Recent Writing on the Causes, Consequences, and Politics of Racial Segregation

Stephen Menendian

Assistant Director and Director of Research

By Stephen Menendian
Oct. 31, 2019

Three new books tackle the problem of segregation with fresh solutions, deeper insights, and a firmer basis for understanding how this enduring problem polarizes our politics, just in time for the 2020 Presidential campaign.

Cover images of the three books reviewed in this articleThere has been a remarkable boomlet of scholarly research and extended investigation into the continuing problem of racial residential segregation in the last year or so. Although hardly an original area of inquiry, this recent spate of scholarship has shed much light on the problem of racial segregation—causes, consequences, and what we must do about it.

Each generation of scholarship on this subject has precipitated important policy change. The first generation of publications was tipped off by Robert Park and Ernest Burgess’s The City, a landmark study of Chicago’s demographic patterns and ethnographic trends. But other major publications examining the growing problem of racial residential segregation include Robert Weaver’s The Negro Ghetto (1948), Gunnar Myrdal’s An American Dilemma (1944), and C. Vann Woodward’s The Strange Career of Jim Crow (1955). This research informed both the nascent Civil Rights Movement as well as the legal attack on Jim Crow, culminating in major Supreme Court victories such as Shelley v. Kraemer (1948) and Brown v. Board of Education (1954).

A second generation of major publications examining the problems and evolution of racial residential segregation emerged in the midst of the Civil Rights Movement, epitomized by Kenneth Clark’s Dark Ghetto in 1965 and the Kerner Commission’s report on Civil Disorders in 1968, which called for a national open housing law. After the passage of the Fair Housing Act of 1968, racial residential segregation declined significantly in most major metropolitan areas the following decade. By the 1980s, racial residential segregation had dropped from the national discourse and the policy agenda. Douglas Massey and Nancy Denton’s landmark book, American Apartheid (1993), systematically and persuasively illustrated the shocking extent of racial residential segregation across the United States and the harms and consequences that resulted.

This formed part of a third generation of scholarship, much of it historical in nature, revealing the evolution of segregation, including Thomas Sugrue’s remarkable Origins of the Urban Crises (1996), which examined postwar Detroit, and Arnold Hirsch’s Making of the Second Ghetto (1993), a similar examination of Chicago. Around the same time, the historian Kenneth Jackson published his remarkable Crabgrass Frontier (1985), which systematically described the pattern of suburbanization that were a concomitant to urbanized racial segregation. 

This scholarship was part of the impetus for both the 1988 amendments to the Fair Housing Act, which strengthened the law, closed loopholes, and expanded enforcement, as well as the congressionally funded “Moving to Opportunity” experiment, which ran in the mid-1990s in five cities and allowed low-income families to receive vouchers to move to low poverty neighborhoods. Despite all this, racial residential segregation has persisted, and deepened, especially in the wake of the 2007 housing crises, which was precipitated, in no small part, by predatory mortgage policies targeting non-white neighborhoods. Although there were many remarkable books in the interim, Richard Rothstein’s The Color of Law (2017) kicked off a fourth generation of high-profile scholarship laser-focused on racial residential segregation. Rothstein masterfully exposing the systematic federal role into the promotion and institutionalization of racial residential segregation. Rothstein, who is a senior fellow at the Haas Institute, documents the under-appreciated and largely forgotten role of the federal government in fostering racial residential segregation. In particular, Rothstein emphasized the role of the federal government in federal mortgage insurance, public housing, and urban renewal, which collectively deepened and extended racial segregation across the country in the post-war period. 

Three more recent and notable entries examining the problem of racial residential segregation and how to address it include Jessica Trounstine’s Segregation by Design: Local Politics and Inequality in American Cities (2018), Cycle of Segregation: Social Processes and Residential Stratification (2017) by Maria Krysan and Kyle Crowder, and Moving Toward Integration: The Past and Future of Fair Housing (2018) by Richard Sander, Yana A. Kucheva and Jonathan M. Zasloff. Each of these books provide interesting, and often contrasting, perspectives on the problem of racial residential segregation. Perhaps most remarkably, they offer starkly different explanations for why and how racial residential segregation persists. 

In contrast to Richard Rothstein’s focus on federal policy in deepening and nationalizing racial residential segregation, Jessica Trounstine “argue[s] that local government have generated segregated along race and class lines.” Emphasizing the role of local, rather than national, actors, her thesis is that white homeowners and their political representatives institutionalized segregation, not because of blind race prejudice, but in order to protect their property values, and to secure and access to high-quality public goods and services, generally to the detriment of communities of color. It is this incentive that, according to Trounstine, perpetuated and maintains racial segregation today. A tour de force, she makes this argument in a variety of clever and novel ways. 

The crux of her argument is an empirically rigorous linkage between racial residential segregation, political polarization, and public provision in the form of services and amenities. The first step is to demonstrate a relationship between segregation and prior investment in public goods and high property values. She does this by looking at the first four decades of the Twentieth Century, and in particular the growth of municipal expenditures on city services, such as sanitation, safety, and infrastructure. By her account, “American cities became modern service providers” in this time period. 

To demonstrate the relationship between segregation and public goods, she controls for total population and population density (which might make it more efficient to provide public services). She also controls for the proportion of homeowners and professionals in a city, on the theory that homeowners and professionals demand more services, and controls for wealth, which could make it easier to finance those services. Using Thiel’s H index as her measure of segregation (to overcome problems with more traditional measures described below), she finds that that between 30-40 percent of the variation in levels of city segregation (from 1902 to 1937) can be explained by variation in city budgets. As she notes, “[p]laces with larger budgets were more segregated five years later, compared with cities with smaller budgets up until the Second World War.” 

Another critical feature of her argument is the evolution of residential segregation from neighborhoods to cities, which she argues began to shift after the Second World War. To illustrate this, she develops a separate measure for overall intra-municipal segregation and inter-municipal segregation. As contrasting examples, Chicago is heavily segregated by neighborhood whereas the Detroit metro region is segregated between cities. She shows that inter-municipal segregation has grown tremendously since 1970, even as intra-municipal (or neighborhood) segregation has declined.

Like other scholars, restrictive zoning plays a large part of her story, as it is one of the chief mechanisms by which white and affluent homeowner preferences are used to maintain high-quality public services while excluding higher-need populations. In a chapter that covers the evolution of zoning law and practice, Trounstine demonstrates how zoning policy became disconnected from planning and nuisance avoidance, and became the provenance of property value maintenance and used to control public goods. As she puts it, “zoning was a tool that enabled elected officials to generate segregation, increase property values, and make it easier to target public goods to certain constituencies.” These are more than simply bold claims, they are empirical facts: after controlling for a host of variables, she finds that an increase in public spending increases the probability that a city adopts a zoning ordinance quite significantly, with even greater effects when school spending is involved: “At the minimum educational spending level, cities had a 0 probability of adopting zoning. This rises to a 28% probability at the highest level of school spending.”

She then connects these facts to race: she finds that zoning ordinances were much more likely to be adopted in places that were already segregated. She also finds that zoning had a predictable racial effect of excluding nonwhite families from moving into those neighborhoods or communities. Thus, she is able to show that early adopters of zoning became more segregated cities–even after controlling for the pre-existing level of segregation: “By 1970, cities that had adopted early zoning ordinance had segregation levels about 10 points higher on average.” Contesting the literature that shows that greater levels of diversity are associated with reduced collective investment and public provision (such as a more anemic welfare state), she demonstrates that it is racial segregation, not diversity, that causes this. She does this by examining a large data set, which she compiled, showing that when controlling for level of diversity, cities with greater segregation have less public expenditure than diverse cities with less segregation. 

Specifically, she finds that an increase in the level of segregation from the 25th to the 75th percentile lowers per capita spending by more than $100 per resident per year. Then, looking at specific goods, such as parks, police, welfare, sewers and roads, she finds the same results, regardless of the size of the minority population. In fact, she finds that the most segregated cities spend about $200 less per capita each year on sewer systems, or an average of about $60,000 less per year. It is the distribution of groups, not diversity, that correlates with public spending. In fact, she finds that cities with more non-white residents or greater foreign-born populations (from many different places) were bigger spenders. 

The most important part of her analysis, however, is her theory about the relationship between municipal provision and segregation. The key is local politics. The heart of her argument–and indeed her book–is that segregated cities have more political polarization, pitting neighborhoods and cities against each other, making cooperation more difficult. As she explains, “in segregated cities, local officials have trouble convincing residents to fund public goods. As a result, services were underprovided.” 

This is a bold claim, but Trounstine provides ample and compelling support. She finds that the relationship between segregation and polarization is statistically powerful: A city in the 10th percentile of segregation has a 35 percent point divide in racial support for a political candidate, compared to a 63 percent point divide at the 90th percentile. In other words, the more segregated, the more political polarization. 

One might wonder if the relationship between segregation and polarization isn’t driven by some deeper force. After all, what if cities where white voters are more conservative on average have more racial political polarization, more segregation, and less public spending? As usual, however, she controls for this factor, and finds that the relationship between segregation and polarization is unaffected by the conservatism of the local white population. In fact, she found that “cities with more conservative white populations have smaller racial divides.” This is a telling fact for those of us who live in large cities in blue states.

Racial residential segregation makes it easier for municipal governments to target their services to particular populations, and exclude others. Inter-municipal segregation is much more efficient than intra-municipal segregation at accomplishing this, which means that the form of residential segregation that is more prevalent today than a generation ago is much more pernicious and harmful. As she puts it, “when segregation occurs across cities, heavily minority cities have no ability to affect the distribution of public goods from neighboring white towns.” Even worse, affluent white communities exclude the neediest people, shunting them into communities with the least resources to meet those needs. 

Whereas Rothstein and Trounstine focus on policy and policymakers, in the Cycle of Segregation, Maria Krysan and Kyle Crowder shift the focus to social networks and background experiences that shape the housing search process as a key driver and cause of racial residential segregation. Rejecting or complicating the three traditional explanations for segregation, discrimination, different group preferences for neighborhood types, or economic differences between racial groups, Kyrson and Crowder show how less visible social forces and background local knowledge shape residential mobility. 

Previous research on the housing search process has focused on 1) the communities and neighborhoods under consideration or 2) the identification of housing units within a community. Although forces such as steering (when real estate agents direct homeseekers to demographically similar neighborhoods) and affordability may drive some level of segregation in these steps, Kryson and Crowder try to show how the housing search process is structured to perpetuate segregation even before it has formally begun. Drawing on in-depth survey interviews and secondary data sources, they systematically demonstrate how segregated social networks and different background knowledge infiltrate our “consideration set” of neighborhoods in the “pre-search stage.” As a result, metropolitan residents of different races have very different local information about, and perceptions of, the communities they may consider or rule out at the outset. 

For example, they find that Black residents may rule out far-flung white communities that they know very little about in advance or that have a reputation as unwelcoming to people of color or are unaffordable, even if the community might have much to offer, match their budget, or fit their demographic profile preference. Similarly, white residents may rule out large swaths of communities on the basis of reputation or racial profile without any fact-based assessment or consideration of the communities’ amenities or housing options. As a result, the authors show that residents tend to select housing in communities that are significantly more segregated than their “ideal” community in the abstract. In this way, the authors find that residential moves are structured by race in ways that reproduce racial segregation. 

The authors untangle some of the knottiest matters in the race and mobility literature. For example, they find that “racial composition seems to be an important driver of assumptions about affordability and the value of neighborhoods.” In short, race is a heuristic—a mental shortcut—that signals information about a community, including safety, school quality, affordability and home value appreciation potential. Critically, these assumptions operate even in the absence of racial prejudice. Simple self-interest and ordinary cognitive shortcuts (echoing the Kahneman view that we are all “cognitive misers”) can lead to overreliance on such heuristics, where racial composition is less of a preference than a cue to other neighborhood characteristics. The focus on the search process also helps explain why racial segregation remains stronger than socioeconomic segregation, and how even upper income Black families end up in poorer and more heavily Black neighborhoods, and poor whites end up in low poverty and predominantly white neighborhoods. 

Sander, Kucheva and Zasloff have the largest entry into this body of scholarship, with their tome Moving to Integration. Organized into five parts, the first four parts are a chronology of fair housing and residential segregation in the United States from 1865 to about 2015. Although not without flaws or omissions, this chronology may be the single most comprehensive and detailed account of the level of segregation during that sweep of time. This narrative is punctuated by key events that shaped the evolution of segregation, such as the enactment and implementation of the federal Fair Housing Act of 1968, the Supreme Court’s 1948 landmark ruling in Shelley v. Kraemer which declared racially restrictive covenants unenforceable, the Great Recession and the mortgage meltdown, and the gentrification of urban space by young, white professionals in recent years. 

With special access to restricted census data, Sander et al are able to provide more precise measures of segregation than are typically available. This allows them to tell a more nuanced story, and occasionally a contrarian one. For example, drawing on a journal article, Sanders and his co-authors argue that Shelley had a much more substantial desegregative effect than is generally appreciated. Although not entirely persuasive, their arguments are nonetheless intriguing. 

The most significant flaw in the book, however, is the virtually exclusive reliance on the Dissimilarity Index as their measure of segregation, as it measures the percentage of a group that would have to move to create a complete integrated area. The Dissimilarity Index is probably the most widely used measure of segregation, but it suffers from a number of well-known flaws. The Dissimilarity Index can only calculate the level of segregation between two groups at a time, and therefore cannot provide a holistic view of the level of segregation in a multi-racial/multi-ethnic area, like the Bay Area, Seattle, or most parts of the Southwest. If segregation declines between two groups, but increases overall, the Dissimilarity Index is misleading, as we’ve shown in the Bay Area. More importantly, the Dissimilarity Index values masks the average or typical case. Dissimilarity index scores can improve when a small number of members of a different group move into previously homogenous neighborhoods, while the average or typical member of those groups remain stuck in racially segregated neighborhoods. For example, if some middle-class African-Americans move into previously exclusively white neighborhoods, the dissimilarity score will fall, even as the vast majority of black people remain in racially isolated neighborhoods.

Despite fleeting references to a couple of other measures of segregation, Sander et al rely almost entirely on the Dissimilarity Index. Alternative measures of segregation would have greatly illuminated–and likely bolstered–the narrative they developed. At a minimum, the authors should have explained why they relied so heavily on the Dissimilarity Index, especially at a time when so many alternative measures are available. 

Although Moving to Integration lacks an overarching thesis, it is animated by a recognition that racial residential segregation remains a stubborn and deeply consequential problem, and provides an ambitious plan for addressing it. It is Part V, “Solutions,” where the book offers the most important overall contribution to the literature on segregation. Sander et al advance 12 “strategies” for promoting integration. The first six are a complementary set of mobility interventions: 1) mobility grants to subsidize renters and homeowners to make “pro-integrative” moves; 2) mobility counseling to nudge potential movers to consider a larger range of neighborhoods as part of the housing search process (and thereby directly address the problems identified in Kryson and Crowder’s Cycle of Segregation; 3) the creation of housing trust funds to preserve affordable housing in gentrifying neighborhoods by purchasing neighborhood housing stock; 4) tax-increment financing in gentrifying neighborhoods that captures increases in the value of housing to finance the housing trust fund and to provide better neighborhood amenities; 5) the creation of community development banks to serve under-banked communities, and provide non-predatory financial services; 6) modifying existing federal programs to make the more integrative, such as by making Section 8 housing choice vouchers portable across jurisdictions, and using small area market subsidies to allow voucher holders a wider range of neighborhood possibilities. 

The next set of strategies are designed to improve our understanding of the problem: 7) task the Current Population Survey, conducted by the Bureau of Labor Statistics and the Census Bureau, with including a housing search component, to gather data on racial differences in the housing search process (again, addressing the problems raised in Cycle of Segregation); 8) task a federal agency with random, full-application testing for discrimination, instead of more limited audits which do not typically include a full credit check, and therefore are of limited insight into the extant problem of housing discrimination. The final set of strategies are policies that could be tried by anhy jurisdiction with salutory effects: 9) Prohibit source-of-income discrimination, which makes it harder for voucher holders or people with other rental subsidies to access integrative housing; 10) reduce regulatory barriers to multi-family housing, such as restrictive zoning and land-use laws (addressing the problems raised in Segregation by Design; 11) Implement quantifiable “fair share” guidelines, which would require jurisdictions within a region to provide their share of affordable housing; 12) bring disparate impact litigation under the Fair Housing Act to challenge exclusionary and restrictive zoning.  

I mention these strategies at length because this program is more than a hodge-podge of ideas or a breezy set of recommendations tacked onto a longer book. It is the heart of the book, and they are comprehensive, clever, and complementary strategies. For example, the housing trust fund proposal, they argue, would “change[] the psychology of gentrification: incumbent residents would have a reason to welcome and seek out gentrification rather than oppose it” because they would improve services and amenities without threatening their displacement. 

Their target would be to get every metropolitan area to .60 dissimilarity score, which happens to be the score the divides moderately segregated regions from highly segregated ones. The authors devote an entire chapter to imagining the implementation of this program, with the centerpiece of mobility grants in Buffalo, New York. Although the sticker shock of $285 million over 10 years (including $43 million for administration and to fend off litigation) to desegregate Buffalo may scare off curious policymakers, it is also a testament to the seriousness of the authors’ recommendations that they would take the time to cost-out their ideas. And the benefits are enormous. As they conclude, “We cannot afford not to try.”

I couldn’t agree more.