Abstract: Reducing Racial Inequality? Residential Segregation and Public Policy, 1940-2010 (Society for Social Work and Research 24th Annual Conference - Reducing Racial and Economic Inequality)

Reducing Racial Inequality? Residential Segregation and Public Policy, 1940-2010

Saturday, January 18, 2020
Marquis BR Salon 14, ML 2 (Marriott Marquis Washington DC)
* noted as presenting author
Mimi Abramovitz, DSW, Professor, Hunter College, New Yok City, NY
Richard Smith, PhD, Associate Professor, Wayne State University

US residential segregation by racerepresents one of the most consequential forms of racial and economic inequality. Some scholars report declining residential segregation because there is a more even distribution of racialized people across metropolitan areas (i.e., dissimilarity index). Others argue that segregation persists because most Blacks continue to live in majority Black neighborhoods. Reports of progress risk obscuring ongoing extreme segregation in the largest metropolitan areas. How has federal housing policy contributed to racialized residential segregation?

We focus on Blacks because no other group in American history has sustained such high levels of residential segregation as home owners and as renters. Lack of homeownership contributes to the growing racial wealth gap while renters-of-color, forced into segregated neighborhoods, fare poorly. Reflecting slavery’s legacy and decades of racial discrimination in housing, education, and employment, residential segregation for Black Americans contributes to accumulated disadvantage or the systematic loss of social, economic and political resources and power.


Data includes the authors’ calculations of the Isolation Index (a standard segregation measure that identifies the chance that a person of a given race will have same race neighbors) from US Census data; and an historical analysis comparing the impact of two key federal housing policies (i.e., FHA mortgage and public housing) in two distinct periods: welfare state expansion (Keynesian Era, 1940-1970) and its contraction (Neoliberal Era, 1970-2010).We focus on the top 20 Great Migration cities and analyze historical policy shifts using Social Structures of Accumulation (SSA) theory which explains these major paradigm shifts as a response to economic crises.

We selected the top 20 Great Migration Cites based the size of their Southern-born Black population in 1920. We compared the Isolation Index’s average and change by city and decade for each period. Combining segregation data and the historical analysis of the impact of two housing policies detailed a troublesome relationship between housing policy and residential segregation by race.

RESULTS:The average isolation index per decade rose steadily from 48 points (1940) to 67 points (1970)--a 40% increase over 30 years. As the welfare state began to contract in the mid-1970s, the average isolation index per decade plateaued in the high sixties. It measured 67 points in 1970 and 60 points in 2010, dropping only 10% over 40 years reflecting recent demographic shifts more than effective housing policies. In 19 of the 20 cities, the Isolation Index was higher in 1970 than in 1940. In 15 it was higher in 2010 than 1940 before the Great Society and the Civil Rights movement.

The expansion of the post-war welfare state improved many conditions. However, the expectation that segregation would decrease during this period of reform was not upheld. Instead it increased. Racial inequity took its toll in the Great Migration Cities for over 70 years despite fair housing legislation. Historic analysis reveals that segregationist legislators, real estate interests, banking industries plus institutional racism formed a SSA that to increase profits perpetuated the well-known avoidable harms of residential segregation.