Welcome Neighbors? New evidence on the possibility of stable racial integration

Ingrid Gould Ellen
Ingrid Gould Ellen
Ingrid Gould Ellen Paulette Goddard Professor of Urban Policy and Planning - Robert F. Wagner Graduate School of Public Service, New York University, Director for Furman Center for Real Estate and Urban Policy - New York University

December 1, 1997

The conventional wisdom on racial integration in the United States is that there are three kinds of neighborhoods: the all-white neighborhood, the all-black neighborhood, and the exceedingly rare, highly unstable, racially mixed neighborhood. The only real disagreement is about why so few neighborhoods are successfully integrated. Some attribute it to white discrimination pure and simple: whites, that is, have consciously and determinedly excluded blacks from their communities. Others contend that it is a matter of minority choice. Like Norwegians in Brooklyn’s Bay Ridge and Italians in Manhattan’s Little Italy, African Americans, they explain, prefer to live among their own kind. Finally, others maintain that segregation is driven mainly by income differences across racial groups. But almost all agree that when African Americans do manage to gain a foothold in a previously all-white community, the whites move away in droves—a phenomenon well known as “white flight.” Integration is no more than, in the words of Saul Alinsky, the “time between when the first black moves in and last white moves out.”

But while there is no denying that the United States remains a remarkably segregated country, such views are too pessimistic. Racially mixed neighborhoods are not as rare as people think. In 1990, according to nationwide census tract data, nearly 20 percent of all census tracts—which generally include a few thousand residents, roughly the size of the typical neighborhood—were racially integrated, defined as between 10 percent and 50 percent black. (Defining an “integrated” neighborhood is inevitably somewhat arbitrary. The 10-50 percent range takes into account both that African Americans make up just 12 percent of the total U.S. population and that most people consider integration to involve a fairly even racial split.) In 1990 more than 15 percent of the non-Hispanic white population and nearly one-third of the black population lived in these mixed neighborhoods. And the proportion is increasing. The number of households, both white and black, living in integrated communities grew markedly between 1970 and 1980 and even faster between 1980 and 1990. Most strikingly, the share of white residents living in overwhelmingly white census tracts—those in which blacks represent less than 1 percent of the total population—fell from 63 percent in 1970 to 36 percent in 1990.

Not only are racially mixed neighborhoods more numerous than people think, they are also more stable. An examination of a sample of 34 large U.S. metropolitan areas with significant black populations reveals that more than three quarters of the neighborhoods that were racially mixed in 1980 were still mixed in 1990. And in more than half, the share of non-Hispanic whites remained constant or grew. Most significantly, perhaps, a comparison with data from the 1970s suggests that neighborhoods are becoming more stable over time. The mean white population loss in integrated neighborhoods was lower in the 1980s than in the 1970s; a greater share of integrated tracts remained steady in the 1980s; and fewer tracts experienced dramatic white loss. In sum, neighborhood racial integration appears to be becoming both more widespread and more stable. Again, this is not to claim that America’s neighborhoods are no longer dramatically segregated. But it may no longer be accurate to describe them, as have some, as a system of “American Apartheid.”

How is it that certain neighborhoods seem to turn rapidly from white to black as soon as a few black households move in, while others hardly seem to change at all? The conventional account of racial mixing has, I think, discouraged people from seriously investigating this questionþeither by theorizing about what might be different about the more stable areas or by examining matters empirically. Because all mixed neighborhoods are presumed to be highly unstable, explaining the variance in the rate of racial change has hardly seemed pressing. But examining the conditions under which integration seems to thrive offers considerable insight not only into the causes of our nation’s racial segregation, but also into the prospects for mitigating it.

Why Are Some Mixed Neighborhoods Stable?

It is possible to devise a variety of theories to explain why some mixed neighborhoods remain integrated. One theory is simply that neighborhoods with fewer minority residents are more likely to be stable. The argument is that white households basically dislike living with minorities and that once the minority population of a given community reaches a concentration greater than they can tolerate, whites abandon the community, which quickly becomes all black. But while this argument has some intuitive appeal in light of our nation’s long history of racism, the degree of integration in a mixed community appears to have no bearing on its future racial mix. Whether a community is 10 percent black or 50 percent black, the likelihood of white loss is the same.

A second theory is that communities are more stable when black and white residents have similar incomes and education levels. This theory has an intuitive appeal to those who think that our country has gotten beyond race. But it is not borne out by the data either. Indeed, neighborhoods where blacks and whites are more equal in status are, if anything, less stable.

A third theory—and the one that best fits the evidence—is that residential decisions, especially those of white households, are indeed heavily shaped by negative racial attitudes. But it is not a simple matter of racial animus, of white households being unwilling to live, at any particular moment in time, in neighborhoods with moderately sized black populations. Rather, it is a matter of white households tending to assume that all mixed neighborhoods quickly and inevitably become predominantly black and being uncomfortable with the prospect of living in such an environment in the future.

As for the sources of this discomfort, I would emphasize two. First, whites may simply fear being “left behind” as a racial minority as the community becomes largely black. Second, and more important, white households (and potentially black households as well) may have negative preconceptions about what an all-black neighborhood will be like. Specifically, black neighbors may be thought to bring with them, or at least to portend, a deterioration in what Richard Taub and others have called the “structural position,” or strength, of a neighborhood: the aggregate of school quality, public safety, property values, and the like. In other words, white households may not necessarily dislike living next to blacks per se; but many white households, rightly or wrongly, associate blacks with decreasing structural strength. Whether such stereotyped associations should be distinguished from simple racial prejudice on moral grounds deserves lengthy discussion, but certainly they are analytically distinct and have distinct policy implications.

This proposed hypothesis—call it the “racial neighborhood stereotyping” hypothesis—generates some powerful predictions that can be tested empirically. First, it suggests that households who are less invested in the structural strength of the community—renters and households with no children, for instance—will be more open to racial mixing and thus more likely to live in mixed communities. Significantly, if whites simply dislike living near blacks, the opposite should hold true. For white renters—who can enter and exit neighborhoods more easily than homeowners—will be less likely to live in mixed communities.

Second, this hypothesis suggests that—contrary to the conventional view that racial transition is caused by “white flight”—racial concerns are more influential in decisions whether to move into a community than whether to move out. For residents of a community should be fully aware of its structural strength and therefore have less need to rely on race as a signal of this strength. Consequently, entry decisions should be far more important to racial change than exit decisions.

Third, racial mixing should be more stable in communities that seem sheltered in some way from further black growth (either because they are distant from the central area of black residence or because they have been racially stable in the past) or in which school quality, property values, and other neighborhood attributes seem particularly secure.

Testing the Theory

Using a unique census data set that links households to the neighborhoods in which they live, I have tested each of these predictions. The data generally bear them out. First, as predicted, households who are likely to be less invested in the structural strength of a neighborhood appear to be far more open to racial mixing. White households moving into racially mixed areas tend, for instance, to be younger than those opting for predominantly white areas. They also tend to be single rather than married and not to have children. Significantly, childless black households are similarly more open to increasingly black communities than their counterparts with children. Finally, white renters are considerably more willing to move into and remain in racially mixed areas than homeowners are. Thus, communities with relatively larger proportions of rental housing are more likely to remain integrated. Again, this finding runs counter to the pure-prejudice view of neighborhood choice, since renters can leave much more quickly than homeowners.

The data support the second prediction as well. Indeed, there is virtually no evidence of white flight or accelerated departure rates in the face of racial mixing. White households are no more likely to leave a community that is 80 percent black than one that is 2 percent black. And the moving decisions of black households appear insensitive to racial composition as well. Thus, to the extent that integrated neighborhoods do tip, or become increasingly black, entry decisions, rather than exit decisions, appear to be the cause. The point is, residents living in a community are far less likely to consider race as a signal of neighborhood quality than outsiders considering moving in.

As for the third prediction, the evidence confirms that mixed neighborhoods that seem sheltered from further black growth are more stable. In fact, the most crucial determinant of a community’s future course of racial change is its past racial stability. The longer a community has been integrated, the more likely it is to remain so. And analysis of individual decisionmaking confirms this. Controlling for present racial composition, white households are both less likely to leave a mixed community and more likely to enter one if its black population has been fairly steady in the past and thus seems likely to remain steady in the future. Moreover, integrated neighborhoods located farther from black inner-city communities are more likely to remain stable. Of course, the added distance may discourage blacks from entering these communities as quickly, but it seems likely that white expectations play a role too. For white households may view communities closer to the core black area as both more apt to gain black population and more vulnerable to the social dislocation that whites associate with such gain.

Furthermore, mixed neighborhoods in which the housing market is thriving and in which neighborhood amenities seem particularly secure are more likely to remain stable. For example, the data appear to show that communities with large stabilizing institutions, such as universities or military bases, that promise to provide a continual source of people, both white and black, who desire to live in the area provide just such strength and security.

Policy Implications, Big and Small

To the extent the racial neighborhood stereotyping hypothesis is sound, the obvious question arises: what light does it shed on the moral and economic justification for government intervention to maintain mixed neighborhoods or to promote integration generally, and what kinds of policies would most effectively promote integration consistent with this justification? This is not the place to address such a grand question. Suffice it here simply to point out a few salient implications of the hypothesis for existing government policies designed to maintain mixed communities.

One policy that is occasionally used is the setting of an explicit quota on the number of blacks or minorities who may move into a particular mixed community or development where black or minority demand is high. For example, several years back, the owners of Starrett City, a large middle-income apartment complex in Brooklyn built with substantial government subsidies, set a quota on the number of blacks and Hispanics who could live there. In 1987 a federal court found that the quota violates the Fair Housing Act of 1968. But such quotas may also not make much sense as a matter of policy, since, as noted, no specified level of minority representation triggers white departure from a community.

Mixed communities have also tried to stem panic-selling by restricting realtors’ unsolicited efforts to encourage homeowners to sell and by banning the display of “For Sale” signs. But if exit decisions are less sensitive than entry decisions to racial composition and less critical to long-run stability, such strategies are poorly targeted. Integration, my results show, would be more effectively promoted by encouraging outsiders to move in, not discouraging insiders from leaving.

Some communities have tried to do just this. For example, some have tried to attract outsiders by public relations campaigns that advertise their particular strengths: their housing stock, their parks, their community solidarity. Such efforts also directly counter white households’ fears about the structural decline they associate with predominantly black neighborhoods.

Efforts in mixed communities to raise amenity levels also address white households’ fears of community decline. For example, programs to improve the appearance of a community—restoring local playgrounds, cleaning up commercial strips, repairing broken windows—can build social capital and bolster people’s faith in a neighborhoodþs strength.

Finally, the racial neighborhood stereotyping hypothesis has important implications for government policies that have nothing to do with promoting racial integration. For example, policies designed to increase homeownership, such as the homeowner mortgage interest deduction, may have the unintended consequence of exacerbating racial segregation.

Unwarranted Pessimism

The real story about Americaþs neighborhoods, though far from revealing anything close to a color-blind society, is less pessimistic and more dynamic than we have tended to believe. Integrated neighborhoods may be a minority, but their numbers are growing, and many appear likely to remain racially mixed for many years. Researchers must not overlook them. For the question of when and where households seem content to live in racially mixed environments is in many ways the flip side of the ultimate question of why our nation’s residential neighborhoods are as segregated as they are. And any progress toward answering the first question is progress toward answering the second. More important, white households should not overlook the facts either, for their overly pessimistic assumption that rapid racial transition is inevitable has helped, by its self-fulfilling nature, to undermine racial mixing.

In hindsight, the optimism of many people during the civil rights era that integration was just around the corner seems hopelessly naive. But the pessimism that has replaced it in recent years does not seem appropriate either. It seems based more on weariness in the face of an endlessly daunting challenge than on the facts, and it has, in my view, slowed our progress toward understanding neighborhood racial segregation.