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"American Apartheid: Segregation and the Making of the Underclass,"

by Douglas Massey September 1992 issue of Poverty & Race

During the 1970s, black poverty became more persistent and geographically concentrated in American cities. Many observers explained these trends by pointing to the class-specific effects of government welfare policies, industrial restructuring, changing sexual mores, the
breakdown of the family, and the departure of the middle class from inner-city neighborhoods. While not denying the importance of these trends, I contend that racial segregation was the key factor responsible for the social transformation of the black community and the concentration of poverty during the 1970s. A pernicious interaction between rising poverty rates and high levels of segregation created the population we know as the urban underclass.

Illustrating my general theoretical arguments with a simulated experiment, I have shown how racial segregation shapes, and to a large extent determines, the socioeconomic environment experienced by poor minority families. Racial segregation concentrates deprivation in black neighborhoods by restricting the poverty created by economic downturns to a small number of minority neighborhoods. To the extent that cities are also segregated by class, increases in poverty are confined largely to poor minority neighborhoods. Simulations demonstrate that under conditions of high class and racial segregation, poor black neighborhoods rapidly move to high concentrations of poverty following an overall rise in black poverty rates.

Using empirically derived equations to predict neighborhood socioeconomic outcomes from poverty concentrations, I have also shown how racial segregation acts to undermine the socioeconomic environment faced by poor blacks and leaves their communities extremely vulnerable to any downturn in the economy. Under conditions of high racial segregation, a rise in the black poverty rates produces a dramatic loss in potential demand in poor black neighborhoods, leading to the withdrawal, deterioration, and out-right elimination of goods and services distributed through the market. Moreover, to the extent that public services are dependent on local tax revenues or user fees, they also disappear or suffer declines in quality.

The Transforming Power of Segregation

Because segregation concentrates disadvantages, shifts in black poverty rates comparable with those observed during the 1970s have the power to transform the socioeconomic character of poor black neighborhoods very rapidly and dramatically, changing a low-income black community from a place where welfare-dependent, female-headed families are a minority to one where they are the norm, producing high rates of crime, property abandonment, mortality, and educational failure. All of these deleterious conditions occur through the joint effect of rising poverty and high levels of racial segregation. They can be produced at any time through a simple increase in black poverty rates under conditions prevailing in most large U.S. cities. They can be generated for any fixed level of class segregation, and they do not require out-migration of middle-class blacks from the ghetto. Thus, racial segregation is crucial to understanding and explaining the existence of America's urban underclass.

The way that segregation concentrates poverty and creates disadvantaged minority neighborhoods provides a succinct, comprehensive explanation that resolves several issues in the underclass debate: First, it explains why the urban underclass, however one defines it, is so disproportionately composed of blacks and Puerto Ricans. In the nation's largest urban areas, these groups are the only ones that have simultaneously experienced high levels of racial segregation and sharp increases in poverty. Black-white dissimilarity indices representing the percentage of blacks who would have to change neighborhood in order to achieve an even or integrated pattern generally exceed .700; in the largest urban areas, they are usually above .800. Likewise, Puerto Ricans are the only Hispanic group whose segregation indices are routinely above .700. During the 1970s, other minority groups, such as Mexicans and Asians, experienced lower levels of segregation, smaller increases in poverty, or both.

Segregation's role in concentrating poverty also explains why the urban underclass is confined primarily to the Northeast and Midwest, and mostly to a small number of large metropolitan areas, such as New York, Chicago, Philadelphia, and Baltimore. During the 1970s, older industrial cities in these regions not only experienced the sharpest economic reversals but also exhibited the highest levels of racial segregation in the United States. Thus, industrial restructuring drove minority poverty rates upward most sharply in cities where blacks and Hispanics were most segregated.

Explaining the "Underclass" Phenomenon

Explaining the origins of the underclass in terms of continuing racial segregation is also consistent with earlier research showing that upper-income blacks remain highly segregated from whites, that this pattern has not changed over time, and that the degree of class segregation among blacks is actually lower than that among other minority groups. Segregation, therefore, provides a more cogent and plausible explanation for the concentration of black poverty than the out-migration of the middle class from the ghetto. The latter hypothesis does not explain why blacks are overrepresented in the underclass or why geographic mobility should concentrate poverty among blacks but not other groups. In the United States, spatial mobility has always accompanied social mobility, and middle-class families have always moved out of racial and ethnic enclaves into residentially integrated neighborhoods. Middle-class blacks are not unique in seeking to put distance between themselves and the poor; rather, they stand out because they are less able to do so than the middle class of other groups.

The role that segregation plays in the creation of the underclass also explains the recent empirical findings of other researchers. LaVeist, for example, has shown that the level of black residential segregation is the strongest predictor of black infant mortality rates and that, whereas racial segregation sharply increases mortality among blacks, it strongly reduces it among whites. My simulations show clearly how whites gain and blacks lose through the imposition of racial segregation. By confining blacks to a small number of segregated neighborhoods, whites insulate themselves from the higher rates of black poverty and the problems associated with it; and as segregation rises, the total income of white neighborhoods falls, so that whites are a better position to support hospitals, clinics, and other medical facilities.

Another set of empirical results has recently been generated by Galster and Keeney using a simultaneous equations model of segregation in 40 U.S. metropolitan areas. They uncovered a very significant and dynamic feedback relationship between segregation, black socioeconomic status, and discrimination, whereby rising segregation increased black-white occupational differences, which in turn increased the level of black-white segregation through a negative relationship with black income. At the same time, falling black socio-economic status raised the level of discrimination in the housing market, which, in turn, increased segregation, further reducing black incomes and occupational status, leading to additional discrimination and segregation, and so on.

This sort of dynamic relationship is interpretable in terms of the model of segregation and poverty concentration I have developed. Whites benefit from segregation because it isolates higher rates of black poverty within black neighborhoods. These higher concentrations of black poverty then reinforce the connection, in whites' minds, between black race and behaviors associated with poverty, such as crime, family disruption, and dependency. Segregation heightens and reinforces negative racial stereotypes by concentrating people who fit those stereotypes in a small number of highly visible minority neighborhoods-a structural version of "blaming the victim"-thereby hardening prejudice, making discrimination more likely, and maintaining the motivation for segregation. The persistence of segregation, in turn, worsens the concentration of poverty, putting additional downward pressure on black socio-economic status, making further segregation and discrimination more likely, and so on. In short, the feedback loop identified by Galster and Keeney could very well operate through a close connection between racial segregation and black poverty concentration.

Needed Policies

Finally, an appreciation of the role that segregation plays in generating and perpetuating the underclass points to the need for a very different set of policies toward poverty and the underclass. In recent years, a variety of initiatives have been proposed or enacted to address class-based problems within the black community, such as joblessness, family disruption, drug abuse, low levels of education, alcoholism, and crime. These serious social problems clearly must be addressed, but I argue that, unless the issue of race is simultaneously addressed, these class-related problems cannot be solved.

The issue for public policy is not whether race or class is responsible for the current plight of blacks in the United States, but how race and class interact to undermine the well-being of this group. Arguments about the declining significance of race, debates on the effect of government welfare policies, and disputes about trends in the concentration of poverty have largely ignored the continuing reality of segregation imposed on blacks because of their race.

Race affects the social and economic well-being of blacks primarily through the housing market. Two decades after the passage of the Fair Housing Act, levels of black segregation remain exceedingly high in large urban areas where the concentration of poverty is more severe (New York, Chicago, Philadelphia, Newark, and Detroit). This high level of black segregation cannot be explained by blacks' objective socio-economic characteristics, their housing preferences, or their limited knowledge of white housing markets. Rather, it is linked empirically to the persistence of discrimination in housing markets and to continuing anti-black prejudice. Ironically, Puerto Ricans are the exception that proves the rule, since the high degree of segregation they experience is clearly attributable to the persistence of a black racial identity among them.

In short, my explication of segregation's role in concentrating urban poverty and creating the underclass strongly suggests that class-based policies will not succeed by themselves. As long as racial discrimination and prejudice are translated so directly into economic disadvantage through housing markets, and as long as racial segregation persists at such high levels in American cities, blacks and Puerto Ricans will remain vulnerable groups whose basis for community life and socioeconomic well-being can be systematically undermined by the closing of a factory or the onset of a recession. This vulnerability stems from the fact that segregation intensifies and magnifies any economic setback these groups suffer and builds deprivation structurally into their social and economic environments.


This article argues that racial segregation is crucial to explaining the emergence of the urban underclass during the 1970s. A strong interaction between rising rates of poverty and high levels of residential segregation explains where, why, and in which groups the underclass arose. This argument is developed with simulations that replicate the economic conditions observed among blacks and whites in metropolitan areas during the 1970s but assume different conditions of racial and class segregation. These data show how a simple increase in the rate of minority poverty leads to a dramatic rise in the concentration of poverty when it occurs within a racially segregated city. increases in poverty concentration are, in turn, associated with other changes in the socio-economic character of neighborhoods, transforming them into physically deteriorated areas of high crime, poor schools, and excessive mortality where welfare-dependent, female-headed families are the norm. Thus, policies to solve the socio-economic problems of minorities will fail unless they are accompanied by measures for overcoming the disadvantages caused by racial discrimination and prejudice in the housing market.


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