Editor’s note: Kris Marsh is on the faculty at the University of Maryland, College Park. She received her Ph.D. from the University of Southern California and was a postdoctoral scholar at the Carolina Population Center at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. She is on Facebook and on Twitter @drkrismarsh.
By Kris Marsh, Special to CNN
(CNN) -- Recently, the Manhattan Institute, a conservative think tank released a study, "The End of the Segregated Century." Highlights of the study hit the press like wildfire. Headlines like “Segregation hits historic low” jumped off the page, and articles declared the findings to be proof that “the legacy of the civil rights era is still strong.”
Given that one of my areas of emphasis as a sociologist and demographer is racial residential segregation, I was saturated with emails, Facebook posts, and Tweets asking for my reaction. Above all, my main response is that we must be careful as consumers of information; in this case, readers who stop at the headlines are in danger of overlooking the fact that race still maters and that blacks are still highly segregated in the United States.
As social scientist, we employ three overarching theories to explain the existence and persistence of racial residential segregation: economics, preferences and discrimination.
Historically, there was a time when only the small population of free blacks were able to own property. This set the groundwork for the wealth disparities between blacks and whites that persists today. In general, unlike potential white home seekers, potential black homebuyers often do not inherit wealth from the previous generation. In most cases, blacks do not have the flexibility to borrow money from parents to purchase their homes. This potentially limits blacks’ ability to purchase homes in certain locations causing middle class blacks homeowners to live in close proximity to the black poor and reside in suburban areas less substantively white and affluent than their white middle class counterparts.
By way of illustration, consider Baldwin Hills, California. Baldwin Hills is a predominantly black area in Los Angeles County. This area encompasses both multi-million dollar homes and a housing project with a reputation so dangerous that during the 1980s and 1990s, it was commonly known as “The Jungle.” In the 2001 Denzel Washington film Training Day, this housing project was used as the location for a scene in which a police detective engages in a midday gun battle. That same year, the director of the film Love and Basketball chose a multi-million dollar home in the same area to represent the residence of a former professional basketball star.
This divergent cinematic representation of Baldwin Hills illustrate the propinquity of the black middle class and the black poor and provides a dramatic example of a widespread phenomenon: that the black middle class is a spatial and social buffer between the white middle class and the black poor.
The discrimination perspective points to a range of public policies and private practices that perpetuate racial residential segregation and deter blacks from moving into predominantly white neighborhoods. Beginning in the 1930s and continuing through the 1970s, the Federal Housing Administration adopted the practice of "red-lining," a discriminatory rating system to evaluate the risks associated with loans made to borrowers in certain areas resulting in financial institutions denying loans based on those areas, usually dominated by the poor and minorities. Research on the recent housing crisis shows that the geographic concentration of high-risk loans and foreclosures had strong racial undertones.
Private discriminatory practices include "racial steering," where real estate agents channeling black clients into racially mixed or predominantly black neighborhoods or quoting astronomical prices in areas that are predominantly white in hopes of deterring black buyers. Real estate agents have been known to use fear to persuade whites to buy property near other whites and/or move when non-whites move into the neighborhood ("blockbusting").
The treatment of blacks in the housing market provides strong evidence that discrimination played and continues to play an important role in explaining why blacks and whites live in highly segregated neighborhoods.
A large body of segregation literature suggests that racial differences in residential preferences perpetuate racial segregation. For example, the preference of more-advantaged groups, usually affluent whites, is to distance themselves from less-advantaged groups, usually blacks and the poor. While this suggests that whites prefer majority white areas, blacks tend to prefer areas that are equally integrated (half-black and half-white) and they prefer more black neighbors than do member of other racial and ethnic groups.
A residential segregation research finding that I have always found interesting and equally offensive is that Asians, Latinos, and whites all rank blacks as the racial group least desired to have as neighbors. This finding holds up even taking class into consideration: when middle class blacks move into white neighborhoods, whites are still inclined to move.
I live in Prince George’s County—known as the wealthiest black county in America—and often ask fellow residents, who are upwardly mobile and have the social and human capital to live in a number of counties, their reasons for selecting this area. The most common answer I get is: “I want to live around other black middle class people and I want my children to grow up around other black middle class children.” (See the book "Blue Chip Black" by Karyn Lacy for further discussion on this topic.)
When you take all this into consideration, it is clear that there is much more to this story than the headlines trumpeting record low levels of residential segregation. Blacks are still more likely to have black neighbors than white ones. And by no means does lower black segregation suggest that we live in a “post-racial” society—a term that Tim Wise recently called a “nonsense term devised by those who would simply rather not deal with the ever-present reality of racism and ongoing racial discrimination.” The take home message should be that race (and class) still matter in terms of residential housing patterns. Yes, segregation is decreasing, but it is still alive and well.
The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Kris Marsh.