Racism Moves Out

Against all odds, segregation is finally on the decline in American cities

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Pete Ryan / www.peterthomasryan.com

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Prospective home buyers are advised to put “good location” at the top of their criteria list, well before “wood-burning fireplace” or “two-car garage.” After all, you can renovate your house but not your surrounds, your kids will have to attend school with your neighbors’ kids, and a crime-ridden street will keep your house value low.  

This line of thinking, perverted by racism, in the 1920s prompted real estate associations to establish “ethical principles” to prevent agents from selling houses in white neighborhoods to black buyers, writes University of Michigan sociologist Reynolds Farley in Contexts (Summer 2011). Restrictive property deeds stated that only whites could occupy a house; a 1926 Supreme Court decision deemed the documents “private agreements that did not violate civil rights.” A decade later, a depression-inspired federal housing loan program was put into effect for all-white neighborhoods. This government-sponsored segregation remained in effect until the 1968 passage of the Open Housing Law.  

The following decades were marked by a continuation of white flight to outer-ring suburbs and the gentrification of inner-city neighborhoods with valuable housing stock. Despite these stubborn trends, however, census data indicate that in the 12 largest cities in the United States, segregation has been on the decline since 1980. The rate of change is slower in some areas: New York City’s segregation rate has fallen by only 5 percent. In Detroit, an epicenter of racial unrest, though, there’s been a 14 percent decline in segregation. Southern cities have seen even steeper declines, including a 24 percent dip in Atlanta and a 29 percent drop in Dallas.  

Farley and his colleagues conducted surveys in Detroit over three decades and found that comfort with integration has increased. In 1976, for instance, 25 percent of white Detroiters would have been uneasy if a single black family moved to their block. By 2004, only 7 percent would have been uncomfortable in the same scenario. The stats aren’t evidence of a racial utopia (50 percent of these respondents hit the edge of their comfort zone at a 50–50 split in racial composition), but from block to block, there does seem to be slow and steady progress toward a more racially integrated America.

Cover-169-thumb.jpgHave something to say? Send a letter to editor@utne.com. This article first appeared in the January-February 2012 issue of Utne Reader.