Op-Ed Feature: Carl H. Nightingale on Segregation

February 14, 2012

Carl H. Nightingale, author of Segregation: A Global History of Divided Cities (forthcoming Spring 2012), read the Manhattan Institute’s January report “The End of the Segregated Century” and was left anything but speechless. Though the NYT’s coverage of the report diffused some of its findings, with experts weighing in on the “pervasive decline of residential segregation” vs. the relatively “limited” progress in achievement and employment gaps, Nightingale here sheds new light on the report’s inaccuracies and the limits of certain statistical methods in fully charting segregation, lest we not “triumphantly” announce its premature end. Research-driven, provocative, and sound, Nightingale’s full text follows below.
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Keep Our Eyes Wide Open on Segregation
By Carl H. Nightingale

The opinion makers at the Manhattan Institute want us to stop talking about racial injustice in America. That is the message we should take from its recent report “The End of the Segregated Century,” by Edward Glaeser and Jacob Vigdor, two fellows at the conservative think tank.
Using a sensational title, a few moderate-seeming phrases, and a raft of scientific-seeming “segregation indexes,” the report has distracted us into a statistical battle over how much segregation there is. Its goal is to close our eyes to what really matters: People continue to practice segregation in America—often illegally—and those practices leave behind real and stark racial inequalities.


Segregation indexes, such as those Glaeser and Vigdor use in their report, are fine enough tools, but there are many ways to measure segregation, and like all statistical tools, they need to be handled very subtly. That is what John R. Logan and Brian Stults of Brown University did last year when the census returns were first made public. The fact that the Manhattan Institute did not use its extensive connections to the popular press to republish the Logan-Stults report and instead drafted its own study—one that uses only two out of the many other measurements Logan and Stults examined—should already make us suspicious about their motives. The fact that Glaeser and Vigdor’s own numbers and even their own analysis in the body of the report do not justify any proclamation of the “end” of segregation should give us further pause.
Logan and Stults, and other sociologists who work in the field, have ably gone on from there. In their own responses to the report, they show how Glaeser and Vigdor’s selectively chosen indexes missed many other ways of analyzing the same census returns. Glaeser and Vigdor also rely heavily on measurement they made up themselves—the number of all-white neighborhoods—that is a very poor indicator of segregation.
While there is indeed considerable good news in Logan and Stults’s numbers, they are careful to point out that different measures can give us a variety of results. These range from a long-term increase in segregation, to little decrease in segregation at all, especially in certain important jurisdictions, to increasing segregation for Latinos, to especially large and deeply concerning increases in segregation of the poorest black people by class and race.
We need, in other words, to keep our hawk’s eyes out on segregation, not triumphantly proclaim its end.


Though this statistical battle might be interesting for scholars, the Manhattan Institute has used it as a diversionary tactic. On its chosen battleground of popular culture the Institute well knows that it cannot lose a fight over numbers. On top of that, the ensuing brouhaha has diverted our gaze from what’s really important about segregation—its causes and its effects.
People and powerful institutions brought segregation into being in America, and they keep it going today, by engaging in a dozen different types of practice. Glaeser and Vigdor allude to some of these practices, almost always in misleading ways, with the overall effect of denying that they exist. As such, the two Institute fellows continue a trend that goes back to the 1920s among American segregationists: camouflaging city-dividing practices—keeping these practices out of the public eye as much as possible. The reason American segregationists took this strategy of plausible deniability was that the African American civil rights movement was successful in declaring many explicitly racist practices illegal.
Thanks to such great African American lawyers like Moorfield Storey and Thurgood Marshall, and thanks to thousands of courageous activists of the open housing movement, some of the hoariest forms of segregationist practice have disappeared.
Racists, for example, can no longer pass laws to segregate neighborhoods—as their counterparts in San Francisco, Baltimore, and a dozen other cities tried from 1890 to 1917. Since 1948 we cannot legally enforce restrictive covenants in title deeds, which were once standard in new housing developments and which covered large swaths of many American cities. In recent years, we have also seen many fewer incidents where mobs of angry whites besiege homes of black people who have moved into white neighborhoods. These were much more common during the first two-thirds of the twentieth century, and especially after the two world wars, when both whites and blacks faced housing shortages and when African Americans migrated in large numbers into cities, putting pressure on the boundaries between white and black neighborhoods. Such dynamics could easily return, as we see in incidents of white violence directed against immigrants of color in some suburbs and in the vigilante militias that have assembled along the US–Mexico border.
That leaves many other practices intact and thriving. We too often let many of these fly below the radar of our national discussions of urban life and politics. Here is quick report card on those segregationist practices that remain:

White flight: Not mentioned in the Glaeser-Vigdor report, yet this is the main vehicle of segregation in the United States. As documented by dozens of sociological studies, white flight continues to be alive and well in many suburbs, explaining their often higher than average segregation indexes.
Racial steering by real estate agents and landlords: No longer legal and no longer officially part of the professional code of ethics of the National Association of Realtors as it was in the 1920s and ’30s. However, audits of real estate offices and the bipartisan Commission on Fair Housing suggest it continues to be most widespread form of illegal housing discrimination. It’s hard to say whether it has actually increased or decreased. The Commission estimates that there are about 4 million incidents of racial discrimination in housing every year, yet Glaeser and Vigdor imply that these practices disappeared when they became illegal.
Land-use zoning: Not mentioned in Glaeser-Vigdor report. Zoning codes going back to 1909 were promoted by the federal government and sanctioned by the Supreme Court. From the 1920s on, thousands of suburban municipalities adopted them to maintain their exclusivity. Most of these exclusive zoning codes are still in effect, promoting class as well as racial segregation.
Public housing, urban renewal, forced removal, and gentrification: From the 1930s on, public housing authorities were forced by white mobs, city counselors, and downtown business interests to segregate public housing. This process was exacerbated by the destruction of black neighborhoods near downtown and forced removal of their inhabitants to those segregated public housing projects and elsewhere in expanding ghettos. Segregationists of many stripes have since fought an enormously successful fight against public housing. In Europe, Australia, and Canada public housing is often a source of neighborhood integration, especially in the face of gentrification. Recent destruction of public housing towers in gentrifying areas makes segregation more likely, not less. Ignoring this history altogether, Glaeser and Vigdor casually label gentrification a source of integration and public housing as an inherently segregationist device.
Redlining: Financial institutions have long discriminated against people of color in allocating credit and charging higher interest rates. The Federal government actively supported the practice from 1933 to 1962. Redlining is the principal reason for large inequalities in wealth holding between blacks and whites and the main reason ghettos are impoverished and suburbs are wealthy. The practice is illegal, and federal government now supports an “affirmative obligation” to lend in redlined areas under Community Reinvestment Act (CRA). However, dozens of reports have established that banks and other financial institutions continue to redline neighborhoods of color at the same time that their lobbies continue to assault the CRA. Glaeser and Vigdor simply assert that redlining is “a thing of the past” without engaging a single shred of evidence. This is their single most preposterous, unfounded, and regressive claim.
Reverse redlining: Glaeser and Vigdor laud the extension of credit to riskier customers that caused the housing bubble as a factor of integration, and oppose measures to regulate banks’ practices. But they ignore the fraudulent nature of predatory loans and their disproportionate effect on blacks—especially those living in the most segregated neighborhoods. Reverse redlining has exacerbated the effects of redlining by heaping punishing debt on the same people who have a long history of discriminatory denial of credit. The Great Recession has had disproportionate damage to African American wealth holding. That has not stopped the same banks that caused the recession from scapegoating low-income mortgage holders of color and the Community Reinvestment Act.
Whites’ segregationist attitudes: Superficially mentioned by Glaeser and Vigdor. In polls and in surveys whites say they’re more open to black neighbors than in decades past, though their ideal neighborhood includes far fewer blacks than blacks’ ideal neighborhoods and though they insist that their black neighbors be of the same class as their white neighbors. The idea that black people bring down property values—which is the most important basis for all practices of housing segregation in the United States—also seems to be alive and well, despite studies that show that the speed of white flight is a better predictor of declining values than the presence of blacks. Even white homeowners who do not believe this old myth may feel they have an economic incentive to flee integrating neighborhoods, because they have to assume their white neighbors believe it and will move out—thus precipitating an actual decline in property values.
Attacks on practices that reduce segregation: Here Glaeser and Vigdor don a bit of sheep’s clothing, and tell us to “applaud those who fought” for “more freedom in housing.” But tellingly, they don’t mention who those fighters were. Is this because too much positive talk about the civil rights movement or about people like Thurgood Marshall would put off the main audience of their report? Nor do Glaeser and Vigdor tell us about the attacks on fair housing enforcement that have ensued since the civil rights movement, attacks which have sharply undercut action against segregation and which were largely justified on the basis that we should put all discussion of racial injustice behind us.
Nowhere does the report call for extension of fair housing enforcement, the obvious implication of even its very best news. The federal government sharply cut back funds for such enforcement in the 1980s. According to the Commission on Fair Housing and Equal Opportunity, 4 million acts of discrimination committed every year. Only about 20,000 receive official attention, and most of those only get that attention because of the hard work of cash-strapped non-profit housing justice groups.


Finally, there is the crucial matter of segregation’s effects.
In their report Glaeser and Vigdor once again evince some unconvincing concern about inequality. However, their final statements on this subject are outright distortions. They claim that there was once a “conventional wisdom” that segregation would decrease economic inequality, and that because segregation has declined while economic inequality has “persisted” segregation cannot be the cause of inequality.
But there was never any such “common wisdom.” Segregation intensified during the 1950s and ’60s when overall economic inequality declined; segregation has declined somewhat since, at the same time that economic inequality has not only “persisted,” but risen acutely. (The increasing segregation of low-income blacks may directly reflect increasing economic inequality).
The common wisdom among experts on the subject is and remains that segregation—especially white flight, redlining, and reverse redlining—exacerbates a different type of economic inequality: that between people of color and whites.
Those racial inequalities have remained very acute, especially when measured in terms of wealth holding. Whites own on average about ten times the amount of wealth as blacks across the income spectrum. Segregation also causes other racial inequalities. It cuts people of color off from job pipelines and transport systems, making the search for work difficult and giving blacks and Latinos far longer and more expensive commutes to jobs. It helps guarantee that local schools get fewer resources and concentrates the lowest-income and neediest school children in majority-minority schools. It exacerbates racial inequalities perpetuated by the war on drugs. And it guarantees that people of color generally live in neighborhoods with fewer urban amenities and more toxic environments.
In other words, segregation undermines the promise of our cities, exacerbates poverty, and helps to shorten life.
As always, segregation is in constant flux, but it is nowhere near reaching any “end.” The best way to guarantee the real end of segregation is to not so much to engage in technical debates about how much there is, but to prevent the practices that promote it and promote the practices that have a record of successfully fighting it.
The dire and ongoing consequences of segregation should be front and center in our conversations. Blinding ourselves to color, as the Manhattan Institute has now once again told us to do, will only allow institutionalized inequalities between whites and people of color to get worse.
Please click here for a list of further links and resources related to this topic—
Carl H. Nightingale is the author of Segregation: A Global History of Divided Cities, forthcoming from the University of Chicago Press, June, 2012. He teaches at the University at Buffalo, State University of New York. [Author’s note: Thanks for suggestions from my colleagues Robert Adelman and Ellen Berrey.]

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