The Spatial Logic of Racial Inequality

The Spatial Logic of Racial Inequality

Nina Yancy

At the start of this century, the Texan town where I grew up might have been paraded as a model integrated community. A quiet Dallas suburb, DeSoto had a population of 50,000 that was split almost evenly between black and white residents as of the 2000 Census. What this statistic conceals, however, is how many white families were already on their way out: by 2010, the black population of DeSoto had risen to almost 70%, and the white population had fallen to less than 23%.

The white flight experienced by DeSoto and other suburbs is only one of the interlocking forces contributing to the persistence of racial segregation in the United States. It would be inaccurate to imply that no progress has been made: declines in black segregation have been steady even if slow.[1] All-white neighborhoods have virtually disappeared.[2] Yet given that blacks have experienced higher levels of residential segregation than any other group in American history,[3] it is not surprising that one-third of all black metropolitan residents still live in settings considered “hypersegregated”—or highly segregated according to all five commonly used indices.[4]

At the current pace of change, it will take another six decades for black-white segregation in the U.S. to be considered “low,” even in the historically less segregated South and West.[5] This prognosis reflects not only the survival of inner-city ghettos but also the fact that, as with my hometown, the movement of many blacks to the suburbs has more often replicated patterns of segregation than achieved lasting integration.[6] It doesn’t help that in several major cities, Hispanics and Asian Americans mirror whites’ aversion to living with blacks.[7]

How did this happen? Not by accident, but by the design of white society and white institutions. As late as 1900, the average black family lived in a majority-white neighborhood,[8] but the waves of blacks who left the South in the Great Migration produced a major shift in the racial makeup of Northern and Midwestern cities. In the first decades of the 20th century, the rate of white departure from neighborhoods across the country reliably increased as soon as blacks made up 10-15% of the local population.[9] Whites’ aversion to living in racially mixed neighborhoods continues to be more influential in maintaining segregated cities than unwillingness on the part of blacks.[10] “Aversion” in this case need not imply overt racism: even small preferences for white neighbors can lead to large-scale segregation, [11] particularly given that whites have the freedom to move neighborhoods unaffected by the housing discrimination blacks still encounter today.[12]

Of course, for whites to avoid blacks they need somewhere to go, and the U.S. government has a long history of accommodating whites’ residential preferences. This history includes the denial, beginning in the 1930s, of federally-insured mortgages to blacks via the infamous process of “redlining;” the 1940s exclusion of black veterans from home ownership support in the G.I. Bill; the 1950s prioritization of building highways to suburbs over developing public transportation; [13] and the feeble enforcement of 1960s policies intended to limit housing discrimination and promote integration.[14] Segregated America was constructed and maintained by both prejudicial action and harmful inaction on the part of government. And while Civil Rights legislation helped some middle-class black families break away from poorer black areas, as they had long sought to do, William Julius Wilson has famously argued that the migration of blacks to the suburbs ultimately contributed to the concentration of poverty among blacks left behind in central cities.[15]

This is the legacy we have inherited. Patrick Sharkey shows that, as of 2000, 87% of majority black census tracts were both sites themselves of concentrated disadvantage and surrounded by other disadvantaged neighborhoods. Despite growth in the raw number of black families living in advantaged areas, the average black family earning more than $100,000 annually still lives in a neighborhood comparable to that of a white family earning less than $30,000, based on indicators such as high rates of unemployment and welfare receipt.[16]  This reality contextualizes the grim findings that black children born to parents with incomes in the top half of the income distribution have a 60% chance of sliding down into the bottom half as adults.[17]

These outcomes, along with blacks’ lagging social indicators in areas ranging from education to employment to life expectancy, reflect not the individual shortcomings of blacks but the spatial logic of segregation. Geographic isolation has made possible the inequitable distribution of resources and opportunities between white and black Americans. As a result, disproportionate numbers of blacks have been condemned to attend inferior schools, live in low-quality housing, and suffer from insufficient protection by the state. Because neighborhoods shape life chances, above and apart from the actions of individuals who live there, segregated spaces compound the effects of deprivation and thus facilitate the transmission of poverty from one generation to the next.[18]

Gunnar Myrdal called segregated spaces “artificial cities:” places where blacks could suffer from state prejudice without whites being affected, or even feeling the need to take notice.[19] The continued existence of these places, which enable whites to have social networks that are 91% white and only 1% black, contextualizes sentiments currently boiling over in the U.S. In today’s political climate, protest against the violence committed toward black bodies coincides with populist anger among whites who feel the economy has left them behind—but the former remains seen as the concern of the artificial city, while the latter is dominating a presidential election.[20] White Americans are feeling the pain of wage stagnation and the hollowing out of the middle class; yet they still have a median household wealth 13 times the wealth of black households as of 2013, a gap exacerbated by the devastating impact of foreclosures among black families who were targeted with predatory loans. White Americans have experienced a shocking trend of increased mortality rates in the past two decades, largely due to overdose and suicide among lesser-educated whites; yet the black all-cause mortality rate in 2013 remained at 582 per 100,000 compared to 415 per 100,000 for whites.[21] These inequities are the inheritance of a segregated nation where races remain separate and unequal.

All-white neighborhoods may have virtually disappeared, but all-black ones have proven as durable as the racial inequality they reproduce. This leaves us with the question of what to do about it. First and foremost, we must see material change: policies that support employment, education, fair policing, and reinvestment in black communities would be a start. Because segregation has been an effective mechanism for denying blacks access to such resources, there may be promise in the Department of Housing and Urban Development’s 2015 revision of its Civil Rights-era promise to withhold federal housing funds from local governments who fail to affirmatively further fair housing.

Mary Pattillo warns, however, that we shouldn’t assume integration to be the end goal. “[I]ntegration,” she writes, “dwells on and is motivated by the relatively problematic nature of Black people and Black spaces, and posits proximity to Whiteness as the solution.” We need to see black spaces as inherently deserving of investment and protection in order to progress toward material equality. But the dilemma Pattillo identifies proves that some of the needed change is non-material: a new version of the American narrative that takes our history of racial exclusion seriously and recognizes that, as James Baldwin writes about the “problem” posed by blacks, “no one in America escapes its effects and everyone in America bears some responsibility for it.”[22] The severe segregation of blacks over the 20th century incubated the negative iconography of the ghetto and the rhetoric of a “culture of poverty” among blacks, while at the same time removing the problem from the plain sight of whites. Segregation both resulted from and reinforced an ethos associating blackness with threat, making my parents’ achievement of their dream of home ownership serve as a subtle signal to whites in DeSoto, TX that it was time to leave.

It will be a challenge to fight the deleterious effects of segregation without further stigmatizing black spaces and legitimating white ones, but we cannot abandon the goal of both concrete and conceptual equality for blacks. Tangible progress and the political will to bring it about are interdependent. We must strive for integration not only in America’s neighborhoods, schools, and workplaces but also in its behavior and beliefs, extending to blacks the long-denied right to fully belong in the American community. 


Nina Yancy graduated from Harvard College and is presently completing a doctorate in political science at Oxford University. She is a Rhodes Scholar.

Image: Jacob Lawrence; ‘New York in transit’, by mksfca. CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

[1] John Iceland, David H. Weinberg, and Erika Steinmetz, “Racial and Ethnic Residential Segregation in the United States: 1980-2000,” Census 2000 Special Reports, no. August (2002): 1980–2000.
[2] Edward Glaeser and Jacob Vigdor, The End of the Segregated Century: Racial Separation in America’s Neighborhoods, 1890–2010., 2012.
[3] Douglas Massey and Nancy Denton, American Apartheid (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1993).
[4] Douglas S. Massey and Jonathan Tannen, “A Research Note on Trends in Black Hypersegregation,” Demography, no. 2000 (2015).
[5]  Jacob S. Rugh and Douglas S. Massey, “Segregation in Post-Civil Rights America,” Du Bois Review: Social Science Research on Race FirstView, no. 1 (2013): 1–28.
[6] Eric Oliver, “Suburban Politics,” in The Oxford Handbook of Urban Politics, ed. Peter John, Karen Mossberger, and Susan E. Clarke, 2012, 1–13.
[7] Ronald J.O. Flores and Arun Peter Lobo, “The Reassertion of a Black/Non-Black Color Line,” Journal of Urban Affairs 35, no. 3 (August 12, 2013): 255–82. See also Michael D. M. Bader and Siri Warkentien, The Fragmented Evolution of Racial Integration since the Civil Rights Movement, 2014.
[8] Massey and Denton, American Apartheid, 10.
[9] Allison Shertzer and Randall P. Walsh, Racial Sorting and the Emergence of Segregation in American Cities, 2015.
[10] Lincoln Quillian, “Why Is Black-White Residential Segregation So Persistent?” Social Science Research 31, no. 2 (2002): 197–229. Camille L. Zubrinsky and Lawrence D. Bobo, “Prismatic Metropolis,” Social Science Research 25, no. 4 (1996): 367.
[11] Thomas C. Schelling, “Dynamic Models of Segregation,” Journal of Mathematical Sociology 1 (1971): 143–86.
[12] Sun Jung Oh and John Yinger, “What Have We Learned from Paired Testing in Housing Markets?,” Cityscape: A Journal of Policy Development and Research, 17, no. 3 (2015).
[13] Paul Kantor, “The Two Faces of American Urban Policy,” Urban Affairs Review 43 (2013): 821–50. For one example of how highway development shaped a city’s landscape, see also Clarence N. Stone, Regime Politics: Governing Atlanta, 1946-1988 (Lawrence, KS: University Press of Kansas, 1989)
[14] The clash between housing secretary George Romney and President Nixon, who sided with his white suburban-dwelling voter base, is an example of the weak enforcement of the 1968 housing legislation. See Christopher Bonastia, Knocking on the Door (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2006), Desmond King, Separate and Unequal: African Americans and the US Federal Government (New York: Oxford University Press, 2007) and Desmond King and Rogers M Smith, Still a House Divided: Race and Politics under Obama. (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2011)
[15] William Julius Wilson, The Truly Disadvantaged: The Inner City, the Underclass, and Public Policy (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1987).
[16] Patrick Sharkey, “Spatial Segmentation and the Black Middle Class,” American Journal of Sociology 119, no. 4 (2014): 903–54.
[17] Bhashkar Mazumder, “Black–white Differences in Intergenerational Economic Mobility in the United States,” Economic Perspectives 38, no. 1 (2014).
[18] Robert J. Sampson, Great American City (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2012).
[19] Gunnar Myrdal, An American Dilemma, Volume 2: The Negro Problem and Modern Democracy, vol. 2 (Transaction Publishers, 1944), 618.
[20] The Black Lives Matter movement sees voting as a tactic, not an end goal, and has chosen not to endorse any presidential candidate. This is one reason the movement has not increased black turnout. The important point, however, is that there was a need for such a movement to bring attention to a crisis of violence against blacks at the hands of police, long ignored by mainstream politics.
[21] Anne Case and Angus Deaton, “Rising Morbidity and Mortality in Midlife among White Non-Hispanic Americans in the 21st Century,” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 112, no. 49 (2015): 15078–83.
[22] James Baldwin, Notes of a Native Son, vol. 39 (Beacon Press, 1984).