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Does Segregation Beget Segregation?

Two poverty researchers talk about the social forces reinforcing the cycle of segregation.
An American flag hangs on a home in Maywood, California.

An American flag hangs on a home in Maywood, California.

For a good chunk of the 20th century, residential segregation by race was a fact of life in America. Today, that's still the case in many cities around the country. While residential segregation has, on average, declined, in many parts of the United States it remains stubbornly high.

Researchers who study segregation typically focus on a few possible explanations for the persistence of segregation in America—the economic barriers faced by minorities, for example, or housing market discrimination. But in a new book, Cycle of Segregation, out this week, researchers Maria Krysan and Kyle Crowder suggest a new perspective, which they refer to as the social structural sorting perspective. Or, in layman's terms: the many ways in which an individual's daily life—their social networks, the neighborhoods they live and work in and travel through, etc.—might serve to perpetuate segregation.

"All of these daily processes that are baked into our social lives really shape the way that we perceive our residential choices," Crowder told me recently. "And because our social networks and our daily activities and our residential experiences are all racially circumscribed—they differ by race—members of different racial and ethnic groups are facing, or perceiving, different kinds of residential options."

For more, Pacific Standard sat down with Krysan and Crowder to talk about their new book and its implications for housing policy.


What are the assumptions many researchers make about segregation?

MK: One of the assumptions is that people know about all of the places that they could possibly live, that they could afford to live in, and they knew the characteristics of the communities. So they have sort of comprehensive knowledge of all the communities, how much it costs to live there, what the services are. And then they go about their housing search considering all of those options and, sort of, computer-like, process the information and decide the ones that fit their residential preferences with their economic means and then there's the answer. This assumption sort of ignores the social processes that feed those perceptions.

In the book, you talk about three stages of the housing search—the pre-search stage, stage one, and stage two. What happens in each of those stages?

MK: The pre-search stage is what we do all day, every day, as we move around a place before we're searching for a place to live. It's all the other stuff: the lived experiences, reading the newspaper, talking to friends, shopping and going places; you're gathering all this information without intentionally gathering it for the purpose of finding a place to live.

Cycle of Segregation: Social Processes and Residential Stratification.

Cycle of Segregation: Social Processes and Residential Stratification.

When you decide you want to move, you enter stage one: the process of drawing on this information that you've gathered throughout your life to decide which two or three communities you're going to focus your attention on. That first-stage process is informed not by computer-like behaviors, but by heuristics—shortcuts that decide which of the many possible communities you're going to search in. So you might have two or three characteristics: You need to live near your family, you need to live within a five-mile radius of your work. You use your shortcuts to decide if communities fit these features or not. Geography is an easy one, but it's also schools. I'm going to use heuristics to make decisions about which communities are going to have "the good schools" that I want to send my kids to.

Once you've figured out stage one, which is the two or three suburbs, or neighborhoods in a city, you're going to look at, then you get to the process of what people have in mind when they think about searching for housing, which is finding the actual unit.

You both spent a lot of time interviewing people in Chicago about how they perceive different neighborhoods or suburbs. It was reading the comments from some of the people of color you interviewed who were really not interested in living in mostly white suburbs because of concerns about discrimination they might face in those towns....

MK: In today's conversations with African Americans, it's less about the old-fashioned cross burning in my front yard; it's more about being welcomed: Would people look at me funny? If something does go wrong in the neighborhood, would they think it was my fault?

It's an interesting example of another point of our book. There is explicit discrimination, where people refuse to rent to you. But there's also this issue of anticipated discrimination, which factors into the decision-making process. It's not that discrimination doesn't matter, but to some extent it matters even more profoundly than has been characterized. It's not just about the landlord that won't rent to the African-American tenant; if I've heard that my friend tried to rent in that suburb, and they had a landlord refuse them, I don't want to live in a place where that's the ethos.

Let's talk a bit about how social networks affecting housing decisions. How did this play out for some of the people you interviewed?

MK: One of the most interesting parts of writing this book has been uncovering the expected and unexpected ways in which that happens. There's the traditional, actual finding of a vacancy—literally, "I saw a place next door, you should go move there."

The other obvious one that you get is "My mom lives there, and I want to be near here while she's getting older" or "I have sisters that live in that suburb and I want to be closer to them because they're my family."

For me, what was interesting was the less direct stuff. You're sitting around the office talking about places and your co-worker talks about where she lives and that becomes information that you now have about what a place is like. It all feeds into perception of a place.

KC: And both of those mechanisms have important implications for segregation. Somebody growing up on the north side of Chicago, for example, will have friends and family that tend to be concentrated in one set of neighborhoods very different from the neighborhoods of the friends and family of somebody who grew up on the south side. That racial circumscription of social networks means that we're facing different locations of that instrumental information and different indirect information about characteristics of different kinds of neighborhoods.

One takeaway from this book is that it might be possible to at least nudge the needle on some of these segregation issues without a huge investment in affordable housing, which doesn't seem like it's on the horizon. What kinds of interventions do you think might be effective at these different stages of the housing search?

MK: I'm glad that message comes through. There are more levers, more ways to intervene in these processes.

There's local government, which wants to increase the diversity of its community and encourage movers of all races and ethnicities. [Advocates should] say: "There's an information process that goes on in housing searches, and the deck is stacked against us attracting whatever group we're interested in attracting in order to create the diversity in a community, and we can intervene in that information process. We can do advertisement and PR campaigns about our community." That's a very straightforward, lower-cost effort to try to change pre-search and stage one.

KC: It would be a mistake to believe that all we really need is to intervene in the social process of the search and try to change individual behaviors. These social processes that we're highlighting operate within a profoundly racially stratified structural system.

There are assumptions about correlating characteristics, things like "Neighborhoods with a particular racial composition have this quality schools or this level of crime." We need to combat the kernel of truth behind those assumptions. We need to address or redress those structural conditions that lead to underfunding schools in black neighborhoods, for example. If we focus just on the social behavior of individuals, we lose sight of the fact that we really need to address those structural inequalities.

Right, and by the same token, just because there are these social forces reinforcing segregation, that doesn't mean that economic force or discrimination, for example, aren't also significant barriers to integration. It doesn't mean that we don't also need to expand voucher programs and enforce housing discrimination laws.

KC: Right, we're not saying that economic forces in discrimination are unimportant. In fact, there are dramatic racial and ethnic differences in socioeconomic resources that alter the ability of some groups to just gain access to certain kinds of neighborhoods even if they know about them. It is important to create more affordable opportunities in predominately white neighborhoods if you're going to integrate those neighborhoods. And it's really important to combat discrimination; one act of discrimination can have this ripple effect that dissuades a lot of people from entering a particular neighborhood.

Even if you develop affordable housing in a currently exclusive neighborhood, it you don't address the social processes that lead people to sort themselves into those neighborhoods, it's pointless. You have to address those social sorting processes as well.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.