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Why eliminating discrimination does not end segregation

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With much fanfare, and after years of the rule-making process, the Obama-era Housing and Urban Development’s (HUD) Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing (AFFH) rules were put in place in 2015. They barely had a chance to come to life before the Trump administration first suspended and then replaced them. The AFFH rules were poised to breathe new life into the 1968 Fair Housing Act by requiring communities to take concrete steps to dismantle segregation. President Biden’s recent executive order appears to be pushing HUD to resuscitate these rules by “fully enforcing the Fair Housing Act.” 

The executive order is a great starting place, and it rightly draws attention to a litany of discriminatory actions that have had devastating consequences for Black people. But if HUD’s primary response is to focus on eliminating housing discrimination, it ultimately will do little to chip away at segregation and its inequities. This is because of the more subtle, but no less virulent, ways that segregation reinforces itself by shaping the social processes that determine how people end up living where they do.

After decades of painfully slow change, Americans’ living situations remain profoundly divided by race.  In the average metropolitan area, about half of all Black and white residents would need to move to different neighborhoods in order to be evenly distributed across a city. And in many of our largest cities — those places where a disproportionately large share of the nation’s Black population is concentrated — segregation is much more pronounced and has barely changed in the past 30 years.  

Segregated neighborhoods are not only separate, but profoundly unequal. In comparison to metropolitan whites, Blacks and Latinos tend to live in neighborhoods that have suffered from decades of disinvestment and abuse, now offering fewer educational and economic opportunities, higher levels of pollution and crime, and a whole host of conditions that diminish opportunities for health and well-being. 

Popular answers to the question of why we end up living in segregated neighborhoods focus on discrimination, as well as differences in economic resources, or just preferences for different kinds of neighborhoods. These, and decades of explicitly racist policies — redlining, restrictive covenants, land sale contracts, legally protected discrimination and more — created segregation and disinvestment in Black communities.

But there are still other forces at play. Growing evidence, including research from our book, “Cycle of Segregation,” sheds light on the way that social networks, daily activities and the media shape how people end up living where they do. These factors are often “hidden in plain sight” because they are embedded in the seemingly mundane strategies all of us use to gather information about, have exposure to, and ultimately understand, our residential options. They are responsible for the mental maps we have about where we can and should live and — at least as important — about where we shouldn’t live.

For example, our immediate social network — friends, family and coworkers — provide tips and advice. Maybe a lead on a great new apartment. Or perhaps we moved to a neighborhood to live near them. But those same social networks also tacitly provide information about what neighborhoods are like even when we aren’t searching for a place to live. Because they tend to be segregated, the information provided by these social networks ends up funneling us into segregated neighborhoods. These racialized notions of places are also perpetuated — sometimes subtly and sometimes not — by the real estate industry, landlords and municipalities as they market themselves to potential new residents. 

In short, segregation is set up to perpetuate itself even in the absence of economic stratification or direct acts of interpersonal discrimination.

Biden’s executive order rightly highlights the racist policies of past and present and focuses heavily on rooting out discrimination. But just as important is the order’s less-emphasized mandate to “lift barriers that restrict housing and neighborhood choice.” As Biden’s HUD seeks to “fully support the Fair Housing Act,” these barriers merit closer attention. Eliminating discrimination does not achieve desegregation, nor does it create a more equitable landscape — at least not by itself. Rather, we must recognize passive and baked-in social processes embedded in our social networks, lived experiences and the media — social factors that continually reinforce segregation through their impact on housing searches. These, like discrimination, restrict housing and neighborhood choice. They may be more subtle, but they are no less virulent.

The executive order’s focus on discrimination is crucial. Communities need to use tools such as audit testing to help them root out discriminatory practices that bar access to their community.

But these efforts must be coupled with attacks on other processes — those that shape mental maps people have about where to live or not live. Municipalities and neighborhood organizations must be held accountable for the subtle ways they make their communities more or less comfortable and accessible to various groups. This could come from funding community marketing campaigns and housing counseling centers that help people learn about communities and housing opportunities from sources beyond those that serve to perpetuate segregation. Such centers can counteract forces such as anticipated discrimination that deter people of color from seeking housing in certain communities. And they can work to overcome white people’s blind spots about diverse communities, and the shortcuts they use, which generate perceptions of communities driven solely by stereotypes and negative media.

The Biden administration needs to understand the limitations of focusing too narrowly on discrimination and recognize the obvious and not-so-obvious ways that segregation is perpetuated. It’s the only way we will revive the original intent of the Fair Housing Act. 

Maria Krysan is a professor of sociology, an Institute of Government and Public Affairs senior scholar at the University of Illinois at Chicago, and a Public Voices Fellow of the OpEd Project. Kyle Crowder is the Blumstein-Jordan Professor of Sociology at the University of Washington. Together, they authored the monograph “Cycle of Segregation.”

Tags Housing discrimination Joe Biden Racial segregation racial wealth gap Redlining Social Issues

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