Facing down segregation; half-heartedly or with steely determination?

Book coverThe job of massive integration seems overwhelming, but the impetus to pursue diverse neighborhoods appears to be underwhelming. The national racial divide is stark. Segregation impedes overall economic prosperity since large segments of the population are poorly educated and cannot obtain high-skilled jobs. Segregation also poisons our politics by preventing communication and thus deepening conflict and gridlock. Yet, despite the evils of segregation or because of it, integration policy initiatives are halting and haphazard.

A new book, Facing Segregation: Housing Policy Solutions for a Stronger Society, edited by Molly M. Metzger and Henry S. Webber of Washington University in St. Louis, explores the history, impact and policy solutions to segregation. Metzger and Webber compiled essays, analyses and reflections from scholars and practitioners, including Richard Rothstein, Lance Freeman and Barbara Sard. With NCRC President and Founder John Taylor, I co-authored an analysis on how to use the Community Reinvestment Act (CRA) in a manner to promote integration.

Our chapter describes how the CRA could be used in a more focused manner to further integration and encourage banks to finance affordable housing in gentrifying neighborhoods and mixed-income housing in distressed neighborhoods. Despite some regulatory encouragement and guidance, CRA exams rarely discuss or promote these efforts. We argue that community groups and bankers should ask CRA examiners to regularly consider pro-integrative affordable housing and community development projects.

Richard Rothstein, research associate at the Economic Policy Institute, kicks off the book by clearly emphasizing themes from his recent and seminal work, The Color of Law, which finds that segregation was not merely the result of individual or private-sector prejudice. Instead, the federal government invented the means and methods to segregate that led to the widespread practices of redlining. Starting with the segregation of public housing enacted by the FDR administration, the federal government implemented segregation on a massive scale by financing the suburbanization of the white lower- and middle-classes in the pre- and post-WWII years. The federal government required that private developers and lenders only use Federal Housing Administration (FHA) loans for white homeowners in the new suburban developments. The results across the United States mirrored the outcomes in the city and county of St. Louis. Of the 70,000 homeowner units built in those jurisdictions between 1947 and 1952, only 35 were purchased by African Americans with FHA loans.

These racial patterns of development locked African Americans into inferior opportunities and outcomes. Homeownership is the primary means of wealth building in our country. Because African Americans were systematically locked out of homeownership, their communities suffered from lower property tax revenue to support decent schools, less access to jobs and a whole host of other harmful social and economic outcomes. In his chapter on the enduring significance of segregation, Jason Purnell, associate professor at Washington University, cites census data to illustrate the significant gulf between median income levels in white and African-American ZIP codes, which in one sample was $90,000 and $15,000, respectively. These income differences correlate to vast differences in wealth, poverty levels and death rates.

Raj Chetty, William A. Ackman professor of public economics at Harvard University, in perhaps the most well-known recent research, documents profound improvements in economic opportunity for children who are able to move from segregated neighborhoods to more diverse communities. Furthermore, as Metzger and Webber remind us in their introduction to the book, a large body of research documents that segregation impedes economic progress and social mobility.

Despite the clear and crushing harms of segregation, victims as well as perpetrators of segregation are ambivalent about integration. Ph.D., Professor and Director of the Urban Planning program at Columbia University Lance Freeman, in his chapter on the siting of federally subsidized projects, suggests that African Americans have been generally more insistent on integrating schools and workplaces rather than housing. Starting with the New Deal, an informal deal was presented to African Americans; the government will improve the quality of housing, but it will be in segregated neighborhoods. Over time, African Americans understood that their political and institutional power bases derived from segregated neighborhoods. In the civil rights era of the 1960s, African American community movements often advocated for new housing in poor inner city African American neighborhoods rather than housing opportunities in suburban communities.

Purnell further employs the insights of social psychology to illuminate the difficulties of enacting integration strategies. Discussing the insights of the psychologist Gordon Allport, Purnell reminds us that projects and policies involving distinct social groups have the best chances of success if the groups: meet as equals, share common goals, cooperate in reaching goals and have the support and endorsement of authorities, laws and norms. If an initiative such as integrating housing or schools is perceived as competitive and zero sum (in which gains for one group is at the expense of another when the resource pie does not grow), the initiative will be divisive and unsuccessful. Reading Purnell’s chapter provides an understanding of why massive busing was resisted. Purnell also suggests that it “would seem ill-advised to highlight race in the redistribution of resources.” Rothstein’s proposal to promote a homeownership program of reparations to African Africans is unrealistic in this light as Rothstein acknowledges.

Short of a massive program undertaking, Purnell’s discussion of Allport’s conditions is a useful guide for more modest integration initiatives. The support of leaders and the public sector is required if racial groups are to see that they enhance the prospects of all. The Trump Administration’s anti-immigrant rhetoric and pullback from HUD economic diversity programs make integration at all levels all that more difficult. A skilled mediator is needed for groups to cooperate in the pursuit of common goals. In the absence of national leadership, the responsibility shifts to other units of government, as well as civic and religious institutions.

In his chapter on mixed-income housing, Mark Joseph, professor and founding director of the National Institute on Mixed-Income Communities at Case Western Reserve University, extends Purnell’s and Allport’s insights into improving the success of mixed-income housing in promoting social and job mobility for lower-income residents. He notes, for example, that resident associations tend to be exclusionary and do not involve the lower-income residents of mixed-income housing. Perhaps they will be less exclusionary if more informal means of interaction, such as common areas, increase interaction among the diverse residents of mixed-income housing, according to Joseph.

Given the tensions and ambivalence associated with integrative strategies, the book outlines two opposing but perhaps complementary strategies. Employing both avoids over-reliance and exhaustion of one main approach. One strategy is commonly called “moving to opportunity” and entails helping poor and minorities move to more affluent communities. The other strategy focuses on revitalizing segregated and/or distressed neighborhoods. Philip Tegeler, executive director of the Poverty & Race Research Action Council, discusses the tensions and possible harmony in these two approaches in his chapter about the Department of Housing and Urban Development’s (HUD’s) Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing (AFFR) requirement. As part of the Fair Housing Act, AFFH requires jurisdictions to identify and combat the barriers segregation pose to improved economic and social opportunities. As Tegeler mentions, HUD will frown upon an imbalance of employing either strategy; moving to opportunity or revitalizing segregated and/or distressed neighborhoods. However, it is unclear what an imbalance is and what would be an optimal mix of the strategies.

The book also describes programs and approaches for both strategies; moving to opportunity or revitalizing neighborhoods. Barbara Sard, vice president for Housing Policy at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, describes how Section 8 vouchers (rental subsidies for poor households) could be used more effectively to provide opportunities for lower-income renters to live in more affluent communities. Currently, only about 13 percent of voucher recipients live in low-poverty neighborhoods, despite ample opportunities to subsidize integrative moves since rent levels are surprisingly affordable in a number of low-poverty neighborhoods. She goes on to describe a series of administrative reforms such as changing how to calculate subsidy levels and interjurisdictional cooperation that would promote moving to opportunity.

In a thought provoking chapter, Todd Swanstorm, E. Desmond Lee professor of community collaboration and public policy administration at the University of Missouri-St. Louis, describes how programs to encourage homeownership might be better directed at what he calls middle neighborhoods. These neighborhoods are precariously stable on the precipice between distress and growth. He observes that financing large-scale development of housing in more distressed neighborhoods may perversely depress housing values since supply already exceeds demand. While these observations are astute, an outcome of this approach is that distressed neighborhoods can further be neglected by the affordable housing strategy of localities. While new homeownership opportunities could perhaps be focused on so-called middle neighborhoods, housing rehabilitation and repair efforts can ensure the preservation of affordable rental and owner housing in more distressed neighborhoods. Swanstorm glances too quickly over the housing strategies for distressed neighborhoods.

The bottom line is all of this is hard work. There is no intellectual consensus among the disciplines about an approach whether it is full bore integration or revitalizing distressed neighborhoods or a mix. And when practitioners talk about revitalizing neighborhoods, they often have very different strategies in mind. Perhaps an unsatisfactory answer but maybe the only one that can be applied at this point in time is employing a mix of multiple approaches. Needs and political and sociological contexts across localities will differ and will inform the approaches that can be effectively employed. However, one thing is clear: a larger national commitment of resources is imperative if we are to achieve more meaningful opportunity, more harmonious relations among groups and better economic outcomes for all of us.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

You may also like