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U.S. neighborhoods are more segregated than a generation ago, perpetuating racial inequity

We often overlook one of the root causes in staggering disparities in health, income and incarceration — where we live.
Image: Views Of Michigan's Largest City As It Shakes Off Record Bankruptcy
A pedestrian crosses an intersection in downtown Detroit, on Oct. 4, 2015.Laura McDermott / Bloomberg via Getty Images file

There’s an adage among housing justice advocates: “Tell me your zip code and I’ll tell you how long you’ll live.” In fact, we can also estimate how much money you earn, the quality of your education and even the likelihood you’ll go to jail.

As a society, there’s a growing awareness of the role that race plays in shaping life outcomes, from maternal mortality rates to the chance of incarceration. Yet we often overlook one of the root causes in staggering disparities in health, income and incarceration — where we live.

Racial residential segregation in the United States is the mechanism by which people are sorted into neighborhoods and communities that offer opportunity and deny it. Your residence determines the schools your children are zoned for, the amenities in your neighborhood, the safety of your streets and air and drinking water, your proximity to jobs, the strength of your municipal tax base and local economy and the degree of police surveillance and harassment you may endure.

Although economic segregation has been rising in recent decades, racial residential segregation is higher and stronger. Even affluent and middle-class people of color disproportionately reside in lower-opportunity neighborhoods, while lower-income white people have access to higher-opportunity communities.

Residential segregation was carefully built into our metropolitan areas during the course of the 20th century through collective private action and government policy. And although fair housing laws now prohibit discrimination in housing, segregation persists for a variety of complicated reasons, including differences in wealth and income and local land use policies.

But until now, our understanding of the issue has been incomplete. Using more precise measures of housing segregation that better capture America’s growing diversity rather than exclusively focusing on Black and white populations, new research developed by our team at the University of California at Berkeley shows that racial residential segregation is both more widespread than is generally appreciated and more harmful. To our great surprise, we found that more than 80 percent of major metropolitan areas in the United States were actually more segregated in 2019 than they were in 1990.

Part of the reason for this is that two fast-growing racial groups, Asian Americans and Latinos, are more segregated today than they were in the past. And whites, who are the most segregated group, frequently use racial composition of the neighborhood as a signal for neighborhood and school quality, as well as property value potential, at times paying a premium for this equation.

But the main reason is that the United States continues to be a place of segregation, not integration. In a period of growing diversity, the only way our regions can become less segregated is if that diversity is more evenly distributed across and within neighborhoods than pre-existing demographic patterns. This tends not to be the case, even though there are very few completely racially homogeneous communities anymore. The result is that our nation’s growing diversity also produces more, not less, segregation.

Moreover, our research is clear that segregated and integrated neighborhoods have distinct outcomes for all residents in them, irrespective of the race of the individual. Residents of highly segregated Black and Latinx neighborhoods, including white residents, have lower life expectancies, lower incomes, lower home values and lower educational attainments. Conversely, Black and brown people in integrated or highly segregated white communities have much better life outcomes along these measures.

Despite this evidence, and the enormous academic literature on segregation in the fields of health, economics and education, there remains considerable ambivalence about ending it. For African Americans who participated in school desegregation plans, like Vice President Kamala Harris, for example, the experience was often fraught. Evidence shows that Black students who attended desegregated schools had their life trajectories changed for the better (on average, and as measured by the types of factors described above), but at the cost of greater exposure to racism and loss of many supportive teachers and mentors. As a result, many anti-racism treatises today are skeptical of integration as a solution to structural racism, calling for redistribution of resources and equalizing school funding instead.

The problem, however, is that virtually all available empirical evidence indicates it is unlikely that we can ever close out racial disparities, let alone significantly improve life outcomes for racially marginalized people in a racially segregated society. That’s because, in every known human society with segregation, from Northern Ireland to India, this practice separates social groups from critical resources.

Policies that redistribute resources can help reduce these inequities, but racial residential segregation so effectively sorts vitalizing resources and social connections that no such plan can fully remedy the underlying mechanism. And they won’t fully solve structural racism, as cases, such as public schools in New York City in which school funding has been greatly increased, demonstrate. A recent report shows that while the city’s schools have some of the highest per pupil expenditures in the country, and significant resources have been put into trying to equalize educational spending across the district, it has had little effect in reducing racial disparities. When students of much greater need and disadvantage are concentrated together, equalizing funding can’t come close to eliminating persistent disparities.

Racial residential segregation also undermines the possibility of a national community with a sense of shared purpose and common destiny. As the Kerner Commission wrote in its landmark report of 1968, integration is “the only course which explicitly seeks to achieve a single nation” rather than a dual or permanently divided society.

More to the point, redistribution without integration is tantamount to pursuing the notoriously flawed dictum of Plessy v. Ferguson: “separate but equal.” As the Supreme Court ultimately recognized in Brown v. Board of Education, separate can never be equal. And even if it were somehow possible to transform Plessy’stransparent fiction into social fact, it would merely cement the balkanized nation the Kerner Commission feared, moving us ever further away from a nation where everyone belongs.

The Biden administration has initiated a broad and remarkable set of interventions across the federal bureaucracy aimed at promoting racial equity, but they may only marginally reduce extreme racial disparities and improve the lives of people of color. What’s needed are bold and ambitious plans that not only improve the economic conditions of segregated neighborhoods but deliberately promote racial integration.

This can start by reinstating an Obama-era rule from 2015 that required federal funds for housing projects to be used to support integration, a rule that was dropped under the Trump administration but that the Biden administration is looking to put back. Meanwhile, our state and municipal governments have a role to play, too. A handful of cities, for instance, are loosening exclusionary zoning and other land-use rules that limit the construction of affordable housing, which our research found to be key barriers to integration.

In the wake of last year’s unprecedented protests demanding racial justice, too many people directed their attention at symptoms rather than root causes. If the goal is to reduce — or even zero out — racial inequities in our society, that goal will remain ever elusive in a racially segregated society.