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"A Racial Equity and Opportunity Agenda for Metro Boston,"

by Nancy McArdle Boston is the nation’s third-whitest large metro area, but soaring minority populations during the 1990s transformed the city into a “majority-minority” urban core, with rapidly growing Latino, Black and Asian populations. Unfortunately, this increasing diversity has not necessarily translated into greater integration or enhanced opportunity for racial and ethnic minorities.March/April 2004 issue of Poverty & Race

Boston is the nation’s third-whitest large metro area, but soaring minority populations during the 1990s transformed the city into a “majority-minority” urban core, with rapidly growing Latino, Black and Asian populations. Unfortunately, this increasing diversity has not necessarily translated into greater integration or enhanced opportunity for racial and ethnic minorities. Indeed, the suburbs remain 90% white. The Metro Boston Equity Initiative (MBEI) of the Harvard Civil Rights Project is a year-long research and community outreach effort designed to study the region’s changing demographics and to investigate patterns of segregation and social inequality as the metro area becomes increasingly multi-racial and multi-cultural.

Residential segregation in metro Boston remains very high for African-Americans and is rising for Latinos. Differing abilities to afford homes and obtain mortgages; preferences and attitudes about living near someone of a different race or about pioneering integration; and overt discrimination in real estate markets are much-cited factors. In January, three new studies probing the underlying causes of segregation were unveiled at a major housing research and policy conference, “Toward Real Residential Choice in Segregated Metro Boston,” co-sponsored by the MBEI, the Greater Boston Civil Rights Coalition, and the Citizens’ Housing and Planning Association.

In More than Money: The Spatial Mismatch Between Where Home-owners of Color in Metro Boston Can Afford to Live and Where They Actually Reside, David J. Harris, Director of the Fair Housing Center of Greater Boston, and I showed that, while African-American and Latino homebuyers do have less income than whites and Asians on average, affordability alone cannot explain the severe patterns of residential segregation. Latinos are over eight times more likely to buy homes in Lawrence, (a very urbanized old mill town) and Chelsea (a small city across the river from downtown Boston), while African Americans are seven times more times likely to buy in Randolph and five times more likely to buy in Brockton (both areas located south of Boston with growing African- American populations) than mere affordability would suggest. In contrast, in 80% of metro Boston’s cities and towns, the number of African-American and Latino homebuyers is less than half what we would expect based on the amount they can afford. In related research, I found that metro Boston’s poor minority residents are over twice as likely to live in neighborhoods of concentrated poverty than are poor whites, and three times more likely to live in severely distressed neighborhoods, characterized by high shares of single-parent households, school dropouts, poverty and jobless males detached from the labor force. Incredibly, even black and Latino households with incomes over $50,000 are more likely to live in high-poverty neighborhoods than are white households with incomes under $20,000. The problem is clearly more than money.

Jim Campen of the University of Massachusetts - Boston, author of The Color of Money: Patterns of Mortgage Lending and Residential Segregation at the Beginning of the New Century, revealed that mortgage lending in the Boston area operates in general to reproduce the region’s highly segregated residential patterns, although this relationship is considerably weaker for Asians than it is for blacks and Latinos. Further, black and Latino homebuyers who refinance their existing mortgages are much more likely than whites with similar incomes to borrow from subprime lenders, generally taking on higher interest rates and fees. Of added concern, lenders subject to evaluation under the Community Reinvestment Act (CRA) who, as a whole, perform significantly better than other institutions in lending to borrowers of color and in neighborhoods of color, now make only 30% of home-purchase loans in metro Boston. Campen advocated adoption of a state law to modernize and expand the reach of CRA, which could make a significant contribution in reducing the current racial/ethnic disparities in mortgage-lending in the Boston area.

Less obvious but equally important are the attitudes and preferences whites and people of color have about living near each other. On the positive side, a significant share of metro Boston residents of all races hold positive attitudes about increasing levels of integration, according to Tara Jackson of International Communications Research, author of the report, The Imprint of Preferences and Racial Attitudes in the 1990s: A Window into Contemporary Residential Segregation Patterns in the Greater Boston Area. Yet comfort levels about the ideal degree of integration vary, with the majority of whites most comfortable with integration in its earliest stages, well below the 50-50 mix that blacks and Latinos prefer. A substantial share of people of color report that they would be willing to be the first to pioneer integration of all-white neighborhoods, yet most would not, citing perceived discrimination from white homeowners as a key reason behind their willingness to live in segregated communities.

Perhaps the most insidious cause of segregation is overt discrimination in housing markets. David Harris discussed initial results of a new matched-pair audit study that found substantial discrimination against African American and Latino homeseekers in metro Boston. “The results are, in a word, sobering,” said Harris. “In 17 out of 17 cases, we found differences in the treatment that the protected-class testers received versus the white ones.” Latinos and African Americans were steered away from certain communities and were more commonly required to be pre-approved for mortgages than were their white counterparts, even though the homeseekers of color had stronger financial qualifications. Realtors were also less likely to give blacks and Latinos informal advice and information and were more likely to suggest that they visit “open houses,” rather than see homes by appointment with a realtor. Harris concluded, given the competitiveness of the Boston housing market, “these are devastating differences that make the difference between success and failure in obtaining a house.”

Addressing the policy implications of the new research, Marc Draisen, Executive Director of the Metropolitan Area Planning Council, noted that programs to increase affordable housing, while necessary to promote integration, are far from sufficient. Indeed, whenever a new planning or housing strategy is presented, it is incumbent on us to ask, “how might this take a chunk out of segregation?” Draisen further noted the importance of holding elected officials’ feet to the fire to talk explicitly about race; securing funding for sustained Fair Housing testing; and the need to racially integrate local real estate agencies in order to overcome closed networks of information that perpetuate segregation. Barry Bluestone, Director of Northeastern University’s Center for Urban and Regional Policy, addressed the difficulty of maintaining stably integrated neighborhoods and suggested “gold-plating” these communities. If we value integration, then additional public funds should be devoted to maintaining neighborhood stability and amenities as the racial composition approaches levels where whites typically begin to flee. Xavier De Souza Briggs of Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government and former Assistant Secretary for Policy Development and Research at HUD spoke of policies to both mitigate and cure segregation. Mitigation strategies include access to quality schools, safer streets and better links to employment. Cure strategies include the creation of new choices, such as stably integrated neighborhoods that so many people say they prefer; protecting existing choices through enforcement of Fair Housing laws; and encouraging people to exercise choice through enhanced housing counseling.

In a metropolitan area like Boston that is divided into many small municipalities, each with its own school district, residential segregation leads almost inevitably to school segregation. With the 30th anniversary of the Boston school busing order just months away, the press is gearing up to focus again on segregation within the Boston public schools, which now have over 85% students of color. But according to Gary Orfield, Co-director of the Harvard Civil Rights Project, “The race problem has been defined by many as a problem and failure of the Boston public schools; in truth, however, most children in metro Boston attend suburban schools.” John Logan of SUNY, director of the Mumford Center at the University at Albany, echoed this theme in his study, Segregation in Neighborhoods and Schools: Impacts on Minority Children in the Boston Region, released at last year’s ColorLines conference. Despite efforts to maintain a degree of racial balance within the City of Boston itself, the exclusion of black and Latino families from most residential suburbs results in a separate and unequal status for their children. Minority students more commonly attend schools with higher concentrations of poverty than do white students and live in lower-income neighborhoods with a greater number of less-educated residents and non-English speakers. Disparities in these neighborhood socio-economic characteristics have increased over the last decade, with minority neighborhoods falling further behind. Residential suburbs, where most whites live, hardly share in the growing ethnic and racial diversity of the region. Only 25-30% of black and Latino children in public elementary grades attend schools in these districts, compared to 85% of white children and more than half of Asian children.

The Metro Boston Equity Initiative intends to present further research on the interaction among racial segregation in schools, poverty concentration, student achievement and access to higher education at an upcoming conference, “Separate and Unequal: Segregation and Educational Opportunity in Metro Boston.” Future studies will explore the topics of racial equity in employment, transportation access and perceived segregation in public places.

The Boston metropolitan area has the opportunity to become a model for other regions struggling with similar challenges. With a highly educated population that prides itself as progressive on social issues, Boston is very diverse, populated by Latinos, blacks and Asians from many countries. A major portion of the population growth is driven by immigration. Supporting stable integration as the metropolitan area continues to diversify poses one of the most important challenges of the decade ahead.

Nancy McArdle is a Research Director of the Harvard Civil Rights Project's Metro Boston Equity Initiative. From 1986-2000, she was a Research Associate at Harvard's Joint Center for Housing Studies, specializing in demographics, mobility and homeownership.


Additional information about the Metro Boston Equity Initiative, including the reports mentioned in this article, can be found at:


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