The U.S. Census tracks racial housing segregation with the “index of dissimilarity.” The index tracks segregation between two groups by viewing their distribution across neighborhoods in the same city.  Race, although a social construct, has major implications for life chances as we continuously see in the disparities such as those disproportionately impacted by COVID-19, maternal death rates, mass incarceration and educational outcomes. How can we have racial healing or reconciliation when we don’t talk about race, let alone live in communities together.
The top five most segregated cities currently rank from highest to lowest, Gary, IN, Detroit, MI, Milwaukee, WI, New York, NY and Chicago, IL. When people think of racial segregation too often, they envision southern cities, but the reality is that the top five are either located in the Midwest or in the northeast of the United States. Looking at my hometown, Milwaukee, WI we find a dissimilarity index between African Americans and European Americans (Whites) of 84.4. The lower the index, the more integrated the city is and the closer the index is to 100 the higher level of racial segregation. When many African Americans migrated to the Midwest and Northeast, they faced discrimination in housing as well as employment. This helps explain why the top five most segregated cities are not located in the south.
Using the neighborhood school model, which is what most areas utilize, leads to kids attending school with other youth from their segregated urban neighborhood. Attending school with others of the same socioeconomic status and often race can either negatively or positively impact youth. We know that schools in higher income districts have more school resources because local property taxes go partially fund schools. Those who live in low-income communities don’t have as much tax base as those in higher income areas, which causes them to have less resources. There is a direct correlation between the social construct of race and socioeconomic status due to the racialized policies that hindered African Americans from creating generational wealth, such as housing covenants and redlining. We must draw attention to the part that our government has played and continues to play into the high levels of segregation by race and socioeconomic status we see America.
While in 1968 housing covenants became outlawed there were other mechanisms put in place to ensure that the majority (Europeans Americans-Whites) didn’t have to live in areas with African Americans. Racial realtor steering continues to take place along side exclusionary zoning. When we lived in Chester, VA the community (subdivision) had exclusionary zoning. If you wanted to live on the St. James River and build on a site that granted you access to view the river your house had to be a minimum of 5000 sq. ft., which would typically cost more than half a million to begin the process of building. Exclusionary zoning is another mechanism used to keep low-income and vulnerable families out of certain spaces. While we know there are different social classes in each ethnic group there is the reality that due to past discriminatory practices that people of color still tend to have less generational wealth. Considering that home ownership has been a major source of creating generational wealth and African Americans have been locked out for centuries it’s not surprising.
Realtor steering takes place when potential home buyers are steered towards a certain neighborhood, one that typically matches their complexion. This continues today as we find neighborhoods that lack diversity of race. People have been led to believe that when African Americans move in that property values begin to decrease, which is not true but something that worked historically when realtors or land spectators wanted to change the demographics of a neighborhood.
Lending practices are being questioned. A well-known bank is being sued for discrimination against African American borrowers. The bank is being sued for using discriminatory practices in mortgage lending, which lead to African Americans with great credit and income still getting loans at higher interest rates than their European (white) counterparts with the same or some with even lesser scores. The gap between African American homeowners and European American is growing.
Segregation is a continued issue in our country and one that must be addressed. We live in a global society but don’t know how to even engage with one another due to segregated housing and schools. As Martin Luther King Jr. said, “We must learn to live together as brothers and sisters or perish together as fools.”
Tammy L. Hodo, PhD