Experiments in Segregation

Economic theory is pessimistic about the prospects for undoing racial segregation—but experiments suggest reality isn't quite so bad.
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Builders at Newport News Homesteads, Virginia, September 1936. (Photo: Everett Historical/Shutterstock)

Builders at Newport News Homesteads, Virginia, September 1936. (Photo: Everett Historical/Shutterstock)

Racial segregation remains a fraught issue throughout the United States, and social scientists have developed a range of theories to explain why that is. Over the years, those theories have become increasingly pessimistic about whether integrated neighborhoods can develop on their own. But never mind the cynics: New experiments suggest that reality might be a little more optimistic than economists and other academics predict.

Economists have been trying to explain the persistence of racial segregation since at least the late 1960s, when Thomas Schelling showed that people who have even a weak preference for living around people similar to them—for instance, white people who would slightly prefer having white rather than black neighbors—could lead to near total segregation. More recently, economists have reached even more counterintuitive and gloomy results: Even if everyone wants to live in half-black, half-white communities, according to one model, neighborhoods will still end up segregated.

If people really wanted to live in diverse neighborhoods, the experimental results suggest, they could make it happen.

But are things really so bad? While there's no shortage of segregation theories, there is a shortage of experiments—even laboratory work, let alone ones that take place in real housing markets—to test those theories, claims Milena Tsvetkova, a postdoctoral researcher at the Oxford Internet Institute.

The solution, Tsvetkova and her colleagues report in a new paper, required going into 20 high school classrooms in Sweden and having students there play a series of games based on economic theories of segregation. In each game, students were assigned a color (red or blue), an initial position on a six-by-six grid, and instructions to move around the grid in order to maximize their scores on one of four scoring mechanisms, which had been designed to mimic different housing preferences—for example, a preference to have at least half of your neighbors be of the same color, or a preference to have either almost all or almost none of your neighbors be of the same color. Then, the researchers let the students move until they didn't want to anymore.

Unsurprisingly, people segregated themselves by color pretty quickly when they preferred same-color neighbors—that is, when scored based on the percentage of their neighbors with whom they shared the same color. But contrary to what theorists had predicted, students with preferences for more diverse neighborhoods—a more even mix of red and blue—ended up less segregated than theory predicted. If people really wanted to live in diverse neighborhoods, the experimental results suggest, they could make it happen.

Obviously, a classroom is not the same thing as a city, but, the authors note, it's better to base policy on experiments, rather than abstract, untested theories of human behavior. "The results show that even in a simple setting, humans can act according to the incentives we give them while simultaneously defying our models of what they will do," the authors write.

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