Skip to main content

Integration: end goal or strategy?

I saw an article in the Washington Post a few weeks ago titled "Pr. George's: Growing, and growing more segregated."  It is the latest example of journalists and others struggling with how to understand and interpret segregation.

Prince George's County, MD is known for having an African American majority and large black middle class. What makes it interesting is that it's black population is growing not because of white flight (although that has some impact).  The much larger factor is the influx of middle class African Americans outside the beltway, and lower-income African Americans in many inner-beltway communities.   A few years ago, my doctoral dissertation explored why African Americans who have choices would move to majority black neighborhoods in Prince Georges and not choose to move elsewhere (for example, more integrated neighborhoods in Montgomery).  To do this, I interviewed 50 middle-class African Americans in a wide range of neighborhoods in suburban MD.  

The short version of my findings were that African Americans have a range of preferences for "racial/cultural amenities" including black role models for their children, black churches, ethnic shopping, sense of community, etc. that can be found in some majority black communities, and these preferences combine with the more general preferences for schools, newer homes, large lots, restaurants, entertainment, closeness to work etc. that many people have.  There are also varying preferences for integration. 

The trick is that there are "mobility limiters" - things that prevent someone from finding their ideal mix of neighborhood attributes, and these can include discrimination and the legacy of discrimination in all of its forms.  Most prominently, many African Americans cannot find their "ideal" mix of attributes in any neighborhood - there simply aren't enough choices, so every choice is a compromise.  If there were a 50/50 or  majority African American neighborhood with new homes, prestige, low crime, a good public school system, and upscale shopping and entertainment options, many residents would flock to it.  

As a result, I developed a continuum of neighborhood compositions and split the African American population into three groups. The first two are those that want a majority black neighborhood for the elements that are most likely there, and those that want a majority white neighborhood for the elements that are most likely there - they have specifically chosen neighborhoods of a particular racial composition because the positive attributes of their chosen neighborhood outweighs the negatives. In a majority African American neighborhood, one may have to give up the upscale shopping and entertainment, but in a majority white neighborhood, one may expect to find fewer same-race role models for their children and a potentially more isolating social network.  These two groups would not live in a neighborhood of the opposite racial composition unless they had to, and often do not relate to those that live in the other type of neighborhood.  The third group is more flexible, and they can end up anywhere because they are always compromising and pick the neighborhood with the best collection of favorable elements, and racial composition plays a lesser role than for the other two.  To complicate matters for analysts, this person could end up next door to someone in groups one or two, but end up there for completely different reasons.  

After studying this for several years, I feel strongly that we do a disservice by focusing on the integration of African Americans as an end goal - I found that for many, integration is merely the means to an end. What people want most are the neighborhood characteristics that they desire, and for many African Americans, the ideal is a 50/50 or majority African American neighborhood with all of the positive characteristics that are important to them.  For these folks, whether it's Prince George's, Montgomery, Loudon, DeKalb, or a county in another region with no majority African American middle class areas, every neighborhood choice is a compromise.

(You can download my dissertation, "Understanding Modern Segregation: Suburbanization and the Black Middle Class" at


Popular posts from this blog

Removing Woodrow Wilson's Name from Princeton: Looking Back to Move Forward

I applaud the Princeton University Board of Trustees' decision yesterday to remove the name of Woodrow Wilson from the policy school and residential college that were formerly named for him. While this decision may appear sudden to some, the Board has carefully deliberated on this decision over a number  of years. For alumni like myself, the school's reputation as a place of a world-class education in public policy has long been at odds with the mixed legacy of its eponym. As the board states, "Wilson’s racist thinking and policies make him an inappropriate namesake for a school whose scholars, students, and alumni must be firmly committed to combating the scourge of racism in all its forms."

Over the years, alumni have expressed varying levels of pride, discomfort and shame over the decision to continue this honor of having one of the nation's foremost policy schools named after Wilson.  He was the president of the university, a governor of the state and Preside…

The "Boom" in Golden Girls-Style Shared Housing: Where’s the Beef?

NBC, Touchstone Television and their partners should be proud– it has been 22 years since the final episode aired, yet the influence of The Golden Girlsmeans that every year reporters ask about the boom in “Golden Girls Housing.”  This form of shared housing receives a great amount of attention, but we'll miss the big picture if we look for big numbers.
For the last few years, I have looked at data from the Current Population Survey (analyzed by the AARP Public Policy Institute) to count households that are all female (or all male) with at least one non-related housemate or roommate, no spouses, and no one under 50 in the home. This is the classic “Golden Girls” formula.  
The result has become familiar: a very small portion of the population lives in a “golden” situation, around one percent.  The small numbers of people in those situations means that it’s hard to figure out whether it has become more popular.  Though the percentage appears to be holding steady, the number of golden…

Efficiency and Affordability: Accessory Dwelling Units (ADUs)

I haven't been posting often lately, as things have been pretty hectic.   I did receive a question the other day about  topic that I haven't spoken about here:  Accessory Dwelling Units (ADUs), and it inspired me to write a quick post.  These are sometimes known as "accessory apartments," "mother-in-law suites" or "granny flats" - they are ways to provide more housing options in existing neighborhoods by allowing homeowners to build additional units on their lots.  ADU is a catch-all term for all of these situations - either units attached to existing homes or placed somewhere else on the property, say over a garage or a stand-alone in the backyard. 

They are part of the range of housing options that help to ensure that people of all ages, including older adults, can meet their needs.  AARP's model ordinance on ADUs was written by staff at the American Planning Association and was an attempt to find a set of regulations that would meet livabili…