American Apartheid

Denton, N. A., & Massey, D. (1993). American apartheid: Segregation and the making of the underclass.

American Apartheid

The question endlessly debated by sociologists: is the black underclass the result of a) racism b) a culture of poverty c) welfare d) structural economic change or e) residential segregation? Denton and Massey say it’s choice e). “Residential segregation is the institutional apparatus that supports other racially discriminatory processes and binds them together into a coherent and uniquely effective system of racial subordination” (8). Without residential segregation, structural economic changes wouldn’t have been so devastating. Middle-class migration out of black neighborhoods contributed, but wasn’t the main factor.

I was surprised to learn that racial ghettos in American cities didn’t arise until around 1900. Ghettos were not the result of market forces. Residential segregation isn’t a factor of income, since it affects blacks at levels of SES. But barriers to spatial mobility are barriers to social mobility. As of this book’s writing in 1993, residential segregation persisted strongly. The Fair Housing Act passed in 1968, but wasn’t enforced until 1988, and then only individually, not systemically. Looking around at major American cities now, it would appear that the situation hasn’t improved too significantly.

Ghettos arose after mass migrations of Southern blacks to northern cities, fueling the demand for labor that also drew Eastern European immigrants. Before the twentieth century, black people faced economic and social discrimination, but not much housing discrimination. However, there was an upsurge in racism in the early twentieth century fueled by economic competition, black workers being used as strikebreakers, and “scientific” theories like eugenics. Neighborhood segregation was enforced first by riots and bombings, and then less violently by “neighborhood improvement associations” and blockbusting by realtors, using deliberate campaigns of “there goes the neighborhood.” Realtors were able to further influence segregated housing patterns by making home loans to middle-class blacks when banks wouldn’t. This era was the backdrop for the famous debate between WEB Dubois and Booker T Washington, on whether the black middle class should fight back or accommodate.

Housing discrimination in the north was less formal than in the Jim Crow south, but it resulted in greater isolation. The southern pattern of “white avenues and black alleys” did not isolate black people in the concentrated enclaves that arose in cities like New York. (There are a lot of references to various “groovy alleys” in jazz songs.) Industrialization had favored dense building patterns, but midcentury post-industrialization plus high tech communication plus automobiles reversed that trend, catalyzing white flight to the suburbs. Despite massive population movements, residential segregation persisted intact. Federal housing programs fostered segregation via redlining, systematically denying loans to anyone in a black neighborhood. These lending programs were also major drivers of suburbanization. The concentration and isolation of the ghetto was accelerated by slum clearing and “urban renewal,” which destroyed more housing than it created. Well-intentioned liberals tried to have housing projects located in white neighborhoods to prevent further ghettoization, but were blocked by NIMBYism.

Denton and Massey use five measures for residential segregation: unevenness, isolation, clustering, concentration, and centralization (or its inverse, grouping on a city’s periphery). High scores on all five means hypersegregation, which describes a lot of big American cities, including New York. “Ironically, within a large, diverse, and highly mobile post-industrial society such as the United States, blacks living in the heart of the ghetto are among the most isolated people on earth” (77). In the South, black isolation is high within neighborhoods but those neighborhoods, don’t form big enclaves.

When I read statistics and quotes about white flight, I’m both saddened and mystified. I’m the kind of hipster who seeks out black neighborhoods to live in (and thus help to gentrify). According to Denton and Massey, white people no longer flee at the first sight of black people in a neighborhood, but they are “nonetheless highly cognizant of an area’s location relative to the ghetto and are highly sensitive to the relative number of blacks that a neighborhood contains” (80). This trend continues unabated into the present. I was immediately reminded of the notorious Sketchfactor app, which was meant to help you avoid “bad” neighborhoods, inevitably meaning black ones.

It comes as a surprise to learn that segregation indices don’t depend on black people’s income or education. For Asians and Latinos, the situation is more what I would have expected, with declining segregation as their SES rises. Black people are not isolated by choice; Denton and Massey cite statistics and interviews showing that they support integrated neighborhoods. White people, on the other hand, vehemently opposed them a few decades ago and probably still do. The numbers get worse when you ask white people about the attitudes of other white people, since it’s naturally much easier to accuse other people of being racist than to admit it to yourself. White prejudice is necessary but not sufficient to keep black people out of a neighborhood. Racist housing practices need to persist, though as of the 1990s, usually covertly, via subtle discouragement from realtors and lenders. White people get more conventional mortgages while black people get more FHA loans, which are not as abundant as mortgages are. Furthermore, mortgage lenders are likelier to extend financing in all-black neighborhoods than in mixed neighborhoods, out of fear of “instability.” I wonder whether this continues to be true as gentrification takes hold in places like Brooklyn and Harlem?

The gentrification question makes me want to see an update of this study. As of 1993, San Francisco for desegregating, but mainly through gentrification. The same is certainly true of my neighborhood in Brooklyn. Denton and Massey describe areas with small black populations as more integrated, since their numbers stay “within the limits of white tolerance.” How does this play out in Brooklyn? Is my generation of hipsters more open-minded than our predecessors? Or do we drive up prices to the point where the black population declines to a level we’re more comfortable with.

Finally, on a subject closest to my own research interests: Denton and Massey point to residential segregation as contributing to the increasing differentiation of African-American Vernacular English from white English. Would they also credit it for hip-hop?