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Segregation is Still Wrong and Still Pervasive

Pervasive housing discrimination by public and private actors helped create, and now maintains poor, minority neighborhoods. Until the end of World War II, physical violence, racial zoning, and discriminatory real estate practices kept blacks closely confined to the ghetto.[1] In many cities, white property owners attached restrictive covenants to deeds that forbade blacks from buying homes in their neighborhoods.[2] Real estate agencies engaged in a variety of discriminatory practices, including racial steering of blacks and whites away from each other andblockbusting, which involves selling a few homes in a white neighborhood to black tenants, buying neighboring homes at lower prices from panicked white homeowners, then reselling the homes to middle-income blacks at a premium.

To this day, blacks and Latinos at all income levels are discriminated against by real estate agents, who show them only a small subset of the market and steer whites away from communities with people of color.[3] Mortgage lenders also systematically lend less money to blacks and Latinos compared to whites of similar income and background.[4] These patterns of resegregation do not end at city borders but also extend into suburbia. A recent study of metropolitan Boston showed that nearly half of all black homeowners were concentrated in seven out of a total 126 communities.[5]

The FHA Does Its Part

Starting in the 1940s, the Federal Housing Administration (FHA) began to guarantee loans with 10 percent down payments, lower interest rates, and longer mortgage periods. Whites in overwhelming numbers used these loans to build homes in the suburbs, but discriminatory practices prevented blacks from following suit. The FHA would not provide low-cost loans to “inharmonious racial or nationality groups. The private sector, following the government’s lead, did not make loans to individuals in neighborhoods that were “redlined” on FHA investment maps.

Public housing has been another factor in fostering segregation. In the 1930s, authorities began siting public housing in the inner cities and since 1969, have filled it with poor tenants, instead of encouraging mixed income, racially stable communities.[6] Several studies show that if the government had not segregated public housing and its tenants, school desegregation would not have been necessary.[7] Some officials claim that low-income housing in poor neighborhoods revitalizes those communities economically, but a recent literature review commissioned by the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) found that low-income housing by itself does not have a revitalizing effect.[8] On the contrary, studies of Baltimore, Cleveland, Milwaukee, and Philadelphia showed that adding low-income units in poor segregated neighborhoods is likely to further depress the value of housing.

As neighborhoods undergo the process of becoming deeply poor and segregated, they frequently lose significant population density. Studies show that in very poor segregated neighborhoods, low income tenants often move out of older, standard, habitable housing into newer, subsidized units. Because market demand in these neighborhoods is not strong, the older (but habitable) housing is simply abandoned, leading either to no net gain—or even a loss—of affordable units.

Resegregation in Real Time

Typically, after a number of black or Latino residents move into a neighborhood, white demand for housing there declines—first among households with children, and then the broader middle class. Businesses and jobs soon follow the white middle class, taking with them a portion of the tax base.[9] Since the black and Latino middle classes are not large enough to sustain the demand and price of houses in the neighborhood, the laws of supply and demand eventually lower housing prices, and low income minorities move in.

The Institute of Race and Poverty (IRP) has found striking evidence of resegregation in some of the largest metropolitan areas in the United States. Its analysis of 15 large metro regions between 1980 and 2000 found that a majority of blacks and Latinos now live in suburban cities and many neighborhoods, which appeared to be integrated, were actually in a period of racial transition. The neighborhoods experienced racial transition only if the non-white population exceeded 20 to 30 percent. Census data also shows that integrated tracts with a black population of over 30 percent in 1980 were more likely to make the transition to predominantly black during the next 20 years. However, communities that have practiced “managed integration”—employing a series of pro-integrative financial incentives, careful oversight of real estate practices, and marketing strategies geared to maintain the housing demand of whites when evidence of resegregation appears—have shown frequent success in maintaining social and economic integration for generations.

It is also evident that when schools become more black and Latino, they become poorer, and within a generation, the neighborhood follows. The most rapid racial and economic resegregation in schools is now occurring in older suburbs. Once the minority share in a community school reaches a threshold level—between 10 and 20 percent—racial transition accelerates until minority percentages reach very high levels (greater than 80 percent).

Despite this evidence of discrimination, conventional wisdom holds that patterns of segregation are simply the result of individual preference. The Supreme Court in Freeman v. Pitts upheld this view when it cited a lower court’s reliance on a study that said blacks and Latinos preferred 50/50 integrated neighborhoods, whereas whites were uncomfortable with more than a 10 percent black and Latino population, making segregation inevitable. While courts and legal commentators have cited this finding as fact, the study’s authors have recently written that the Court’s analysis was inadequate and that significant and increasing evidence shows that blacks and whites can live together on a long-term stable basis, particularly when a conscious integration plan is in place.[10]

The Harms of Residential Segregation

In 2000, about half of the black and Latino middle classes–over 10 million households–had suburbanized in the 100 largest regions. Owing to discrimination, however, blacks and Latinos often ended up in older, at-risk suburbs characterized by aging housing stock, slow growth, and a low tax base—the resources that support public services and schools. The poorest of these places were either resegregated or deeply in the process of becoming so. Clearly then, middle class minorities had fewer opportunities than their white counterparts in education, wealth acquisition through equity in homes, and employment opportunities.

Few blacks and Latinos live in bedroom-developing suburbs with average or below-average tax bases, low poverty schools, and some jobs and office space. Fewer still live in affluent job centers with low poverty schools, high tax bases, and little affordable housing. Poor whites, who do not face housing discrimination, can live more dispersed throughout suburbia, in middle-income neighborhoods, and attend middle class schools.[11]

Children from predominately poor neighborhoods, who attend very low income schools, face many barriers to academic and occupational achievement, even if they themselves are not poor. Studies show that they are far more likely to drop out of high school or to become pregnant as teenagers.[12] Long-term racial and social isolation in neighborhoods with high percentages of single parent families also leads to the formation of gangs and other forms of “oppositional culture” and a form of linguistic isolation, which limits employment opportunities later in life.

The vicious cycle of concentrated poverty with its high violent crime rate, huge health disparities (from a concentration of environmental hazards and poor diet), inadequate health care, and overall existential stresses, ultimately makes it even more difficult for teachers to do their jobs in public schools.[13]

The Benefits of Racial/Economic Integration

All individuals—including poor people of color—benefit from living in affluent and opportunity-rich neighborhoods with large tax bases and abundant entry-level jobs. Overwhelmingly, these are majority-white neighborhoods. The facts and outcome of Hills v. Gautreaux, show the effects of exposure to concentrated opportunity rather than concentrated poverty, on poor black families. A remedial program allowed largely low-income black households to live in three types of neighborhoods: poor and segregated, revitalizing white (with poor segregated schools), and affluent.

Researchers found that: (a) Women with low incomes who moved to the largely white, opportunity rich suburbs clearly experienced improved employment and earnings, even in the absence of job training and placement services.[14] (b) Individuals who lived in affluent white suburbs, as opposed to predominantly black city neighborhoods, were about 14 percent more likely to be employed; (c) Interviewed families found the suburbs to be much safer; and (d) The Gautreaux children performed significantly better in school after moving to more affluent areas.[15] Children who moved to the suburbs dropped out of high school less frequently than those who moved to the city (five percent versus 20 percent), and maintained their grades despite the higher standards at suburban schools. These children were also much more likely to be on a college track (54 percent), compared with the children who remained in the city (21 percent). Moreover, 75 percent of the suburban youth had jobs, compared to only 41 percent in the city.

The families in “revitalizing areas” made some gains but not as substantial as the families who moved to the suburbs. Schools in the revitalizing neighborhoods differed from the racial and socioeconomic makeup of their neighborhoods and were either segregated or in the process of rapid segregation. The evidence showed that these children did not experience the same level of opportunity as their suburban counterparts. Nor did the parents experience much more economic opportunity.

The findings from Gautreaux and other research bear out the consensus among social scientists that integration has long-term benefits. All children from desegregated elementary schools are more likely than their counterparts from segregated schools to attend a desegregated college, live in a desegregated neighborhood, work in a desegregated environment, and possess high career aspirations.[16] A study of some of the nation’s most selective law schools showed that the vast majority of the students had attended desegregated colleges. At the least, diverse educational settings contribute to a student’s ability to participate in a pluralistic society. Picket line at the Mid City Realty Company, Chicago Illinois, July 1941 © John Vachon, FSA-OWI Collection

The Clear Hope of Housing

Without serious policy changes, the rolling pattern of suburban resegregation caused in part by building government-supported low-income housing in segregated or resegregating neighborhoods, will continue to deeply hurt hundreds of communities. These communities could be strong and vital if our housing markets were fair and if the government affirmatively furthered fair housing. This disinvestment will not only destroy the wealth-building ability of middle class black and Latino households, it will reinforce the white prejudice that creates this pattern. Crucial to the goals of ending racial bias and supporting racial opportunity is a knowledge and understanding of another race that lives in a different world and experiences a different America.

The Civil Rights Act of 1968, which includes Title VIII, is one of the most hallowed accomplishments of American law and shows Congress’s clear objective to integrate American society. Yet, as history has shown, without persistent advocacy, even the clearest legislative pronouncements will not enforce themselves. Advocates need to pursue other remedies to further an integrated society, using the FHA and state statutes and constitutions, together with a coherent multi-front legislative strategy. This strategy must involve long-term metropolitan integration, principles of opportunity-based housing, and the stabilization of integrated and gentrifying neighborhoods. Housing must be viewed as a clear path toward racial and economic opportunity that holds a real hope for revitalizing cities and older suburbs. 


1. Massey, Douglas S. and Denton, Nancy A. American Apartheid (1993), 12-38. Racially restrictive covenants were declared unconstitutional in the 1940s. Shelley v. Kramer, 334 U.S. 1, 13 (1948).

2. Turner, Margery Austin et al., Urban Inst., Discrimination in Metropolitan Housing Markets 3-1 to 3-19, 6-1 to 6-13 (2002), available at Publications/pdf/Phase1_Report.pdf (discrimination data from 2000)

3. Yinger, John. Closed Doors, Opportunities Lost 51-61 (1995) (examining racial and ethnic steering phenomena); see generally George C. Galster, “Racial Steering in Urban Housing Markets: A Review of Audit Evidence,” 18 Rev. Black Political Economy 105 (1990) (Same).

4. Yinger, John. “Cash in Your Face: The Cost of Racial and Ethnic Discrimination in Housing,” 42 Journal of Urban Economics 339, 340 (1997).

5. Stuart, Guy. Segregation in the Boston Metropolitan Area at the End of the 20th Century, The Civil Rights Project, Harvard Univ., (2000) available at (referring to evidence presented in the report’s unpaginated executive summary).

6. Gray, Robert and Tursky, Steven. Local and Racial/Ethnic Occupancy for HUD Subsidized Family Housing in Ten Metropolitan Areas, in Housing Desegregation and Federal Policy 235, 239 (John M. Goering Ed., 1986). Schill and Wachter, supra note 23, at 1295; Roisman, supra note 23, at 1357.

7. Orfield, Gary. “Metropolitan School Desegregation: Impacts on Metropolitan Society,” 80 Minn. L. Rev. 825, 854 (1996).

8. Making the Best Use of the Low Income Housing Tax Credit 19-22 (2004); Rusk, David. Inside Game Outside Game (1999); Taylor, Henry Louis Jr. and Cole, Sam. “Structural Racism and Efforts to Radically Reconstruct the Inner City Built Environment,” Address at the Association of Collegiate Scholarship of Planning Conference 3 (Nov. 8-11, 2001).

9. Galster, George. et al., “Identifying Neighborhood Thresholds: An Empirical Exploration,” 11 Housing Policy Debate ,701 (2000); Quercia, Roberto and Galster, George. “Threshold Effects and Neighborhood Change,” 20 Journal of Planning Education and Research, 146, 154 (2000). Some have argued that the “invasion-succession” model may be less applicable in contexts involving Hispanic and Asian residents. David Fasenfest, et al., “Living Together: A New Look at Racial and Ethnic Integration” in Metropolitan Neighborhoods, Living Census Series, Apr. 2004, at p.1, 15, Available at pubs/20040428 _fasenfest.htm.

10. Farley, Reynolds. et al., “The Residential Preferences of Blacks and Whites: A Four- Metropolis Analysis,” 8 Housing Policy Debate 763, 794 (1997) (summarizing statistics showing tolerance of integrated neighborhoods). The district court relied on an earlier study of Detroit by Reynolds Farley. Id. at 768-73 (citing Reynolds Farley, et al., “Chocolate City, Vanilla Suburbs: Will the Trend Towards Racially Separate Communities Continue?,” 7 Social Science Research 319 (1978).

11. See Jargowsky, Paul A. Poverty And Place: Ghettos, Barrios, And The American City 135-36 (1997). While there are some very high-poverty white neighborhoods in Appalachia and in some older rust belt cities, more than 95 percent of poor whites in the United States live outside of high-poverty neighborhoods. By contrast, approximately 25 percent of poor blacks and Latinos live in neighborhoods of high poverty.

12. Balfanz, Robert and Legters, Nettie, Locating The Dropout Crisis, Johns Hopkins Center for Social Organization of Schools 2-3 (2004); Swanson, Christopher B. Who Graduates? Who Doesn’t? A Statistical Portrait of Public High School Graduation Class of 2001 The Urban Institute Education Policy Center, 4-9 (2004).

13. Orfield, Gary. “Urban Schooling and the Perpetuation of Job Inequality in Metropolitan Chicago,” in Urban Labor Markets and Job Opportunity (George E. Peterson and Wayne Vroman, eds., 1992).

14. Rosenbaum, James E. and Popkin, Susan J. “Employment and Earnings of Low-Income Blacks Who Move to Middle-Class Suburbs,” in The Urban Underclass (Jenks, C. and Peterson, P. , eds., Brookings Institution,Washington D.C. 1991.)

15. Rubinowitz, Leonard S. and James E. Rosenbaum, “Crossing the Class and Color Lines: From Public Housing to White Suburbia” 164-66 (2000); see John Goering, “Political Origins and Opposition, in Choosing a Better Life: Evaluating The Moving to Opportunity Social Experiment” 37, 40 (Goering, John and Feins, Judith D., eds., 2000)

16. Crain, Robert and Wells, Amy Stuart. “Perpetuation Theory and the Long-Term Effects of School Desegregation,” 64 Review of Education Research 531, 541-52 (1994); Braddock, Jomills Henry. “More Evidence on Social-Psychological Processes that Perpetuate Minority Segregation: The Relationship of School Desegregation and Employment Desegregation” 3 Center for Johns Hopkins Social Organization of Schools, (1983).

Myron Orfield is an associate professor of Law and director of the Institute on Race and Poverty at University of Minnesota Law School, and a non-resident senior fellow at The Brookings Institution. This article is excerpted from "Racial Integration and Community Revitalization" (Vanderbilt Law Review, Fall 2000). 

Race and Regionalsm | Vol. 15, No. 1 | Fall 2008 | Credits

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