By Sheryll Cashin (Click here to view the entire P&R issue)
Richard Kahlenberg is correct in asserting that the unfinished business of the civil rights movement is housing. His call for an Economic Fair Housing Act is useful and important. In selling this idea, however, he may create a misleading impression. Economic segregation is growing, with awful consequences for anyone who cannot afford to buy or lease a home in a high opportunity neighborhood. But levels of Black-white segregation remain very high.
Nationally, about sixty percent of all Black people would have to move in order to be evenly distributed among whites in this country. Only about 30 percent of Black and Latino families reside in middle class neighborhoods where less than half of the people are poor. Meanwhile, more than 60 percent of white and Asian families live in environs where most of their neighbors are not poor. The majority of whites and Asians live in neighborhoods with a poverty rate below 14 percent.
Race, then, plays an outsize role in housing markets. Expectation of racial comfort, of white dominance, may explain why most whites still state preferences for majority white neighborhoods. In 2001, the threshold at which whites would likely avoid purchasing a home in a neighborhood was 15% Blackness. Hopefully in 2017 whites’ capacity for neighborhood exposure to Black people has risen. But whatever the threshold for avoidance is today, it is important to consider the reasons for such avoidance. Black people remain the group all non-Blacks are least interested in integrating with. Why? Allow me to speculate.
Social psychologists have documented implicit associations of blackness with criminality. While the stereotype of the Black male sexual predator helped justify the old Jim Crow, I believe a modern stereotype of the “ghetto” dweller or “ghetto thug” is part of the spoken and unspoken subtext of fair housing debates. There is a spatial dimension to antiblack stereotyping that goes beyond class. Residents of hyper-segregated neighborhoods are more likely than other groups to be Black. Hyper-segregation facilitates a unique form of othering. To be “ghetto” has a widespread negative connotation in America, one that many if not most people of all colors disassociate from.
Demographers use a threshold of 40% poverty to define concentrated poverty and the number of these census tracts has risen from about 2,500 in the year 2000 to 4,400 census tracts in 2009-2013. Not all of the most distressed, concentrated poverty census tracts are predominantly Black though much of them are. Such places, small in number, loom large in the American psyche and in American race relations. There are codes of the street, participated in by a small subset of Black urban residents, glorified in gangsta’ rap, propagated in near-constant news stories about urban crime, that may explain widespread fear of Black males. And sometimes middleand upper-class Black people are participating in the othering. Even in Washington, D.C., where Democrats outnumber Republicans by about 12- 1, and where African-Americans for many years controlled government, political leaders pursued punitive laws that fueled mass incarceration and filled DC prisons with young Black men. The same Black political leadership was also slow to adopt an inclusionary zoning ordinance and pursued policies that displaced many poor residents from the city.
Concentrated poverty, particularly of the Black kind, contributes to the flight of others with choices to perceived higher ground. Families with children are especially motivated to avoid high poverty schools or neighborhoods. Elsewhere I have described the intentional public policies that created concentrated Black poverty.1 Had governments not intentionally created Black ghettoes, I suspect we would be much further along in the project of dismantling Jim Crow. Policies and preferences of avoidance might be less common and individuals and institutions less risk averse, more willing to try to enter or invite robust diversity. Above all, poor Black people might be more apt to be seen as three-dimensional human beings, worthy of the moniker “citizen.”
I appreciate Kahlenberg’s project, acknowledge that many whites and non-black people of color suffer the consequences of geographic isolation, and heartily support amending the Fair Housing Act to ban exclusionary zoning and economic discrimination. I also believe that his proposal sidesteps what truly ails us in housing markets and as a nation. I, too, once hoped that a coalition of struggling people of all colors might force elites to support policies that create more opportunity for everyone. But the success of candidate and President Trump’s divide-and-conquer politics has tempered my hope for a unifying class populism among the mutually locked out. I believe all proposals for a more just and inclusive society would benefit from the disinfectant of light shown on the virulent, ugly racism that undergirds the structures of exclusion. I do have faith that a coalition of culturally dexterous allies—those that see and name racism—may yet rise to lance the boil of supremacy in this country, and wipe away the stench.
Sheryll Cashin. 2004. The Failures of Integration: How Race and Class are Undermining the American Dream. Public Affairs. Chapter 7.
Sheryll Cashin, email@example.com, is a Professor or Law at Georgetown University, and the author of Loving: Interracial Intimacy and the Threat to White Supremacy (Beacon 2017).