Housing segregation: racism under wraps

Amy Knop-Narbutis

American culture is obsessed with speed. We seek shortcuts in every area of life, whether it’s fast food, fast cars, fast computers, or even speed dating. Because our society values efficiency and progress so highly, predicting what we will accomplish in the next 50 years is nearly unfathomable. Yet not all parts of our culture are as progressive as we think.

In 1954, Brown v. Board ruled in favor of the desegregation of schools across America. A hopeful American of that time might have predicted that in 50 years, segregation would be a thing of the past. On Nov. 18, 2004, Douglas Massey of Princeton University came to Villanova to refute the myth that we have left segregation behind us.

According to Massey, racism has found a new outlet in the hyper-segregation of African-Americans. In 2000, 50 percent of urban African-Americans lived in densely populated, all-black, hyper-segregated neighborhoods. The six most segregated cities in America (Chicago, Cleveland, Detroit, Milwaukee, Newark and Philadelphia) had segregation levels that were matched by no other area worldwide, with the exception of the South Africa under apartheid. Though we may be shocked to think that America has anything in common with apartheid, we continue to foster our racist practices in covert ways.

A phone survey performed by Massey and his students illustrates how subtly discrimination is practiced through housing segregation. Massey’s students called a series of housing units asking whether they were available for rent. By identifying the race of the person calling (based on speech patterns), the rental agents were able to discriminate.

While 62 percent of white students were told that houses were available, only 37 percent of black students were given the same information about the same houses.

Forty percent of female African-Americans were required to provide credit reports before they could even learn about availability, while white males were rarely asked for such information.

In Massey’s opinion, this discrimination is not a result of economic status (since wealthy African-Americans are only slightly less segregated than the rest), but of stereotypical perceptions. The General Social Survey (GSS) found that while most blacks prefer to live in integrated neighborhoods, most whites prefer to live in homogenous areas. One fifth of whites surveyed said their ideal neighborhood would include no minorities.

The rest, on average, preferred to live in an area that was at least 60 percent white. According to Massey, this prevalent avoidance of African-Americans is rooted in unfair negative stereotypes about laziness, lower intelligence, violence and dysfunctional family structures.

These stereotypes lead to housing segregation, which is our society’s unspoken way of preventing interaction between whites and minorities as equals.

“A barrier to residential mobility is the equivalent of a barrier to socioeconomic mobility,” Massey explained. If a person of a minority group cannot move into a better neighborhood, he or she cannot gain access to the better jobs, better schools, safer streets and the many other resources that engender success.

To end this segregation, we must actively enforce federal housing laws. Unless we acknowledge that discriminatory practices continue to take place in America, we will continue to foster racism, betraying the ideals of equality and liberty that we claim to hold so dear.