Sunday, November 27, 2011

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

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