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"Who Will Live Near Whom?,"

by Camille Zubrinsky Charles September/October 2008 issue of Poverty & Race

Scholars and policymakers have long viewed residential segregation by race as a core aspect of racial inequality, implicated in both intergroup relations and in larger processes of individual and group social mobility.

Whether by choice or by constraint, persisting racial residential segregation has serious implications for both present and future mobility opportunities. Where we live affects our proximity to good jobs, educational quality and safety from crime, as well as the quality of our social networks and our physical and mental health.

As one of the most racially, ethnically and culturally diverse cities in the world, Los Angeles offers important lessons for understanding patterns of residential segregation by race as well as the factors—both individual and structural—that influence aggregate-level neighborhood patterns. There is a long history of African-American settlement there. Moreover, as a top destination for new immigrants, the school system there offers instruction in nearly 100 languages, boasts the largest Latino/a and Korean populations in the country and is home to the first majority-Chinese suburb (Monterey Park). As one of nearly 40 majority-minority metros, Los Angeles offers a glimpse of the future of America.

Rapid changes in population composition associated with massive immigration from Latin America and Asia (e.g., in 2000, about one-third of LA County residents were foreign-born, up from 22% in 1980); economic restructuring and persistent economic inequality along racial-ethnic lines (e.g., in 2000, nearly one-quarter of blacks and Latinos lived in poverty, compared to less than 10% of whites and 14% of Asians); and patterns of intergroup tensions and often negative racial attitudes (e.g., uprisings in 1965 and 1992, increasing black-brown tensions) all contribute to—and are consequences of—persisting residential segregation by race.

In terms of trends in racial residential segregation, since 1980, Los Angeles is one of a very few large metros that embodies several national trends. Like many older cities of the Midwest and Northeast, blacks are hyper­segregated—exhibiting extreme isolation on at least four of five standard measures of residential distribution. And, in a new twist, Los Angeles is one of only two cities (New York is the other), as of the 2000 Census, to see its Latino population become hypersegregated. Equally important, despite reports of declining black-white segregation since 1980, there has been virtually no increase in blacks’ exposure to whites in their neighborhoods; both Latinos and Asians have experienced substantial declines in their exposure to whites since 1980 as well. To the extent that racial residential segregation is deeply implicated in persisting racial economic inequality and tenuous intergroup relations, and in-as-much as trends in Los Angeles point to our national future, it is an optimal location for a consideration of the future of fair housing.

In general, social scientists debate the relative importance of three factors—real and/or perceived social class disadvantage, neighborhood racial composition preferences, and housing market discrimination—as primary contributors to persisting racial residential segregation. While economic inequality between racial/ethnic groups remains a pressing problem, objective differences in social class status cannot account for persisting racial residential segregation. Analyses of the housing market also reveal persisting discrimination against African Americans, Latinos and Asians in both the owner and rental markets. Here, I focus on the role of neighborhood racial composition preferences—and in particular the factors that motivate preferences—as critical for understanding not only aggregate housing patterns, but the role fair housing legislation can play in creating and maintaining stable, racially/ethnically integrated communities, in light of current patterns and trends in racial attitudes (including preferences).

Neighborhood Racial Composition Preferences: A Brief Summary

Over the last two-and-a-half decades, there has been meaningful change in the neighborhood racial composition preferences of whites, shifting toward increased tolerance for sharing neighborhoods with more than token numbers of blacks and other minorities. At the same time, a clear majority of blacks remain willing to live in areas where their group is in the minority, and show a clear preference for 50/50 neighborhoods. Nonetheless, substantial differences remain in both the meaning and preferred levels of racial integration across racial categories. For many whites, a racially integrated neighborhood is one that is majority-white. To put it plainly, whites are willing to live with small numbers of blacks, Latinos and/or Asians, but prefer to live in predominantly same-race neighborhoods. Nonwhites, on the other hand, all prefer substantially more racial integration and are more comfortable as a numerical minority compared to whites. Still, the same-race preferences of nonwhites exceed whites’ preferences for integration. Moreover, patterns of neighborhood racial composition preferences follow a predictable racial hierarchy: Whites are always the most-preferred out-group and blacks the least-preferred; Asians and Latinos, usually in that order, are located in between these two extremes.

What Drives Preferences—Classism, Ethnocentrism or Prejudice?

A variety of factors shape residential decision-making: cost and affordability, the quality of the housing stock, preferences for particular dwelling amenities, proximity to work or other important destinations, stage in the life course, the quality of the public schools. Consequently, aggregate-level residential outcomes are the result of a multitude of individual-level attitudes and behaviors. In analyses of patterns of racial residential preferences, however, three hypotheses are typically considered:

Classism: Perceived differences in socioeconomic status that heavily coincide with racial-ethnic boundaries contribute to racial residential preferences.

Ethnocentrism: Members of all social groups tend to be ethnocentric —that is, prefer to associate with co-ethnics.

Prejudice: More active out-group avoidance is at the root of neighborhood racial composition preferences.

The expression of prejudice can take a variety of forms, including negative racial stereotypes, perceptions of social distance and the belief that one or more groups pose a competitive threat to one’s own group. Also important, though not typically considered, are minority-group beliefs about the prevalence of discrimination; these beliefs may influence the preferences of minority-group members for whites or for same-race neighbors. To understand what drives neighborhood racial composition preferences requires systematic testing of the various hypotheses, preferably the simultaneous examination of said explanations.

Three items capture variants of prejudice. Racial stereotyping is an important aspect of traditional prejudice or simple out-group hostility. The measure used here is a summary of four traits—intelligence, preference for welfare dependence, English-language ability, and involvement in drugs and gangs. Social distance is the degree to which respondents believe that an out-group is “difficult to get along with socially” relative to his or her own group. Rather than simple out-group hostility, this form of prejudice is fueled by a commitment to a specific group status or relative group position, as opposed to simple out-group hostility. What matters most is the magnitude or degree of difference from particular out-groups that in-group members have socially learned to expect and maintain. Beliefs about racial-group threat or competition offer another lens through which to examine feelings of racial hostility—the degree to which an individual believes that more opportunities (economic and/or political) for an out-group results in fewer opportunities for one’s own group. Finally, minority-group members’ beliefs about whites’ attitudes toward them and/or the prevalence of racial discrimination is captured in a general perception of whites as “tending to discriminate” against minority groups. Results of my research indicate that classism and ethnocentrism play, at best, marginal roles in individuals’ residential decision-making—with the clear exception of Asians, but even for this group class concerns appear to be much more salient for immigrants than for the native-born. In most cases, any evidence that supports these explanations pales in comparison to evidence that supports explanations rooted in the various forms of racial prejudice. Simply put, whites’ preferences for neighborhood racial integration are best understood as motivated by prejudice, not classism or ethnocentrism.

The most powerful predictors of blacks’ neighborhood racial composition preferences is racial prejudice—whether negative racial stereotypes, the perception of whites and Asians as socially distant, the perception of whites as tending to discriminate against them, or the fear that more jobs and political power for Asians means less for them. Neither concerns about avoiding poverty nor some “innate” desire to stay “with my own kind” are influential.

Latinos’ neighborhood racial composition preferences are motivated primarily by prejudice and perceptions of whites as discriminatory; perceptions of blacks as economically disadvantaged play a very minor role, as does ethnocentrism when potential neighbors are Asian or same-race.

In summary, neighborhood racial composition preferences are primarily a function of racial prejudice; for blacks, Latinos and, to a lesser extent, Asians, there is the added concern about hostility directed toward them by whites. Assertions that preferences are driven primarily by either “classism” or ethnocentrism are simply not supported by the evidence.

Where Do We Go From Here?

My goal is to elucidate patterns of neighborhood racial composition preferences and the forces that drive them, and to situate racial preferences within the broader context of historic and contemporary American race relations. The good news for the future of public policy related to housing opportunity, housing choice and inequality more broadly is that whites are increasingly willing to live in close proximity to racial minorities, and a sizable number of blacks, Latinos and Asians, remain willing to live in predominantly white areas. To capitalize on this willingness, however, requires being always mindful of the way that race continues to shape both our day-to-day interactions and our overall worldview.

The bad news, both for public policy and the nation, is that most whites still prefer predominantly or overwhelmingly white neighborhoods, while most nonwhites prefer more same-race neighbors than most whites are willing to tolerate. Most Americans—irrespective of race, ethnicity or nativity status—continue to embrace anti-minority stereotypes, including many who are willing to share residential space with racial minorities. Conversely, most blacks, Latinos, and Asians have a keen sense of their subordinate positions relative to whites, and of whites’ negative attitudes; this often leaves them suspicious of overwhelmingly white areas (a sort of “better safe than sorry” mentality).

Across racial groups, patterns of neighborhood racial composition preferences reveal a clear and consistent racial rank-ordering of out-groups as potential neighbors: Whites are always the most preferred out-group neighbors, and the most likely to prefer entirely same-race neighborhoods and/or only limited contact with nonwhites—especially blacks. Blacks are always the least-preferred out-group neighbors, and the most open to substantial integration with all other groups. Asians and Latinos, respectively, are in between these extremes. To varying degrees, all groups express preferences for both meaningful integration and a strong co-ethnic presence, yet preferences for the latter appear to depend on the race of potential neighbors, and are strongest when potential neighbors are black.

Available evidence indicates that active, present-day racial prejudice plays a particularly important role in driving preferences, always more important than either social class concerns or ethnocentrism. In many instances, neither of these factors matters at all. And, although the evidence supports both variants of racial prejudice, it is particularly persuasive with respect to the sense of group position hypothesis. This is especially true for whites, the group at the top of the status hierarchy: Maintaining their status advantages and privilege necessitates a certain amount of social distance from nonwhites—particularly blacks and Latinos, who occupy the lowest positions on the aforementioned hierarchies. More than token integration with these groups signals an unwelcome change in status relationships. Indeed, the racial pecking order is so widely known that Latinos and Asians—many of them unas­similated immigrants—mirror (and arguably exaggerate) it in their preferences for integration.

Conversely, with whites clearly in the most privileged positions of the economic, political and prestige hierarchies in American society, nonwhites have traditionally associated upward social mobility with proximity to them. That many nonwhites hold negative stereotypes of whites but are still interested in sharing residential space with them is indicative of this orientation. At the same time, nonwhites’ beliefs about discrimination and hostility from whites, combined with an awareness that whites are not “on the same page” may cause some minority homeseekers to limit their housing searches to areas where they feel welcome, or to decide not to search at all. Thus, a neighborhood’s racial composition acts as a signal for homeseekers: Areas with substantial co-ethnic representation are viewed as welcoming; overwhelmingly white neighborhoods can evoke concerns for nonwhites about hostility, isolation and discomfort—both psychological and, sometimes, physical; and, for whites, racially mixed or majority-minority neighborhoods signal at least a perceptual loss of relative status advantage, particularly when there is a sizable black and/or Latino community. Thus, for all groups, preferences for same-race neighbors have more to do with aversion to others than with in-group solidarity.

These clearly racial concerns cut across class lines. Indeed, studies of the attitudes and experiences of middle-class blacks suggest that, paradoxically, this subset of blacks may be: 1) most pessimistic about the future of race relations; 2) most likely to believe that whites have negative attitudes toward them; and 3) increasingly less interested in predominantly white neighborhoods. Thus, the most upwardly mobile blacks may be among the most suspicious of whites and least interested in sharing residential space with them. For this group, afford­ability is not nearly the obstacle that whites’ racial prejudice is, and this is due, in no small measure, to the fact that most whites—irrespective of their own social class status—adhere to negative racial stereotypes, deny the persistence of pervasive racial prejudice and discrimination, and are quite likely to oppose race-targeted social policies.

Whites’ racial prejudice—and minority responses to it—poses a more obvious, but equally difficult challenge for improving the housing options of the poor, including those who participate in public housing programs. For many, the obvious material benefits clearly outweigh concerns about and/or day-to-day experiences of prejudice and discrimination. For a non-trivial few, however, fears of isolation and hostility will prevail, and participants will return to the ghetto, and others will opt out entirely when confronted with the reality of moving to a potentially hostile environment. While not at the bottom of the status hierarchy, Asians and Latinos are also subordinate groups grappling with similar racial issues. As we increase our knowledge of Asian and Latino racial attitudes, a similar paradox may emerge within these groups as well.

As we move into the 21st century and continue to struggle with racial inequality in all areas of American life, we must be ever mindful that race still matters, and it matters over and above social class characteristics. In so doing, we must also be mindful of how and why race matters. White objections to race-targeted social policy point to the necessity for well-crafted, universal housing policies that will gain widespread public support but also manage to address issues more directly tied to race. Potentially useful strategies for encouraging whites and nonwhites to share residential space come from studies documenting the characteristics of stably integrated neighborhoods. Residents of these communities often work together on community betterment projects (e.g., building playground equipment for a park or working to have street lights installed) or general community-building efforts that bring people of varied racial backgrounds together, working toward a common goal. Such activities, particularly when they become part of the larger neighborhood culture, can fundamentally alter attitudes on both sides of the racial divide by highlighting what residents share in common, helping to build trust and potentially reducing stereotypes.

Another common strategy emphasizes aggressive public relations campaigns that sing the praises of particular communities. Some of these may stress the value added by diversity; others highlight desirable neighborhood amenities, services and community events that make the area generally attractive; those that do both might ultimately be the most successful. Aggressive marketing strategies seem particularly beneficial when neighborhoods can be advertised as among “the best” in a particular metropolitan area. Positive marketing might also help to attract blacks, Latinos and Asians to overwhelmingly white communities by informing these groups that they are open to and interested in creating stable, friendly and racially diverse communities.

Active, diligent enforcement of anti-discrimination laws is also both appropriate and necessary. This, however, is likely to be a far more difficult and potentially less rewarding task. As it stands, the burden of proving discrimination is placed on the victim, yet empirical evidence suggests that present-day discrimination is often so subtle that few victims are likely to suspect that their housing choices are being constrained. Add to this the gulf of racial misunderstanding separating whites and racial minorities: Where blacks see “a racist moment,” whites see “an isolated incident,” or a “misinterpretation of events” or, even worse, they argue that blacks are “overreacting.” In response, blacks become increasingly distrustful of a system that is supposed to protect them, pessimistic about the future of race relations, and increasingly less inclined to incur the psychic costs associated with filing a complaint.

To give teeth to anti-discrimination enforcement, we need a new enforcement strategy that builds the capacity of local, state and federal civil rights agencies to conduct widespread, ongoing audit studies as a credible deterrent. Tests could be undertaken of randomly selected real estate agencies and of those suspected of discrimination. Those agencies found to consistently evince fair treatment could be publicly rewarded, while those shown to discriminate could be sanctioned, both publicly and financially. In the lending market, where audit studies are more difficult, regular analysis of Home Mortgage Disclosure Act data presents a method for charting the practices of lenders. Such strategies have the potential to create meaningful deterrents. Furthermore, with regular monitoring, there are published records of documented discrimination that could: 1) help to alter whites’ beliefs about inequality and discrimination; and 2) be used by victims as evidence in complaints, documenting systematic mistreatment. Together, these benefits could help move us toward better racial understanding as whites have the “proof” they need to believe what blacks and other racial minorities “just know.”

Without such efforts, and given the state of race relations more generally, it seems unlikely that we can “live together” in the near future. It has been argued that increasing racial diversity might create a “buffer” for blacks, creating opportunities for residential mobility and contact with whites. Yet Latinos and Asians are at least as likely to hold negative stereotypes of blacks as whites are, and more likely to object to the prospect of sharing residential space with them. Furthermore, while whites hold negative stereotypes of both Latinos and Asians, they tend to be less severe than their stereotypes of blacks. Thus, whites are likely to view blacks as culturally deficient, while perceiving largely immigrant Latino and Asian populations as culturally distinct. Similarly, stereotypes of immigrants working hard at menial jobs and complaining less may further fuel anti-black sentiment, fostering the belief that blacks “push too hard” or “are always looking for a handout.” Hence, rather than operating as a “buffer” or source of greater options and acceptance for blacks, increasing racial diversity may simply add to the climate of resistance to blacks as neighbors, and further complicate efforts at achieving either greater racial understanding or more equitable housing outcomes.

Camille Zubrinsky Charles , a member of PRRAC's Social Science Advisory Board, is the Edmund J. and Louise W. Kahn Term Professor in the Social Sciences, Dept. of Sociology, Grad. School of Education & Ctr. for Africana Studies at the Univ. of Pennsylvania. She is the author of Won't You Be My Neighbor? Race, Class and Residence in Los Angeles (Russel Sage, 2006).

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