretionary review.

Have there ever been any national attempt to desegregate residential neighborhoods?

There really hasn’t been. The Fair Housing Act of 1968 gave plaintiffs the right to sue if they felt they were discriminated against, and there’s also mechanisms for the attorney general and the Department of Justice to bring pattern or practice suits against big landlords, big developers, even cities. But there’s almost nothing in there that proactively integrates. There was an assumption that if we just prohibit discrimination that people will integrate, and that assumption was flawed.

We know that from the education context. After Brown v the Board of Education, the supreme court required school districts to proactively integrate. From 1968 to the early 1990s, we had massive progress desegregating schools, but schools have been resegregating ever since. We never had the kind of progress in the housing context that we had in the school context.

You argue that it’s unlikely that the US will ever be able to fix racial disparities or significantly improve life for racially marginalized people as long as it remains racially segregated and that attempts to redistribute social resources while people still live separately by race is not going to work. Why not?

Segregation is not about separating people on the basis of their skin color: what it’s about is separating people from resources based on their skin color. It’s about putting people of color in neighborhoods that have less resources, fewer public goods – and predatory finance, harmful environmental exposure, and so on. Segregation is the most efficient way to do that. It’s about efficiency. You can spend all the money you want to try to compensate it: you will never fully overcome the disparity.

Anyone arguing just for redistribution to equalize equality of opportunity – you’re essentially saying, let’s make things separate but equal. When have things ever been separate but equal? It’s a fundamental fallacy. White people are not going to tolerate spending eight times as much in a black school as in a white school to create equality of opportunity. It’s unsustainable.

What would it take, today, to integrate American cities?

We did a series on segregation in the Bay Area, which has a section on solutions. There are a lot of things we can do. We need to have state level and even federal reform of municipal land use policy. We need to wrest control of these exclusionary mechanisms from localities. Part of that is zoning reform. We also need to target affordable housing developments in exclusionary white communities and proactively market them to people of color and families of color. It doesn’t mean we want to compel people of color to move into these neighborhoods, but we want to give them this option.

Of the 113 largest cities you examined, only two, Colorado Springs, Colorado, and Port St Lucie, Florida, were fully “integrated” by your definition. What’s special about these two cities?

One theory we have is that those two places in particular, and a lot of the places that have low levels of segregation, are places that have military bases or military installations. The military is one of our most integrated institutions. It’s not just diverse: it’s actually integrated, all the way up and down the chain of command. It’s a federal intervention: a military base draws people from elsewhere, and actually integrates those communities.

You argue that the deep harms of residential segregation today are not necessarily motivated by racist beliefs or an explicit attempt at racist outcomes.

Many of these policies were not designed to oppress. They’re a byproduct of self-interest. When we get in the car and drive, our coal is not to release C02 – that’s the effect – our goal is to get somewhere. Racial inequality is a byproduct of self-interested behavior among the most powerful. The wealthy are channeled into the top zip codes, and the people who run those municipalities may be progressive politically, and pro-Black Lives Matter, but they want to protect their investment, and they will enact policies that minimize tax base outlays and maximize property values.

Which of the report’s findings were the most unexpected?

I was surprised at the degree of relationship between political polarization and racial residential segregation. Polarization is such a big problem in this country. If you take a region like Atlanta, there’s a good deal of segregation, and it means that the white neighborhoods vote even more Republican and the Black neighborhoods vote even more Democrat. In segregated regions, white people vote more conservatively. They oppose taxes to support the region – they have more of a low-tax orientation. The theory is that in segregated regions, taxes help the racial other. In integrated regions, they support your community, which includes the racial other. Segregation is really harmful in terms of driving down support for public investment and the social safety net. The implications are pretty profound.


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