Residential segregation refers to differences among social groups in their spatial distribution. Conceived broadly, the topic subsumes regional and other macro-level patterns of spatial distribution; but the research literature has focused primarily on group differences in distribution across neighborhoods in urban areas. Research on residential segregation constitutes one of the oldest traditions in sociology and has a rich history of cumulative development extending back to the founding of the discipline. Patterns of neighborhood distribution received close attention in W. E. B. Du Bois’s The Philadelphia Negro (1899), a landmark work often viewed as the first major empirical study in urban sociology. Studies of segregation processes of neighborhood change were integral to the Chicago School tradition spawned by Robert Park and Ernest Burgess’s The City (1925) and were a mainstay of empirical urban sociology in the 1920s, 1930s, and 1940s.
Quantitative research on racial segregation advanced significantly in the 1950s and 1960s. A key methodological statement by Otis Dudley Duncan and Beverly Duncan (1955) forged a working consensus on measurement approaches, and studies by Duncan and Duncan (1957), Stanley Lieberson (1963), and Karl Taeuber and Alma Taeuber (1965) established exemplars for research on segregation and neighborhood change that remain influential. Five decades of vigorous, cumulative research ensued, marked by steady methodological refinement—in studies such as those by Lieberson (1981), Linda Stearns and John Logan (1986), Douglas Massey and Nancy Denton (1988), and David James and Karl Taeuber (1985)—and a stream of empirical studies assessing trends and patterns in residential segregation—in studies such as those by Lieberson (1980), Reynolds Farley and William Frey (1994), Massey and Denton (1987, 1989, 1993), Paul Jargowsky (1997), Edward Glaeser and Jacob Vigdor (2003), and Logan (2003).
Residential segregation occurs along many lines of demarcation in social life. Segregation is most pronounced on the dimensions of race and ethnicity and socioeconomic status but is also observed in lesser degrees along cultural and religious lines, stage of family-life cycle, and differences in lifestyle. As a result, cities can be described as urban mosaics of heterogeneous neighborhoods marked by relative internal homogeneity in social characteristics. Urban ethnographies identify a multitude of neighborhood types—“old money” elite enclaves, “nouveau riche” gated communities, suburban developments, working-class areas, ethnic villages, areas of immigrant settlement, poverty areas, gay and lesbian districts, artist colonies, and so on—and they document the variation in social life across these areas. Urban theory outlines the micro- and macro-level dynamics involved. Quantitative studies describe the extent to which social differentiation is expressed spatially and assess the impact of the various factors shaping segregation trends and underlying neighborhood change. The literature on racial and ethnic segregation and segregation among socioeconomic groups is especially well developed and establishes that these forms of segregation are maintained both by informal and decentralized social dynamics and by structured institutional forces, including legal and regulatory guidelines.
In the United States the most closely studied aspect of segregation is the white–black residential color line. Historically, white–black segregation has been, and remains, more pronounced than any other form. For most of the twentieth century it was maintained by a welter of interlocking laws, regulations, and institutional practices supplemented by intimidation and violence on the part of whites, which in combination functioned to exclude blacks from white residential areas. The separate-but-equal doctrine established by the Plessy v. Ferguson Supreme Court decision of 1896 provided the legal bulwark for the oppressive Jim Crow system in the South that formally separated blacks and whites in schools and public facilities. In the North and Midwest, restrictive covenants, realtor discrimination, so-called mortgage redlining, and related institutional practices combined with informal intimidation and violence by whites to foster levels of white–black segregation and black ghettoization that surpassed even the levels seen in the South. This unparalleled pattern of segregation had severe consequences for African Americans: inferior housing and schooling, sharply restricted life chances, and disproportional exposure to concentrated poverty and attendant social problems such as drug abuse, crime, and gang violence. In short, the residential color line has been at the heart of the extreme social isolation and disadvantage experienced by the African American population in the United States.
The Civil Rights era of the 1960s, following on crucial legal decisions from the 1950s and earlier (e.g., the Supreme Court Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka in 1954), brought the dismantling of overt, formal mechanisms of white–black segregation. Initially, change was often more symbolic than consequential. For example, the Fair Housing Act (Title VIII of the Civil Rights Act of 1968) swept aside many practices of overt housing discrimination in principle but in practice was not backed with effective enforcement policies. Effective enforcement of antidiscrimination policy came only with later legislation (e.g., the Fair Housing Amendments Act of 1988) and associated court rulings. Decades later, reductions in housing discrimination, especially the more blatant formally sanctioned practices, became clear. But discriminatory practices have endured in both the informal realm and less obvious institutional practices (e.g., siting of low-income housing). Consequently, changes in residential segregation have been slow in coming despite seemingly sweeping legal reforms. This is evident in patterns of resurging racial segregation in public schools, as documented by Gary Orfield (2001), which is rooted in enduring patterns of racial residential segregation.
The white–black color line presents a special case for segregation theory. Segregation patterns for other ethnic and racial groups in the United States have not involved comparable levels of social isolation and residential disadvantage. Similarly, patterns of residential assimilation observed over time for many other ethnic and racial groups have not been seen for African Americans. To be sure, white–black segregation has not been a constant. It increased, rising from moderate to unprecedented high levels during the era of the Great Migration of African Americans to northern urban areas during the early part of the twentieth century. In 1970, after a half-century of stasis, white–black segregation began slowly declining and by 2000 had returned to levels not previously seen since 1920–1930; this trend has been accompanied by a rapid disappearance of exclusively white residential areas, as shown by Glaeser and Vigdor (2003). Variation in white–black segregation across metropolitan areas also should be noted; generally, segregation is higher in metropolitan areas that were major destination sites of the Great Migration (e.g., Chicago, Cleveland, Detroit, Philadelphia) and lower in metropolitan areas of the South and West that rose to national prominence after World War II (e.g., Houston, Los Angeles, and San Diego). The trends over time and the variation across metropolitan areas are both important. But the key social fact is that white–black segregation remains more pronounced than any other form of segregation. It is quantitatively more severe and, in a pattern not typically seen for other groups, is routinely manifest on multiple dimensions (e.g., uneven distribution, isolation, clustering, concentration, and centralization) simultaneously, a phenomenon observers such as Massey and Denton (1989) characterize as hypersegregation.
White–black residential segregation is also exceptional for the near absence of dynamics of spatial assimilation. Residential segregation of earlier European immigrant groups dissipated slowly over generations as reductions in cultural and socioeconomic differences between groups were accompanied by steady reductions in spatial separation from “old stock” European groups. At the start of the twenty-first century, a similar dynamic appears to be operating for Latino and especially Asian immigrant groups. As Massey (1985) notes, a comparable process has yet to be observed for African Americans. Thus, for example, the rapid suburbanization of the African American population since the 1980s has largely extended white–black segregation to suburban areas rather than fundamentally reducing overall segregation as historically occurred for other groups.
The reasons for enduring high levels of white–black segregation in the post-Civil Rights era are the subject of much consideration. Scholars generally concur that contemporary white–black segregation cannot be explained as a byproduct of economic segregation and group differences in income. In contrast to patterns observed for other groups, segregation among whites and blacks of similar socioeconomic status is scarcely lower than overall white–black segregation. In view of this fact, future research will need to monitor the residential experiences of potential bellwether groups such as middle- and highstatus African American households. There also is widespread consensus that racial discrimination continues to be a major factor in contemporary white–black segregation. Most observers, as reported by Massey and Denton (1993) and Margery Turner and colleagues (2002), conclude that blatant forms of exclusionary discrimination have declined; but many, as also reported by Massey and Denton (1993) as well as John Yinger (1995), conclude that less obvious but highly consequential forms of discrimination continue.
Opinion is mixed regarding the relevance of informal residential dynamics outside the purview of existing antidiscrimination law. As Camille Charles (2001) has shown, blacks encounter higher levels of negative stereotyping and prejudice and rank at the bottom in survey responses regarding preferences for potential neighbors. Scholars such as John Yinger (1995) and Douglas Massey and Nancy Denton (1993) discount the role of prejudice in the absence of discrimination, but studies by Thomas Schelling (1978), William Clark (1991, 1992, 2002), Mark Fossett (2006), and Fossett and Warren Waren (2005) suggest that household location decisions governed by such preferences can sustain high levels of segregation even in the absence of discrimination. Consistent with this view, studies of residential movement, such as Ingrid Ellen’s (2000), indicate that avoidance of blacks on the part of whites and other groups—a social dynamic outside the scope of existing antidiscrimination law—is an important contributing factor in maintaining segregation. This suggests that significant movement toward residential integration for African Americans will not be observed until greater declines occur in negative stereotyping and prejudice against blacks as well as in exclusionary housing discrimination against blacks.
SEE ALSO Apartheid; Brown v. Board of Education, 1954 ; Brown v. Board of Education, 1955 ; Chicago School; Cities; Civil Rights Movement, U.S.; Communalism; Contact Hypothesis; Discrimination; Du Bois, W. E. B.; Ethnicity; Ghetto; Jim Crow; Migration; Nouveaux Riches; Park School, The; Park, Robert E.; Prejudice; Race; Racism; Resegregation of Schools; Segregation; Segregation, School; Separate-but-Equal
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